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South Africa

Red = Cycle 3,500 km (2,170 Miles) - Straight lines aren't my strong suit

South Africa entered my itinerary in a different way than the other places.  It joins Russia as one of the places that I didn't originally plan to visit.  It's also a place I never thought of visiting at all before, so it's the first serious departure from previous thinking. 

When I left home, I had no real intention of visiting Africa at all.  One fine day, I was cycling through Vietnam and had a brainstorm.  I thought "wouldn't it be cool to visit all seven continents".  The idea grew on me as I went through Australia and Russia until it turned into a bit of  an obsession (which I still have).  I decided to visit Africa after Russia, mostly because it was the next continent on the list.   Before I came here I was abysmally ignorant of Africa, and I doubt I could have placed half of Africa's countries within 1000 miles on an unmarked map.  To add insult to injury, I wrote a geography tutorial program a long time ago to teach children African geography and I still didn't know much.

My first two ideas for interesting places to visit were South Africa and Kenya.  This is primarily because they were the only two places I knew anything about.  My father-in-law was quite interested in the anti-apartheid struggle during the 90s, so I  had heard a fair amount about South Africa.  Kenya is nearly synonymous with Africa for most Americans.  I spent some time reading more about Africa in Lonely Planet, and a few other places. 

I ultimately decided on South Africa because I'm interested in history, even more interested in non-violent change.  Despite recent evidence, I like to believe that the world is gradually becoming a less violent place, and having average people like me study the process should help it along.  South Africa has had its share of trouble, but in 1994 it went through what appeared to be a relatively violence free changeover in power from a small repressive minority to the larger majority, without a civil war.  I can't think of many other examples in the 10,000 years of recorded history I've studied where that happened.  The collapse of the Soviet Union might qualify, and Franco's creation of a democratic system to replace him on his death in Spain is another example.  After that, I have trouble coming up with anything else.

A changeover like this seems like something worth studying.  How did it happen?  Was it as non-violent as it appeared?  Was the violence just exported to another place?  Was the civil war in fact fought in Angola or other neighboring countries, or via other proxies?  Is the new system working out?  What do the South Africans of all colors think of the new system?  How did the apartheid system start out in the first place?  Why did the west keep on trading with a place where such a small minority ruled so violently?  Why does the west continue to do that in other places today?  These are all questions that come easily to mind if you think about it for a while, so in the end I decided to head off to South Africa to try to find a few answers, or at least better questions.

South Africa is a pretty big country.  It's 13% the size of the U.S., or about the size of all of Continental Western Europe.  Population density is just 25% higher than in the U.S., which makes it fairly lightly populated by Western standards, and very lightly populated by Asian standards.  You can learn some facts from Lonely Planet, CIA FactBook, Britannica or Encarta

Note: I got really lazy after this country, and this page drug out over the course of an entire year before I finally published it.  It got a bit jumbled in the process, but you'll just have to live with it.

Terminology and Currency

I'll abbreviate South Africa as SA just because I'm lazy.

Race has been a huge issue in SA, and no discussion of the place would be complete without it.  The old Apartheid era categories are still in common use, and people here don't seem to feel the need to make up newer and more politically correct names.  Right or wrong, people are generally grouped as Whites, Blacks, Coloreds and Indians, with Coloreds being people of mixed heritage.  SA is now promoting itself as the "Rainbow Nation" and trying to build itself as a model of how different races and cultures can live together in reasonable peace and harmony.  I will use the common terms when discussing race, but keep in mind that I am NOT promoting racism.  I just have to use something to talk about what has been such a huge issue for this place.

Currency here is the Rand, and at the moment it's getting beat up very badly in the world currency market for reasons that are beyond me.  Travel here is extremely cheap.  This should be sounding familiar by now, but I promise I'll go somewhere expensive some day just to balance the scales.  SA has the distinction of being the least expensive place to travel that I've been to yet.  Believe it or not, for someone doing my style of traveling it's even a little bit less expensive than Vietnam or Russia.  (Note that I qualified it with my style.  It is possible to get by for less in Vietnam than in SA).  Unlike most of Africa, the infrastructure is very good.  Busses, hotels, taxis, roads and all the other things that a visitor needs all work reliably, so SA makes for a good destination for any kind of travel.

I spent most of the trip staying in Guest Houses and Bed & Breakfasts.  They generally cost about $15 per night including breakfast, and the most expensive one I stayed at cost $25.  I stayed 6 months in Cape Town in a small hotel for $7/night including breakfast.  I good high quality restaurant meal costs about $4, and a fast-food style meal costs around $1.50.


