After being back in the U.S. for a little over a month, and working ourselves ragged compiling notes, audio, video and photos, what will be the product of our experience? Yes, we’ll have a multi-media website that shares political, economical and social issues facing a relatively new democracy. But, what I hope for is a presentation that personalizes a country over 10,000 miles away. The struggles that South Africa faces aren’t specific or isolated to that country, region or continent. They can, and have, happened everywhere – including the United States.

And for the 12 of us who had the opportunity to go, as journalists, where do we go from here? How has, or will, this experience affect our careers, ambitions, ideas, values, relationships, etc.? There’s no way to know or predict, but I have to believe that in some way, the impact will be evident in the way we live and work. From what we were able to witness and be a part of, I don’t know how it could be any other way.

(photos courtesy of tiffany tcheng)

josh

(Our website will be up soon, so check back often.)

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Robert Mugabe won Zimbabwe’s June 27th presidential run-off by a “landslide”, tallying 85% of the popular vote, yet nearly three months earlier he accumulated less than 43%.  Either Mugabe figured out the most amazing campaign strategy, or he endorsed the arrest, beating, torture and killing of MDC supporters.  What’s frightening is that in the minds of Mugabe and the Zimbabwean politburo, it appears the two possibilities are one in the same.  This article from the Washington Post details the tactics Mugabe and other high-level officials used during the three months between the original March election and the June run-off.

 For more in-depth reading into the catalyst and inertia of the crisis in Zimbabwe, I highly recommend Martin Meredith’s biography of Robert Mugabe called Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe.

What you’ll read is difficult to digest and makes clear why Zimbabwe has plummeted into a political, economic, educational, medical and social abyss that has millions of people fleeing the country.

josh

And now outside, the stir and movement of people, but behind them, through them, one could hear the roar of a great city. Johannesburg. Johannesburg.

Who could believe it?

– Alan Paton, “Cry, the Beloved Country”

I know there are few things more trite than to start writing with an epigraph, but as I was thinking about how to sum up our Johannesburg trip, I found so many relevant quotes, and so many similarities to our trip, in Paton’s 1948 odyssey. Written by a white teacher and activist who had not yet seen institutionalized apartheid, who never saw Nelson Mandela freed from prison, or elected president, who never saw the outbreak of xenophobic attacks, “Cry, the Beloved Country” chronicles the journey of Stephen Kumalo, a pastor, as he heads into the strange, wild city of Johannesburg looking for his son. I won’t spoil anything in case anyone reads it later, but put simply, Kumalo comes to the city, finds some success and some failure in his journey, and he returns home, changed.

Along the way, though, he encounters the divergent worlds and segments of society that make up the city. In townships, churches and offices, he meets good people and bad people of all races and genders. He meets great justice and great injustice and, as Paton writes, “justice, even if it is not just.” In some ways he finds what he’s searching for, in other ways he doesn’t, but mostly he finds people and lessons he didn’t know he was looking for.

And in so many ways, in Kumalo’s story, I see all of ours. Though we were looking for stories and not our children, we too were thrown into a city we didn’t really understand — a city I don’t think we really understand, still — and navigated back streets and hidden cities and taciturn officials to encounter pain and joy and confusion and resiliency. We found a million things we were trying to find and a million things that found us, maybe because of, or maybe despite, our best efforts. And we also left, changed.

How exactly we changed, as my fellow bloggers have already eloquently stated, is unclear. But I think what will stick with me the longest about this experience are these barriers and contradictions I found. I’ll cherish the people I met and the friends I made and even the difficulties I went through, but through it all, what fascinates me, are these divisions in society: the separations of nationalities, of races, of languages, of incomes, of ages, of tribes, of totems, of genders, of sexualities, of political parties.

