Back from Africa – Quick Impressions


So I admit this has nothing to Asian security, but off we went to southern Africa for what is likely one-time exposure to some of the most dysfunctional countries on the planet. We visited South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique. Here are some political science observations:

1. Passport-stamping to reinforce sovereignty. In all my travels, I don’t think I ever got stamped, photographed, or ID’d as much I did in Africa. Mozambique alone made me pay $80 for a ridiculously garish and oversized tourist permit, plus entry and ext stamps that took up two pages. But it occurred to me that for many of these states, just being a functional state is pretty d— challenging. Mozambique’s HIV infection is 21% and Maputo looks like Baghdad. So one subtle way to reinforce your ‘stateness’ is elaborate border controls.

2. African streetnames as the last bastion of Marxism. Nothing beats a relaxing stroll down Maputo’s Kim Il Sung Avenue, poking between the proliferating trash and yawning potholes, except perhaps scurrying as fast as possible away from Windhoek’s cringe-inducing intersection of Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe Avenues. I used to think the apartheid South African government’s line about Marxist revolutionaries in the black front-line states was just an excuse for its front-line destabilization policy. But not after visiting these capitals and their national museums. The national museum of Namibia in Windhoek is a Marxist-Cold War throwback in tone, and Mozambique so completely transplanted the East Bloc-model, it still feels today like East Germany in Africa – crumbing concrete everywhere, half-finished rusting buildings, brownouts, purposeful disdain of ancien regime architecture, and even a scary, commie-inspired national logo with a AK-47 on it! Having grown up in the 80s, there was something vaguely familiar to all this stuff, but for the world growing up on globalization and iPods, maybe its time to take down down those pictures of Erich Honecker, huh?

3. Please stop trying to rip me off. This was probably the most depressing part of the experience. Although you are traveling in genuinely third world countries, your sympathy quickly dissipates when you are confronted with routine and blatant efforts to scam you at almost every turn. As a foreigner you are seen as a min-gold mine by just about everyone and you become a magnet for noxious money changers and street hawkers determined to ruin your day. After a few weeks, it becomes a depressing reflex to rudely blow off almost anyone speaking to you on the street, because you know it is a time-wasting scam. Taxi drivers, hostel owners, waiters, street kids and dealers, clerks of almost every variety, airport porters, etc, etc. – all of them seek to charge outrageous prices for faux, nonservices like you showing you where your luggage arrives.

4. White enclavisation. The safari companies run from one ‘white’ enclave to another, in a depressing recognition that the most tourists don’t want to see the black parts of the country and that these are likely too dangerous for a group of ignorant, western newbies. One after another, we hit Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, Vilankulos, and places like that, and they just look liked western resorts. About the only thing ‘African’ was the guy serving you drinks in the disturbingly neocolonial dining experience you regularly have in Africa – that is, hordes of obese white tourists ordering game meat from black waiters in white-owned restaurants ‘safe’ for the companies to take you to. Creepy!

5. Nature tourism is about all there is to do. With only one world-class museum in all of southern Africa, and a cultural life far below what you get in wealthier societies, basically all the tourists go to the bush. It really hit me when one traveler said to me, ‘yeah, we did Botswana in about a week – we hit Chobe and Okavango, and that’s basically all there is to see there.’ In other words, the white people fly in, run around the bush looking at water, flora & fauna, and rock formations, and then take off. You spend more time talking to the other white people in your safari truck then you ever do talking to the native black population of any of the places you visit. Even creepier, the tour companies have realized that the western tourists don’t really want to do that anyway. That’s why the companies bounce you from one resort to another like a chain across the landscape. You are never too far away from a bar that offers Jack Daniels and western food.

6. The Afrikaners are even creepier than you thought; conversely black South African restraint is astonishing. Invictus does a good job showing you how restrained the black majority was in South Africa after 1994, but you don’t realize how extraordinarily generous South Africa’s blacks have been till you visit Pretoria. It is littered, still, with all the old monuments to white domination, topped off by the astonishingly racist Voortrekker Monument. The Voortrekkers were the Calvinist, Dutch-descended Boers who broke from British control of the southern cape and ‘trekked’ inland in search of their (slavery-practicing) ‘free states.’ All of this is presented in the most heroic terms, whitewashing (literally), 1) that the Boers broke from the British primarily because they wanted to continue to enslave Africans, not because of trumped-up British high-handedness, and 2) the massive cultural disruption the Boers brought to black tribes in their path – instead the museum literally says the “Voortrekkers brought the light of civilization to the interior.” The Battle of Blood River is portrayed, inevitably, as a triumph of Christianity and sturdy white rural folk – the marble imagery is brutally classical – and vindication of the civilizing mission.

Honestly, I found the presentation shocking, appalling. It was like some museum glorifying the Old South had somehow survived. Stunned, I asked our black tour guide what he thought. I told him that in Eastern Europe, after the revolution, they tore down all those statues of Lenin, and the Iraqis pulled down Saddam’s statue. But he was remarkably stoic about it. He genuinely seemed concerned that whites in South Africa feel like they belong. That was probably the most impressive sentiment I saw in our entire trip. If I were the president of South Africa, I would dynamite the Voortrekker Monument immediately, even if I weren’t black.

