Thursday, February 5, 2009

Queenstown, South Africa

Friends: This April will mark the fifteenth anniversary of Nelson Mandela assuming the presidency of South Africa, a little more than four years after he was released from prison after 27 years of being incarcerated. His release marked the beginning of the dismantling of apartheid. It did not happen easily. There was extreme and widespread violence preceding and during this time.

Racial prejudice and institutionalized racism do not instantly dissolve. For decades whites treated the blacks of South Africa as virtual slaves and the blacks regarded the whites with fear and hatred. It was so deeply rooted, the aftereffects still linger. I can see it in the demeanor of the blacks I pass along the road who do not deign to recognize me, looking right through me. When I'm plopped down on a step or against a building taking a break in a town, about the only blacks who approach me come asking for money. The occasional black who engages me in conversation is generally mystified by what I'm doing, as it is beyond their cultural understanding. One asked if I was part of a competition. Another told me, "I wouldn't want to be you."

The whites on the other hand can relate. I've had countless whites approach or stop me, intensely interested in what I'm doing, having done something similar or wishing to do such a thing. A Belgian immigrant about my age joined me at a picnic table at a rest area. He was an ardent cyclist, but had never toured and wouldn't dare to wild camp here as I've been doing. Some have fears that are hard to give up. A young man saw me stopped at a rest area and pulled in for a chat. He'd ridden 7,500 miles a year ago from Cape Town to Ghana up the west coast of Africa. He didn't encounter another touring cyclist the entire way. This afternoon a couple in their 40s pulled over on the road and flagged me down. They were cyclists enough to know to stop half way up a steep hill, rather than on the descent, knowing I wouldn't want to give up my momentum. It was just after noon. If it had been in the Karoo, we would have been wilting in the heat, but we had a pleasant 15 minute chat.

This past fall when Waydell and I biked through Alabama and Mississippi there was still a strong residue of white paternalism towards blacks nearly 150 years after the end of slavery. It is foolhardy to think the strong prejudices in South Africa on both sides could dissipate in less than a generation. Less than 20 years ago cops walked around with whips along with guns to keep the blacks in line here. The stark contrast in living conditions has to cause resentment, the vast majority of blacks pretty much confined to shantytowns of single room huts while the whites live in neighborhoods with yards and trees and swimming pools.

I may be instantly regarded as a white oppressor when I pass a black on the road, so when I stop to ask them directions many react with wariness, but they generally soften up and treat me cordially. Still, many I've had conversations with remain glum and restrained and not particularly cordial. In towns where they predominate, I can see them naturally and casually going about their business and not on guard and harboring not necessarily unwarranted resentments. The country has come a long way in the past 15 years, but the healing process from the nightmare of apartheid still continues.

My Lonely Planet guidebook includes chapters on Lesotho and Swaziland, two all black countries pretty much contained within South Africa. Both are said to provide a stark contrast to South Africa. Of Lesotho Lonely Planet says, "After spending time in South Africa, it's a real relief to visit a country that isn't suffering the after-effects of apartheid. You'll meet a lot of friendly, self-assured people who judge you not by the color of your skin." Of Swaziland it says, "Swaziland comes as a breath of fresh air after traveling through South Africa. Few of the animosities between the races so evident in post-apartheid South Africa are encountered in Swaziland."

I'm 300 miles from the legendary Sani Pass into Lesotho. I'll spend several days riding through Lesotho. Then it will be five days to Swaziland. I know there will be aspects of South Africa I will miss. I look forward to experiencing the contrast and putting this unique country in full perspective.

Later, George

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