When I headed out for SA, I decided to ride from Johannesburg (usually called Joburg) to Cape Town.  Cape Town is highly rated as a must-see city in all the guidebooks, and Joburg is where you have to fly to if you come in from overseas.  You can  buy a ticket to Cape Town, but it'll go through Joburg anyway.  So, when I left Russia I had a plan to ride between those two cities.  That was the end of my plan.

As you can see on the map above, I decided to go the long route.  The short route would be 1800 km through a semi-desert called the Transvaal, or pretty much the same thing as going through the Australian Outback again.  There are two small landlocked countries inside of SA (Lesotho and Swaziland), and I decided to go through both of them just to see how they exist.  Landlocked countries that are completely contained within another country are pretty rare, and I was curious about how that situation came to be.  Durban is another big city that sounded interesting, as it has the biggest Indian population and an Indian culture that doesn't really exist anywhere else in SA.  In the end I went about twice as far as the shortest route between Joburg and Cape Town.  Of course, I didn't know any of that when I landed in Joburg.  There's no real point in planning these things to death.


I'll be talking from time to time about Apartheid, so let me explain the term a bit.  Between the mid 19th century and the end of WWII, the European Colonial System unraveled.  Most of it unraveled in force during WWII, and the European powers lost control of their overseas colonies, although quite a few of the European powers had been moving the colonies towards independence for some time.  You've already heard the story of how this took place in Vietnam.  In lots of other places, the same forces and processes took place.  The loss of the Colonial System took a lot of different forms.  In some cases such as Vietnam, the locals fought the Colonial Powers tooth and nail and finally threw them out.  In some cases, the Colonial Powers lost control during the war and never managed to reassert it.  In some cases, the Colonial Powers found the colonies harder and harder to maintain, and eventually made steps to make the colonies independent over some period of time.  In some cases, the Colonial Powers had long ago figured out that colonies were expensive nuisances of no economic value, and had been trying to make them independent for some time.  In one case, a brand new Colonial Power emerged, expelled most of the locals from the region and took control.

Once the Great Powers were out of the picture (or trying to get out of it), the locals went about organizing themselves according to the local conditions.  This took a lot of forms, depending on the region's history prior to colonization, and how the Colonial Powers handled the population during occupation.  Obviously the places that never had any real civilization and where the Colonial Powers prevented education among the local population weren't great candidates for democracy.  By 1980, South Africa was the only African country with an all-white government.  Unfortunately, in most of the rest of Africa, independence resulted in one tin-pot dictator after another, and one civil war after another.  Lots of them either become hopelessly corrupt, or were dragged into the Cold War by the Soviet Union and the U.S.  Another common theme is a more-or-less complete takeover by large western multi-national corporations, with oil companies generally being the worst.  This is still going on today.  There are active civil wars with millions of dead going on as we speak in more than one place in Africa.  One writer even makes the case that we would consider post WWII Africa to be World War III if it had happened in Europe.  That may be overstating the case a bit, but Africa has had a bad 20th century in a lot of ways.

In South Africa, the Whites were vastly outnumbered by the Non-Whites (the population is only about 10% White), so they obviously couldn't expel all the Non-Whites.  However, they controlled (and still do) nearly the entire economic infrastructure.  They had all the money, control of all industry and all the other handles to a modern society.  White supremacy had been the norm for a very long time, starting way back with the first Portuguese and Dutch colonial administrators.  Apartheid was simply putting down in the constitution what had been the way things always were.  Apartheid literally means Separateness, and it was supposedly designed to be a total separation of Whites from Non-Whites.  The Whites tried to bill it as Separate but Equal (should sound familiar to Americans), but in reality it was just Separate.  Non-Whites had no political power or civil rights at all.  Whites controlled everything from where they could live, where and when they could travel, what jobs they could have, how much those jobs paid, what was taught in their schools, the language used for instruction in schools, and the whole bit.  They had separate busses, separate bathrooms, separate schools and everything.  Now before you Americans get too snooty, keep in mind that the same situation existed in the American South at the same time.  The big difference between America and SA though was that in America, the system was the 90% White population imposing these conditions on the 10% Black population.  In SA, the ratios were reversed so the 10% White population was imposing this on the 90% Non-White.  It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is an unstable and non-sustainable system, never mind the rank injustice of it.

