A Trip to the Big and Beautiful South Africa
Dr. Anil Maheshwari
I traveled to South Africa with my family (wife Neerja and daughter Nupur) for three weeks in June 2014. It was two parts work and one part vacation. The first two weeks we stayed in Johannesburg where I was mostly working, and the final week was spent sightseeing in two other cities, Durban and Cape Town. This was the first time we had traveled to the country of South Africa, to the continent of Africa, and to the Southern hemisphere. Feeling the winter in the month of June itself was a mind expanding experience for us. We rented a part of a house in an upscale neighborhood not too far from downtown Johannesburg.
Jozi, as Johannesburg is popularly called, feels just like Delhi. From the smell at the airport, to the smell on the roads, and the traffic patterns on the road, to the structure of the houses, it feels just like Delhi. Just like in India, here they drive on the left side of the road. There are swanky new cars, and more than their fair share of the luxury cars of the Audi, Mercedes, and BMW brands. There are some places of squatters alternating with high-valued beautiful housing areas. Weather patterns are similar to Delhi, except that it is winter in June. The big difference is security: houses have tall walls with iron railings, topped by electric fences. Security is an important aspect. The city is generally considered not too secure. Every house and building has layers of security. People lock their doors scrupulously during the day. Entry of cars into the house is carefully managed so the car and house cannot be hijacked. Security is big business, $8B per year. It is also a good source of employment for the South African youth.
There is a ‘Little India’ in Johannesburg. Close to downtown is the market of Fordsburg, where one can buy everything Indian. From vegetarian restaurant and grocery shops to sugarcane juice to ayurvedic doctor to oriental market, there are many reminders of the Indian culture and life style. We visited Fordsburg often to enjoy vegetarian Indian lunch or grocery shopping or just to enjoy the sugarcane juice.
Also in downtown is Gandhi square at the intersection of Rissik Street and Anderson, at the location of the original offices of Mohandas Gandhi, the young barrister who later became Mahatma. There is a statue of Gandhi ji at the square. It was amazing to see this statue of the young Gandhi in full legal attire, which was unlike most Gandhi statues that showed the old Mahatma with round glasses.
My main purpose to come here was to teach for an Executive MBA program run by our university here for the second-biggest telecom operator in South Africa. I taught IT Project Management here three evenings a week, traveling to their head office in a fast-growing Joburg suburb called Midrand. I liked very much the middle-level managers who were students in my course. The office buildings were nice, and I showed up three evenings a week for classes beginning at 5 pm. This happened for the first two weeks of my trip. I also got an opportunity to meet with the CEO of the company, a go-getter person of Indian origin, who is driving the company to rapid growth through investing big in people and infrastructure.
The second part of my work during these two weeks was to work with Maharishi Invincibility Institute (MII), a sister organization of our university, to help improve business processes. MII works out of a big clean donated building in downtown Joburg. Here students take courses at the bachelor’s degree level from my university, in a distance education mode. These are mostly disadvantaged black students who are nonetheless ambitious and want to improve their life and career prospects by getting a valuable education with an American degree. They practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), have glowing faces, and are very well-behaved and responsible individuals. The staff is very committed to the cause of Transcendental Meditation, and of spreading peace and harmony in the world. I worked with the director of MII, along with the other administrators to help them design information systems to improve delivery of distance education, and management of academic records. I really enjoyed working with them, and was glad to be of help.
During the first full weekend in Joburg, we rented a nice Audi car and visited two safari and game parks. Pilanesburg is the 4th largest game reserve in SA, and is located about 2.5 hours away from Joburg. We spent a whole day, leaving house at 7 am and returning around 7 pm. We saw many kinds of animals. We saw two of the big five, the elephants and the rhinos. We could not see lions, leopards and buffaloes. We saw many zebras and giraffes at very close quarters, sometimes worried that they might attack us. But they were all quiet and calm and enjoyed their time in the sun, while we stopped the car and took pictures and videos.
The next day we traveled to and spent the night at Ezemvelo, a huge picturesque and unspoilt nature reserve owned by MII. With no noise whatsoever except the crackle of the wood burning in the fireplace, we slept peacefully as never before.
After the two weeks in Joburg, we rented another Audi car and drove to Durban. We drove down the 6 hour drive on the first day. As an indicator of things to come, we saw a predominantly Indian community at the midway point where we took a lunch break. The second day we went to an incredible Indian market called the Victoria Street market, in downtown Durban. Most of the shops and visitors there looked ethnic Indians. My family picked up all their souvenir jewellery items there. We could negotiate prices to our heart’s content.
