Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Like an online textbook, but better

Dr. Elvin Wyly is a fantastic Urban Studies professor teaching at the University of British Columbia in the Geography Department.  Not only is he an interesting lecturer, but he’s also a great writer.  Best of all, he posts all his class notes online so anyone can read them:

I highly recommend investigating his PDFs for summaries on a variety of urban studies topics ranging from gentrification to voting patterns.

Plus check out his great Occupy photos!


Skin Tones

Three days ago I watched “Cairo Time” (2009), a romantic movie about a Juliet, an older white woman, and her experience visiting Egypt for the first time.  The initial half of the movie establishes her character as she wanders the streets of Cairo.  I thought the director, Ruba Nadoa, did an effective job of portraying the organized frenzy of Third World life.  I also liked her depiction of Juliet’s confusion as men on the street touch her or whisper in her ears as they walk by.

Juliet is Canadian and her Egyptian vacation is the first time she’s felt out of place because of her ethnicity.

One of the other Canadian interns has expressed similar feelings to Juliet’s.  She doesn’t like how walking through Hillbrow makes her feel so conscious of skin colour.  She told me, “I’ve never felt so aware of my race before.”

I answered that I haven’t felt like I fit in anywhere racially since I was a teenager and old enough to know what race is.  Even though my family has lived in Canada longer than most of my (white) friend’s, people rarely accept that I’m “Canadian” because of my mixed heritage.

She was surprised.  “But there are so many Asians in Canada,” she protested.  “One of my best friends is Vietnamese.  In fact, most of my university was Asian.”  Then she started complaining about how Asians annoy her because they’re so clique-y.

Yep, those sorts of blanket statements make me feel more integrated into Canadian society!

At the risk of sounding melodramatic – it’s true that the oppressor cannot see the plight of the oppressed.

Even though I’m used to feeling like an outsider, however, the frustrations here are much more overt.  For example, here’s a story to illustrate the frustrating side of being part-Asian (and a woman) in ZA:

Last weekend, my Canadian intern friend and I visited Durban.  We chose a hostel near the beach; unfortunately it was also near the city’s dodgy area.  The last part of our walk from the train station reminded me of walking through Hillbrow.

Saturday evening we decided to buy booze.  I volunteered to go get it since my friend’s shoe was broken.  The hostel receptionist told me the closest liquor store was a 15 minute drive away, but I knew that wasn’t true.  We’d passed a Spar earlier that was only a 15 minute walk away.

Off I went alone, even though it was dusk.  I got three blocks and realized this was a dumb decision.  Dusk becomes night quickly here and I didn’t want to be alone in this area in the dark – especially not for cheap booze.

I decided I’d walk another 5 minutes then turn around.

Luckily there was a liquor store on the next block.

As you can imagine, liquor stores in bad areas are particularly dodgy.  This one had everything barred off: you had to ask the sales person to pass you your selection through the cage.

As I ordered a bottle of vodka, a man beside me tapped my elbow and said, “Hey China.  That’s very naughty of you to drink all that.”

I ignored him.

He tapped me again.  “China, you’re coming home with me tonight, right?”

“China” is Afrikaans for “friend” so I think people think they’re being clever when they call me that.  In the best of circumstances, however, I don’t like being referred to by my race.  I especially don’t like it from a middle-aged white man in liquor store.

I bought my vodka and booked it out of there.  I ran the four blocks back to the hostel, grateful to be fit.

[Side note: every woman should know basic self-defense.  Furthermore, no one should ever be embarrassed by warnings from their intuition.]

You’ll never guess what happened next.  Alas, this story continues.

As I arrived at the hostel entrance, a red truck pulled up and the creepy liquor store man got out of the passenger’s seat.  He said, “Now that we’re staying in the same place, will you talk to me?”

Nope.  Absolutely not.

I hurried past him into the hostel and to my room to tell my friend about the incident.  She thought the whole thing was hilarious.

This same girl who had been telling me how frustrating she finds Hillbrow because it makes her so conscious of her skin colour!

I say it again: the oppressor cannot see the plight of the oppressed.

