Poverty, Affluence and History. The State of the Nation, South Africa.


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Africa » South Africa
May 12th 2015
Published: May 14th 2015
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Chibuku - famous opaque and lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer!
Quite a lot's been said about South Africa and the state of crime, poverty and inequality over the years. I don't intend to make a critique of this issue in this blog post since there are many wonderful things to celebrate and highlight in South Africa but it would be unfair of me not to at touch on the current state of affairs before I go on with my little tour.

Certainly the Rand has weakened considerably over the last decade against the dollar and sterling. When I arrived a month ago the mid-market rate was about 17.5 to the pound. Today it's 18.5. That obviously works in my favour as a sterling account holder. So when a beer at a local bar costs me R25 I score; when a meal costs R40, I score; when an Uber taxi costs as little as R25, I score. It's also revealing that most of the Zimbabwean contingent I talked to at my brother's wedding repeatedly remarked on how 'cheap' everything was.


When I arrived a month ago the mid-market rate was about 17.5 to the pound. Today it's 18.5.



The problem for working class South Africa is touched upon in an article I found on the site News24 from August last year (go to end of
Sculpture, Cape Town CBDSculpture, Cape Town CBDSculpture, Cape Town CBD

Anonymous Worker foreground and seated behind.
post for link to original) and is presumably still reasonably accurate. It alleges that South Africa is ...



"... a country without an adequate social security net and where at least half of the national workforce earns less than R3 100 a month. Perhaps as many as a third of men and women in work earn less than R2 000 a month.



Yet most trade unions and human rights groups estimate that a bare living wage in 2014 would be between R4 000 and R5 000 a month."





Even considering the relative affordability of food and services for me I find it hard to imagine surviving on less than 150 quid, and perhaps even as little as 100 for many. Considering that RSA is one of the continent's more affluent nations it's saying a lot. It is worth scrolling down to the comments section where some other facts and figures give further food for thought.

#Utopian Indignant, claims:

Actually not. Just like government, Terry Bell uses the incorrect exchange conversion rate to compare wages with overseas. The correct rate is the Purchase Parity Conversion Rate - youa re using the speculative moneymarket rate, which is only for buying and selling money on international markets. Terry and government arrive at incorrect costs calculations on contracts and wage negotiations because of this technical error. Using the correct rate, our pay compares reasonably per skill level
Metro Rail CommuterMetro Rail CommuterMetro Rail Commuter

She sits in front of a carriage adorned by dubious advertisements.
with overseas, but our Public Sector is significantly overpaid.

Another quotes official stats to support his claim that the black population has grown by 47%!i(MISSING)n the last 20 years whilst the white population has only seen a net increase of less than 5%! (MISSING)Whatever the situation, I've seen a fair deal of poverty on my trip out here. It's hard to say whether or not there are more beggars and homeless individuals than previously. Although the sight of destitute whites still shocks some I think it's important to look beyond colour and rather at communities.

I'm aware that sectors of the scattered Afrikaans communities look out for their aged members who have fallen through the safety net. Black African communities tend to have stronger familial relationships than their European counterparts. Are they strong enough to weather the hard times not withstanding the question of the foreign workforce and the forces of xenophobia which seem to simmer in the background. I don't have the answers, but like my friend Carol I agree that anyone who chooses to bury their head in the sand and ignore these issues does it to their potential detriment. Where is the charity of
Scarface gets fedScarface gets fedScarface gets fed

He feeds the seals. Kalk Bay harbour, Cape Town.
society when all I hear are cynical assertions that vagrants and beggars have probably 'brought it upon themselves', 'are most likely criminals' or that they make 'obscene amounts of money begging at traffic lights.'

I don't believe it frankly. Most of the people I've given a few Rand coins to or, on occasion, bought a loaf of bread or packet of crisps for, have been pretty desperate people. If this isn't manifest in their appearance or demeanour it's in their eyes. I've no doubt some of them will spend this money on alcohol or some other substance but at least a quarter of people who've approached me have asked for food and been grateful for it.


Most of the people I've given a few Rand coins to or, on occasion, bought a loaf of bread or packet of crisps for, have been pretty desperate people.


It doesn't cost me anything substantial because of the nature of the exchange rate. The scriptural homily about giving in proportion to one's means actually leaves me slightly uncomfortable in times like these. Am I giving generously enough?

