Democracy and Development in South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Life Aquatic in Cape Town

L to R: Display of pollution of Cape Town beaches by the
waterfront, seafood watch symbols,  a close up of display
and a map of the plastic in the water. 

Cape Town is a city of paradoxes, especially when it comes to the environment. Many South African espouse the glory of nature and the need for recycling and conservation. But, Cape Town still struggles with recycling and air pollution, as it is a motorized city with poor public transportation infrastructure (WMATA, I will try to stop complaining about your service). Most people travel to work and play by taxi, mini bus, or cars.  One South Africans told me that Cape Town does not have air pollution because of the Cape Doctor, which is a strong south-easterly wind that blows the smug away from South Africa’s coast, but when the doctor is away the smog will play (see below).  
Air pollution haze above Cape Town
As South Africa struggles, like other countries, to become greener, I wanted to highlight one of Cape Town’s educational green initiatives at the Two Oceans Aquarium. This visit is due in thanks to Professor Tumi, Cape Town native, who shared that it was a great place to visit.  And boy, was she right!  Throughout the Two Oceans Aquarium, there were signs, displays and images that stressed the importance of the sea and the need for us to watch for our environmental imprint/impact. I was especially impressed with two educational displays at the aquarium. The first was “For Love of Water (FLOW), which reminded visitors that “we are a mirror image of this composition – our human bodies also comprise 70% water; without water we would die and so would the planet.”[1] These messages were written on the fish tanks to remind us to stay in touch with the ocean. The second display focused on overfishing and over-consumption of fish, which is an important issue that the United States rarely discusses (Unless you have friends, who work at NOAA and talk about Total Allowable Catch limits). The aquarium used the stop light  (or in South Africa, robot signals) colors to indicate to visitors “green” species of seafood.  You can even call or text a number to check to see if a fish you wish to eat is from a healthy population. This display reminded visitors that we are consumers and that we can  “make a huge difference to our ocean resources by choosing to eat seafood that is still plentiful and can cope with today’s fishing pressures.[2]  So think or text (079 499 8795) before you eat!
Below is a list of easy green recommendations from the Two Oceans Aquarium:
By saving energy and using more renewable sources of energy, we can reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and help cool the earth and the oceans.
·       Change a light: Replace one normal light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) and save 330kg of carbon dioxide a year. Make sure you dispose of the CFLs safely as they contain mercury which is toxic.
·       Drive less: Walk, cycle, catch a lift or take public transport and save 2.2kg of carbon dioxide for every kilometre you don't drive.
·       Recycle more: Save 5 280kg of carbon dioxide per year by recycling just half of your household waste.
·       Check your tires: Keep your tires inflated and improve petrol usage by more than 3%. Every litre of petrol saved keeps 44kg of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
·       Use less hot water: Install low flow showerheads (770kg of CO2 saved per year) and wash your clothes in cold or warm, not hot, water (1 100kg saved per year).
·       Turn off your computer overnight – a standard monitor left on overnight uses enough energy to print 5 300 copies!

[1] Two Oceans Aquarium website:
[2] Two Oceans Aquarium website:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

HIV is No Longer Sexy

“HIV is no longer sexy,” Fredalene Booysen told our class on our May 25th site visit to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) branch in the township of Khayelitsha. Booysen, TAC’s district manager, was describing how the days of plentiful funding for HIV programming have ended as international funding for HIV has declined.  TAC still continues to distribute antiretrovirals, give out condoms and educate community members on HIV prevention in the township of Khayelitsha, an informal settlement where residents live primarily in self-constructed tin structures. However, TAC has been forced to shut down several of its other branches because of funding constraints. Booysen mentioned that the withdrawal of funding from the Global Fund has been particularly difficult for TAC.

About ten years ago, TAC was a major force in challenging the South African government’s harmful HIV policies under former president Thabo Mbeki and ensuring access to antiretroviral drugs for South Africans, especially for HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent mother to child transmission. Booysen and other staff described how TAC is now in a time of transition. While the organization still maintains a watchful eye on the South African government and is ready to protest if necessary, staff recognize that they’ve mostly won their fight against the South African government for access to antiretrovirals (although stock outs and shortages still remain a problem).  TAC has also increasingly been called upon to provide community support in areas outside of its mandate, responding to xenophobic attacks and advocating both for the LGBT community and survivors of gender-based violence in recent years. TAC has the difficult task of trying to continue the support it provides to communities like Khayelitsha and define its mission while also dealing with very serious funding problems. At present, TAC is reluctant to accept funding for its work from the South African government in order to retain its independence and ability to work as a government watchdog group, and is focusing fundraising efforts on small funds from individual donors. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Encountering The Great White Shark

