This past weekend, a group of us rented a car and drove out to the Pilanesberg/Magaliesberg region to the northwest of Johannesburg. (We drove an automatic, but driving on the left side of the road was a bit tricky at times since we tended to drift toward the curb.) Parts of this country are so beautiful, and the game drive in Pilanesberg proved to be almost as fruitful as the one we did in Kruger National Park.
A highlight of the weekend trip was seeing a cheetah in the wild. We were told some people had spotted one about 500 meters from the Pilanesberg Centre in the middle of the park. We rushed over to catch a glimpse of it. It was quite a distance away, resting under a tree, but it was absolutely breath-taking.
We couldn’t get enough of cheetahs, and so we visited the De Wildt Cheetah Reserve as well. The farm rehabilitates and breeds a number of different animals, many on the endangered species list. These animals – cheetahs, wild dogs, etc – are so magnificent, it’s a real shame their mere existence is in jeopardy.
Environmentalism and conservation are a major concern in South Africa. In Kruger, poachers both on a small and large scale are a huge menace and nowadays, game rangers are armed with assault rifles not to protect themselves from wild animals but to combat poachers. At both Kruger and Pilanesberg, there were pictures posted at rest stops of poached animals maimed by snares, killed by gunshots and plundered for their horns, tusks and genitals. The horrific killing of animals for such small items like ivory and ingredients for muti is sad.
Yet, animals themselves contribute to conservation concerns as well. Herds of elephants across Africa have dynamically altered the landscape, changing the vast Serengeti plains from its once lush, verdant woodlands to grasslands, plains and desert. Even in the bushveld of Pilanesburg, we caught an elephant trampling trees down. I’ve got nothing against elephants, but many say their actions are partially to blame for the desertification of Africa. Because of this, some have proposed killing elephants again to bring their population down to a more manageable level.
Conservation in Africa as well as all over the world is a complicated issue. Many of these animals are unwanted – farmers and herders actively kill vultures, baboons, wild dogs (currently, the second most endangered species in the world) and other “vermin” by poisoning carasses of their kill, setting traps and shooting them. You sometimes hear of elephants trampling through rural African villages creating havoc, and there are many a story about leopards and lions killing humans, which exacerbates the tensions. As South Africa continues to expand economically, it’ll be interesting to see what the tradeoff will be environmentally and whether sustainability and natural balance can be achieved amidst all the economic challenges facing the nation.
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This past week, I covered a church vigil in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. The service, which was attended by about 50 Alex residents, commemorated the xenophobic attacks of May 2008.
One year ago, 62 foreigners were killed by angry mobs who felt threatened by Zimbabweans and other Africans who “were taking their jobs.” Pictures of maimed and burning bodies shocked the world, just as the violence in Kenya earlier last year had. It goes to show you that democracy is a fragile thing and a flourishing state can just as quickly turn into an illiberal democracy.
The aftermath of the xenophobic violence is still apparent in South Africa. Right after the attacks, thousands of foreigners were displaced from their homes in townships like Alexandra and Ramaphosa into squatter camps. Zimbabwean refugees still squat at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg. The rioters and murderers still roam the streets of Johannesburg freely and boast of their shameful exploits, according to a recent Times story by my colleague Benjamin Bradlow. Xenophobia is alive and well in parts of the Rainbow Nation, which holds the credo of tolerance and non-racialism to the utmost reverence.
Working on this story made me realize how reconciliation can be such an empty-handed gesture. Sure, people can pray, ask forgiveness and vow never again. Yet, the legacy of apartheid continues to exist in South Africa. The senseless nature of the violence in South Africa – the burning and the brutal beating of foreigners last year – mirror the violence that pervaded South Africa during the apartheid era. And was the church packed with South Africans and foreigners united against xenophobia? Organizers blamed the low turnout on a misunderstanding, but do they really suppose scores of Alexandra residents really want to relive this shameful period in their history? Community leaders can say one thing, but the ordinary South African would probably rather forget such atrocities ever occurred in their neighborhoods.
