Saturday, 16 February 2008

Back in town

I am back in the UK and starting work Monday. Looking forward to catching up with people soon. And come back here for entertaining tales of culture clash as the weeks pass - my first job is ITU which could not be further removed from rural South African medicine.

Monday, 11 February 2008

The recession

I am in the bank to tie up my financial affairs before going home. The girl dealing with me is fascinated about why I might have come to South Africa to work - all her friends are going to the UK.

"One of them came back with a MILLION RAND! And he only worked there for a year."

"What work was he doing?" I ask.

"Working in a bar!"

I would be keen to know which bar pays over £75 000 a year - I might be tempted.

She asks me about HIV and whether people "up there" in the rural areas were very sick. "Was it stressful?" she asks as she takes my passport.

"At times."

She studies my ID photo. Then she studies me.

"Well you've definitely got less hair than before."

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Robben Island


We file silently into the building exchanging the harsh bright white mix of sun and limestone for the gloom of the interior. As our weary eyes recover and vision is restored the darkness recedes. A tall black man stands at the end of the hall. He watches us silently as we file in. As the last person enters he booms, “You are late!” There is a ripple of nervous laughter. Is he chastising us or is he joking?

“My name is Thulani,” he continues. “And I was a prisoner here on Robben Island.” Everyone shuts up.

There are about 120 of us – of which just 5 or 6 are South African. The rest: tourists, pilgrims really, from all over the world. And all of us have come to see the place where Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest man of the second half of the twentieth century, was imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid regime.


Thulani tells us how he was imprisoned for his involvement in a bomb placed in the intelligence service building in Pretoria. “It was not in working hours – there were 47 minor injuries. No one was killed,” he emphasises.

He was sent to Robben Island to serve his sentence – joining Nelson Mandela and several others that later became prominent members of the new government.

“I was brought on the same boat that brought you to the island today. I was brought into the room in which you stand now. They then made me take off all my clothes. I stood naked before the prison officers and they examined me and then gave me one set of prison clothes and one thin jumper. If I had been Indian or Coloured I would have got a thick jumper. But because I was Black I got a thin jumper.”

“Did you have visitors?” someone asks.

“You were allowed visitors but they had to apply. One day they called me and said, ‘Thulani – on Friday you have a visitor. Your father is coming.’ I was so excited. Then, the day before the visit, I was called to the chief officer. ‘Your father is not coming. He is intensive care. He was shot yesterday 8 times.’ I went back to my cell and I just sat on the floor. The others – they came and asked what had happened and I told them. Later I found that after my father had applied to visit me the security services went to see him and they beat him up and shot him 8 times. He lived – but he could not walk again.”

There is silence.

One of the 5 South Africans, a Zulu girl from Durban, asks, “How can you be here? After all this how can you come and work here every day.”

“Some days it is difficult. In the middle of the tour sometimes I feel sad. I make an excuse and slip away and I cry for a minute. And then I wipe my face and I go back. But is difficult. I was beaten. The stripped me naked. They placed electrodes on my private parts and shocked me. I know the man who did this. He now has a rich company and makes money. He went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and got amnesty.”

“But don’t you want justice?” someone asks.

“After the Commission they said we could pursue these things in the civil courts. But my family, we sat down and we spoke and we decided we wanted it to be over and let it go. It would not make my father walk again. Desmond Tutu said that without forgiveness there is no future so we decided to leave it to God to judge that man.”

He looks at us.

“Any other questions?”

We are silent. Or rather, we have been silenced.

“Then we will continue the tour.”

As we walk I turn to one of my friends. “That makes it more real,” I mutter. She is weeping.


Thulani shows us Mandela’s cell. “He used to come here and do his own tours for visiting dignitaries,” he tells us. “But the last time he came he said to me that he does not think he will come again now. He does not want to come back.”

As we leave we all shake Thulani’s hand vigorously. He is not famous. He is not glamorous. He is not powerful. But he is a remarkable man.


We walk back to the boat, less chatty than when we arrived. We file on aware this time that this same boat carried Thulani and his fellow inmates. We look at the stunning view of Cape Town and Table Mountain - the same view that would have glittered on the horizon, tantalising and unattainable, as Thulani and his colleagues laboured pointlessly in the lime quarries. And we cannot help but be amazed and thankful for how completely and how bloodlessly the world changed.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Flying Comedaire

Flew to Cape Town with a low cost airline called Kulula. They are famous for their quirky cabin announcements: fun for the tourist. Bloomin’ annoying if you fly regularly with them. For example:

"To operate your seat belt, insert the metal tab into the buckle, and pull tight. It works just like every other seat belt; and, if you don't know how to operate one, you probably shouldn't be out in public unsupervised. In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. This is a no smoking flight and anyone found smoking will be asked to leave the aircraft immediately.”

Others have reported the following (gleaned from Google search):

"Ladies and gentlemen, we've reached cruising altitude and will be turning down the cabin lights. This is for your comfort and to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants."

"There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only 4 ways out of this airplane."

"Thank you for flying Kulula. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride."

As the plane landed and was coming to a stop at Durban Airport, a lone voice came over the loudspeaker: "Whoa, big fella. WHOA!"

"Your seats cushions can be used for flotation; and in the event of an emergency water landing, please paddle to shore and take them with our compliments."

"As you exit the plane, make sure to gather all of your belongings. Anything left behind will be distributed evenly among the flight attendants. Please do not leave mother-in-laws.”

Overheard on a Kulula flight into Cape Town, on a particularly windy and bumpy landing: "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Mother City. Please remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened while Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal."

Once crusing altitude reached the captain announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Flight Number 293, non-stop from Durban to Cape Town, The weather ahead is good and, therefore, we should have a smooth and uneventful flight. Now sit back and relax... OH, SHIT!" Silence followed, and after a few minutes, the captain came back on the intercom and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so sorry if I scared you earlier. While I was talking to you, the flight attendant accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee in my lap. You should see the front of my pants!" A passenger then yelled, "That's nothing. You should see the back of mine!"

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Time out

I am taking a few days out traveling to round off the year in South Africa. Please leave a message after the tone. Back next week.