Driving Update

Driving in ZA is still a challenge, but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve gotten used to manual transmission in the past three weeks.  A huge thanks to my friend, Jon, for giving me advice to keep my car happy and healthy.  If you’re learning how to drive stick, I highly recommend checking out his car blog:

Especially the advice part:

Now if only I could get used to no street signs!  Imagine driving in the evening, cars honking because you’re going slowly while you try to figure out your location, and this is all you have to orient yourself:

Actually I should say that’s all you have to orient yourself – if you’re lucky.  The paint has worn off on many intersections or the whole curb has crumbled away.

Why are there no street signs?  Someone told me that poor vagabonds steal them for scrap metal.  Someone else said the City has removed them because they’re in the process of changing the street names.

I understand why people no longer want “Jan Smuts Avenue.”  Jan Smuts may have been instrumental in establishing the League of Nations (precursor to the UN) but he also laid the political groundwork for apartheid.  I sympathize with a government that still has a huge pile of residual issues from apartheid to deal with.  But please don’t remove the street signs until you’re ready with new ones!


Last weekend one of the other interns and I visited Durban, ZA’s third largest city.

Durban apparently has the highest Indian population per capita outside of India!  I was shocked when someone told me that.  “Have you seen South Vancouver?” I asked.  No he hadn’t, but he assured me his information was correct.

Based on this, we decided to have as “authentic” an experience as possible.

Our first stop was the Spice Emporium.  Most of the spices I’d never heard of before!

I bought a package of mixed deserts.  We tried to eat them.  Honestly we did.  But I think traditional Indian deserts are the same as traditional Chinese deserts: an acquired taste.  My friend described the brown doughy one as “a timbit that’s been rained on.”  Gross.

The best one was actually the nuclear green square.  It was coconut and sugar.  Too sweet, but it cleansed our mouths of the other tastes.

For lunch one day we each bought a bowl of “bunny chow” – an Indian curry served in a bread bowl.  Very yummy!

While eating, the Zulu waiters sang us a song.  The area surrounding Durban was historically Zulu land so today the city is mostly Zulu and Indian.

We even went dancing in a nightclub a couple blocks from our hostel.  At first it played mostly American Top 40, but around 2am the DJ changed to Indian pop.  By then we were finished seeking out Indian culture so we left.  It’s not that I have anything against Indian pop, but I only enjoy clubbing if I can fist-pump and sing along to the songs!

This is what we went for anyways:

Even though I don’t think I’ll ever get used to busy city beaches, Durban’s South Beach was paradise after a month away from the ocean.

Train Tickets

Scheduling is impossible in ZA.  I’m a visual person: I like to see a calendar with events and times.  In my head I plan my days as coloured blocks, like that Microsoft scheduling program.  It throws me off when I don’t know how much time something is going to take.  I don’t to know down to the minute, but I like having an approximate range.

For example, it usually takes me 20 minutes to drive to jujitsu so I give myself 30 minutes.  Fifty percent extra time should be adequate planning, right?  Yesterday it took 50 minutes because two traffic lights were not working.  The first was at a major intersection at the highway entrance so the typical four-way stop procedure turned into a messy eight-way stop.

Another example: the train station is 5 blocks from my office and I thought I could go and book tickets during my lunch break.  Nope.  Last Friday it took me two hours to book train tickets.  In a more efficient system I wouldn’t have even had to physically go to the train station.

I wanted to book two tickets to Durban.  Durban is ZA’s third largest city and its biggest port.  Interestingly, it has the largest Indian/capita population in the world outside of India itself!  Another Canadian intern and I wanted to get out of Joburg to eat Indian food and lie on the beach for the long weekend.

South Africa’s major cities

Like most things I plan, it was a last minute trip.  I asked her on Wednesday if she wanted to join me, thinking we’d drive there.  After she did some research we decided to take the train Friday night and fly back Monday morning instead.  We bought our plane tickets Friday, but then found out the train was already booked up.

She phoned the customer service line to see if there was any way she could buy tickets.  She was on hold for half an hour before she gave up.

The train station is close to MHA’s office so I walked there during my lunch break to beg for tickets.

