KwaZulu-Natal – The Proverbial Elephant in the Room

I once read somewhere that Africa can “get under your skin” and despite not being able to remember the source of the quote, I can attest to the validity of it. After the ecological wonders of Kruger National Park and the spectacular mountains and friendly locals of Swaziland it was with considerable energy and hope that we re-entered South Africa for three days in KwaZulu-Natal.  Clinging to the underside of Swaziland and running along the easterly coast of Africa, this state is home to yet more National Parks, celebrated local culture and beautiful coastline.  We explored the St. Lucia estuary, sailing past hippos wallowing in the water, fish eagles soaring on thermals looking for an unsuspecting rodent scurrying through the underbrush, crocodiles warming themselves on banks, and innumerable birds, too many to count. We spent a day exploring the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, watching zebras, warthogs and numberless wildebeests graze on wide plains.  We wandered the beaches of the Elephant Coast and stared out across the blue waters saying to each other, “The other side of that ocean is our home.”  It was, without a doubt, very nice.

Women handwashing in the stream

But for Ashley and I, today was the day that the equilibrium was upset, today was the day that we finally confronted the difficult facts about this extraordinary country. In order to properly explain myself I must relinquish the opining to my new friend Koons, who told me today, “We are a first world nation, as well as a third world nation.”  He then told me a story to illustrate his point.  Once, during a drought; something that Australians are not unaware of, he was driving down a long road.  On one side of the road was a golf club.  The grass was green, sprinklers ch-ch-chrring as they spread water out onto the fairways. Birds played in the spray and the wealthy were our playing golf in their best attire.  On the other side of the road was a black lady, carefully pushing a wheelbarrow down a dirt path.  In the wheel barrow was several large drums of dark dirty water.  She was pushing this water towards her shanty, collecting what she could to use for all the things that we only need to twist a tap a quarter turn for.  This image explains a lot about South Africa.

Apartheid was dismantled legally by 1991 but the effects of this monstrous institution might well have cast a showdown over South Africa for many years to come.  Although much has changed, the poor faces we see are still overwhelmingly black and the wealthy towns are still white.  It’s easy to see which neighborhood you are in – multi-bedroom, modern decorative homes with tile roofs and pristine landscaping, like you might see in an upper-middle class suburb in any first world nation, are surrounded by eight foot fences with razor wire on top, locking gates, and armed security systems.  Just down the road are shanty townships – rows of sagging, miserable boxes pieced together with rusted corrugated iron, tar paper, and blue plastic.  Skinny dogs nose through garbage that is strewn along roadsides and spread haphazardly throughout vacant lots.  At first, we mistake them for old trailer park tool sheds, then notice hand-scrubbed laundry innocently swaying in the breeze outside and realize, someone, probably several people, live here.  I should pause here and say that I am not making a claim that white South Africans are still maintaining a segregated state, indeed many that we have talked to speak proudly of the move towards democracy for all.  But as is so often the case in cities in America, economic realities and educational opportunities are as effective at separating people as laws are.  But poverty as Ashley and I understand it, the sort that we witnessed in Richmond, Virginia for example, does not come even close to what we have witnessed here.

Some quick facts:

  • One quarter of South Africa’s population live on less than $1.25 a day.
  • Over 5.7 million people are affected with HIV/AIDS – more than any other country in the world. Almost 20% of the population is infected and 31% of pregnant women.
  • Over one-quarter of the working population is un-employed.
  • The life expectancy for both men and women is under 50 years of age.
  • Only 22% of black children go on to complete high school while over 70% of white South Africans do.

Now I know that there are many places struggling as much, and even more, as South Africa.   But this was our lesson in humility, our moment to reflect.  Seeing this has changed us.

Questions that once monopolized my time seem… well trivial. How can I worry about my prospects for employment in Australia? I will find a job because I am a capable person with a relatively sufficient education and a good work ethic.  How can I worry about being warm and dry at night and about having enough food to eat?  I have family that will help on both sides of the Pacific, family that await our imminent arrival with furnished rooms and cold beers. How can I worry about Lily? She will grow up in a safe environment, loved by her family and have all the opportunities we can provide for her.  These are things that I too often take for granted as, I suspect, do most of us that live in Australia and America.  But too many people in South Africa are not able to answer these questions positively, and additionally, do not see a future in which they, their children, or their children’s children will experience anything different from a dirt floor, thatched roof, no running water and certainly no electricity.

Arriving at our hotel this evening we found ourselves profoundly exhausted.  The long, hot, dusty drive to Johannesburg taxed us both physically (the roads were rough and we negotiated what would have to be the longest stretch of continual road improvement and excavations ever; 300 kilometers of it!) and mentally.   I am certainly no expert on the affairs of Africa, and certainly not an expert on African poverty.  I wish I knew how this situation could be solved – how to stop children dying from malnutrition, from curable diseases, from neglect.  I might not have noticed this before Lily, but now my eyes are on the young.  Little children running down the road in bare feet and threadbare clothes, taking lollipops from me, telling me their names and running off (I wished I could give them an education, medical exam and “food for life” instead of candy). I don’t have an answer, but I wish I did.

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7 Responses to KwaZulu-Natal – The Proverbial Elephant in the Room

  1. keith says:

    good reflection Marcus. thanks.

  2. Kurt says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Marcus. When you get home I would encourage you to pick up a copy of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities For Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs for an excellent analysis of the causes and solutions to extreme poverty in our world today. Sachs is an amazing man with ideas that make so much sense I just shake my head in wonder.

  3. Ann Forster says:

    oh Marcus, it makes me sad that you have had such a confronting time. Lots of us have had those moments as we travel and stay in third world countries and when we get home the house seems way to big and we have too many ‘things’we don’t really need. But then we setle back into our lives and although we can’t save or house or educate all of those kids, there are lots of members of your family who do what small things they can do and you will find those opportunities too.

  4. David Wilson says:

    Marcus, profound comments on a painful epiphany. It’s amazing that we’ve been fans, for years of the likes of Zach DeLa Rocha and Rage. This is exactly what they were screaming about. Perhaps you could come up with a way to facilitate the experience you’ve had for others, in order to benefit those in need. I’m right outside your door…TESTIFY! We miss you all. Please keep sharing the joy and lessons of your travels.

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