The United States and Europe traded with Apartheid South Africa in a business as usual style right up to the mid 80s.  Ronald Regan described SA as a "friendly country, a wartime ally, and a country of strategic importance to the free world".  He wasn't the only president aligning themselves with the Apartheid government... just the most recent.  The Apartheid government was staunchly anti-communist, and as you know anyone showing themselves to be anti-communist was fine with the US.

Apartheid eventually fell apart when it became obvious it wouldn't work.  The world gradually became aware of the brutality of the system.  Tens of thousands were held without bail or trials, the South African Defense Forces engaged in various wars in Namibia, Angola and other places.  They also cooperated closely with outright terrorist organizations that tried at every turn to undermine the legitimate governments of countries that opposed SA.  Every white male was required to do military service.  The brutality and violence kept escalating until the West couldn't ignore it any more.  A grass-roots campaign to boycott SA led to a lot of western nations imposing sanctions.  The sanctions hurt, and made SA very clever about getting around them or inventing their own tools.  They even made some atomic bombs (which have been destroyed).  Eventually, though it got to the point where money talks.  Several western banks got nervous about government loans defaulting and refused to roll the loans over.  These weren't some new breed of humanitarian bankers... just the usual ones worried about their money.  In the end, that was the last straw.  SA had to adapt or face total internal collapse, and one courageous leader named F.W. De Klerk surprised the world by announcing that he would effectively repeal Apartheid... and then again when he did it.  Between De Klerk, Nelson Mandela and thousands of other people of courage and conviction, the hated system was finally dismantled in 1994.


Johannesburg is usually abbreviated as Joburg, and I'll continue that tradition... particularly since I still can never spell the danged thing right anyway.  In the last chapter, I said that Moscow intimidated me for no reason whatsoever.  Joburg outright scared me and for good reason.  The city has a shockingly high crime rate, both violent and non-violent.  Crime statistics are nearly impossible to compare between different cities, let alone different countries.  They're collected differently in different places, the collection efficiency varies widely, classification systems vary and so on.  For example, in the United States the FBI and the Justice Department gather crime statistics that are wildly different in the same city.  Comparing crime rates between one country and another is usually a complete waste of time unless you know enough to calibrate for the different meanings for the crime rates.  Among some people that have done the exercise, Joburg rates among the 5 most dangerous cities in the world.  It's the first city I've visited where I was afraid to wander around at random following my Columbus Style Navigation, and the first city where I was afraid to go out at night.  To be fair, I should point out that I was also dealing with the usual disorientation I get in any new country, and if I went back there now I wouldn't be nearly as frightened.  I didn't go out in Moscow at night in my first week either.  Now that I know SA better, I could navigate Joburg safely without any real problem, but while I was there I never went into the center of the city alone at all.  I went to both the city center and some townships with a guide, but never alone.

It was nice to be back in an English speaking country.  SA has eleven official national languages, but the vast majority of people speak English, at least as a second language.  The two predominant languages are English and Afrikaans.  The country was originally colonized by the Portuguese, and then the Dutch.  It was later taken over by England, and the interaction between the two groups made SA what it is.  Afrikaans is a dialect of Dutch that most Dutch people can learn fairly easily.  English is spoken with an accent that's somewhat softer than the accent the Australians use.  In addition to that, there are nine official tribal languages, and a fair number of Blacks and Coloreds speak one or more of those, with Zulu being the most common.  Most also speak English or Afrikaans as well.

Just based on appearances with no knowledge at all, Joburg started right out as a scary looking place.  I was staying in a hostel about 15 miles outside of the city center, so I was really in Suburbia.  The first thing I noticed as I rode a van to the hotel, was that it looked like an armed camp.  Nearly every building of any kind had a fence, an astonishingly high percentage of those fences have spikes on top, a lot have razor wire (I've never seen that in a real city ever), and there was lots of other evidence of a high fear level.  Armed Response security appears very popular according to the signs.  I saw two posters telling about car-jackings in that particular intersection, on that first ride.  All in all, it just wasn't the kind of atmosphere that promotes a real warm-fuzzy feeling.  Lonely Planet listed Joburg as a place where you have to be careful where you go, but advised against crawling into a hole because of it.  They just said you need to exercise a more than the usual level of caution, and my first impressions matched up to it.