In the evening, we went to the beautiful beach on the Indian Ocean. We also enjoyed visiting Ushaka village, a nice shopping area in downtown Durban by the ocean.
The next day went to the Gandhi ashram, in the original Phoenix settlement. Gandhiji’s original structure had been rebuilt including his housing area and the printing press. The area around the settlement was still very poor with just squatters all around. We took pictures and videos, and also bought some momentos.
Later in the day, we visited the Umhlanga beach to the north of Durban, a very nice and clean beach close to our hotel. We played soccer on the beach with a couple of young black people, and it was a lot of fun.
Sightseeing- Cape Town
After three good days in Durban, we flew into Cape Town. This is a gorgeous city that opens up on two oceans, Atlantic and Indian. As soon as we landed at our hotel, we were met with our TM friends Elizabeth and her husband Barry. They took us to Camp’s Bay, and we dined at a very nice Indian restaurant called The Raj, which is frequented by Bollywood stars. The food was one of the best Indian vegetarian foods. The beach in front had white sand. We went on a gorgeous long drive along the coast line on the Atlantic Ocean side. We also visited the wineries and sat down for a cheese cake and rooibos tea.
The next day was sunny, and we decided to make the most of it. In the morning we went to Robben Island, the high security prison where Mandela was imprisoned for more than two decades. In the afternoon we visited Table Mountain, a picturesque high and flat mountain by the sea. We took the ferry to Robben Island from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, which is a nicely done up shopping and entertainment area by the sea. It took almost an hour to be ferried the 11 k distance to the island by the old boat which used to ferry actual prisoners in the years gone by.
Robben Island was clean and nicely done up, evoking the experience of the prison, while not being to too dark and dingy. We were taken around the jail by a former prisoner in the jail. We got to visit the cell #7 in Wing B, the cell occupied by Nelson Mandela, often referred to by the former prisones as Father Mandela. One could see the Table Mountain from the island.
Upon returning to the mainland, we took a cab to quickly go to the Table Mountain cableway. We took the cableway to the top of the mountain. Initially we just sat towards the front and enjoyed lunch at the restaurant on the top of the mountain. However, when we went behind the restaurant, we discovered the huge expanse of the mountain. It was entirely walkable, just a tad more difficult than a garden walk. There were breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and of the city of Cape Town and the Indian Ocean on the other side.
The next day we went to Cape Point, the southernmost tip of Africa. This is the point where the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans meet. The weather was not so good, and it rained off and on. However, our good friends Elizabeth and Barry took up the 65 km ride very nicely. We entered the Cape Point area, and then took a cableway to the top of a mountain. Then we climbed up some more stairs to see a lighthouse. This tall lighthouse stands elegantly as a beacon of hope to those perhaps stranded in ocean. We took pictures on both sides of Cape Point, of Indian and Atlantic Ocean sides. We ate some at the Two Oceans café up there.
The next day, we flew back to Johannesburg. We took the time to visit Soweto, the famous large black colony, like the Dharavi slum of Bombay. This is where Mandela had lived for many years. We visited Mandela house, which is now a museum, and took pictures.
We also visited the Apartheid museum in the southwest side of Joburg. This museum stands as a monument to the dark period of human history in South Africa. The museum shocks the visitor into the experience of apartheid by assigning you to one of two entrances … for whites only, and for the colored. The paths are nice and wide and lighted for one case, and steel-caged, dark and narrow for the other. The museum is nicely done through images and videos from the struggle. There was also a permanent exhibit on the life and work of Nelson Mandela.
We spent the weekend quietly organizing ourselves, and tying up some loose ends. Nupur and I watched a movie at the theater. ‘Miners Shot Down’ is a grim but gripping political documentary about the massacre of miners by the state police in August 2012, the worst massacre since the apartheid era. It spelled out the power of mining companies in South Africa, and how often the state and police apparatus work in collusion with the business interests. I followed it up with a nicer romantic movie, a Woody Allen movie called ‘Fading Gigolos’.
The next evening, we were dropped off at the Johannesburg airport by a friend from MII, and we left South Africa with very fond memories. I also thought that Cape Town might be a nice place to settle in, if the opportunity presented itself.