At times it seems better to give nothing rather than give inadequately but one has to put one's pride aside in such situations. There will always be beggars who will push their luck. I do try make a point of giving
German ArtistGerman ArtistGerman Artist

Marie-Therese, a Barvarian traveler, worked at a backpackers in Muizenburg and did a great job of beautifying the place.
more generously to those who seek to help themselves. I have a soft spot for buskers and street artists.

There is much to admire in those who go out on the streets in all-weather with an old guitar, hand-drum or accordion to earn their living. Perhaps all that they have is their voice. Some of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs I've been privy to were played or sung from a street corner or pavement.


Some of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs I've been privy to were played or sung from a street corner or pavement.



I chanced upon a young man in the middle of Cape Town on the edge of a market square, dressed in a glittering red and gold costume as if he had stepped out of a carnival procession that had moved off without him.

I stood back and watched as he tried with growing frustration to get his trumpet in tune. It was nothing more than a collection of parts held together by an assortment of folded, paper wedges, cigarette filter ends and goodness knows what. It looked as though most of the keys had been brazed onto the body at one point or another; many of the joins were broken. It was pretty hopeless.

I went across out of
Casteel de Goed Hoop / Castle of Good HopeCasteel de Goed Hoop / Castle of Good HopeCasteel de Goed Hoop / Castle of Good Hope

The oldest colonial building in South Africa. More a fortress than a castle it was the site of the Dutch East India Company's HQ and later the seat of residence of the governor of the Cape.
curiosity and he explained how he had been given the instrument a few years before. It really needed professional attention but of course he couldn't afford it. I gave him R20 and took his name and phone number with the intention of making some enquiries on his behalf. I'm ashamed to say that I lost the slip with his details on it. I really should have done better.

I've walked many of these city streets as a curious spectator, both of people and architecture. After spending many years ensconced in my own little world I've done my best to travel and make amends. We live on a populated planet after all and cities are where we congregate and create things of beauty as well as the mundane and functional. Ever since visiting Algiers, indeed Algeria, I've had a particular interest in the legacy of European urban architecture in African towns and cities.

Urban Cape Town has some great architecture against the ever-present backdrop of 'the mountain'. I caught a commuter taxi from my backpacker residence in Observatory (Obs) to town one morning and was surprised to see a number of Europeans commuting for work or studies.

Stuggling buskerStuggling buskerStuggling busker

His trumpet was a hopeless amalgamation of loose parts.

Urban Cape Town has some great architecture against the ever-present backdrop of 'the mountain'.



The city is probably more cosmopolitan than even Jozi (Jo'burg) far to the north. When I moved further out to Muizenburg I discovered that the Metro trains, the main urban rail provider, moved people of all hues to and from the city. Both means of transport were wonderfully cheap - between R6 and R12 per trip depending on the distance.

What concerned me on the Metro commute wasn't so much the graffiti which adorned the carriages both within and without as the number of black and white advertisements pasted on the inside of the compartments. Many advertised 'affordable' abortions alongside a mobile number but no information as to the provider of the service.


Many advertised 'affordable' abortions alongside a mobile number but no information as to the provider of the service.



Others were less controversial and even a little amusing: penis enlarging and hip-widening creams and treatments, dubious 'doctors' who could revive fortunes, eleviate debts and cast love charms. It reminded me that superstitions lurked barely beneath the surface of this erstwhile modern city. It was the same elsewhere in Durban, Jozi and Pretoria.

It's tempting to call it African superstition but I can't be sure who the practitioners and clients of these myriad treatments and charms really are. South
Bo Kaap neighbourhoodBo Kaap neighbourhoodBo Kaap neighbourhood

The colourful houses of Bo Kaap, the former slave quarters of the Cape Malays. The inhabitants, their descendents, are still practising Muslims but no longer slaves!
Africa does, after all, play host to dozens of foreign nationals from all corners of the continent. The fraudsters and confidence tricksters aside it was the advertisement of illegal abortions which saddened me most. How could these people advertise their services wnity?

Women in townships are all too often the subject of abuse. Those who worked at the hostel and who I spoke to either avoided the township altogether or told me it was unsafe to move around after dark. I took a township tour with Henry, a deadlocked, affable Malawian who had lived in that particular one, Masi, for several years. It wasn't the first time I had been in a township but they are never dull places. Unfortunately those photos are still on an SD card so they are not included here.


Women in townships are all too often the subject of abuse. Those who worked at the hostel and who I spoke to either avoided the township altogether or told me it was unsafe to move around after dark.



