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Out Of Africa

South Africa, to be precise, where I had been previously on four occasions. I promised in my last posting upon my arrival eleven days ago to write when I could. I assured you that I had wi-fi and that the places at which I was staying had wi-fi also. Well, they didn't ... quite. So I piled up my impressions and waited till I returned. Which I have now done. From the warm climes of a South African winter to the torrential rains of a cold east coast summer.

Let me own up to the proximate reasons for my visit to South Africa. They were two. The first was wine tasting. I considered myself a wine connoisseur. Alas, my palette is not refined enough to register the subtle distinctions in taste that my friends had no trouble discerning and appreciating. And my tolerance is not as large as theirs, not at all. Eight or nine trips to the decanter in one session gets me just a bit inebriated which is actually pleasant. But it is not informative. So I will have to rely on my fellow travelers (no, not that kind of fellow traveler) to recall the wines and the vintages I seemed to enjoy the most.

The second reason for my trip was to go on safari with a group of close friends. I had never thought of myself as an animal person. The last of our dogs that I really liked was our first, a Great Dane, imaginatively named Hamlet. He died young from a respiratory ailment identified for me by my late friend John Kenneth Galbraith (6'7" and very slender) as endemic to humans and animals whose breathing mechanism has to service a huge and extended system. I also like horses. I had one, a Morgan, for about a dozen years, whom I named "Prince Myshkin" in tribute to his essential sensitive soul.

Well, neither dogs nor horses were in the bush.

What was all around us were lions, leopards, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, hyenas, zebras, buffaloes, kundu, impalas and other cousins in the deer family. You needed to go with a guide and tracker to see them. But, then, you saw them up close ... from the safety of a topless land rover or in the heat of the sun one with a surrey on top. I saw a hyena confronting a leopard and her two baby cubs. It ended without any blood being shed. But the drama from about 10 feet was something I'd never seen before. We stayed at a lodge called Singita Castleton Camp adjoining the Kruger National Game Reserve on the northeastern salient of South Africa which abuts Mozambique and Botswana. (By the way, the World Bank has rated Botswana as a top-class performer in economic growth, actually a depressing assessment given that only 60% of its population earns more than $1.25 a day. But that gives you a sense of what even a prosperous country like South Africa confronts.)

Away from the Stellenbosch wine country and the areas where the lions still roam, my tourism was happenstance. In my previous SPINE, I wrote about the survival of the notorious shantytowns from the bitter years of apartheid. Some shantytowns are illegal--that is, not supposed to be there--and some are perfectly legal, the government's way of handling the growing problems of immigration and worklessness. Some of these planned shanty villages and towns have electricity. But almost none of them have plumbing or, for that matter, water. There are thousands and thousands of latrines at the edges of these enormous population centers, both abutting the big cities and in the midst of rural no-place. The metal latrines face the modern highways, as if to remind passengers driving by in their posh automobiles what life is really like in most of the country.

If you are truly interested in S.A. all you have to do is go on-line to the Mail and Guardian, an independent left-wing paper with a distinguished history and a fearless present. Try to find the issue of August 1. Relentless corruption, police violence, mass protest, mass repression. Millions of orphans, due to AIDS, due to ex- president Mbeki's nutsy denial that HIV wasn't really anything. I met some of these young people who entertained us at a neighboring town, entertained us in an almost Potemkin village manner. I was touched by this and a few similar experiences. But I am afraid that I found no reasonable way to step into help, except with some money, that might or might not be spent reasonably.

Everybody knows that millions of Zimbabweans are escaping to South Africa in search of work. But there is no work. The governments of South Africa from Nelson Mandela's might have interceded in the self- destruction of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. But the religion of African nationalism actually lent desperate Mugabe a helping hand. And so South Africa is now deluged by refugees from the regime it helped.

Frankly, I am now jet-lagged. I should stop. But I'll come back to these topics by and by.

My last reflection: I celebrated my 70th birthday in the bush. We were about to sit down for a festive lunch. And suddenly a small pride of lions appeared perhaps 200 feet from where we were. Born under the sign of Leo, I had never taken it as an auguring of anything. Nor do I now. But I am just unreasonable enough to wonder. The big male of the pack seemed to be positioning the others for something. Suddenly, a herd of buffalo appears. A battle scenario appears to be in the offing. After perhaps an hour the buffalo suddenly retreat. The lions command the turf. Don't mess with me.

A bit later the pride moves on. A then about a hundred elegant impalas take possession of the field. A favorable ending.

July 30 is when I marked my seventieth. That day, according to this year's Hebrew calendar, is the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'av, when Jews the world over commemorate the destruction of the First Temple and the Second. Well, you see I was not fasting. But tradition has it that the messiah will be born on Tisha B'av. I have no phantasies at all.