This is how my conversation with the ticket agent went:

Me: “I’d like to book two tickets to Durban for tonight.”
Her: “It’s full.”
Me: “So there’s no way we can take the train to Durban tonight?”
Her: “No because it’s full.”
Me: “Is there any sort of waitlist?”
Her: “No.”
Me: “What if someone doesn’t show up?  Is there any way to purchase a ticket when the train is leaving?”
Her: “That never happens.  But if someone didn’t come we cannot resell their ticket.  Our computer won’t let us since it’s already registered as sold.”
Me: “So the train would leave with empty seats?”
Her: “Yes but that never happens.”
Me: “What about Premier tickets?” [First class tickets]
Her: “There are six of those left.”
Me: “For tonight?”
Her: “Yes.”
Me: “So I can buy two Premier tickets for tonight?”
Her: “Yes.”

I have quickly learned that you have to ask about every possible option here!

Premier tickets cost R990 – a LOT more than the normal price of R270.  But we thought it was worth taking the 13 hour train ride that left at 6:30pm instead of the 10 hour bus ride that left at 11pm despite the extra cost. 

Buying the tickets, however, was a whole new adventure!  This is the part that took over an hour. 

The agent’s credit card machine was not working so we went on a grand tour of the train station to try all the other machines.  The first one was turned off and she could not figure out how to turn it back on.  Then she took me to an ATM, but my credit card can’t draw money from ATMs here.  Then she called her supervisor and asked if we could pay when we returned later to get on the train.  She argued on my behalf, saying “But it’s our machines that aren’t working.  She shouldn’t be punished for that.”  No dice.  We walked around and talked to her colleagues.  They told her about another machine to try.  We walked into the train unloading area – very dodgy!  If someone wanted to mug me, that would have been the area to do it.  But this machine worked, even though it looked like something that had survived a spaceship crash.  Success!

It took two hours to buy two train tickets.  On the positive side, the ticket agent was very helpful and apologetic.  She could have given up instead of walking me around the train station.  At least her customer service skills were effective.

I kept telling her to stop apologizing, that it wasn’t her fault that the machines didn’t work.  Maybe that’s why she got nicer and nicer as we explored the station.

On the other hand, read about my friend’s experience trying to buy train tickets in India.  My incident was not near as frustrating.

For future reference, it’s definitely worth traveling First Class!  I’d never done it before and it was amazing.  We got to wait for the train in the special Premier Lounge.  Snacks were provided: cheese platters, crackers, nuts, dried meat.  Of course, I attempted to eat R520 worth of brie cheese to make up for the extra ticket cost.

But even without the cheese, it was still worth it!  Normal tickets only provide a seat (not even a bed), but we got our own room, free champagne, a 5-course dinner, breakfast, and shower facilities.  We arrived 8am feeling rested and refreshed in central Durban instead of stumbling off a plane feeling outside the city feeling dehydrated and tired.

Our private room

Dinner spread and new friends

Plus it the train’s timing was accurate enough to fit nicely into my schedule.  Definitely worth it!

Finished Fundraising

A huge thanks to everyone who donated to Rooftops Canada.  I am now $20 over the $1000 requirement, which hopefully means a little less fundraising for one of the other interns.  Also it feels great to delete the “Donate” tab off my blog!  Thank you very, very much.

Economic Apartheid

In his book, The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey (1991), Adam Hochschild argues that during the 1980s white politicians could foresee the inevitable end of apartheid.  Furthermore, they recognized the growing power of capital and economic privileges in international politics.  They knew the white elite could not hold onto political power much longer, but they could retain economic power – which was much more important in the emerging neoliberal world system.

South Africa’s mines were once nationalized, but the government began selling them to private businesses in the 1980s under the usual argument that privatization increases efficiency.  Many scholars argue, however, that the mines were privatized to ensure economic power remained limited to the elite few.

The following article by John Pilger criticizes the ANC for creating a new “economic apartheid” and provides an interesting follow-up to Hochschild’s arguments written over 20 years ago.

The recent Marikana Mine tragedy illustrates the separations that still exist in South Africa between workers and owners as well as politicians and the people they represent.  It was easier to condemn this nation when their oppressions were based on simple black/white divisions, but now it’s following the principles set by our own northern world leaders and international organizations.

Street Meat

Selling braai meat on the sidewalk in Hillbrow.  Mmmm don’t those tentacles look appetizing?

Us and Them

Three days ago, MHA was blessed with the presence of the ANC’s Minister of Human Settlement, Tokyo Sexwale, at the official opening for their newest project, Fleurhof House.

