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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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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

It was an interesting day today.  I saw first hand what hard-living is and what barely-scraping-by looks like.  I saw that mis-shaped scraps of thin, corrugated metal aren’t only found in junkyards, but rather make up the walls and roofs that hundreds of thousands of S. Africans live within. 

Five of us went to Diepsloot, which is an informal settlement about 30 minutes north of Jo’Burg, where a great deal of xenophobic violence has taken place.  

From a distance, it looks like a sprawling heap of rust, garbage and broken glass.  However, once inside, you find that it is the home of more than 150,000 people.  People like Kingston.

 

Kingston is a man from Malawi who lives in one of the shacks.  For those of you who are following our work out here, you will hear much more about him in the coming weeks.  He’s a wonderful man who came to S. Africa two years ago to earn money for his family of seven back home.  Now, all he wants to do is go home, which he is unable to do until he raises 800 Rand – the equivalent of $100.  “If I had the money, I would leave today,” he told me.  Considering Kingston makes $10/week, when there is work for him to do, and has to pay rent and buy food, it is likely he won’t return to his family for well over a year.  However, he did say when he returns to his wife, five children and 20 grandchildren, his family will celebrate and “kill a cow!”

We’re returning to Diepsloot tomorrow to meet more people and offer them a chance to tell their stories.  Everyone we’ve met is as uniquely interesting as the next.  It’s unthinkable that many foreigners live each day, simply praying the next will be better.  Yet mobs of angry, under-employed S. Africans vented their frustrations by looting, beating and killing these people.  People like Kingston. 

josh

Today, we’ve hit the ground running.  Each one of us has been placed in groups ranging from three to eight people based on preference and topic availability.  And after a few brainstorming sessions, groups have dispersed and the majority of the day has been used quite chaotically in order to plan strategies for coverage.  The largest group of eight are now waiting for a ride outside of our dorm to take them to the train and bus station so that they may make the trek to the Zimbabwe border.  Most will be riding the train and have specifically requested the cheapest, most dingy transport possible so that they might find Zimbabweans in the midst of their plight back home.  The remainder are bording a bus which is believed to be even less accomidating.  We’ve joked that they will be fighting for “seats” on the floor among chickens and farm animals.

I’ve been assigned to cover humanitarian efforts.  I’m in a group of three — myself and Massi as photo/print journalists and Amber as a broadcaster.  After exhausting a few efforts to visit refugee camps, we’ve gone straight for the source — the Joburg Central Methodist Church.  Many of you may be familiar with the church, as it has made headline news after spearheading efforts to house scores of displaced foreigners and becoming a safehouse for those affected by xenophobic attacks.  On our first trip to the church, we didn’t know what to expect.  Massi and I decided to go in first.  Upon entering the rundown facility, the stench of human waste and body odor was overwhelming.  Displaced refugees lined the stairs and hallways, using insulation and cardboard as make-shift resting places.  After being directed to the bishop’s office on the fourth floor, Massi and I spoke to a man named Mafika.  I believe he was a director of sorts.  He told us that we would first need to speak to Bishop Paul in order to gain access to “the community” of refugees.  Soon after speaking with us, he was alerted that a robbery had taken place in the basement.  A security guard, one of only 18 in charge of watching over the estimated 2,000 refugees, hurried him down the stairs to the basement.  He invited Massi and I to come along as long as we agreed to leave our recorders and cameras in our bags.  We were shuffled through a mass of people and personal belongings that consumed up the tight, dark hallways and stairs to the basement.  When we finally made it all the way down to the basement, I was confronted with the depths of a  poverty that I never knew existed.  Cement walls enclosed a small room that I would estimate 50 people called home.  Thin mats were strewn side-by-side, backed by piles of clothing, suitcases, pots and amenities.  I almost tripped on an unattended baby when I walked into the room.  We were directed into a utilities room in the back where Mafika pointed to a small water pump that was confiscated from a would-be thief.  He estimated its worth at about 6,000R (about $800US).  When asked what would happen to the criminal, he told me he’d direct him to the bishop who would probably ask him to repent for his sins and send him on his way.  The police are not their friends, we’ve learned. 

We left the church and spent about three hours attempting to contact Bishop John without success.  We decided the best thing to do would be to go back and try our luck at finding another leader at the church.  After speaking with Rev. Tenjiwe Mclacka-Clacka’s (sp?) assistant, we were informed there would be a service tonight at 7 p.m.  That is where we’re going now.  I’ve got to cut this short because my taxi is waiting outside, but I’m excited to see what the service has to offer.

As with many things, I’ve discovered that each day I am here and the more I learn, the less I actually know.  Today we were hit with a blitzkreig of info from a political analyst, a UN representative, S. African journalists, officers from the Department of Home Affairs and a university professor.  To try and catch up with the issues and problems of a country that seems to be having a difficult time catching up with itself is daunting, to say the least.

This evening we all attended a roundtable discussion here at the university that involved educators, newspaper editors, and government officials that was moderated by Moeletsi Mbeki, who is the brother of S. African President Thabo Mbeki.  The panel was invited to speak in response to the xenophobic attacks that have taken place here.  If you haven’t heard stories, seen photos or watched video about the attacks, they were unexplainably brutal.  In one well documented instance, mobs were photographed laughing in the streets as a Mozambican was “necklaced“, where the man was beaten with bricks, wood, stones, etc. and then had a tire placed around his neck, was doused with gasoling and “set a light”.  

 

The consensus among the panelists and many of those in attendance was a feeling of shame and failure that such attacks were executed in the country Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the “Rainbow Nation”.

The manner in which the discussion was conducted was interesting and quite different from what you’d see in the U.S.  For example, during the Q&A portion of the roundtable, there were very few questions.  Many commented, some challenging the panel and others called for stronger government leadership and response.  Others in the audience completely veered from the topic and used the time for a soapbox rant against the large mining corporations and the government and corporate pandering to foreign investors.  Commentors were cut off (which was definitely necessary).  Audience members interrupted, cheered and scoffed during and after comments, which made it fairly exciting. 

josh