The bitter aftertaste of the ‘democracy sausage’ (or ‘Becoming an Aussie’ Part 2)

Ballot-boxesHaving blogged – to mild interest – about my 14-year ‘odyssey’ to becoming an Aussie, I thought a few words on the by-product of my newly established dual citizenship status – VOTING – should follow.

Funnily enough, shortly after I arrived in Australia in September 2004 at the start of my odyssey, a Federal Election was called, (won comfortably by John Howard’s Liberals) and which I still recall through the imagery of opposition leader Mark Latham’s very vigorous up close and personal concessionary handshake with his diminutive opponent.

I also distinctly remember sitting outside a school somewhere nearby Canberra like an unwelcome outcast (still on a tourist visa), whilst my then girlfriend went inside to cast her ballot. No doubt it was for John Howard (she was quite the fan I later discovered); and not surprisingly we parted ways soon after.

I’ve actually voted twice since taking the pledge at Kyneton Town Hall in October and receiving the customary native pot plant ( a wattle still surviving in the garden).

First there was the Victorian state election in November, where I apparently made the fundamental novice error of voting “above the line” for candidates in the state’s upper house, and then more recently at last weekend’s Federal Election.

I’ve apparently also committed a double un-Australian transgression by voting early on both occasions, rather then on election day, thus missing out on the final pitches for my vote by the competing parties and perhaps more importantly, not taking a literal bite of the ‘democracy sausage’.

For those non-Australian readers out there, it is customary to chomp on the simple pleasure of a barbequed sausage in white bread whilst waiting to fill out your ballot.

While I defend my decision to vote early as prudent (no queues, less hassling from party zealots) perhaps I did miss out on some of the circus-like atmosphere of election day, not least of all the sounds and smells of fatty sausages grilling away and the banter and chatter of this very Aussie ritual.

I did though correct my other ‘error’ – voting above the line – by going ‘below the line’ and giving all 12 of my required preferences to Labor and Greens candidates in the Federal election, six each in the pattern of Labor, Green, Labor, Green etc etc.

(Yes, I am a progressive voter, no mystery there. You’d probably have to hold a gun to my head to make me vote for a Conservative party.)

Of the experience of voting itself, it was quite odd.

While I found the process of casting my ballot about as thrilling as mailing a letter at the Post Office, I closely followed, with some excitement, the results as they flowed in, and was surprisingly elated when Labor won the state election in a landslide.

Similarly voting federally in a vacant shop in a mall in Sunbury was rather uninspiring (I dealt with the zealots and their pamphlet waving with a firm “I’ve already made up my mind’ and purposeful stride into the voting room).

But again, my emotions took hold as the results came in and it became clear the Liberals had surged to a Trump-style victory against the odds. As such a mild depression set in on Sunday at the realisation that another three more years of conservative policies, further neglect of the environment and inaction on climate change would follow.

Wasn’t this supposed to be an election about climate action?

By Monday, I was thankfully back to my cheerfully cynical self, joining in the banter about ‘ScoMo and Albo’ with my work colleagues and coming to terms with our ‘miraculously’ re-elected PM, the so-called #messiahfromtheshire ( Or if you prefer, the #liarfromtheshire,)

Both Aussie voting experiences were quite a contrast to the last time I voted in a national election, 25 years ago, when the emotion of simply casting one’s ballot that day was overwhelmingly wonderful and I cared very little for the outcome, knowing it was basically a fait accompli.

That was in 1994, when a free and democratic South Africa voted as one, with all creeds and colours forming joyous lines that snaked for miles in city suburbs and country hillsides, in a momentous (and remarkably peaceful) day for the country and the world.

Of course, back then there were true political leaders to admire, most notably the global statesman and freedom warrior Nelson Mandela, who went on to become the Rainbow Nation’s first democratically elected leader when his African National Congress (ANC) swept to power.

Compare the stature of the great ‘Madiba’ and all that he stood for with the mendacious, spiteful and dishonest grab for power that categorised this Federal Election, on both sides of the political divide, and it’s surprising I cared at all about the final outcome.

Truly, I must be an Aussie now!

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Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

2212355983_74be3eec5f_zFor any ex-“Jo-burger” living in Melbourne, one can probably count the number of kind things said about Johannesburg on the palm of one’s hand, including comments from ex-South Africans.