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11 thoughts on “Back from Africa – Quick Impressions

  1. Very interesting. I read an article about the World Cup recently regarding white South African support of the Netherlands team after Ghana (I think) was eliminated. The article reported that a sizeable number of black South Africans joined the whites in rooting for the Dutch, not out of fondness for the Dutch but in sympathy with the whites.

    What did you think of Zim?

    • Zim wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected from its reputation, but then we were only in Vic Falls for 2 days, and VF is explicitly maintained well because, as Zim’s big tourist attraction, it is a huge source of foreign exchange. But we still had to take taxis at night to go even just a mile or two, because we were told it was so dangerous.

  2. Nice view on the trip, Robert.

    I concur with your rip-off comment. But after this Africa trip I’ve been wondering whether or not tourism is actuallly a good thing for the Africans. Because the decadent tourists, who really have no clue about the value of money and products and do not wanna forfit any of their western luxuries douring their stay, have “Rip me off” written on their foreheads. And the still better organized white men know exactly how to provide that ‘service’ and exploit their countryman in the process. So, does Africa benefit from our visit and is it just gonna take a lot off generations to mature, or do we corrupt more then we tribute?

    On the other hand some of those self acclaimed ‘service providers’ do sometimes excel in creativity to make something out of nothing. With pleasure I handed them a few dimes on several occasions. A lot more gratifying then booking an overpriced “Extreme Adventure”

    For your comments on the Afrikaners is must say I share some of you thoughts, but from what I’ve seen and heard in Capetown the black restraint is not always so great. Apartheid still lives in Africa, but both ways. White men can saveguard themselves with the fortunes they’ve made, but racism comes their way just as hard as they excecuted it before. The social structure in South Africa is so complex I dare not predict how this nation is gonna develop.

    And yes, Invictus is a great movie, but it made all the more clear that Mandela’s resignment has been a major setback for the country. His tolerance, his capabillity to overlook differences and his strength to oversee and overcome deeply settled emotions, is a gift granted to very few people of whom none are in office there now.

  3. Hi Bob,
    Very frank observations – very fair-minded.
    Your comments about the tours match those of friends of mine who’ve been to the same area – see the wildlife, have a drink, and move on. But this is not unique. Visitors to Cancun almost never to into the city (my wife and I did) but rather spend their time there in the zona hoteleria or take tours.

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  5. This is my first visit to your blog, hope you don’t mind the very late comment on this post.
    Since I am white and from Africa (my family traces its roots back to some of the first Dutch / French settlers to arrive in what is now South Africa) I am quite interested in other people’s views of (South) Africa.
    Your take on the Afrikaners surprised me. Afrikaners are and have always been fiercely divided in their political views. The fact that they don’t speak with one voice (and never have) is a hallmark of their politics and their entire history.
    If you want to make sweeping statements about them as a group (“Afrikaners are even creepier than you thought”), you should visit more that just one (very controversial and ugly) monument, which happens to be a building which many Afrikaners would gladly destroy themselves because they too find it – and what it stands for – “appalling and shocking”.
    This is, by the way, not a white, post-apartheid sentiment – the lawyer who defended Mandela during the Rivonia Trial was an Afrikaner. Afrikaners who opposed apartheid were (initially) a relatively small but very vocal group. During the 80′s this changed and many more Afrikaners joined the struggle against apartheid, often at greater cost to themselves than black compatriots because they were seen as “traitors” by the Afrikaner nationalists. Nelson Mandela writes about this, and about his respect for these people, in his autobiography.
    The difficulty you had in understanding the black guide’s reaction to your revulsion is nothing new. Race relations in South Africa is a complicated matter.
    I would also not recommend Invictus as an outstanding source of information on the many complex matters one has to come to terms with in understanding South Africa. In South Africa, nothing is black-and-white, and everything is. These are contradictions that every South African learns to live with eventually.

    • I suppose you are right that that was a sharp generalization, but that Voortrekker Monument is simply vile. I must also say that we found white South Africans rather disinterested in, or condescending, towards the blacks. We made a point to spend 3 days in a township, and we were stunned when the b&b managers told us that white South Africans never came, nor even took the township tours. The white South Africans’ attitude seemed to be, ‘we just don’t really want to hear about that stuff anymore; it’s past, and we are sick of it.’ Fair enough, but you can’t leave Praetoria as it is, and then say you don’t want to talk about it. Your response here that is all complicated is a moral dodge. You brutalized and deculturated those people, and you owe them a lot more interest than we saw.

  6. Does it upset you to think that some Afrikaners would gladly see the Voortrekker monument destroyed? If so, why?
    My response that ALL is complicated in Ahhfrika (based on 42 years of actually living there) is a “moral dodge”? No, I don’t think so.

    “You” brutalized and deculturated those people… Who, exactly, is “you”?
    The few disinterested whites you met (or didn’t meet) on your two-to-four-week long “Journey Through Ahhfrika?
    Do my individul efforts (and effortsd by others like me, black and white) at creating a better society in South Africa count, or not? Will my efforts and sentiments forever be overshadowed by those of my ancestors?
    If so, it raises interesting questions for you and YOUR countrymen.

    I once read a research paper somewhere about how Ahhfrika, and in particular South Africa, gives the racists in other parts of the world an excuse to think: well… we’re not THAT bad. I initially thought the paper was a bit… uhhmmm puerile? I have subsequently changed my mind.

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