Notes From South Africa

On March 2nd, 2005, I took a two-week vacation to South Africa. I have a friend who lives there, and I meant to visit him and spend time in the great outdoors. After I arrived, my father sent me an email asking me if I’d consider being a “South African Correspondent” for this website:

If you can, and are inclined, it might be interesting to have a few paragraphs or pages, along with any pertinent photos, of your first hand impressions on the general state of culture/economy there in relation to the liberties we still have here, property rights, freedom of the press, Internet, small business, government regulation, optimism/pessimism of the citizens about the future, etc; and if you are out in the rural ag areas and speak to any farmers, what is the state of agriculture in S Africa today. Your observations could make a nice “on the spot article” for the website.


I wasn’t sure how to approach being a South African Correspondent, since I have no experience in journalism, but I keep a journal, so I thought I would share some thoughts and impressions from my trip. I hope you enjoy reading them.


I stayed mainly in the area between Cape Town and Knysna, along the southern edge of the country. I made a brief foray into the wilderness for hiking, but other than my hiking mates, I was not exposed to any culture or politics during this time — just the stunning South African land.

General Impressions

Hiking near the Witels river

My first impression of South Africa was it’s an extremely modern country. The land is physically somewhat like the American West, like Wyoming or New Mexico: open and arid, with big mountains. Along the coast, known as the Garden Route and a very popular tourist destination, the land is greener and reminds me of Costa Rica, or of southern Oregon. I also traveled away from the coast to Outdshoorn, in higher, drier country. But apart from the physical appearance, all of the culture and society to which I was exposed was very Western. Gas stations, for example, are nearly the same inside there and here. Fast food is everywhere. Roads are excellent, with wide shoulders on the main highways (like all British colonies, they drive on the left). Power and phone are reliable, and the Internet is easily available.

Cape Town seems to have a very liberal culture, and is known as a very gay-friendly city. Radio stations play the same Top 40 songs heard in the United States. In fact, the only major surface differences between there and various places I’ve visited in the US are people drive on the left, and cars are older, fewer and much smaller (SUVs are rare; most cars are the size of a Geo Metro). I could otherwise easily imagine myself still in the United States.

The General Picture Presented by the Media

As I mentioned, radio stations play the same mass-produced, corporate-sponsored, substance-less garbage you hear in America. Most of the artists are even the same; the format and programming styles are the same. There are the same obnoxious “morning shows” and call-in “drive time” shows (“Do you wear underwear, and why or why not? Call in and tell us!”). The ads are similar (cell phone ads, acne medicines and so forth), and the weather report is the “Samsung Weather Report.” When the artists are not the same as those popular in America, the style is still pretty much the same, apparently because anything not conforming to the current blend of “R&B/Hip-Hop” can’t get airplay.

News aisles in supermarkets and gas stations have the same magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and muscle magazines. There seems to be less obsession with body image than in America, though in general obesity seems to be pretty rare — certainly not an epidemic as in America.

I don’t watch TV, so I couldn’t comment on it other than to say I think it's nearly identical to American TV and features all the same programs, such as Saturday Night Live, but I read a couple of newspapers. The first, The Daily Sun, claims to be South Africa’s biggest daily. It’s little more than a tabloid, and is the paper I saw in the hands of most Blacks. Here are the headlines from the front page of the issue I brought back with me:

That’s not a sampling; it’s the entire contents of the front page, about a third of which is taken up by the first headline and its photo (it's a story about how a young boy woke people sleeping in a burning shack). The second and third pages are no better, sporting such headlines as “Man had sex with my goat!” and “GANG-RAPED! Teen claims her BEST FRIEND organised this evil crime!” From reading these headlines and the other stories, one gets the impression South Africa must be a nation obsessed with sex, violence and worship of Nelson Mandela (there was a story about a 110-year-old woman whose only wish was to meet “Madiba” before she dies). In fact, as with American tabloids, I didn’t find this to be an accurate picture of the country as a whole. For example, there seem to be similar standards concerning sex, sexuality and public decency as in America. Nowhere did I see pornography, even on a newsstand (though I noticed the familiar Harlequin Romance books in a grocery store, perhaps there for the benefit of tourists who need their “fix”).

A playground in Knysna

As to violence and crime, it is true South Africa has a high crime rate in some parts, though apparently much lower overall than Washington, DC. There is much brutality and rape, especially among poorer people and Blacks. My Lonely Planet book claimed the two most common causes of death in the Western Cape among men my age are gunshot wounds and HIV. Sexual crimes are common, and as elsewhere in the world, women are often not treated as equals, but as objects or means to an end. HIV is a huge problem, obviously, and with a population-wide infection rate of 25% (much higher in the populations affected the most by crime), rape frequently means HIV infection.