As I’ve continually harped on to the other students I traveled with (much to their chagrin, I’m sure) is how, when given the task of going to South Africa to report on border issues, I started out only thinking about literal borders, with Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, and Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland. But having gone there, I see that South Africa’s border issues are much deeper, more numerous and nuanced, and more compelling than that. So much of the country’s history, much like our country’s history and probably all countries’ histories, has been dictated by these barriers. And in these bending and merging borders — where man meets woman and heterosexual meets homosexual and Shona meets Ndebele and white meets black and ZANU-PF meets MDC and Malawian meets South African — lie the greatest struggles and the most potential for pain and bloodshed, but ultimately the most interesting and important stories to tell.

My nine amazing fellow Arizona journalists and I, as well as our companions from Wits and Nebraska, we heard the stir and the movement of Johannesburg’s people (plus a pterodactyl or two), we saw these lives and these stories between the lines. And though we may not have found all we were looking for in our briefest of trips to Johannesburg, behind it all, through it all, I think we found something greater.

Ask any S. African what is best about their country and more often than not, you will get the same answer – it’s the people. 

Ask any S. African what’s wrong with their country and more often than not, you will get the same answer – it’s the people.

Because of all they have endured and overcome, S. Africa’s citizens deeply love their country.  Yet, due to empty governmental promises since the Apartheid, competition over resources, lack of education, an enormous divide between the rich and the poor, inadequate housing, as well as wars and genocide in neighboring countries, S. Africa has shown a propensity for violence, crime, xenophobia and corruption.

S. Africa, in the last 14 years, has emerged from the pit of Apartheid to become a new democracy and dubbed the “Rainbow Nation“.  Few countries have gone through as much social change and revolution since 1994.  Based on that, it is difficult to know where the country “should” be. 

A S. African woman shared an interesting analogy with me on the place ride from Jo’burg to London.  She said if American Indians still made up the majority population in the U.S., what would happen if one day the majority of government control was handed back to them?  How would such a thing be handled among tribal groups, let alone Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, etc?  Undoubtedly, cultures would clash, values would differ, education and language would change and so on – perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse, perhaps both.  Where would America be 14 years from that day?  It seems like a remote notion, but it is essentially what happened in S. Africa.

As conditions worsen in Zimbabwe, civil war ravages the DRC and unemployment, inflation and AIDS rise in the region, S. Africa will certainly bear the influx of migration from fellow Africans desperately seeking safety and a better quality of life.   

With increased attention being paid to the country that will play host to the 2010 World Cup, S. Africa faces not only the challenges of migration, xenophobia, a transtitioning government and Zimbabwe, but must also prove to its citizens and the world that it is capable of handling those challenges successfully. 

I’m well aware that the two+ weeks I spent in the country makes me anything but an expert on its intra-workings, culture and nuances.  However, what I take with me from our excursion is that many people of S. Africa share a great hope and love for their country and need a government with the strength, leadership, desire and conviction to demonstrate it feels the same.

josh

Morgan Tsvangirai rejects forming a unity government with Robert Mugabe.

From what I’ve seen during the last two and a half weeks in South Africa, I don’t blame him.

A seventeen year old Zimbabwe girl walks the streets of a border town on the South African side. She says she forced to sell her body to support her family. A family whose Zimbabwe money used to mean something.

One of her brother’s waits in line at a Musina health clinic everyday for his tuberculosis medication.

The other brother begs for a ride to Pretoria’s Refugee Reception Center to gain asylum-seeker status by the South African Government.  This piece of paper will promise he will not be sent back to Zimbabwe where he is targeted for being a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

This is just one family of thousands struggling to survive because of a crisis in their country just a few miles from their one bedroom apartment.

Hopefully after weeks of footage, notebooks and pictures we can be the voice for some of these people.

For me, if I can inform one person about this situation that touched my core both fairly and accurately then I’ve done my job.

A few months ago, they never thought they’d be diminished to a population forced to live like animals.  But the Congolese community, surviving peacefully, productively and prosperously among their native South African neighbors, felt the tension building in their bones – there was a storm brewing.  And according to many native South Africans, they were due for devastation.  Why should they, as an educated foreign people who have fled from a country where the fear of death from a malicious government hinders a life of prosperity, be taking the jobs of the less-qualified natives?  After all, the South African government has made promises to its people; not the “makwerekwere,” or those who’ve invaded the country, plundering its wealth and marrying its women.

