Wild animals and world leaders: my trip to South Africa

The story that I like to tell first about my winter study trip to South Africa is that I met Winnie Mandela and Walter Sisulu. It didn’t make up the main part of my trip. In fact, it had nothing to do with my original project proposal for the Gaudino class “Encountering The Other,” but it’s pretty ridiculous, so I will start with it. It started with a man I met who was writing a book on South Africa and happened to have worked as Nelson Mandela’s personal aide for a year, back in 1991. Hence, he was pretty well connected. We were sitting at the hostel at which we were both staying, when he asked me, “Hey, do you want to go to Soweto tomorrow?” as if he were asking me if I wanted to go to a Red Sox game or something. “Ummm… Is that safe? They say you should go with a black friend or a tour,” I answered. He laughed at me, and I couldn’t tell if it was because I thought the two of us would be unsafe, or because of the notion that we would be safe if we were with someone who was black. “Yeah, okay, sure,” I said. “Good,” he said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” This turned out to be Walter and Albertina Sisulu, two of the most important people in the struggle against apartheid for over fifty years. While we were at their house, I sat and listened to stories about politics and lives spent in and out of jail. The difficulties of the struggle seemed far away, since they were two of the warmest people I have ever met. We left them and walked through Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship) which is four million people living in a sprawling expanse of poverty outside of Johannesburg. There are a few nice houses here and there, but a lot of it is sheets of zinc nailed together that constitute the walls of one room shacks with earth floors – the home of ten or fifteen people. The people were exceedingly friendly, although I found myself constantly answering questions about Bill Clinton, since he seemed to be synonymous with America in their minds.

In the afternoon, it was on to the house of Winnie Mandela. She was thrilled to see the writer, and therefore thrilled to see me. She greeted me by giving me a big fat kiss on the lips. Hello, Winnie. She was far more easygoing than I expected, with a very hearty and frequent laugh. She invited the two of us to have dinner with her, which consisted of a layout of food that could have fed 42. Her demeanor changed dramatically as she talked about politics. She became the strong-willed, independent woman of the Revolution when she talked about all of the crime and corruption in South Africa today. She shook her head, but it was clear that her resolve in facing the problems was as strong as ever. She dismissed with a giggle all of the incredible stuff that the international press has written about her in the last five years, during which time she has been quoted extensively, though she has given exactly zero interviews. The questions about her past that have given her so much trouble recently seemed far away, and they sure did not concern me as I sat in absolute awe of how I had gotten myself into this situation. She took the two of us to the Mandela Museum, the house where Nelson and Winnie used to live. Our poor tour guide, who was a girl several years younger than I am, almost fainted when she saw Winnie, but Winnie insisted that she give us a tour as she would for anyone else. She tried, but had some trouble, saying things like, “This is where Nelson and Winnie Mandela… you, used to hide from the bullet fire.” Some of the most priceless moments were when we three and six bodyguards were out in Soweto and people would stop and stare and think that I was someone important. How ridiculous! I’m just a useless college student and these people are shaking my hand with a hushed reverence and mystery. I wasn’t going to tell them who I was, though. “Yeah, hi, I’m the Prince of North America, nice to meet you.” We spent the rest of the afternoon at her house playing with the Mandela grandchildren, and then made a mad dash out of Soweto at night. We didn’t stop for lights or stop signs in areas where there are many robberies that usually involve shootings.