It’s this conflicting duality in South Africa that continues to astonish me. You can cover some of the most extravagant events, like a 75-million Rand inauguration ceremony that celebrates the conclusion of a free, fair and democratic election, and the next week, cover the aftermath of horrific violence in poor townships. It’s a constant culture shock, one I’m not sure I will ever get over.
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(That’s according to the Sunday Times this past weekend.)
On Sunday, I got a chance to cover Jacob Zuma’s inauguration in Pretoria, which was essentially one big lavish party reported to have cost 75 million Rand. It’s incredible how there are so many South Africans without basic necessities such as housing, running water or electricity that to go to one of these events and hear of expensive champagne flowing just makes my blood simmer.
Still, it was an exciting event to report from, especially because it posed a several challenges.
- It’s not easy waking up at 3 a.m. having only slept four hours. My colleagues and I had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning, along with hundreds of other journalists covering the inauguration, in order to make sure we didn’t get caught in the horrendous traffic jam between Jo’burg and Pretoria that is the M1.
- It’s scary driving around Berea at night. It’s one of two neighborhoods (Hillbrow being the other) my professors have told me never to venture into. We ran red lights (legal at night in dodgey neighborhoods of Jo’burg) and treated every darting shadow as a potential carjacker. All this made for a nerve-wrecking experience. Maybe we were just being too paranoid.
- It’s quite difficult to report when you have technical difficulties and power outages every now and then. Fortunately, the blackouts only lasted a few minutes, but when our 3G Internet dongle died on us midway through the inauguration, it became nearly impossible to Twitter and upload pictures.
- Pouring rain and cold weather does not make for comfortable reporting. I still can’t believe I wore beige khaki pants to the festivities – what was I thinking?
- It’s impossible to cover the swearing in ceremony if you’re not accredited to get into the amphitheater. It would have been nice to see many of the African dignitaries present.
- It’s hard to push out a video story close to live as possible. At one point, my editor was telling me I literally had 20 minutes to edit my piece and upload it to the Web. My first draft of that video, which went live around 11:30 a.m., was far from perfect. It had bad audio (media centre where I recorded my narration was very loud) and really rough edits. But it was up, and I can say, I didn’t break down under pressure.
- It’s crazy to head out to cover Jacob Zuma’s speech less than half-an-hour before he arrives. At the Siyanqoba Rally a few weekends ago, I chose a spot as close to the stage (and Nelson Mandela!) as possible and stood there stubbornly for several hours. This time, because I had to upload my video, I had to push my way through the thousands of ANC supporters gathered at the Southern Lawns of the Union Buildings to get remotely close to the stage. Miraculouly, a police officer saw my media credentials and waved me through into the media pool between the fence keeping the crowds at bay and the stage. I couldn’t believe my luck! I had a clear shot of Jacob Zuma!
- It was impossible to understand what Zuma was saying in his speech to the crowd (He spoke mainly in Zulu.)
- It’s pretty difficult not to collapse into bed when you get home at 8 p.m. Was Sunday the longest work day I’ve ever had?
I apologize for not posting sooner – the lack of Internet at Kruger plus wireless issues hampered my blogging the past few days.
Update: I ventured up to Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga province this past weekend with a group of Medill students. We stayed with David Bunn, a Wits University professor (and a NU alumnus!), at a research facility near Skukuza, which was great because it wasn’t very touristy.
I’m planning to write up a longer blog post about Kruger, especially the environmental and human aspects of the park (poaching is a big problem). I’d also like to share my experiences riding around looking for these cool animals.
In the meantime, I’ve uploaded about 200 photos of my experience in Kruger. Interesting tidbit: This photo slideshow represents less than 10 percent of all the photos I’ve taken this past weekend. It was my first foray into wildlife photography – I like it a lot!
Anyway, our group spotted more than 90 species of animals, birds and reptiles. We also got to see all the Big Five (the five most dangerous animals to hunt – elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion). It was an amazing accomplishment, considering we only had two and a half days in the park. Well, maybe it had more to do with luck, but whatever.