A few days earlier I decided to take a tour of Robben Island with one of my fellow hostel travelers, a young Norwegian man called Pal (the a having a little circular character above it, not available on my mini-keyboard). Never mind that it is a highly subscribed tour which departs several times a day from Cape Town harbour, it was
Centoph, Durban CBDCentoph, Durban CBDCentoph, Durban CBD

The cenotaph, a memorial to those who died in the Great War and originated from the province.
still worthwhile.

On the trip out we were lucky enough to see a Southern Right Whale surface a hundred yards astern of the small vessel we were on. I thought it a large seal until it surfaced properly with barnacles encrusting the exposed part of its head. As we arrived at Robben Island harbour a streak of white beneath the surface betrayed the path of a penguin, the one and only one I remember seeing on that trip.

After disembarking we hopped on one of several buses taking tourists around the small island. We weren't allowed to disembark until we got to the old prison buildings, where we were given a tour by a former inmate, Ntabo Mbatha. He was a humble man who had made the island, his former prison, his home. He looked not unlike the current president, Jacob Zuma. His voice was rich and sonorous, a confident orator.

What amazed me, as it evidently did an English travel blogger for the Daily Mail several years before (see reference below) was his lack of acrimony. Like Mandela before him he embraced the idea of reconciliation. He really was to be admired. I have uploaded half
The musician, Durban Art GalleryThe musician, Durban Art GalleryThe musician, Durban Art Gallery

This charming, Picasso-esque piece sits above the town library and natural history museum.
of the footage I took of his presentation below:



We were given a tour by a former inmate, Ntabo Mbatha. He was a humble man who had made the island, his former prison, his home. He looked not unlike the current president, Jacob Zuma ... What amazed me ... was his lack of acrimony. Like Mandela before him he embraced the idea of reconciliation. He really was to be admired.





Back at the V&A Waterfront the crowds had swelled. The V&A is a real hive of activity - tourist central. A guide from a city walking tour alleged that the shopping mall and restaurants were the second-most visited 'attraction' on the continent ahead of Table Mountain which made him sad. I guess it has to be taken in context.

The Waterfont area has a bit of everything - musicians, good food, boat trips, museums, art galleries and pubs. One just hopes the wealth filters into the local economy. I'm told rents are exorbitant and heard from a reliable source that only 3 in 10 restaurants survive their first year in the city.



I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. I certainly met a broad spectrum of people both local and foreign; white, black and mixed-race; gay and straight. I've come way with some priceless anecdotes and good memories. My journeys to the other metropolitan areas mentioned have been shorter affairs but worth mentioning too.


I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. I certainly met a broad spectrum of people both local and foreign; white, black and mixed-race; gay and straight.



For the first time in my life I visited central Durban where I
Yachts, Durban HarbourYachts, Durban HarbourYachts, Durban Harbour

Yachts sit idle at their private moorings near the Victoria embankment, Durban Harbour.
perused the natural history museum (excellently curated) and the city Art Gallery above (not quite as good but also worth a visit). Nearby stands the City Hall, an impressive neoclassical structure with a variety of statues and impressive memorial to the Great War in close attendance.


I visited central Durban where I perused the natural history museum (excellently curated) and the city Art Gallery above (not quite as good but also worth a visit). Nearby stands the City Hall, an impressive neoclassical structure with a variety of statues and impressive memorial to the Great War in close attendance.


The memorials appeared well maintained but, like all South Africa towns, the informal sector flourished on the margins. A few white vagrants were sleeping rough near one of the statues, a former governor of Natal, while young people perched at the bases chatting amicably to one another.

From there I proceeded to the Victoria Embankment which flanks the harbour. The wharfs here harboured an amassed wealth of yachts and catamarans under the auspices of the Royal Natal Yacht Club. I continued on to the end of the harbour pier beyond the boats and restaurant-cafe (closed till further notice). Right at the end was a chunky fisherman of a mixed-race ethnicity. A little further back were a group of Indian fishermen with deck chairs and a cooler box.

I asked the former how the fishing was. He shrugged and cast a critical eye across to his Indian compatriots. "If it
Uncle D, DurbanUncle D, DurbanUncle D, Durban

My uncle Derek reminiscing on one or other of his adventures or expounding on his views on the state of the nation. He is a great storyteller.
wasn't for them taking out every single fish they hook there might be some decent fish. Man, you have to throw back the undersized fish and let them grow. They take everything just to make bloody fish cakes and sh*t."The real problem it seemed lay in the fact that fishing permits were not being actively enforced as neither were bait catchers. As with Cape Town the most sort-after bait were the sand prawns caught during low tide when they could be sucked out of their holes with simple hand pumps. My new acquaintance was adamant that they too were being over-harvested.