I spent a week in Johannesburg, and traveled to the Kruger game reserve, which is a national park the size of Israel. We saw just about the whole cast of The Lion King and got charged by an elephant, but some slick driving got us out of there. The last couple of weeks made up the main purpose of my trip, which was to stay in a remote Zulu village called Mahlabatini, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Everything that happens in KwaZulu-Natal is an adventure – even getting there. I took a six-hour bus ride to Durban, with a man named Jabu, who worked for the program in South Africa that set up the homestay. After reaching Durban, we scrunched into one of the infamous minibus taxis. There were about ten seats, but there were at least fifteen people in there. It would not have been that bad for a twenty-minute drive on a highway between towns. . .but four hours, twelve almost-accidents, and 1,062 potholes later, I was feeling pretty beat. We then hitched a ride from a car that had two working gears, and was one of about five cars in Mahlabatini, and headed deep into the hills on some windy dirt roads. About fifteen hours after we had left Johannesburg, we arrived at the five mud-walled, thatch-roofed huts inside a wooden fence that made up the home of three generations of the Mbatha family. They sat me down and each of the twenty-something members of the family came and greeted me with a slight bow and two-handed handshake.

Jabu spoke English and Zulu, and served as a translator, but I could communicate very little with most of the family directly. This gave me a chance to think about issues of interpretation and translation that were behind my original project proposal, which came out of Prof. Fleischacker’s class here at Williams on conceptual relativism. The cultural differences were deep, and I tried to sort out the different factors in terms of linguistic, conceptual, economic and other differences. From this I could look at which type of relativist arguments made sense, if any. Although I do think it is very valuable for philosophers to do this type of research, and I’m sure my experience will continue to inform my thinking in philosophy, I admittedly was affected much more deeply in non-academic ways. I was not thinking about Donald Davidson’s essay “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” during most of the more exciting events that I experienced. It is simply hard to see philosophy as important in such an environment.

What I experienced ranged from walking into the outhouse only to be greeted by a spider that was approximately the size of my hand; to being the only white man ever to play soccer for the town of Mahlabatini or even in that league; to standing outside of a political meeting of the Inkatha Freedom Party and having someone accuse me of being a spy for the white people. There is no way I could recount half of what I experienced there in this article, but I will give you an example of the worst and then the best of KwaZulu-Natal.

mKulu, the grandfather of the family, was also the community leader, or Induna. One morning a woman came running to the house in a hysterical state to talk to him. Apparently someone had burned down her house. That was terrible, I thought, but it turned out to be only part of one of the most unfortunate examples of what is far too common in a violent part of the world. The house was burned down because someone who was being chased by a mob as part of an ongoing dispute had tried to hide in the house. “Ongoing dispute” in this case refers to a series of murders and paybacks that is probably not unrelated to the vengeful mentality that fuels much of the gang violence here in the U.S. Throughout the time I was there, I got the sense that having a gun and turning to violence seemed to give people a sense of control as a reaction to having very few economic and educational options. In this case, the mob was armed with all kinds of AK-47s and handguns, and so was the man being chased, who was the third of a group of three who eventually would be gunned down. There is no police station in Mahlabatini, but there are a lot of guns. We saw the police arrive at the scene about 6 hours after it happened: a clear indication of the way disputes out in the country are treated by the public officials, who prefer to stay in the more modern town of Ulundi, 50 km away. This does not mean that it is a completely lawless town – in fact, mKulu had a good reputation for settling differences – but it does mean that if a situation gets out of hand, the consequences are far graver than what we might expect in Williamstown.

On the good side was an event that explains why I would want to someday return to Mahlabatini. The last night I was there, I gave the family presents— sweets for the youngest ones, a soccer ball for the slightly older, and money and beer for the oldest. Spontaneously, there was an outpouring of dancing, drumming and singing that was one of the most beautiful displays of traditional culture that I had ever seen. They gave me traditional Zulu warrior dress, and made me make a fool out of myself by dancing with them. I learned “-gida,” the traditional dance that exudes a pride that makes it easy to see how “Zulu” could mean “people of heaven.” Despite being far from what we consider a comfortable lifestyle, both physically and economically, it was obvious that in those moments of shared celebration they were very happy to be where they were with all of their family. This is not to deny that there are problems in Mahlabatini, in terms of infrastructure and education that need to be addressed by a negligent government. It is the lasting impression of the people, though, that I will remember and that I want to give to you. If you get the chance to go to KwaZulu-Natal, you will need to be careful, but you will surely find many welcoming and wonderful people.