Here’s an abbreviated account of my election day activities:
First, I tagged along with a print reporter for The Times to three polling stations in Johannesburg. We were working on a story comparing the polling environment in the affluent suburb of Illovo and the urban center of Hillbrow and Joubert Park. Suffice it to say, it was quite a comparison.
The polling station in Illovo was at a country club, so from the get-go, you already knew what kinds of people would flock there. However, there was quite a diversity among all the people voting there. Retirement-age people stood in line with university students. White people waited next to black people. Domestic workers queued up alongside business-owners. I think it was the first time I’ve seen such intermingling across class and ethnic lines on a large scale in South Africa.
After speaking with a couple of the people there, we quickly drove down to Hillbrow, a place where my professors told me never to venture to. Even our guide during orientation week refused to take us through Hillbrow, that’s how dangerous it is. To drive this point home, the print reporter I was with was hesitant to go to Hillbrow using her own car and without another photographer. I wasn’t too worried though, having walked through that area on the way back from the Siyanqoba Rally. The main road right by the park is actually quite beautiful, and I don’t recall ever being that scared I would be mugged. Maybe I’m being too naive.
We only stayed in Hillbrow for a short period of time, since we were only stopping by the polling station. The voters were were very homogeneous: black, working class people from Johannesburg’s most notorious urban neighborhood. After only a few interviews, we quickly made our way to Joubert Park, the largest polling station in South Africa with thousands of registered voters.
It’s been a while since I last posted. I took some much-needed rest over this past three-day weekend after pulling double-digit-hour days covering the election. And, oh, it was quite an election to cover. Although we all knew the ANC would win, we weren’t quite sure how comfortably the ruling party would remain in power. The Western Cape was definitely the biggest battleground province, with the KZN and the Eastern Cape regions close behind. With the new breakaway party COPE in the mix among the 20 some odd opposition parties, this election had all the ingredients for a fascinating political study.
My prediction, as tweeted on my Twitter feed, was that ANC would win (duh), but wouldn’t get the two-thirds majority necessary to be able to change South Africa’s constitution with ease. At points during the initial days after the election when the results were still being tallied, it seemed possible the ANC would secure this power. However, it was wrested from them by a mere 0.7 percentage point. I could only imagine how tense the ANC and opposition parties DA and COPE must have been watching the votes coming in through the Independent Electoral Commission’s Results Operation Centre in Pretoria. At a presser after the results were finalized on Saturday, Jacob Zuma said he wasn’t disappointed with the results, saying that he still “smelled” getting his predicted 70 percent of the total vote. It would’ve been worse for Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League leader if he had to speak at that presser as well. Malema declared infamously days before the election that his party would get a three-thirds majority. Yes, there are public officials here who utter Bushisms.
It’s not common nowadays to say it’s a great time to be a journalist. After all, the industry is shrinking, newspapers are going bankrupt (especially in the States) and the profession is at a crossroads in terms of forming a sustainable business model since the advent of free content online. But I have to say, it ain’t so bad being a journalist in South Africa.
Print reigns in South Africa because Internet penetration is so low. There is still a culture of reading physical newspapers in this country, and papers like the Sunday Times, Daily Sun, The Star and Beeld are generally doing better than American papers. Of course, this will change as South African broadband increases, but for now, the few media companies operating here are making good money.
Not only is the business model quite buoyant here, the stories are far more interesting than in the States. There are stories here that will make you cry. Others will make you shake your head. There are a bunch that will make you smile. I hope to be smiling a lot tomorrow.
Tomorrow is Election Day in South Africa. It was fewer than 15 years ago that racial and political intolerance pervaded South African society, so it’s incredible to see a fledgling democracy largely consolidated if not ingrained into the South African psyche. Sure, there are problems here just as in any other country. Sure, voter turnout has declined and people are starting to turn away from the polls “in protest.” But talking with ordinary South Africans during the past few weeks has instilled within me hope for a lasting democratic South Africa. Tomorrow, upwards of 20 million voters will wait in line at polling stations, cast their paper ballots and get their fingers inked. Considering the long history of oppression here, it’s pretty amazing.