Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Stark Contrast

The challenge is to try and put my South African impressions into words, because word are like containers that are just too small to capture or reflect the true experience of this massive and majestic place.  But some initial words that came to mind were stunning, beautiful, vivid with color, a land of stark contrast, textured culture and a layered history that adds to the utter complexity of South Africa and the road before her and her people.

South Africa is unlike the Africa I know, and by that I mean it does not bear much resemblance to East Africa at all.  It is as if a western country grew up on the tip of the African continent.  While in Cape Town I often felt like I could easily be in a coastal town in California with all the malls, highways, and all manner of modern conveniences.  The city boasts of a rich history with relics from the original Dutch traders who first settled there, the English who later would colonize the land (and her people), even a WW1 memorial can be found in the heart of the city - showing their one-time connection to the Crown.  There are grand buildings throughout the city:  Their State House (where you've seen Mandela greet many a foreign leader and celebrity, alike), The Parliament Building, The National Art Gallery and old Slave Lodge (now another art gallery).  So as I said, I often forgot that I was in Africa.  I have yet to see a city in Africa with this level of development, honestly.  

But this is not the entire story, of coarse.  Because I have yet to share about my travels into and around the townships.  This provoked an utterly different emotion, one that can best be described as heart-wrenching.  The townships are often just out of sight, easy to miss if your eyes are on the road and do not veer.  Many seem to be miles away, conveniently distant from the daily life of the city.  This was the doing of Apartheid, keeping the Coloreds and Blacks out of sight.  But even today, even in the new South Africa, you can steer clear of the townships and never truly see how your fellow countrymen live.  But to see them is to be confronted with a harsh reality - the living conditions of the Blacks have not changed since the dark days of Apartheid.  The townships are strings of shacks and shanties, each leaning on another made of corrugated steel remnants or wood or (if you are lucky) some cinderblock.  They are small living spaces (though not livable, by humane standards), crowded together, susceptible to flooding and fires.  When the winter rains come, it is usual for 30,000 people to be displaced - each rainy season of each year.  The security is so bad in the townships that residents padlock themselves in their shacks at night.  In all of East Africa I never have seen such depravity.

The end of Apartheid ushered in 'one man, one vote' for the emerging democracy of South Africa.  Now Blacks and Coloreds can move about their own country without passbooks or obeying the rigid dictates of curfew every night.  So there is greater freedom for all, true.  But when you witness the living conditions of the townships you see that little has changed in their day to day life, and that can give rise to great frustration as the injustices of Apartheid continue to plague them.  South Africa is not done dealing with the past, not done bringing justice to all those on the edges of society, not done with the hard work of divesting privilege and wealth in order to create a more viable community for all South Africans.  This country has had one miracle (as they refer to 1994's violence-free election), but is in need of many more miraculous moments to bring true wholeness to all.  But this is work that God cares about - restoration, reconciliation, the building of viable communities for the well-being of all.  So we can have hope that God is working on the ground in South Africa.  I had the deep honor of meeting many such leaders who are part of that hope-filled work (more on them later!).  But we all have reason to continue to pray for the future of those in South Africa.

Stark contrast is the phrase that most describes my impression of South Africa.  You have breath-taking beauty and heart-wrenching poverty.  You have generations of wealth alongside generations of injustice.  There are modern cities a short drive from sub-standard housing areas.  I was staying in Stellenbosch, the wine country of South Africa, in a charming guest room of dear friends where I was warm and well-fed.  But on the drive to the airport we passed the Cape Flats, where the morning's rain was a harbinger of another displacement to come.  I found myself vacillating between awe and angst during my visit, the dissonance of this place hitting me full force and often.  This is a lot for a heart to hold, the tensions of this majestic and marred land.  But I will return here many more times, as South Africa and my friends here have made an indelible mark on my heart.  

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