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Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Beeline to Knysna

To make a long story short, I got all the way to East London. At around 9 p.m I was driving on the N2 around the town. Unlike what I'd have expected back home, there was no obvious place to get off and find accommodation. Soon I had bypassed the town. I began to be concerned that I might drive too far into the night without finding an obvious place to stop and enter the danger zone, a time at night when it wasn't safe to drive, and not safe to stop either. None of the towns along the way had yet been beckoning, and none on my map looked any different until Port Elizabeth, several more hours from there.

The situation was resolved when I drove through King William's Town, again without finding any obvious place to stay. Passing through the town, looking for any place that might offer hospice, I had also lost my way, so as I emerged from the town, I found myself on a back road heading where I did not know. So I pulled over and consulted my maps, and I was doing that when a black policeman happened along to check me out. When I asked where I could stay in that town, he told me to follow him, and he led me to the Masonic Lodge a few blocks off the main road through the center of town.

I had an interesting stay at the Masonic Guest House in King William's Town. The activities I pursue in South Africa, diving and game watching and staying in b&b's, put me in contact mostly with whites here. But I happened on KWT after dark, time to stop driving, and as far as I could see it was an all-black African community. The people were very pleasant and accommodating, and I was glad to have a chance to interact with them.

The next day, I sent the following email, which read in part:


At the moment I'm in Jeffrey's Bay, which, is just west of Port Elizabeth, about 800 kms from Capetown. It's windy here and the waves are all blown out. Getting here, my car was being buffeted all over the road, and you could see the white horses on the ocean over the dunes (like the ones in Oregon, or near Monterey). No one is surfing. It doesn't matter much to me, since I'm pressed for time and it's a bit chilly. I stopped for coffee overlooking the beach. There happens to be a cyber cafe here, so I thought I'd dash off this dispatch to all and sundry.

It's Monday morning. I'm booked to fly from Capetown on Thursday, so I don't have much time for oceans at the moment. I'm in driving mode. After dashing this off, I'm heading for Capetown, hoping to see whales on the way, and calling in at Musso Bay for a chance at cage diving among Great Whites, but the sea conditions don't look good for that, so I don't know.


From J-Bay, Knysna, where it was reputed you could possibly see whales. This might have been possible from "The Heads" and I drove out there but at the end of the road encountered the usual parking paranoia, with an attendant waving me into a lot. Fortunately there was a space just up from there, at the head of the walking trail. I strolled out along the rocky edges of the bay and even tried a trail that looked like it was going up, but a hundred meters along it, began to wonder what I was doing, all alone, going up a hillside on a dirt track. Since I would never dare leave anything I really wanted in a locked car, therefore I had to carry all my valuables with me, all my documents in a waste pouch, hard currency in a money belt, rands in a pouch around my neck, and camera and other valuables (my binoculars and gps, for example), I turned back, retrieved the car, and moved on.

The real treat about Knysna was the oyster factory over the breakwater to an island. It reminded me of Tamale Bay north of San Francisco, where you could also get oysters at their source. I had a plate of cultivated and wild oysters (the wild ones larger, healthier) and also a plate of mussels in wine and sauteed onion. Mitchel beer (the brewery was also in Kynsna) was available. The ale was a decent semi-dark with a good bitter flavor. This made a nice break, though the view of the bay was punctuated by a group of laborers making some improvement to the grounds, black laborers of course.

In Knysna I bought a phone card and called the number on a tourist brochure and called Trevor, who took tourists out to see whales. Trevor asked me when I wanted to go. My suggestion to leave in half an hour got a good laugh out of him. Due to the winds that morning, he had cancelled his boat rides that day, so this call amounted to nothing, because I had first got in touch with Roy, who arranged cage dives with Great White sharks. Roy was up the road in Mossel Bay, and I had agreed to go with him the following day. The suggestion to buy a phone card came from a black man who stepped up from sitting around with his mates under a tree and made friendly conversation, keeping it up so I didn't pull away. He talked about the tree he was sitting under, how he had "told" the city planners not to cut it down because of the wood it would provide when mature. He skillfully steered the conversation round to the economic situation there, and of course I could see what was coming. He told me Knysna was a nice town, but of course, work was hard to come by, and could I spare any change. He seemed happy with the coins I fished from my pocket, and I actually felt enriched by having talked to him.

My travels in SA have made me think about the concept of racism. I have come to the conclusion that only a few people are racists. The difficulty in dealing with blacks in SA, as in the USA, is not usually racial, but economic. Driving through RSA, anyone can see the affluence there juxtaposed with the shanties of the unempowered. As in Rio or Houston or any other city where the poor exist in view of the rich, the poor resort to any means to not only feed their families, but support their drug habits and acquire Rolex watches, just as people do who have earned their money, or possibly gained it through control of resources that the poor are employed to wrest from the earth, which they can't themselves own. When the country that you do not own belonged to your ancestors, this must be particularly galling. In America, the problem was resolved in the favor of whites through genocide of the indigenous populations, but in SA, the dispossessed blacks, along with "coloured" victims of apartheid, are just emerging from their oppression. In most countries of Africa, the question of black as opposed to white is not really an issue, as the blacks dominate (as they do in the Arab countries for that matter; they hire Westerners in whatever capacity they deem appropriate). In SA, the whites still very much dominate, although they are engaged with blacks in the process of "nation building". I suppose this will be a positive development for all concerned eventually, but at the moment there remains the incredible disparity between those living in their fine houses in the well maintained areas of SA cities, and those living in shacks in townships with not much in the way of facilities and education, according to the radio, that doesn't necessarily include science or math.

I did meet one raciest in Durban. His name was Andy, and he was having a lager in a watering hole in the middle of the afternoon where I had ordered a double expresso. He was trying to be helpful, and in the course of the conversation he warned me about wandering into the black areas. He pointed at his head with a couple of fingers and said, the "black" doesn't have it up here, no telling where they would be if we hadn't come along. Good question, I thought, as I took my leave. Let's see, the Xhosa would probably not have killed all their cattle in an effort to drive the British into the sea. The Zulu would have remained the dominant force in the northeast. Naaa, no point in engaging this guy in further conversation.

Next episode:
Mossel Bay and the Great White Shark Cage Diving Experience

More on racism vis a vis the USA
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Last updated: December 20, 1999