People told me it’s common not even to stop at red lights in some areas, because carjackers will shoot you through your windshield if you do. Apparently the standard procedure is to slow down and look if anyone’s coming, then blow through the intersection no matter what color the light is, especially if there are people standing around. Other people laughed this off as exaggeration, though. The police don’t seem to be much of a presence, and when they are around, there is a pretty lax view on law enforcement. My taxi driver once went through a 4-way stop, barely slowing to honk and wave at the policeman who was pulling up at the other side of the intersection. The policeman, of course, leaned out his window and shouted cheerful greetings to us, with a huge smile on his face.

Without minimizing the scale of the crime problem, especially against women, I have to say the major difference between there and better-developed, more “civilized” countries is the South African society just doesn’t hide it as well. This is just my first impression, though. Interestingly, everyone I spoke to was sure crime is much worse in America, because they’ve seen American movies and TV and they believe that’s how it really is. I’ve never been anywhere in America as bad as people assured me Johannesburg is, but the South Africans still think America is worse.

On the subject of Nelson Mandela, I was recently in San Diego and my taxi driver, who was from Kenya, told me he adores Mandela. “He is one of only two people whom I would gladly give my life for,” he confided to me. I took the bait, expecting him to say “The Dalai Lama” or “The Pope” or some such. “Who’s the other?” “Bill Clinton!” he gushed. “I love that man. I love everything he does. I have read everything he writes. I love him.”

The other paper I bought, The Herald, is owned by Johnnic Communications and serves the Eastern Cape province. It’s much less trashy. It is comparable to a typical daily paper for a mid-sized city in America, such as where I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. It seems to be the choice of the working-class citizen and the businessperson, and the front page is mostly occupied by a story and photo about a racial clash at a school. There is still some sensationalism, such as a side-rail story on the front page about a young mother who desperately wants to have another child by her husband, even though he is in prison for strangling their baby. It also includes some advertisements for X-rated SMS text-messaging services and the like, and is generally far from the caliber of newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, for example.

The media, of all flavors, seems to be owned by familiar corporations, such as Fox and Clear Channel. I even saw billboards with the Clear Channel logo across the bottom.

The media is more blatantly influenced by central government than here in America. For example, there are government-sponsored ads on the radio, featuring very non-British-sounding voices urging people to give up their illegal guns (more on this later). There is also a full-page ad on page 10 of the Daily Sun which, though it uses photographs, is laid out like a superhero comic-book page. It is titled “Building a South Africa that truly belongs to us all: Safety and Security for All,” and shows a business owner talking with the police about his recent break-in. It depicts him being educated by the police about reporting crimes as the most basic way to cooperate with the police. The next frame shows the owner saying “I like the way business and the police are working together — like putting in closed-circuit TV in the big cities,” and the (female) police officer replies “Yes, it’s also going to be done in other metro areas.” The rest of the page is spent telling the shop owner there are going to be more courts, more prisons, Government Programmes of Action, widening nets to catch more criminals, a Service Center for Victims of Crime, and an assurance the shop owner has the rights to be attended to promptly, to offer information during the investigation, and to compensation for loss of or damage to property. Finally, one of the characters tells the other “you should have asked whether WE are winning the fight… we are all in this together — not so?”

Race Relations

Race relations in South Africa seem to be about the same as in America. Terminology is different from America; for example, Blacks, Whites, Afrikaners, and Coloureds mean distinctly different segments of the population, and are used in very specific ways with little or no thought to political correctness (I never heard anyone say “I'm an African-African” or “I'm a German-African”). But nowhere did I meet anyone who seemed angry about race issues. True, I was in well-to-do, touristy areas, but I made an effort to seek out parking lot attendants and others who, though still in a part of the culture that mixes with the wealthier White population, came from townships themselves. I spoke to these people, sometimes at length. I also spoke to other travelers a lot, since I stayed in hostels (known as backpackers). Some of them had lived and worked in the townships for months, doing various things such as teaching at the schools. Overall, the people I met from the townships seem to be happy, cheerful about their situation and their futures. I couldn’t comment on what the people in the townships think.

I’m not an expert on townships since I didn’t visit any, but briefly, the townships are areas where people were confined during Apartheid. Many of them are literally shack cities; the dwellings range from a yard or two square, sticks with black plastic roofs, to fairly nice houses. The most obvious sign it’s a township is the way all the dwellings are packed together. Sometimes you drive along the road and see nothing but shacks for a very long time, packed solid one next to the other, stretching far away from the road.