I've decided that I like to just chill for a week or two in a new country to become acclimated.  It's not as if I have a schedule to keep.  In addition to that, I was attacked by a nasty virus in Moscow and my computer was in pretty bad shape.  I just barely managed to recover it using Vladimir's computer as a storage medium before leaving Moscow, but I still had to reinstall all my software which takes a while.  I no sooner finished that when my hard disk died a heathen-savage death.  I managed to recover it by reformatting, but then I was missing all the files except for the ones I burned onto CDs in Sydney.  That meant... you guessed it... the virus in Moscow actually saved all my Russia files.  I hadn't made a backup since Sydney, and wouldn't have if I hadn't been attacked and had to recover them from my scrambled hard disk.  Of course, the files were all safe and sound in Moscow which wasn't exactly ideal, but at least they existed.  Vladimir zipped up some of the smaller ones and emailed them to me, and eventually I had him mail the hard disk containing the files to me in Cape Town. 

One side-effect of the whole computer thing was that I never actually got my camera to play nice with my computer until my last week in Cape Town.  This meant I only had the storage on my camera's memory cards to store photos, and I also lost most of those I took in Joburg with the hard disk crash.  This means I got less than 100 photos in all of South Africa :(  The photo gallery for this visit is going to be very weak.

The Couch Potato

I haven't been reading much on this trip, but I started buying books in St. Petersburg, and then went on a book reading frenzy in Joburg.  I was back in a place that had good bookstores, which is one of my supreme weaknesses (not as bad as chocolate, but pretty bad).  I sat around Joburg for a few weeks reading, finishing my Russia page and generally being lazy.  I also did a bit of actual work, but didn't really put my nose to the grindstone until I got to Cape Town.  I hadn't seen any movies since I left home, so I went to the local cinema and watched everything that looked good.  I still haven't figured out if I was just chilling out and enjoying a bit of a break from my trip, or if I was afraid to explore Joburg. 

When I left Joburg, believe it or not, I carried one pannier bag clear full of books which was about an extra 20 pounds or so of just reading material.  Those were the books I couldn't leave behind.  I also shipped a box off to my stepdaughter Noelle in France.  Since I filled that bag up with books, I've never managed to quite empty it again.  No matter what I do, I seem to need exactly one pannier bag full of books with me at all times.  Maybe that's some kind of payback for sitting around Joburg for weeks.

Downtown Joburg and Soweto

During my sloth-time in Joburg, I did manage to get off my ass for a day-trip into Joburg and the township of Soweto.  Remember that I mentioned that Blacks and Colored had separate housing (both separate from Whites and separate from each other).  The Townships were where they had to live.  Blacks could not live in the White controlled areas, and in fact it wasn't uncommon for Apartheid era governments to take entire neighborhoods and forcibly relocate them.  For example, there's a huge area of Durban that was originally an Indian community.  The government forced everyone to move and destroyed all the housing during the Apartheid era.  To add insult to injury, they weren't even doing it to give it to whites for some purpose.  They just did it as a power play and it was some time before anything was built in that neighborhood.

Soweto was the main township where Blacks and Coloreds that would ordinarily have lived in Joburg had to live.  It's famous now as the place where Nelson and Winnie Mandela lived at the start of their careers as anti-Apartheid activists, and it's also where Desmond Tutu lived.  I went to the both places.  The trip into Soweto was interesting.  I went in on a guided tour, which meant that myself and two other people rode in with a black man that works for the hotel in a car that was roughly 1000 years old that contained nothing worth stealing.  We first went through Joburg, and saw a few of the neighborhoods where you don't really want to go if you don't know what you're doing.  There were a few blocks that were obviously not the place to be unless you feel compelled to make a drug purchase. 

This wasn't the worst neighborhood, just a fairly typical one where I wasn't afraid to show my camera.  A lot of downtown Joburg has this sort of half-abandoned look, and a lot of it is worse.  Since the changeover in government, a lot of whites have moved out and taken their money with them.  A lot of the businesses are also closed down, and that has a ripple effect.  For example, I went by at least five big international hotels that have just closed their doors.  The stock exchange was closed, and lots of other really big businesses as well.  Joburg is actually a very beautiful city if you sit back and just take a look at it... at least if you disregard the razor wire, high fences and other signs of a high crime rate.  The driver told me that the unemployment rate in Johannesburg is 58%, and no I didn't leave out the decimal.  In the U.S. an unemployment rate of 10% is cause for near panic.  High crime rates always follow high unemployment rates.  The high crime rates in turn make employers reluctant to invest in an area and a vicious cycle ensues.  I didn't study it enough to say that's how it actually happened in Joburg, but it looks a lot like that.