"If it wasn't for them taking out every single fish they hook there might be some decent fish. Man, you have to throw back the undersized fish and let them grow. They take everything just to make bloody fish cakes...

From there I walked back across town and hence to the Point area. My curiosity saw me enter one of the new 'China Malls' which I had previously seen on the outskirts of Pretoria. I am anecdotally informed that Chinese business has been flourishing in South Africa in recent years.



To be fair most of the shops therein were not Chinese but on the second from last floor above there was a large department store, the China star, selling all and sundry. However, the very top floor of the building spoke of different era. A derelict
Madiba and me, Union Buildings.Madiba and me, Union Buildings.Madiba and me, Union Buildings.

A bit of a tourist trap but has to be done! Mandela statue, the Union Buildings, Pretoria.
Art Deco styled room recalled a time when white Durbanites probably came here to socialise and be entertained. I would love to know more about the history of the place.

From Durban I headed back up to the Highveld - Jozi and Pretoria. Based in the former I took the new intra/inter-city Gautrain to the latter last week. It is a modern fast-rail service, essentially a modern mass-transit system significantly faster than the Metro Rail. It runs between Jozi and Pretoria at regular intervals, more frequently during rush hour, and provides a useful alternative to the busy, congested inter-city freeway (motorway).


(the Gautrain) is a modern fast-rail service, essentially a modern mass-transit system significantly faster than the Metro Rail. It runs between Jozi and Pretoria at regular intervals, more frequently during rush hour, and provides a useful alternative to the busy, congested inter-city freeway (motorway).


I have long been fascinated by the Afrikaans language and it's people. I did a year in Pretoria to round off my bachelors degree in 2003. It was a difficult time for me personally but I long regretted not pushing up against whatever social and self-perceived barriers might have presented themselves at the time and tried to see more of the city.

I guess it's a case of 'better late than never'. Please take a look at the accompanying photos and attendant captions to get an idea of the rich history of the former
City Hall, PretoriaCity Hall, PretoriaCity Hall, Pretoria

Statue of Andries Pretorius after who the city is named, astride a horse, before the neoclassical (?) town hall.
capital of the Transvaal Republic, the Union of South Africa, the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa and indeed the present capital of the nation.

Referenced articles:

http://www.fin24.com/Economy/Labour/InsideLabour/Inside-Labour-Decent-wage-decent-policies-20140829

http://travelblog.dailymail.co.uk/2010/06/the-people-of-south-africa-could-teach-the-england-players-a-thing-or-two-about-humility.html


Additional photos below
Photos: 34, Displayed: 34


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The city of PretoriaThe city of Pretoria
The city of Pretoria

A lovely day in the capital as seen from the parliamentary Union Buildings.
Tanzanian street musicianTanzanian street musician
Tanzanian street musician

Near Parliament Gardens, Cape Town.
Muizenburg BeachMuizenburg Beach
Muizenburg Beach

Colourful beach huts along a stretch of Muizenburg Beach.


14th May 2015
Madiba and me, Union Buildings.

The State of the Nation
What a contrast of affluence and poverty, safe and unsafe...yet its known as the Rainbow Nation. Fascinating insights Leo. My memories are of manicured hills with slums creeping down...shopping centres without power as the power lines had been stolen...the largest exporter of copper in Africa we were told yet they don't mine copper...areas where you don't stop for fear of car-jackings. You look happy in this pic. How safe did you feel wandering the streets?
14th May 2015
Madiba and me, Union Buildings.

Yes indeed
Is South Africa a dangerous place? As with so many things in this diverse country it depends on the circumstances. Using one's common sense do not walk the streets outside of the many malls and shopping centres flaunting your wealth, especially after dark. There are also no-go areas as a European or probably anyone else who most likely does not 'fit in'. I was once mugged, years ago, near Johannesburg Park station wandering around pretty aimlessly near the taxi rank looking for a cheap ride back to the suburbs. That was not very clever of me. The stats on crime do not make happy reading but one has to also remember that much it goes on in the townships where alcohol, unemployment and drugs abuse is a problem. That said I felt at ease with a guide on a tour of one such township and I walked again near Park Street, in daylight this time, without any hindrance...
16th May 2015
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South Africa
Great blog. Loved reading your perspective. As you say this area is diverse. The architecture sounds great.
26th May 2015
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Thanks for the feedback
Very much appreciate the supportive comment. Thank you.

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