South Africa captured my heart and soul in December during a two-week visit, centered around a wedding, showcasing both the highs and lows of a country struggling to move beyond its past. The purpose of the visit was a ceremony in a country which now allows same-sex marriage ( before the U.S. as a whole ) , but the outcome was learning much more about a place we hear little about back home—except when it comes to troubles, like crime, AIDS, or post-apartheid political struggles.
Just as America is not the sum of our crime statistics, our diseases, and our political leaders, South Africa is a country of many contradictions, stratifications, and much beauty. I was not prepared for the breathtaking views, nor the heart-wrenching poverty in the still all-Black townships, nor the blatant racism of some whites. And I felt fortunate to have amazing friends to help guide us in our journey, to help us find at least the tip of another truth that is modern South Africa.
Photos at: www.windycitymediagroup.com/photos/Africa/
As of Dec. 1, 2006, based on a Constitutional Court ruling the year before, it became legal for gays and lesbians to marry their partners in all of South Africa. That is because that country is the first in the world to have written protections based on sexual orientation into their constitution, thanks to the builders of the post-apartheid nation. The policy is not without detractors, but those opponents have not stopped the start of marriages. Several members of the Chosen Few lesbian soccer team, the Soweto-based all-Black lesbian team that played in Chicago's Gay Games VII last summer, intend to marry under the new laws.
But the wedding we were attending had been planned for more than a year and was not a civil one, but a ceremony for family and friends from around the world. One half of the couple is Leigh-Ann Naidoo, an open lesbian athlete who made history by being on the first beach volleyball team from the entire continent of Africa to play in the Olympics, 2004 in Athens. Naidoo is also an ambassador for the Gay Games, and her partner is Kelly Gillespie, a University of Chicago Ph.D. studying the prison system in South Africa. Kelly is white and Leigh-Ann is 'colored' ( South Africa stratifies based on white, colored and Black ) , and they were raised just a few miles apart—but worlds apart in terms of access ( to education, employment, housing, etc. ) . They met through mutual friends, and decided to solidify their love for one another in a ceremony a short drive outside of their hometown of Cape Town.
As an inter-racial lesbian couple, their mere existence is political. Leigh-Ann and Kelly know this, and their ceremony reflected their diversity of friends and their progressive politics. They were also very helpful for the Gay Games in Chicago, assisting the Chosen Few team from Johannesburg in getting visas from a biased and difficult U.S. Embassy system in South Africa. Leigh-Ann has used her status as a well-known athlete to try to help others ( and she herself is raising funds to compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing ) , and Kelly's educational pursuits are geared toward helping improve the prison system. They are both committed to changing their country for the better, overcoming the apartheid system these two 30-year-olds lived through as children. Apartheid officially ended in 1994, but Leigh-Ann and Kelly both realize the structures and tentacles of apartheid still poison their country today. Even the beach Leigh-Ann calls her 'office' has intense memories for her: it was whites-only when she was growing up.
My partner Jean and I arrived late-night South Africa time after a nearly 30-hour travel ordeal, including four planes and lots of stress. But this meant we could sleep that night and we suffered little jet lag.
It was summer in Africa, and the beauty hit us immediately on day one of our trip. Despite their impending wedding four days later, Leigh-Ann and Kelly were kind enough to serve as our tour guides for a couple days. The first day it was a ride up Table Mountain on the Cableway along the steep slopes of the southern coast of Africa. Leigh-Ann had never taken this ride, due to its racially segregated history. The flat top of the mountain, named for the tablecloth of low sloping white clouds that often smother it, was clear for our first day, a good weather omen. We could see out over the ocean to Robben Island, the infamous prison to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. We could see the areas of Cape Town, and our hosts pointed out the geographic divisions along color lines. We could see the far-way townships for colored and Black, the District Six that once tried to be integrated but was crushed by authorities, and the more wealthy areas now. There were lush plants, birds and lizards atop the mountain, a seeming century away from the crowded town of three million people below.
Next we stopped by the botanical gardens and rested among the gorgeous foliage, birds and people. The gardens are up against a side of Table Mountain, creating a haven from the worries of city living. We then had a home-cooked meal at the base of the mountain, where Leigh-Ann and Kelly share their home with a few cats.
