Here are some of my thoughts about returning to Durban, South Africa after 15 years. I wrote them after landing in South Africa last Monday, November 28.
So I’ve landed at King Shaka Airport in Durban and been driven by my exchange partner Vukani to the Greenway Hotel, a 200 million rand facility north of Durban and the country’s greenest hotel. It’s located next to the Gateway Shopping Center, the largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere.
None of this existed when I was last here 15 years ago.
This development is one of the signature aspects, for better and worse, of the New South Africa.
Seventeen years after the momentous elections in which elderly women were carried into voting booths they had waited three days and a lifetime to enter, capitalism is the coin of the realm.
Literally, in the case of legendary anti-apartheid leader Nelson Rolihlalla Mandela, the nation’s first democratically elected president in the nation’s history.
Walking through the mall in the early morning, passing by casually strolling security guards and workers of various racial backgrounds, I came across an advertisement for a golden coin.
We heart Mandela, the sign announced. The words, “Our Golden Hero,” stood below, above images of three golden coins with Mandela’s name circiling around a picture of the iconic leader and the phrase “A Long Walk to Freedom,” to the right of his smiling face.
I’m still very fresh here, and it seems that the long walk to freedom has ended, at least for now, in the freedom to consume.
“Say Yes to Holiday” purchases beckons the Edgar’s clothing store, which has a string of white Christmas lights approximating cheer in this part of the world.
As might be expected, the mall has every manner of possible purchasing option, from global standards like Nike to local flavors like a biltong and nut shop called Woza, the Zulu word for “Come,” to belly dancing CDs.
The question of course is whether this represents progress as Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders had envisioned it during their decades long prison terms on Robben Island and other locations.
And, if the answer is no, it does not mean that all is lost.
People of all races mingle easily at the Virgin Active gym I just joined for a month for about $90.
Clad in workout clothes, a man with a strong Afrikaans accent and his woman make plans to get together with an Indian couple in the parking lot below the gym.
Black, colored or mixed race, white and Indian members all work out beside each other without incident, and, in a number of cases, with genuine respect.
All of this would have been unimaginable as recently as the early 90s.
Let me be clear that I do not believe that all of apartheid’s demons have been slain. White and black South Africans tend to hold dramatically different views of the nation’s past and future.
Dave Burbach, one of the other climate change fellows and a native South African, says this diversity is largely limited to a moneyed elite, and he may well be right.
But the integrated fabric of the social life and the ascent of expansive capitalism has a certain irrepressible and irreversible dynamic.
I’ll be spending time this weekend with Vukani going to Umlazi, Natal’s largest townships. While there, I should get a better bead on what life has been like for the millions of South Africans who have not yet benefited from the nation’s development.
I’ll write more then.
And, for now, I’ll continue to try to make sense of the country that Alan Paton and South Africans of all races have loved so deeply as it continues to move into a different space from my understanding of where it was 15 years ago.