Wining and dining

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Friday, December 8, 2006

He Said:

Since flying into Malawi back in September, each subsequent nation (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia) we have entered has been like taking a step up the economic development scale, progressively going from third to first world. This certainly is true of South Africa as well. Driving here you'd guess you were in the southwest United States. The rolling landscape, good infrastructure, modern houses, flourishing vineyards, and bustling economic activity make it all look surprising like parts of California. But of course if you look closer there are a number of differences as well.

I know that most of you will have memories of some of the political upheaval that took place in South Africa in the 80's and 90's, but just in case it is a bit hazy, here is a rundown of their history in four paragraphs:

Although inhabited by many tribes for thousands of years, much of South Africa's pre-colonial history is pretty hazy. In the 1600's, the Dutch and English both established colonies in the region to supply ships on the trade routes from India. In the early 1800's, groups of Dutch settlers (known as Boers) were increasingly at odds with British rule and migrated inland and after successfully fighting a series of wars against the Zulu tribes who had controlled the lands. The Boers then formed their own republic. This nation within the colony made the British nervous and set off a series of conflicts in which the British eventually triumphed, leaving a lot of bad blood between the Boers and Brits. Since then, Boers have continued to play a vocal role in the politics of the region and their language, Afrikaans, continued to be a major tongue in southern Africa. Early in the 1900's, the entire country was given its independence. Throughout all this, the native population of the areas were thoroughly discriminated against denied most basic rights. This discrimination actually became official government policy with the establishment of apartheid in 1948.

Apartheid is basically enforced segregation. It was like an extreme version of the American South before the Civil Right Movement, but in the South African case, it was actually codified into law. All persons are classified by race, and one is not allowed to marry, have sexual relations, live, or use facilities of other races. Non-whites were required to carry identity documents with them at all times and only 7% of the nations' land could legally be owned was by blacks. The security forces crushed any type of opposition to the system and brutal police tactics were the norm. In every way, the system was designed to keep the white minority in political and economic control of the nation.

Besides the domestic protests and calls for change, such blatantly racist policies naturally drew loads of criticism from abroad. Many nations boycotted South African products and diplomatic pressure was put on the nation. After years of conflict, repression and declarations of emergency, in 1990 they finally acknowledged that the system could not work any longer and finally began repealing the apartheid laws. Nelson Mandela, (who had been incarcerated for over 27 years due to his anti-apartheid political activity) was released from prison, and by 1991 was a leading figure in the African National Congress (ANC) who ended up winning the nations' first free election in 1994.

Since 1990, South Africa has been struggling to convert it economy from one based on exploitation to one of opportunity. Their mines supply much of the world's gold and diamonds and they are the economic powerhouse of the region. Despite this prosperity, the lingering effects of apartheid are proving to be very challenging to overcome. The nonwhite population had been systematically excluded from education, land ownership, and opportunity for so long that even after a decade of a free South Africa, a huge economic chasm lingers. How to realistically fix this toxic legacy is the real question. Adapting one of the most progressive constitutions in the world was a very important first step, but just changing the law so all are equal does not fix the under education, terrible living conditions, and other inequities that plague so much of the South African population. Only serious government intervention can correct most of these problems, but they don't want the solutions to be so rash and haphazard that it causes chaos (like the disastrous land redistribution policies of Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe) bankrupts the nations, or kills flourishing businesses and the existing (though unevenly distributed) economic prosperity. In any case, South Africa has a lot of changes underway and yet to make, and it is a country that truly has first and third world elements existing side by side. All in all, this makes it a very dynamic and interesting time to visit.

Ok, got all that?

We crossed into South Africa and made a beeline for the Western Cape region. To break up the drive we stopped overnight in the town of Citrusdal. There we had a little taste of home when our cook group prepared a slightly belated Thanksgiving dinner. Ok it was roasted chicken instead of turkey, but most of the other accoutrements were there; mashed potatoes, stuffing, veggies, cranberry sauce. We both loved it, and of course in true Thanksgiving tradition, ate until we were groaning in agony.

Yesterday we rolled into the Cape Winelands and stayed in the cute town of Stellenbosch. We visited three wineries, sampled their products, and purchased a few bottles (after all we need to be responsible travelers and support the local economy!) Most of our group had never been to a wine tasting so they were a bit timid and pensive at the first winery. Leave it to say that by the time we left the third vintner (and had sampled over 15 different wines) everyone was very chatty!

There has been quite the range of activities on this overland trip. To go from bush camping in the middle of nowhere to sampling cabernet in the swanky tasting rooms of Stellenbosch in one tour would be pretty hard to match! Anyway, tomorrow we are heading down to the Cape of Good Hope then on to Cape Town where our overland tour ends and we are on our own again.

She Said:

As we crossed the border into South Africa, the border guards were some of the most thorough we have experienced. They actually searched the entire truck and everyone's daypack, and were planning on having drug-sniffing dogs smell our luggage. The ironic thing was that one of the staff was wearing a hat with a big marijuana leaf embroidered on it. Guess it easier to see faults in others than what is right under your nose (or on your head)!!

We had fun at the wineries, and the exchange rate between the rand and the dollar really works in our favor... we were able to buy bottles of great wine for the equivalent of $4! One of the wineries looked like something out of a fairytale - large brick mansion, big pond in front complete with swans, and rosebushes everywhere! And to make it even better, they do wine and chocolate tasting at that particular winery. We are definitely going back there again.

The town of Stellenbosch is sooooooo CUTE, and I actually felt like we were back home in the good 'ole USA! To go from camping in a desolate desert one night to sitting at a sidewalk café in a western style city sipping a chai latte in only 2 days felt...well, amazing. It's nice to be back in extreme civilization (or should I say commercialization)!
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