Our bed and breakfast, The Abalone, was just a few blocks from their place, and it was a well-kept B&B perfectly situated in this tourist-oriented city.
On day two, Kelly and Leigh-Ann dropped us at The Direct Action Center for Peace & Memory, which does personalized tours of the townships, ours lead by a former teenage soldier for the African National Congress ( ANC ) . When I say it was personal, I mean it was quite personal. Our guide, Yazir, spoke about being forced as a 13-year-old to choose between going to school and joining the military wing of the ANC. The pain was evident in his face as he spoke of the horrible things he and other child soldiers were forced to do, and to endure. They publish pamphlets on their experiences, including Re-Historicising Trauma: Reflections on Violence and Memory in Current-Day Cape Town.
He gave the tour just to Jean and I as his driver took us into the various townships around Cape Town. The city's designers used highways and train lines to geographically demarcate the white, Black and colored sections, making the Black and colored sections difficult to get to and from ( the Black being the furthest out ) , and far away from needed services such as plumbing and electricity, not to mention good schools and transportation.
Each of the townships we visited had monuments to various heroes and uprisings. The protesters often included young people, and the statues and plaques were sometimes tributes to children who died in the struggle. We felt like interlopers at a memorial service, white faces looking in on Black pain. We asked our guide if it is OK to treat these as 'tourist monuments,' because we felt rather awkward as white people going into these segregated areas—it felt exploitive. But he assured us that it serves to break down barriers when white people enter these places. He said many older white South Africans, especially Afrikaners, have never visited these areas. The racism that caused apartheid is far from eradicated, and some white South Africans still have hatred and resentment towards his community.
The one thing he said was to always ask when taking photos, so people did not feel like they were in a zoo. At one point we stopped by a group of very young children. He asked them if it was OK for me to take their photos. I felt as if I was peering behind my late mother's camera lens. She had visited Africa many times, including in 1994 during the country's first free elections. As I took the photo and then squatted down to show them their image on my digital camera, what struck me most was the whiteness and wideness of their smiles, the bright spark in their eyes. Their clothes were too well worn, some had on no shoes, they accepted my coins, but I felt such an ache in my stomach. This was making acquaintance with the real people who live in the shacks that served as homes. Some of the homes were made of aluminum and were no larger than a king-size bed, some were wood and slightly larger, some were of a cement-like substance. But all seemed as if you could huff and puff and blow them down.
After several hours on this difficult adventure, our driver dropped us in a wealthy area where suddenly lunch seemed unappealing.
Later at the airport, we met my brother Clark and other friends of Leigh-Ann and Kelly's from Chicago, Andrea and Drew. Clark works in England consulting in prisons; Clark, Kelly and Leigh-Ann were staying with my sister and I last summer for the Gay Games, and when Clark and Kelly realized they both worked on prison issues, they bonded immediately. So when Jean and I decided to attend the wedding, Clark decided to fly down from Birmingham and also conduct a prison training at the same time. He'd never been south of the equator and he was anxious to see if the work he has done for 20 years might apply in South Africa. Like me, he also wanted to visit the country that had so captured our mother's heart.
Clark, Jean and I all felt our mother's presence the next morning as we rode solemnly on a boat to Robben Island. This now-vacant prison serves as the main symbol of apartheid's treatment of political dissent. It was the last prison to hold Nelson Mandela and so many other anti-apartheid activists. It is now a museum of sorts, with photos and tours to create a legacy to those tortured times.
First we took a bus ride around the island, where we saw the homes guards lived in, and the rock quarry where Mandela and others were forced to carry heavy boulders back and forth in the hot sun, day after day. It is why Mandela's eyesight is ruined and he is so sensitive to light. There is one pile of rocks at the entrance to the quarry—it was created years after they had been released, when former political prisoners returned to the site and spontaneously, inspired by Mandela, re-enacted the labor of their imprisonment to create a pile which represented those difficult years.