The people with whom I spoke told me it’s actually very comfortable to live there; each house has running water and electricity. Rent is cheap, about R20 a month according to one man, and since that’s where he’d grown up and raised his own children, he told me he was perfectly happy in his community. I asked him how he felt about the future, and he told me things are getting better all the time, and he was sure “they” would continue to find ways to make the remaining problems go away. I wasn’t clear whether his life was getting better, or whether he thought “things” are getting better.

I never saw a condom dispenser
that wasn't empty.

I read an estimate that 35% of the working population will die of HIV in the next ten years. I can't imagine this will be a good thing. Already the population is thinning out markedly in the middle; if you slice the population along various lines such as economic status or race, certain segments consist largely of grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren with HIV, having already seen their children waste away and die.

In any case, almost every Black or Coloured person I came into contact with was cheerful and happy, waving and honking at friends and singing along to the radio. The exceptions were on a day-long bike ride I took near Outdshoorn. Children ran out to the side of the road and held out their hands as I passed, in a “give me five” gesture. I thought they just wanted me to put my hand out to touch theirs too, but there were two exceptions out of the 50 or so people I passed that day. One, instead of smiling and waving at me, held up both middle fingers at me and glared like he meant it. He was probably about 10 years old. Another was a woman around 30 who smiled and waved, but as I kept going, I heard her say “I want some candy! I want some sweets!” So I'm not sure what the real attitude or mental outlook among these people is. It's so easy to think they're cheerful and happy, but I am wary of that impression; I think if I lived with them, perhaps deeper insight would reveal something else entirely.

The worst racists I encountered were at a hostel one night, and they were well-to-do young White men in their late 20s or early 30s. They asked me where I was from, I said “Virginia,” and they responded with a variety of derogatory and provocative remarks, such as “Oh, Virginia, that’s where they shoot all the niggers” and “You know your slavery was worse than ours, don’t you?” Otherwise, most people I met were interested in hearing how I felt about George Bush getting re-elected, the United Nations, and other political conversations. I found most of them followed American politics very closely, perhaps as closely as their own country’s.

Economy and Money

Again, the areas I visited were largely tourist destinations and seemed pretty well-off, though it was clear the general level of wealth was less than where I was visiting.

The currency is the Rand, which at the time I visited was worth about 15 cents USD. I’m not sure, but I got the impression the banks are either owned or controlled by the government. Just for fun, I asked about getting some Krugerrand coins, and the teller got a very puzzled look on her face and asked her manager what I was talking about. Eventually I was told it is still possible to obtain gold currency, but only on special order. I thanked them and cashed a traveler’s check, then left.

I learned gas stations are regulated. Since they do not compete on price, there are often people with checkered flags out on the streets trying to wave people into the stations! Another interesting side effect is the complete absence of signs with prices. All the stations are full-service, apparently as a tactic to create employment. Unemployment is quite high, and anyone who has a job is grateful.

I heard a lot about Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). I wasn’t able to understand clearly what it is, but the common person seems to believe the government will somehow mandate equality and create equal opportunity. I spoke to one man who said it is a system that rewards employers for hiring Blacks, essentially a subsidy, but the employers (mostly building contractors and the like) just pocket the difference, so the system is corrupt and doesn’t benefit the Blacks in reality.

Gun Ownership

I spoke to a couple of white men about gun ownership. Both of them were late-night conversations, and the people were drinking beer and bragging, so I doubt this represents the common conversation about guns. I was told it’s legal to own guns if they’re licensed, but licenses are very hard to get because guns are easy to steal and the government doesn’t want people to have guns if they’re going to get stolen. It made no sense to me, but the men I talked to seemed to agree with this policy. I was also told if you have illegal guns, you are in BIG trouble.

I rode an old steam-powered train. South Africa had a vast rail system a century ago, and even today the railroad is important.

I heard several ads on the radio saying “We must all stand together and never let this be repeated. Peace is heroic. Guns kill people. They also kill jobs. Turn in your guns. It’s the right thing to do.” This was followed by a sentence, which I can’t quote, but the general tone was a threat about how badly it would go for you if you didn’t turn in your illegal guns. I asked the men about these ads, and they nodded very seriously and told me there was a major campaign underway to get control of illegal guns, and the ads were part of a series.

The general impression I got from these men was they were rare exceptions (most working-class white South African men don’t have guns). I think if you take out the element of being at a bar and wanting to be at the center of attention, you have a man with a gun but no real beliefs about it. He has the gun, and he’s unsure of why; he doesn’t have it in a place he could get to quickly if needed. If a uniformed person came to his door and asked for it, he’d be afraid and not want to give it over, but he’d not be able to think of why he wants it or needs it, and so he’d comply.