It was a long day of waiting for the minister, unveiling the MHA plaque, showing Sexwale around Fleurhof, and listening to political speeches.  After the event finally started to wind down, one of my colleagues pulled me aside and said, “Now you see the real South Africa.”

“You didn’t like the speeches?” I laughed.

“I didn’t listen,” he answered as he watched the crowd.

“Yes, the political jargon and promises are frustrating,” I agreed.  “Plus the vocabulary surprised me.  He talked about building a cohesive country ‘together’ but his tone was very much us-versus-them.  He used apartheid and conflict language to whip up the crowd.  Seemed like a cheap maneuver.”

My colleague continued to watch the crowd of Fleurhof tenants and TOKYO’s entourage.  Then he said, “It’s worse now than during apartheid.  There’s even more segregation.  At least we employed some blacks.  But the government won’t hire you if you’re white.  Even Woolworths [grocery and clothing store chain] won’t hire white people – they wrote it right on their website!  ‘Blacks and coloureds only.’  This country!  But what can you do?  Move?  That’s why there are so many Africans in Australia.  There used to be more whites in South Africa, but now it’s almost all blacks.”

It would be easy to paint my colleague as a racist Afrikaans – the stereotypical South African villain.  But that’s not my purpose.  The truth is that I think he’s a good person: affable and generous.  Despite our different points of view, the two of us are good friends.  We have a great repertoire together.  Moreover, he’s buddies with all the MHA maintenance employees in the projects.  The tenants know him and like him.  He does his job well and he gets along with everyone.

Despite joking with black people every day, however, he still sees them as fundamentally different.  For example, once we were walking towards the elevator but the people inside didn’t wait for us so the door closed as we got to it.  “These people,” he said.  “Y’see?  They’re not like us.  No manners.”

He says that a lot: “They’re not like us.”

Last week warned me about the date rape drug.  “You always have to watch your drink.”

“Oh it’s the same in Canada,” I said.

“No you don’t understand.  These men, they’re animals.  They’ll gang rape you and videotape it.  And they’re not… they’re not clean.  They’re not like us.”

As you can probably imagine, I had no idea how to respond to a statement like that.  Tell him that gang rape is perpetrated by white people too?  Tell him about the Maple Ridge incident a couple years ago?  Instead I did the typical PC Canadian move and changed the subject: “So how was your weekend?”

It amazes me that all these different cultures live together in the same space and still misunderstand each other to point of hostility.

Then again, it also amazes me that men and women live together (in even closer proximity than whites and blacks in ZA) yet frequently misunderstand each other.  As I wrote before, I usually have a low-lying hostility towards men!  So who am I to judge anyone?

All I can say is that I am extremely grateful to have been raised open-hearted as well as open-minded.

Sexwale talked a lot about breaking down the physical barriers left over from apartheid.  Too bad his speech purposefully encouraged the psychological barriers that still exist and – in my opinion – are more detrimental than any stretch of empty land separating white communities from black communities.

Reconstruction and Development Program

South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) was first initiated in 1994 by the African National Congress (ANC).  Its purpose was to address some of the massive housing inequalities resulting from apartheid policies.

Essentially, the state took it upon itself to build lots of house for poor people.  Lots and lots of houses.

The program has had many criticisms.  First, there are simply too many slums for the state to replace.  It’s too big a job for the government to undertake alone.

Second, the politicians promised too much.  Arguably, too many poor people now feel entitled to a decent house without having to work for it.

Third, the houses aren’t even decent.  They’re usually better than self-built slums, but not by much.  The units that were recently built in Fleurhof don’t have hot water and the “sink” is a bucket.

The government recognizes the problems associated with RDP and recently changed its name to Breaking New Ground (BNG).  BNG is supposed to a new program that deals with the lessons learned from RDP’s failures.

Unfortunately, the new Fleurhof units are technically BNG but they look just like the ones built under RDP.  Yet the government claims to have moved past those inadequacies.  As the Minister of Human Settlement, Tokyo Sexwale, proclaimed after giving away three units, “Breaking New Ground will help us build a better South Africa.  And look at these houses!  The ground has been broken!”*

*The above is not an exact quote.  But his words were something similar.

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