When it came to seeing the inside of the prison, our guide, Vincent Diba, a former prisoner of 12 years, showed his own cell, told his own story. Many cells held tributes to their former occupants and certain items that played a critical survival role for them ( something as simple as a stapler ) . Seeing the barbed wire and cement that held in these men for decades was powerful and painful, and an experience Jean, Clark and I will never forget. As we left, there was a large photo showing the men as they were the day of their release, riding a boat to freedom. Vincent pointed humbly to his own smiling face.
On day four, Clark and I went to a prison that represents South Africa today. It was equally depressing.
Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison is one Kelly writes about in her dissertation, so she worked with one of the more progressive warders to arrange approval for Clark's training. Clark teaches psychodrama in prisons across the United Kingdom, and has co-authored a book on the topic. He reaches out to all levels of prisoners, trying to better their lives and coping skills through drama therapy. This includes murderers, rapists, and all manner of violent offenders. These skills may help some when they get out of prison, and for lifers, it helps them better deal with situations and survival on the inside. But Clark had no idea what to expect from South Africa prisons. He knew they had few resources and little experience with this kind of work—but would the warders and prisoners accept him? I, too, was torn about going. I was not sure of the safety issues but mainly I had never been in such a training. But that actually made it exciting, to see what has been my brother's passion for 20 years.
The room was filled with more people than Clark had planned for, around 50 ( including about 10 warders and warders-in-training ) , but he improvised and right from the start they warmed to him, doing a rhythm clapping exercise to get in the mood. For two hours, they did drama, created scenes and music, and engaged with warders in a way not possible in the past. When he asked at the end if they had any questions, one said 'when are you coming back?' He knew it was successful, but just a start—so he hopes to return to train the staff in how to sustain the program into the future. I was so proud to see my brother at work, witnessing how easily he reacted with a group of toughened and tattooed male prisoners from backgrounds far removed from our own Chicago upbringing. I was forced to be a part of the group exercises, and certainly learned some things myself. The prisoners were from age 17 to more than 70, all Black or colored, and all seemed so interested to participate.
As we walked back with four of the prisoners, I spoke with them, walking ahead of Clark and the warder taking us to their unit. It was a slow and easy conversation ( the prisoners were certainly not eager to get back to their cells ) in the scorching South African sun, a beautiful landscape with mountains and greenery—but beyond the reach of the men in this compound. I asked the 17-year-old what brought him to prison. It was drugs. I explained to him that drugs get people in trouble in America as well, and he seemed surprised by that. The very casualness of our interactions seemed strange but also miraculous.
Our next day could not have been more different.
We had rented a van to take Jean, Clark and I, plus other wedding guests, to a farm just outside the town of Stanford, where the wedding would take place on a compound of another kind—a gorgeous mountain retreat center/farm. We picked up Phumla Macuku, the captain of the Chosen Few, and her partner Tumi, in Cape Town. They had ridden a bus many hours from Johannesburg to make the wedding. We also were taking along Bernard ( who is from South Africa ) and Fillip ( from Portugal ) , Kelly's fellow students from U of C.
Clark took the wheel, because he can drive on the 'opposite' side of the road, having lived in England. It was a stunning drive through the mountains and valleys, though small towns and more shanty towns, rich and poor linked by geography but not by social networks.
At the farm we met many of the family members and friends who traveled from around the world for this special ceremony. There was a dinner and then people went off to the places they were staying for the night—we were at a B&B in Stanford, Bezuidenhout House.
The next morning, Saturday, we had breakfast with the B&B owners, white Englanders who had moved to South Africa several years before. They were nice in that rigid British way, but even they had inherited the stereotypes about Blacks and coloreds. Stanford, out in the middle of the country, is not immune to divisions—there is a township-type series of homes just outside of town, and the poverty is apparent, the racial divisions tangible.
The racism we heard and saw in South Africa was not the usual more subtle racism of America. People were blatant and rude at times, and some whites wore their racism like a badge of honor. But then I remembered that racism is not always so subtle in the U.S., and as I write this the blatant racism of talkshow host Don Imus is 'coming out' to a broader American audience than had never even heard of him. He's said racist, sexist, homopho