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.