I was in Africa just long enough to get the impression there is a lot more to the gun issues than meets the eye. For example, if you believe Apartheid was a means of controlling people, probably one of the most successful tactics was to make the people control themselves by jamming the vast majority of the population (whites represent only about 8% of the population) into tiny areas, giving them guns or access to guns, denying them food, access to health care, and jobs, and letting them slaughter each other out of pure misery. Perhaps this is a poorly-worded summary of the purpose of the townships, and perhaps it's ignorant and narrow-minded, but I would say it's not possible to have any realistic opinion about gun ownership and how it's similar or different from America, without knowing a lot more than I know about South African history and culture. So, though I had two conversations about guns, I'm not going to share any of my other opinions here.

Property Rights

Nobody with whom I spoke had any idea how to respond to questions about property rights. Nobody had a clear sense of what property rights are, or even what the phrase means. Many of the people I met were living in townships, and didn’t know who owns the land (I believe the government owns the land in the townships). I did not meet anyone who owned any land, as far as I know. The newspapers I read had several articles about government housing subsidies increasing, and I think a lot of the population lives in subsidized housing.

From the public-service ad I saw in the newspaper, I assume there must be a much stronger view that government somehow owns the country in South Africa than in America. Otherwise, why would a shop owner be “entitled” to compensation when his business is vandalized?


The main agriculture I saw was vineyards, apples and other fruits, sheep, and ostriches. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit with farmers themselves. I took a paid tour of an ostrich farm, but didn’t learn anything about South African agriculture from it. I think water is fairly scarce, but the Western Cape was also in the grip of a severe and long-term drought, so I’m not sure what difference there is between now and years past.

Business, Law, and Medicine

I had the chance to speak with a very well-educated and articulate older woman in Cape Town, the owner of a pharmacy. She bought it about 2000 and had been building it into her retirement pension, but the government had just passed a law forbidding pharmacies to make a profit, and requiring them to provide certain services such as taking government ID photos. She said the law is being contested but will eventually be upheld, and obviously felt very negatively about it.

She was able to speak about other parts of the economy as well, and was well-versed in the South African legal system and politics. Unfortunately I am not, so I was not able to understand enough of what she said to relay it accurately. I did understand the medical and legal professions are changing drastically; she told me law students are allowed to pass with double-F marks now. She said public legal servants are political appointees now, and the system of law is based on Dutch law, requires Latin and is very difficult, but the Latin requirement for law school had just been dropped. It was too complicated for me to follow without understanding the legal system, but she told me these and other recent changes have turned the courts into “kangaroo courts,” where position is a matter of favor and matriculation is bought and sold; where some people can now rise through the ranks to a judge without putting in time in the intermediate positions, if they are well connected; where the judges are just pawns of the national government. She told me one of her customers is one of the new judges, and in her opinion he was certainly too dim to have become a judge through any means except by being somebody’s favorite. She emphasized several times how incompetent he was at ordinary tasks, and called him stupid.

Much of the country is open and arid.

She also spoke about the medical profession, telling me doctors and nurses are also going to be forbidden to make a profit. I’m unsure what that means, but it was a term she used again and again. She said most doctors work out of the country part of the year, to ensure they will have a livelihood once the health care system is completely controlled. And her assistant, a part-time nurse who was measuring out prescriptions, described to me the appalling reduction in quality of care in the hospitals; she said nurses are now neglecting patients like never before. Her example was the nurse who refused to empty her patient’s bedpan because it was not yet full.

Finally, both women told me about the recent changes in trade laws since new people came into power at the top levels of government. They said tariffs have been relaxed and everyone is chanting the “globalization is good” mantra. There used to be a very strong textile industry in Cape Town, but they stated the competition from China has driven it out, just as it has here in Virginia. One factory was due to close at the end of March, and they disagreed on whether one or two thousand people would be out of work when that happened, but eventually concluded they were confused about the exact numbers because it was happening all the time, so they couldn’t keep it all straight. And both women emphasized the quality of the fabric, saying it ended up in all the best suits in several top brands (the names of which I recognized, but have forgotten).

In general, both women stood in marked contrast to the poor, uneducated people from the townships, who are pretty cheerful and optimistic. Perhaps this is because what used to be both a livelihood and retirement investment is now almost worthless. Perhaps the Blacks are happy because the situation, however bad, is worlds better than ten years ago.


I’m not sure what I really learned about property rights on this trip. I have no nuggets of wisdom, especially since my goal was to enjoy myself. My trip simply made me want to travel more, in Africa and elsewhere, and reaffirmed my conviction that life is good and people are beautiful.

I hope you enjoyed my rambling thoughts.