Coming close to nature, understand more about mother earth (and sea) and being exposed to the wonderful world of animals were among the motivations for my excursion to South Africa. So far, we have seen a number of exotic South African animals, such as baboons, penguins, ostrich and antelopes. Along our road trips, we have also encountered signs about whale watching and shark alert….There are a lot of things that we need to explore around here!!! South Africa, especially Cape Town is also famously known for its offering of a variety of extreme sports. So with the desire to test myself in one of the country’s most extreme activities, and at the same time, satisfy my desire to expose to one of the most-feared creatures, I decided to go diving with the Great White Shark.

We embarked on a trip to the town of Gansbaai at 4:30 am in the morning. From there, we would be taken to Dyer Island, one of the places in the world where there is the densest population of the great white sharks. Warmly welcomed to after a 2 hour ride, with a continental breakfast, I thought to myself: “Eat, eat, eat all you can!!! …before you become the breakfast of the great white.” As soon as the sun started rising, and after a safety orientation, we were ready to go.

15 minutes, a fast but rough and bumpy ride (during which we were entertained by a tactful crew member’s show of feeding the hauk!) took us to the middle of the ocean. The crew began using all tactics to attract the white sharks to our boat: from scented trail (of ocean water mixing with tuna’s head) to the interesting thumb on the boat to lure them. We volunteered to be the first group of divers! ”Down Down, to the right”, a crew member, responsible for luring the shark with his tuna baits, commanded! Down we went, and were absolutely amazed by the “beauty” of the great white shark. Encountering the amazing creature in its own habitat was like a “dream come true” for me. 18ft in length, grey on top, and white underbelly, perfect camouflage body features with little black eyes and its sly grin, I thought the white shark was an "adorable" creature. Despite being “adorable”, a sly grin on his face communicated to me: “I know what you’re up to, seal people!This time…I’m getting you!”.

One of the most interesting thing we learnt about the white shark is that they have the special ability of power sensing. They can sense electrical fields that radiate from living creatures. The signals from their prey were sent to the shark’s brain and it would be able to determine, who’s panicking….Weak animals, of course are easy prey…This fact has resulted in Sia’s denial for her second dive with the great white.  Ana and I, however were happy about our second dive, thanks to our “intimate experience” with the great white. He came closer to us, and abruptly, for the first time, during our whole trip, was able to completely grasp the bait. Our crew members were “fishing” the shark as colleagues recalled from their view from above. As for us, underneath the water, it was an unforgettable experience. Never before has the shark been so close to us. We were able to see it jaws, its fins almost inside our cage. And in my head, I did think that “if only I could feel it right now…"Yes, it was not wise, but I was truly amazed by its beauty (Of course, not that beauty if my hand was bitten off)..

 I was guilty at first at the thought of playing around with nature for our extreme pleasure, but the experience also taught me that such activity in fact helps preserve this endangered animal more than harming them. To me, it also has a special meaning as the White Shark Project had a social purpose. It wasn’t a cheap adventure, but I felt better knowing that a portion of my investment would go into activities for poor children in township of South Africa.

Giving human the opportunity to be closer to nature, through the brand of “responsible tourism” is another success of SA in selling its beauty to visitors.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On behalf of Sebastian Insfran, who for some reason cannot acccess the blog :)

The importance of “in situ” learning!

I cannot even describe how valuable I am feeling this trip has been so far for me. I met new peers that I can say now are part of my “South African” family; I am witnessing spectacular landscapes with beautiful mountains and vineyards on one side and the magnificent Atlantic Ocean beaches on the other; and I am learning more about this incredible country every new minute I spend on this trip.
What I believe is the most importance feature of this South African Program is the opportunity of actually feeling with all our senses each one of the lessons learned in the lectures that we are having during our stay. We could definitely have each one of those lectures back in DC, but that would have not been the same. By being in person in South Africa, I am actually observing and partially experiencing much of the challenges and the opportunities that the country, and Cape Town, as one of its most important cities, are facing in the Post-Apartheid period. For instance, I would able to perceive the reminiscences of Apartheid by observing the division of Cape Town in townships and luxury neighborhoods, and the clear differences in the cultural and economic livelihoods of white, coloured and black populations. Moreover, on the one hand I could observe how Black Economic Empowerment works in the “Thandy” agricultural cooperative, and on the other hand, how many political and cultural challenges restrict the work of NGOs in their fight against HIV/AIDS. Finally, I was capable to talk with locals and perceive their restrictive hope about a country that they know have serious obstacles to surpass in the immediate future, but have many reasons to hope for better perspectives given its unsurpassable position in the African continent.
That is the magic of what I call the real “in situ” learning!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Robben Island

Robben Island is about 12km from the mainland; it is where Nelson Mandela and other Black liberation leaders were held as political prisoners.  We saw the house where Robert Sobukwe was held for six years before he went mad.  The stories were poignant and inspiring, and a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit. 

