South Africa Reflections
I write a column weekly for the Santa Monica Daily Press, I’ve been doing it for 16 years now. Sometimes the topics are local, sometimes they’re international. This week it’s a bit of both. I write about my experiences in S. Africa at the Professional Speakers Association Southern Africa Annual Conference.
Here’s my column:
See The World, Appreciate Your Home
I was speaking at the Professional Speakers Association Southern Africa conference last month in Johannesburg. The conference was a great success and I am very grateful that I was able to attend and present there on podcasting for professionals. One of the many benefits of conferences is the opportunity to make new friends, experience different cities and expand one’s worldview.
Besides being half a world away geographically, the country of South Africa is in many ways a world away in social empowerment and justice from the social stew that is Santa Monica. The population is 88% black, 4% white and 8% colored, mixed race and Indian. Apartheid has technically ended, but it seemed to me that the country pretty much stopped forward progress after that.
My experiences were decidedly un-tourist based. I have friends who live in the country, and they took me around to experience the country in a more organic way. I was touring downtown Johannesburg and really the only way I can describe it is as a post-war distressed neighborhood. The inner core of the downtown was abandoned by most of the corporations and consequently, the buildings were taken over by squatters and trespassers. This served to drive down land values to the point where corporations abandoned the buildings further and do no upkeep or maintenance, even for safety issues.
The city seemed overrun with poor people who had no upward mobility possibility and resigned to scratching out a life of subsistence. It was extremely depressing to see once grand buildings that had fallen into disrepair and decay. The government’s response to this sad state of affairs was a typical ham-handed effort that caused unintended consequences and failed in its mission.
By law those corporations that wished to do business on a national basis, mostly the banks, were commanded by the government to have 5% of their employees working in the downtown corridor. The goal was to revitalize and rejuvenate the city center by forcing business back to an area they had abandoned.
Of course, this didn’t work well. The corporations’ response was to provide self-contained buildings for their employees with protection and insulation from the surrounding environment. I saw blocks that had security guards on each corner, and in the middle of the blocks to provide safety to the building. There was only underground, protected parking for the commuters and they would reach the buildings via security guard lined roads from the freeway to the building, and people would not veer off that beaten path.
My friend was highly alert while we were driving in this area, and the level of existential anxiety that surrounded us was high. At one point, we went to grab a snack at the grocery store, which was located in a gated mall with parking lot attendants circulating to prevent theft. Going to a grocery store is one of the things I love to do when on a trip. I feel it is one of the best ways to get a feel for a country. In this instance, we basically were in and out, with the goal to be back to the safety of the car as soon as possible.
No trip to Johannesburg is complete without seeing the “townships” – which is just a polite term for the black slums. Driving through a shanty town, where the only running water is a communal tap, and there is no indoor plumbing, was a most memorable experience. Here I was in a very expensive car, driving past corrugated sheet metal homes, with port-a-potties as the communal solution for a sewage system, and I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so much like an interloper in my life. We were so clearly out of place.
I highly recommend that if you haven’t been out of the country, or even the state, you need to expand your view and go see more of the world. You need to see other nations, but perhaps more importantly, they need to see you. That’s there’s another way of living, one that is more egalitarian and open about race, religion, and sexualities. The only way to change the world is to be part of it and share new experiences.
Coming home to the wilds of Santa Monica, even with our very high homeless population, made me realize how lucky we are to live here. We are so blessed to live in an essentially clean, protected state of being. To have the type of multi-racial, cosmopolitan life we have here is rare, and for those who never get outside of our bubble, it must seem normal as they presume the world is one big melting pot like the Promenade. I assure you it’s not.