August 2, 2011

I took a short flight from Cape Town to Durban yesterday morning, meeting up with Steve at the Natal Playhouse. Steve is a Buck's Rocker and a truly wonderful guy, who basically dropped everything when I told him I was thinking of stopping over in his city. Steve is one of the head stage managers at the Playhouse, a large performing arts center right in the middle of Durban.

Steve gave me a full tour of the complex, and introduced me to many of the staff members. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. Theatre in Durban (and in all of South Africa) really seems to be thriving, which is great to see. The arts are very well supported by the government here. (Imagine that!) It was really cool to be in such a familiar environment in such an unfamiliar place. Theaters are theaters, all over the world.

After a wonderful dinner with Steve on the pier overlooking Durban’s bright lights, we took a taxi to his house. Durban has quite a bit of crime, and most modes of public transportation are not very safe. As we rode along, Steve pointed out certain neighbourhoods in which it would be safe to go, and neighbourhoods in which it would definitely not be safe to go, which was a little unnerving, as everything looked pretty much the same. The be fair, there are areas in Portland that I would stay out of at night if I were alone… though the number of these neighbourhoods pales in comparison to those in Durban.

After crashing at Steve’s last night, we took the bus back to the theatre (using a safe bus line, which Steve uses all the time). While riding along, I definitely noticed that there are far more people of color than in Cape Town… pretty much everyone I saw was black. Thousands of people, going about their business. It was interesting to truly be in the racial minority.

At the theatre, I went up to the Wardrobe Department to do laundry and get my pants graciously hemmed by one of the costumers. (I love theaters.) While in Wardrobe, I had a really great conversation with Grant, an actor, about the business of being an actor in South Africa. It all seems pretty much the same as theatre in the US, though there is less competition and people are paid more. (Though, with no union, actors sometimes have to fight for their pay.)

In the afternoon, I took the shuttle to the airport, and then it was only an hour long flight to Johannesburg, another city wracked by violent crime. Public transit is not safe, each and every house is fenced-in with barbed wires and electric fencing, and the alarm/security companies are all armed. Petty theft and armed robberies are frequent, and escalate to homicide in an alarming number of cases. Cops lack sufficient training, and are killed every day.

Fortunately, I have a friend in the city – Bergen, another wonderful Buck’s Rocker – who gave me specific instructions on how to get to the station near his home, and I did not once feel unsafe. The Guatrain, opened just a year ago, is a limited light rail that is heavily patrolled by armed guards. It has upholstered seats and is clean and well-lit.

Punitive laws were very severe under the Apartheid government, with liberal use of capital punishment (often with insufficient evidence or, in the case of Sharpeville etc, no evidence at all). There was therefore very little (reported) crime under the National Party (the trade being a government, you know, bordering on fascism). Now, under the ANC, people are actually getting fair trials, but crime has exploded… When people feel they are owed something, rules become relative… The disparity between the rich and the poor really is profound here…

I took the train with no incident and arrived at Sandton Station, where Bergen and his girlfriend Jacqui picked me up. We drove into downtown Johannesburg (through a couple of neighbourhoods which, honestly, made me a little edgy) and got sandwiches outside a tiny little movie theatre that shows independent films. After eating and getting caught up, we went into the theatre to see a movie called The Bang Bang Club, about a group of photographers who covered Joburg tribal violence in the 80s.

This might sound a bit naïve, but I had previously thought that all of the South African unrest was between the blacks and the whites. In actuality, there are many different tribes in South Africa, some with rivalries that have lasted for ages. The violence in the Apartheid-era was not just between blacks and whites, but also between Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Swana, Shangaan, Sotho, Ndebele, and Swazi.

The Zulu people are known for being fearless warriors, constantly fighting for domination. It was therefore natural for the IFP, the Zulu political machine, to fight for power in South Africa. It was also natural for the IFP to target the predominant black party (the ANC) instead of the Afrikaner government, since domination over the Xhosa in Soweto was more attainable than domination over the National Party. Soweto is the 1980s was therefore wracked by extreme war-like violence and very gruesome murders.

After the movie, we all went out to a bar in Sandton and talked a lot about crime in Johannesburg. (People have been really great about talking about their country with me, and also tremendously well-informed.) I asked Bergen and Jacqui why, given the rampant violence in their city, they chose to remain. (Especially Jacqui, who was the victim of a very scary near-carjacking which left many holes in her car, but luckily none in her.) Both Bergen and Jacqui replied that – given everything – Joburg is still home.

I had a really great time hanging out with Bergen and Jacqui – the only reason I didn’t accept the offer of their guest room is that the safari company is picking me up from the hostel at 5:30am.

I’m in the hostel now, top bunk, and expecting to get a whopping four hours of sleep before heading into the wilds. Goodnight!