South Africa was fantastic. I was in Johannesburg for 10 days for a school trip and found it incredibly inspiring. It's so difficult to try and succinctly communicate what it was like but I will give it a try.
Highlight 1: Soweto
We visited Soweto, a former township where the government forcibly relocated Black South Africans during apartheid (SoWeTo=South West Township). A neighborhood in Soweto, Kliptown, still experiences tremendous challenge in education and employment outcomes. Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), is a locally led and managed non-profit that works directly with 450 youth to increase access to technology and higher learning. Thando Bezana, Operations Manager, explained that the executive leadership team is composed of Kliptown community members (including himself). Teachers are locals, too. Some studied computer science on KYP scholarships then returned to teach computer classes twice daily. KYP graduates who have moved to other neighborhoods contribute to a KYP alumni fund. KYP really has mastered the art of investing in and developing local talent. The "for us by us" (FUBU) nature of the entire program was such a joy to witness.
Highlight 2: Landfill site visit
We also had the privilege of hearing from a couple of federal employees working in the Department of Environmental Affairs. They explained on a high level how South Africa is tackling solid waste management, mainly by prioritizing diverting waste from landfills. We then got to visit a landfill site, one of the largest in the region. The landfill must have been at least 30 stories high and receives 2,500 tons of waste a day. The site manager explained that waste is dumped at the landfill, individuals remove as many recyclables as possible (plastics and glass), the trash is compacted, and then covered with crushed concrete waste. We rode all the way to the top of the landfill and at one point there was just trash and seagulls as far as the eye could see. It was incredible. The federal employees, who joined us on the site visit, were so excited to be out in the field (normally they are either in their offices or consulting at other local government offices) that they hopped out and started chatting with the onsite employees. It's quite an operation! And the methane from the landfill is used for public energy. Truly, nothing is wasted!
Highlight 3: Meeting bureaucrats
There's nothing quite like being able to meet career civil servants. Their passion for good governance is contagious. Joel Netshitenzhe, former Communications Director for Nelson Mandela, presented on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), a major economic policy developed by the African National Congress (ANC). He was refreshingly honest about the different delays, complications and failures of the policy, while at the same time acknowledging the ways in which the RDP was successful. My favorite part of his presentation, though, was when I asked him what it was like to work in the Mandela administration and he waxed nostalgic on Mandela's uncanny ability to sense the mood of the nation, even when it went against conventional wisdom or even his own party. I was completely rapt listening to Netshitenzhe's stories. Mandela was such a singular and gifted leader. I am amazed at the difference one person can make--how one person can inspire so many and leave such a legacy. It's a beautiful thing.
I also loved hearing from Ivan Pillay, former Acting Commissioner of South African Revenue Services (SARS), the equivalent to the IRS. He spoke about the health of government institutions, accountability, change management, strategic planning and organizational effectiveness. He was speaking my language! And so thoughtful and wise. I loved his pragmatism. Bureaucrats are the best. I could have listened to him all day, to be honest.
Highlight 4: Jonas testimonyCommission of Inquiry into State Capture, a public fact-finding entity charged with determining the veracity of allegations of state capture (systematic funneling of public funding into private interests) in the Zuma administration. Chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Zondo of the South African Constitutional Court, the commission, after hearing testimony from involved witnesses and examining evidence, will produce a set of recommendations which may result in legal action by the National Prosecutor’s Office.
The "star witness" of the day was former Deputy Ministry of Finance Mcebisi Jonas. He testified of a meeting on October 23, 2013, where a member of the Gupta family (aligned with Zuma) offered him 600 million rand to assume the role of Minister of Finance and act in the Gupta’s interest. His testimony was extremely compelling, and at one point Jonas paused to wipe tears from his eyes, and I found myself completely moved. The commission is predicted to continue for at least a couple of more years but I am highly interested in seeing what ultimately will come of it.
Highlight 5: Church and baby lions
Of course, all this public policy-related stuff was truly mind-nourishing and energizing, but I also managed to have some fun, too! On our day off I met up with Hannah, who is the cousin of my friend Esther. I immediately really liked her! She took me to her church, Heritage Baptist. It was so great to see a South African expression of faith in Jesus. After service we went to lunch with another young woman, Taimi, a surgical resident from Namibia. It was so easy chatting with them and we already had lots in common simply by virtue of being young, single Christian women. I love finding friends all around the world!
In the evening I met up with Jill and Nya at the Lion & Safari Park in Lanseria, about 50 minutes outside of Johannesburg. On the way out I had a nice chat with my Uber driver from Zimbabwe who also works as a bouncer on the weekend. He had the radio turned onto a R&B station and at one point I turned to him and asked, "SZA?" "Huh?" "This is SZA, right?" "Huh?" "I like this music." He just laughed. He was wearing a New York Yankees cap. Globalization, y'all.
Jill, Nya and I did a night safari to see the spotted hyenas and the lions. We witnessed staff feeding them horse meat and it was visceral to say the least. I won't forget the sound of them cracking bones open to get to the marrow. Makes me squirm just thinking back on it. Afterward we got to play with some very sleepy, cute lion cubs. It was surreal!! The cubs were so young they hadn't even named them yet! Staff usually assign names to the cubs around seven months when their personalities have had time to emerge.
In sum, I had an absolutely unforgettable time in South Africa. I had read so much about it in books for school, but there was nothing like being there in person and experiencing it myself.
- Nothing in this world could explain my delight when, upon entering local fair trade coffee roaster Bean There, I heard an acoustic version of "Mama" by William Singe, one of my favorite Australian vocalists. I was home. I went there pretty much every morning over the duration of the trip.
- When someone asks "How are you?" sometimes folks say "sharp," meaning "well."
- The African diaspora is incredible. The "Pan African Writing" section of Exclusive Books featured works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Teju Cole, Chinua Achebe... I was in heaven. I limited myself to purchasing four books due to luggage space constraints but would have purchased many more.
- I loved pretty much all the food I tried: ostrich steak, lamb stew, oxtail stew, venison stew, "bunny chow". The only thing I wasn't a huge fan of was the tripe.
- As I traveled through South Africa I couldn't help thinking about my Grandpa Don, himself a world traveler during his lifetime. Did he have similar thoughts and reflections as he met new people and learned new things in new places? He taught me so much about being a humble observer when a guest in another country.