And if the government, with its loose border policies and false prophecies, wasn’t going to do something about the emigration and unemployment problems plaguing angry South Africans, it was up to natives to take their land back.  So, last month, that’s just what they did — by force.  Now, the classrooms, car dealerships, doctors’ offices and law firms the Congolese once occupied in Joburg are but a recent memory.  They’ve been reduced to a life halted by a state of stagnancy and are now more concerned about a cold front than their next exam or meeting with a client. 

The majority of the displaced Congolese population of Johannesburg now lives at Riffle Range Road refugee camp.  RRR is the largest camp out of seven in Joburg, and the Congolese are its biggest nationality of inhabitants.  When I first visited the camp last week, inquisitive stares and weary eyes followed me everywhere I went. And I have to admit, I was quite intimidated — I had my guard up to prove it.  But after a while, I noticed a simple hello meant a lot to these people.  They’d been through a lot of trauma and had every right to be fearful of new faces. 

I’d soon be welcomed into the Congolese community.  With their robust Congo-French accents, they prodded me about my intentions as a journalist.  I’d fire back with my questions, and eventually we opened up to each other.  Our nervous walls went tumbling down.  And after a few visits, I had become more than just another apathetic reporter to them – I was a confidant, a friend.

I’d also become quite close with Buks Burger, the burly Afrikaner camp manager.  We’d speak candidly about the camp and he’d answer my strange questions freely – some more odd than others.  Last night was a shining example of the most queer of queries, even for Buks.  I asked him if I could stay overnight at his camp, in a tent, side-by-side with the ‘fugees.  He was definitely caught of guard, but hesitantly granted my wish.  And at 8 p.m. on Friday night, my Wits University colleague, Judy Lelliot, and I were among the first journalists to bear the camp’s frigid, midnight air. 

As we meandered through the camp to the northeast corner, we were quickly greeted by our new friends.  The doctor was the first to greet us.  He was Pastor Raphaël’s right hand man, and was actually a board-certified physician.  When the doctor led us to the pastor’s tent-bound, 14×8-foot chambers, Raphaël’s wide smile and warm, wavering eyes let us know we were welcomed.  The pastor is a reckoning figure within the Congolese community, so we felt safe.  However, he had his concerns.  We stumbled through our best impression of each other’s language hybrid – coined Franglish – and I soon found out that four Congolese men were assaulted just a couple of hours earlier outside of the camp’s gates.  They were on their way to get some supplies from a nearby gas station when they were met by an angry South African mob intent on committing a hate crime, xenophobia-style.  The men were clubbed, but escaped without serious injury.  Police never responded to their calls of distress. 

But the mood quickly lightened up, as the community realized there was nothing further that could be done.  We congregated around one of the many fire pits that illuminated the dark, dirt alleys of the camp.  We passed my camera around and enjoyed taking turns photographing each other.  We talked about the media and the coverage — or lack-thereof — they were giving the camps.   After about an hour of conversation, Judy and I drifted around the camp, escorted by Jean the Baptist, a family man standing at about 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.  We were in good hands with the friendly giant.  We’d squat in on a couple more fireside chats before Pastor Raphaël let us know he’d set up a place for us to sleep in his tent. 

Ducking into the tight confines, I noticed we were not alone.  We’d be bunking with six others.  I tried not to act surprised or seem ungrateful, as the pastor had gone out of his way to clean up his tent and sacrifice his thin mat for us to lay on.

Judy and I curled up, cocooned in fetal positions underneath the warmth of three blankets and tightly zipped hoodies.  But we’d soon find out that wasn’t enough.  As I shivered myself to sleep to the harmonious sounds and matured smells that only a biodome full of grown men could produce, I couldn’t stop thinking about the children at the camp.  How on Earth could they possibly survive extended periods of exposure to these conditions?  I couldn’t come to a reassuring conclusion.  The notion haunted me in my dreams.