We went to the top of a building that claims the distinction of being the "highest" building top in the southern hemisphere.  That doesn't mean quite what you would think.  It's not the tallest building, but if you take the height of the building plus the elevation of the street you get the highest spot.  Sometimes you have to really reach for your records.

I stopped in a museum in Joburg for an hour on the way.  It naturally dedicated most of its space to the anti-apartheid struggle, and had some good food for thought.  One thing I never quite realized, is that Gandhi got his start in South Africa, not in India.  The famous incident where he was refused passage on a train when he had a paid ticket because a white got the spot was in South Africa.  He worked in SA for several years before going on to India.  Oddly enough, at the time he was as racist as anyone.  He was just annoyed at being grouped together with the blacks.  It was only later that he adopted a more universal attitude.  I'll talk a bit more about him in the history page.

There was also a pretty interesting display on Treason. Treason is a kind of interesting subject that would be worth a whole page of its own.  Most governments (including the U.S.) rate treason as the highest of all crimes; far higher than murder, rape, pillage, mass murder or anything like that.  This is convenient since the government sanctions those other things all the time.  Making treason a very high crime also makes sense.  Any group of people that gathers together into a nation-state or anything like that needs to have something to hold people together to protect them from other hostile nation states.  For example, if you help a hostile power that is attacking your country, you are committing a crime against your entire country, not just a group of individuals.  Now the problem with this is that in practice, treason often becomes any group of actions against the government or other power structure that gets to make the rules.  Then anything that tends to dilute their power can be considered treason, and that's what happened in SA.  The anti-apartheid struggle was regarded as treason, even during the periods where they had very specifically didn't accept violence or terrorism as tools of change.  The same thing has happened in the U.S. pretty frequently.  In WWI, it was a jailing offense to simply criticize government policy on the war, and from what I read over here it appears to be moving in that direction again as we speak.  Civil rights are being truncated left and right in the name of fighting terrorism.  The American police and other organizations are being given extraordinary powers with no debate and virtually no discussion, and appear to be becoming more apartheid-like every week.

There was an entire display on the topic of treason which I found quite interesting.  For example, this board lists a bunch of definitions for treason and lets you see if you can tell which is correct.

Of course all this history was quite interesting and, I read the displays and all; but when it got right down to it, I took a photo of the only bicycle I could find.  This is an early bicycle called a Penny Farthing.  This particular one is a News Cycle.  Take a look at the camera mounted on the handlebars.  This was used to zip in and out of hotspots for news photos.  Pretty cool, eh!

If you're wondering about the shape of these early bikes, it's easy to explain.  If you ever rode a tricycle as a kid, you know that it doesn't go very fast because you just can't spin the pedals fast enough.  That was the problem the early designers of bikes had, and they solved it by just making the drive wheel bigger and bigger, which increases the distance it travels for each turn of the crank.  Unfortunately, it also makes the bike pretty unstable.  The problem was finally solved by the invention of efficient chain drives that allow you to have a speed differential between the cranking speed and the wheel's speed.  That's your lesson in bicycle history for the day.  On a completely unrelated topic, a guy from California set a new world record crossing the U.S. on a Penny Farthing just a few years ago.  He was riding a bike essentially identical to the one on the right, with a backpack on his back.  He was making pretty good distances per day.

OK, enough diversions, back to the show.  An entire section of the museum was set up for Gandhi.  He tends to be overshadowed by Nelson Mandela, but he's an important figure in SA history.  Interestingly enough he helped the anti-apartheid movement when he first started, and then paradoxically hurt it indirectly later.  He went to India and perfected his passive resistance method of protest, which worked very well in India.  The success in India caused a lot of the anti-apartheid activists to try to copy it, but it didn't work at all in SA because the conditions were totally different.  British India was an ancient civilization with a long standing and highly organized way of life where the British simply occupied the top rung of what was essentially the old power structure.  This gave the Indian society a tight fabric, and the British were very constrained in the levels of violence and repression they could use without causing a civil war.  In SA, the situation was completely different.  The non-white society had been hunter-gatherers or pastoralists before the advent of the whites, they had no tradition of working together, and the Apartheid government had absolutely no limits on the amount of brutality they were willing to use.

There were displays on the items that made Joburg what it is... namely Gold and Diamonds.  Joburg was one of the biggest suppliers of both in the world.