I was particularly touched by Sobukwe’s story, a freedom fighter who later broke away from Mandela and the ANC, to form the PAC (Pan-African Congress).  He was held as a “visitor” of the government on Robben Island in a fenced-in house, where he was not allowed to ever leave the fenced area.  He was kept under guard and not allowed to speak to anyone.  His guards were switched every few months as part of an elaborate plan to prevent him from making friends. 

Sobukwe played a significant role in the liberation movement, yet he is barely remembered today.  He was kept on Robben Island during the same time that Mandela and other significant ANC leaders were there.  I was most moved by the story told by our tour guide: every day Sobukwe would watch as Mandela and the other ANC leaders made their way from their prison cells to the lime quarry to work. He was not allowed to call out to them, but he would stand by the doorway of his house and grab a handful of dirt, then let the earth sift through his fingers.  This gesture was meant to communicate that “We are the sons of Africa and we will fight til the end. La Lucha continua.”

The island is a silent witness to the many horrors and deaths that occurred during the years of Black oppression and apartheid.  Yet, it was also witness to some of the most amazing acts of human resilience.  The smallest university in the world was established in a small cave in the lime quarry where the ANC leaders labored.  The ANC leaders found ingenious ways to disseminate information and communicate with other political prisoners.  Eventually they were able to develop a sophisticated underground education system in the prison.  Their teachings were said to have even reached far beyond the island’s shores to other parts of the African continent.

The walking tour of the prison was given by a former political prisoner who was held for conspiracy against the South African government and for recruiting for the ANC.  He spoke of his experience in the famous prison and how he survived.  One can’t help but believe that right will always prevail and to feel inspired by the incredible strength displayed by the liberation heroes of South Africa.

Molo Mama!!!

Last Thursday we had the amazing opportunity to meet Mama Sheila, the proud owner of a Lelapa Restaurant in the Langa township. The story of how she started her business and the journey that it entailed was extremely admirable and inspiring. During the apartheid years, Mama Sheila worked as a maid in a white home. One day as she was cleaning she picked up a restaurant receipt from the previous evening's meal. The total on that restaurant receipt for two wine and cheese was more than her monthly income. From that moment, she decided that something had to change. She started attending night classes, saving, buying and selling second hand clothing, and even taking trips to Bangkok to buy clothing for her consignment business. Once she was able to save enough money to start her restaurant, she started it on the side of the house she lived in and through the years has expanded into a larger dining area. Currently, her restaurants employs 8 women, a band of usually 4 musicians, and at least 2 men as street security. In a country where poverty is rampant and the unemployment rate is around 40%, there's a need for people like Mama Sheila, who are not only improving their own quality of life, but also bringing others along on the ride. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Reality of SA's Townships

(I can't seem to upload photos- but some to come!)

Our lectures and personal research about South Africa's extreme poverty and unemployment rates couldn't prepare us for what we were to experience at Langa- a township just outside Cape Town. When we arrived in Langa we were met by "Sugar," a 30-year old native of Langa. Sugar gave us a guided tour of the township, making note not only of the community skills development projects but also inside information on life in the township; we learned about education, the local youth health clinic, crime and poverty.

Throughout the entire tour, and even into the shanty section of Langa, we were accompanied by little boys and girls eager for a photo or a hand to hold. In particular, the children were amazed by Arma's iPad and flocked to him in groups. Earlier in the week we had learned that there is no welfare system for the poor; however, there is a welfare-like system for families with small children. I couldn't help but think that this social system might be a factor in the surprising number of children we met and saw throughout Langa. 

As we finished of tour of Langa, we were met by our Romer Tour guides, who came bearing oranges. The image of our tourguides giving out oranges to the children is a sight I'll never forget; the way the children jumped, pushed and shouted for a single orange served as a reminder of the destitute conditions they live in and the simple goods that I must never take for granted. Our tour of Langa encouraged me to think critically about job creation in South Africa and hope for a life outside the shanty towns for the children of Langa.