November 28, 2007

The Rainbow Nation?

Sometimes you call tell a lot about a country by its flag: Ireland's peaceful white in between Protestant orange and Catholic green; Zambia's ubiquitous fish eagle atop liberation movement blood, black skin and copper; America's infamously bold stars 'n' stripes.

South Africa's current flag, adopted on the eve of multiracial elections in 1994, is one of the most telling. Though it doesn't look like a rainbow, it has six colours all the same - supposedly a mix between the ANC emblem, the Dutch flag and the Union Jack. Fitting for a country proclaimed to be the 'Rainbow Nation' after the fall of apartheid.

But even though the country's people - Zulus, Xhosa, Khoisan, Boers, Britons, Indians, Chinese... - are far from monochrome, the singular reality of life is that it stinks to be poor in a country where people of all colours are becoming increasingly wealthy. According to most of the people I talked to down there, this is the unsurprising source of their problem with violent crime.


I was excited to go to Nelson Mandela Square. I pictured some European-looking quadrangle in downtown Johannesburg where people of all walks would be enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon. So it was to my dismay that as soon as the impressive city skyline appeared over the horizon, the taxi driver turned sharply and headed towards the suburb of Sandton (maybe a bit too sharply as we cut off a wild-eyed motorcyclist who tried to punch out the driver's side window with us both going about 130km/h).

"What's in Sandton?" I asked, wondering where my shop-a-holic colleagues were taking me on my self-declared Cultural Experience Day. "Rich people," the driver deadpanned.

Barely noticing the townships (apartheid-era ghettos for black people) whiz by, the buildings steadily climbed higher until they resembled those condo complexes beside the Gardiner in Toronto. In the heart of Sandton City - an even ritzier mall than Menlyn Park with all the big designer labels - is the heinously-named Nelson Mandela Square. I wasn't feeling the ubuntu personally, but whatever, I had a gourmet meal and bought a $30 t-shirt to get rid of the Rand I had left over from my daily 'allowance' (see: wasteful NGO spending). I guess that passed for my desired cultural experience.

Bloated from wine and birthday cheesecake, we raced back to airport as the sun set over the city. I had picked up a pamphlet in Sandton that advertised the Township of Alexandra as one the 'attractions' of the area. In the new South Africa, it seems even the most notorious ghettos have shopping malls and tourist boards. The most infamous of all townships, Soweto, will host the final game of the World Cup in a new 100,000-seat stadium. The problem now seems to be keeping the newly-arriving slum dwellers - rural migrants, refugees from Zimbabwe, Nigeria and all over Africa - from squatting on the fringes.

The freeway, winding its way around a hill atop Alexandra, offered a perfect view on the way back. Housing half a million people in just eight square kilometres, a sprawling but orderly grid of colourful one-room homes carpeted the hillside, tethered to central power lines in a tangled mess of wiring. In the fading daylight the perfect rows almost had the spectrum of rainbow, if it weren't for a black mass of shacks that abutted one end of the settlement.

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