I awoke to a beautiful sound.  I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it was much more pleasant than the ones I fell asleep to.  It pulled me out of bed.   My shoes crunched across the frost-laden dirt paths as I followed my ears. They led me to a congregation of Congolese singing Biblical hymns in their native language.  They formed a large circle around their 5-foot-3 pastor.  They traveled between song and prayer as they asked God to  forgive their enemies, while giving them the strength to do the same.  Just as Moses once led the Israelis through persecution in Egypt, they too will find an answer to their oppressive state – they’re sure of it.

 

 

 

 

 

(I’ll post pictures and such when I become more adept at this blogging business. Sorry for the solid block of text.)

I wonder what they’re thinking now.

I was trying to figure out how to write my first blog post earlier tonight, thinking of the trip I had just completed to the Zimbabwe-South Africa border. I was thinking about how I would describe the 9-hour bus ride, where travelers to Harare packed everything from cooking oil and blankets to snack chips in WWE wrestler-adorned packages and big-screen TVs they could resell in Zimbabwe. Many of the packages came in bags in colorful plaids or with pictures of African lions and elephants that had been bought at the bus depot for 50 Rand cents, making the travelers look more like tourists returning with vacation souvenirs and not economic refugees reurning to their damaged country with the means to keep their families alive. Every Zimbabwean had to have packed at least a dozen items each, so bags were piled on the bus’s roof where load-bearing metal poles inside supported the weight. When the roof was full, the bottom compartments were filled. When the bottom was full, luggage was arranged, under shouted Shona commands, like a giant 3-D game of Tetris in the back three rows of the bus. When the back was full, clothes and bags turned the center aisle into a rolling landscape, and made for a tight ride. It’s a miracle the bus didn’t drag across the pavement.

I was trying to think how to describe the border itself. Just south of the Beitbridge border post are makeshift fruit markets, parking lot money traders and gas can sellers (where the girls that sell them sleep outside on a mattress for a month at a time) — and all of them reluctant to talk to reporters, knowing what could happen to them or their families if comments disparaging Zimbabwe end up with their names in print. Running out from the post is the fence itself, where immigrants face miles of razor mesh, then stacked coils of razor wire (strangely light and billowy looking), then simple security fencing, not to mention the crocodiles in the Limpopo River. But I saw a herd of 50 screaming baboons jump every one of these obstacles, and judging from the thousands of Zimbabweans who stream into South Africa — escaping the regime of president Robert Mugabe that tortures them economically, politically and literally — it doesn’t seem like it’s much harder for immigrants.

But then I went to the New York Times Web site and saw that the man challenging Mugabe, and the first man to have a genuine chance of ending Mugabe’s 28-year descent from hero to monster, had dropped out of the June 27 run-off election, fearing for voters’ safety and illegitimate vote counts.

And then, all I could do was imagine what they were thinking now. What would Maxwell think, who had helped load the bus and said he was going to return to vote and help oust Mugabe “the killer,” though he said he could be murdered if Mugabe supporters saw him? What would the man who called himself Lucky, the money trader who operated just 100 yards from the border and offered to call us while he waited to in line to cast his ballot, think, after telling me that Mugabe, the “conman,” was killing his country? Or how about David, who lost his job as a banker after Zimbabwe’s economy imploded and now sold bird statues and hand-made drawers by the roadside to try to send his oldest daughter to college?

Because I remembered asking all Zimbabweans that I spoke to on that trip if they were going to vote in the election, and despite Mugabe showing again and again and again that their votes wouldn’t matter, they nearly all said yes. And I remembered thinking, as I was riding that crammed, bouncing bus through the South Africa night, that despite being torn to pieces by Zimbabwe and its leaders, most if not all of these 48 passangers were still going to vote because, at some level, they still believed in their country, so much so that you couldn’t help but believe in it, too.

I wonder what they have to believe in now.