After a multi-hour delay at the airport in Zanzibar, I finally made it to Dar es Salaam, where I did some final souvenir shopping before boarding my evening flight to Johannesburg. The next morning, I spoke to the owner of my guest house about arranging a Soweto tour for the following day; as it turned out, there was a slot available for a private tour immediately, so the tour operator went ahead and just showed up! I crammed the remains of my (delicious! included!) breakfast into my mouth and hopped into the van. The driver (who, to be fair, did warn me) was a bit militant, seeing himself as a sort of Paulo Freire or Frantz Fanon on the behalf of non-white South Africans. A white South African, he said that he had spent the last seven years trying to educate people on the country’s current social and racial issues. If he didn’t make significant progress in the upcoming two years, he would retire to a community in Soweto and seek refuge from the inevitable race riots that would occur in the absence of increased racial justice in South Africa.
When we arrived to Soweto, he autographed and gifted me with a copy of his self-published book and encouraged me to send him feedback. I accepted the book, hopped out, and met my guide, a woman who had grown up in Soweto and who was now raising her three sons there. As we walked (and, later, rode in group taxis) around the townships, I was shocked by how well put-together everything was. People had been horrified that I was traveling to South Africa alone, especially as a woman; further, I had been warned that Soweto was particularly dangerous. All of this had caused me to expect the worst. As I walked around, though, talking to people, shopping for souvenirs, and getting quotes for how much it would cost to re-braid my hair, I felt at ease, completely safe. In fact, if I had not visited Sisulu Square (where the African National Congress declared its Freedom Charter in 1955) and the Hector Pieterson Museum (which pays tribute to its namesake as well as to the other students who died in the rebellions from 1976 onwards against mandatory instruction in Afrikaans), I wouldn’t have fully appreciated the fitful bursts that had transformed Soweto into the relatively tranquil place that I experienced.
The next day, I visited the Apartheid Museum. I am generally not a museum person, but I soon discovered that my taxi driver was right–2.5 hours really was the bare minimum to truly experience the museum. Even me, with my fast feet, had just enough time in that period to enter the museum (through the “white” (vs. “non-white”) door, as randomly designated by my ticket), see the exhibits (including a temporary exhibit about Nelson Mandela), briefly wander around outside afterwards, and give the quickest of once-overs to the gift shop before having to meet my taxi. Anyone slower and/or desirous of reading every bit of the copious amounts of written information included with the exhibits would need at least 3-3.5 hours. The museum taught me a great deal about South Africa’s history (e.g., Gandhi’s experiences in the country) as well as clarified my hazy memories of some apartheid-related events that had occurred during my early lifetime (e.g., divestment campaigns, F. W. de Klerk and the end of apartheid). It also made me uncomfortable as I was forced to question not just the true state of race relations in present-day South Africa but also the state of such relations in the U.S. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around all of the issues raised by my visit. In short, the Apartheid Museum definitely left its mark on me.
After the museum, I made the obligatory stop in Johannesburg’s CBD at the Carlton Centre to reach the Top of Africa, where I snapped photos of the city from above. Next, I visited Constitution Hill, taking a guided tour of the grounds that used to serve as a notorious prison but now house the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court. Finally, I headed back to my guest house so that I could complete my most important task of the day: calling my sister on her birthday.
Whenever I have been abroad on the birthday of an immediate family member, I have always made it a point to find a way to call. I had been successful in making birthday calls from Beijing, Xi’an, and Vang Vieng in the past, so I figured that doing so from Johannesburg would be no sweat. I could not have been more wrong.
First, the internet café that I had been frequenting did not have a phone that I could use to call the U.S. One customer was kind enough to point me towards another internet café that was in a shopping center about a fifteen-minute walk away. I thanked her and immediately began my journey. The sky had been overcast before, but now the sky opened up, pouring rain down on me and shaking down the beautiful purple flowers from the surrounding jacaranda trees. Despite my umbrella, I was soaked almost immediately. I was also a bit concerned about the periodic flashes of lightning that raced above my head. Nevertheless, I soldiered on, finally arriving at the shopping center. After a few inquiries, I found the internet café. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me–they didn’t have appropriate phone facilities.
Frustrated, I made more inquiries, which led me to a nearby bank of payphones. I inserted coins and started dialing. Much to my chagrin, after dialing only a few numbers, the phone would flash “please wait”, after which I would be allowed to dial only a few more numbers before the phone stalled my further efforts with a strange beeping sequence. After what seemed like an eternity of standing in the rain and punching numbers, I gave up and moved to Plan D. I returned to the shopping center, to a laundromat. I explained my plight and thus-far-unsuccessful efforts to the two women working there. After much back and forth to ascertain my problem (e.g., Was I using a working payphone? Was I using the right access code for the U.S.?), they took pity on me–if I bought fifteen rand of airtime at the Spar supermarket in the shopping center, one of them would put it on her cell phone so that I could call my sister and wish her a happy birthday.
Relieved, I thanked them profusely, rushed to buy the airtime, and rushed back to the laundromat. As promised, one of the women added the airtime to her phone; that is, she tried to add it, to no avail. “Today is just not your day,” she said, adding that I would need to wait fifteen minutes before she could try again. I willingly waited, but, still–nothing. I thanked the women for their time and left.
I was in terrible spirits by this point, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I had never missed an immediate family member’s birthday, and I wasn’t going to start now. As a Hail Mary play, I went to the taxi call center a few doors down from the laundromat. I explained the situation and asked if I could use my airtime on someone’s cell phone. Fortunately, they agreed to help, and one woman, after many attempts, was able to add the time to her phone–success! I took the phone from her, dialed my sister’s number, and waited expectantly, anticipating my sister’s surprise when she heard my voice. In the end, though, my sister’s phone didn’t even ring. Yep, that’s right–straight to voicemail. I left a brief, forlorn-sounding message wishing her a happy birthday and promising to call again. I then gifted the rest of the airtime–the vast majority of which was still remaining–to the helpful woman over her objections and finally headed home, tired, dejected and sopping wet.