For most it exists in the mind as crime-ridden, lawless place with rolling blackouts and road rage – and for those visiting South Africa, the only memory they may wish to have of Johannesburg will be of the ultra-modern airport and perhaps a short cab ride along the motorway – or via the Gautrain – to the safety of their hotel in the leafy suburbs of Rosebank or Sandton.

Most will no doubt wish to head straight out of “Jozi” or “eGoli” (as it is affectionately known by its six million plus residents) for Cape Town and its nearby wineries, the beaches and warm oceans of Kwazulu-Natal or the world-famous Kruger National Park Game Reserve. Anywhere, but hanging about in Jo’burg…

Not even die-hard Jo’burg fans such as myself would be foolish enough to argue that crime is not so bad – you only have to look at the ridiculously high walls and electrified cables which surround nearly all the homes or read the front page of any newspaper to know this is true.

But there is certainly a lot more to the city than tales drenched in blood.

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The city, like South Africa itself is constantly changing and much is being done to shake off the cobwebs and re-energise Johannesburg in a very positive sense – meaning there is a lot to see for any tourists brave enough to venture beyond their hotel room.

The Apartheid Museum

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

First on any tourist itinerary should be a visit to the Apartheid Museum, situated just a short distance from the Gold Reef City Theme Park and Casino – (a gaudy monument to Johannesburg’s modern roots as site of the world’s biggest ever gold rush in 1886).

The museum was completed in 2001 and provides a totally exhaustive and engrossing history of the struggle to end what was a brutal, tyrannical and inhumane regime.

Upon entering the museum visitors are arbitrarily and symbolically classified as either “white” or “non-white”. Once classified, visitors may only enter the through the gates allocated to their race group. Much like the high, windowless concrete walls of Berlin’s holocaust memorial, such devices immediately transport one back into the dark day of Apartheid, setting the tone for the museum, which is designed to be as interactive as possible.

It’s an enormous exhibition full of photographs, video footage and installations detailing apartheid’s genesis, life under the regime, and the resistance struggle which took root in the 1960s and saw Nelson Mandela’s rise to power.

Give yourself at least four or five hours to explore – more if you are one of those people who likes to read every word and watch every video.

Constitutional Hill

Next stop on the political trail should be the Constitutional Hill complex near Hillbrow, seat of the Constitution Court, the highest court in the land, where South Africa’s constitution – considered the most democratic in the world – has its home.

The old prison cells - home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The old prison cells – home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The complex is built on the site of the Old Fort, the notorious prison built originally by Boer leader Paul Kruger in a vain attempt to defend Johannesburg from the British.

Visitors to Constitutional Hill should sign up for a guided walking tour to get a real feel for the place. Local guides take visitors through cell blocks which housed every famous political prisoner the country produced including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Mandela’s cell has been recreated and besides the video footage on display it contains original letters written by Mandela – a qualified lawyer – written in elegant curved freehand, detailing his numerous requests from prison authorities for access to books, legal counsel and to see his family.

On the way visitors bypass the now empty and incredibly eerie cellblocks – like everything under apartheid, divided into white and black sections.

As the guides explain and visitors can see for themselves, Apartheid’s reach was limitless. The walk takes one passed notice boards which detail meal rations for prisoners (more meat and extra coffee and sugar for white prisoners, less for Indian prisoners and virtually no luxuries for black inmates).

But constitutional hill is also an uplifting experience culminating in a visit to the Constitutional Court itself. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of the country’s finest artists (the nearby art gallery is a must) the building has literally taken what was once a symbol of oppression and turned into a symbol of freedom – an entire wall of the court building is made from the bricks of a section of the old prison.

Ancient histories

For history that predates the arrival of the first Dutch settlers who moored at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, say by a couple of hundred thousand years, another new permanent exhibition has sprung within an hours drive of the city. Called “Maropeng” or “The Cradle of Mankind” it remains one of the world’s great fossil sites and is rightly listed as a “World Heritage Site”.

Looking like a massive ant hill, and surrounded by ominous orange signs telling visitors to “Beware of snakes” (surely not likely to scare off any Australian tourist), the tour main walk way is lined with human and animal fossil finds which lead into the main building. Here a ride through an underground lake takes one to a massive exhibition hall where the “history of mankind” is put on display including some of its most famous fossil finds.

If that’s not enough, there is also an opportunity to visit the nearby cavernous Sterkfontein caves, complete with dripping “stalactites” and “stalagmites”.

Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

No visit to Johannesburg can ever be called complete without a visit to the adjacent township of Soweto. Gone are the days when no one ventured near the township unless they lived there, it’s now a major tourist magnet (and with good reason) with numerous tour companies offering full day tours.

For about $90 you can spend an entire day with a Soweto resident as he takes you in air-conditioned mini-bus on a dazzling tour of the South Western Townships.

Putting aside its significance as the centre of the anti-apartheid struggle, the following tidbit should be enough to pique your interest in paying Soweto a visit.

6268519080_0efa4845fe_zAll tours of the township will take you down Vilikazi Street, a dusty street, lined with mostly small, compact houses and unique in this aspect – it is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived – the country’s greatest leader and former president, the late Nelson Mandela, winner of the prize in 1993  and the enigmatic, Desmond Tutu, the much-loved retired archbishop of Cape Town, who won the prize in 1984.

The tours include a walking tour through traditional African markets – complete with an African witch doctor who can give you a remedy for making anyone of the opposite sex swoon at your feet, outdoor butcheries and once illegal drinking taverns called “Shebeens” where you can sample South African curries and semolina pudding, commonly known as “pap”.

Those brave enough can try dried Mopani worms (similar to Wichita grubs) washed down with Amazi, the traditional African “sour” beer.

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The Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto

You will also visit the site of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when students protested against being forced to study in Afrikaans, and where Hector Pieterson a 13-year-old schoolboy was gunned down by police and whose dead body (famously photographed by Sam Nzima) became a symbol of the evils of apartheid.

Multi-cultural shopping and dining

Not all the things touristy in nature in Johannesburg are about history.

Given that one Australian dollar buys you around Nine South African “Rands”, shopping in eGoli can be a real spending spree. The city is littered with mega-malls stocking the latest local and international brands. For those on the hunt for modern finery and expensive African crafts, the ultra-chick Sandton City Mall and Hyde Park Shopping centre in the city’s North are enormous palaces to consumerism, while for sheer ridiculousness, the Monte Casino resort is worth visiting. Besides housing an enormous array of slot machines (pokies) and poker tables, the shopping and eating mall is designed as a fully enclosed Italian village, complete with washing hanging on the line, fake pigeons and a twinkling ceiling, where it’s forever nighttime.

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

There are many adventures to be had in the City of Gold, all of which can be done relatively safely, provided you stick to basic rules like not walking down quiet streets alone at night, leaving your expensive jewellery at home and keeping gadgets out of sight.

Most importantly keep in mind that Johannesburg is a friendly, multi-cultural place filled with some of the loveliest, most hospitable and zany people you will ever meet.

So go on, next time you’re flying into Jo’burg – spend a few nights and explore!

I dare you!

A haunting monument to Nelson Mandela’s struggle and sacrifice

Driving through the green and rolling Natal Midlands and trying to find a roadside sculpture, we got lost and ended up in a small rural village.

There were goats and chickens about and small brick houses that lined the bumpy country road.

An African man was mowing the lawn outside his house in the overcast, misty morning.

This image – of a black man mowing his own garden – struck me with some force. As a child I’d only known black men that mowed the lawn of white folks. We called them “garden boys” even though they were grown men.

It was a small reminder of how much has changed in South Africa in the last 20 years and also a reminder of my sheltered, privileged upbringing in a white, Jewish home.

We eventually found the right road and reached the ‘Capture Site’ marked by a poster with the words “Mandela” imprinted alongside photos of the great man depicting him during various stages of his life, from young tribesman to elderly world’s statesman.

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It was on this ordinary piece of road, three kilometres outside the town of Howick, on August 5, 1962 that Nelson Mandela, posing as a chauffeur for the impeccably dressed Cecil Williams, (a freedom fighter and theatre director), and on the run for 17 months, was finally captured by the apartheid police.

For the next 27 years, following his trial and conviction, he would disappear from public view.

The actual monument to this pivotal moment in the democratic struggle can be seen from the roadside, but not really seen at all.

All you see is a seemingly abstract arrangement of 50 steel columns designed by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli.

Marco-Cianfanelli-Nelson-Mandela-Capture-Monument

We park the car and walk down the red-brick walkway towards the steel columns, the rolling hills a backdrop. A car passes behind every now and then, a reminder of events 52 years ago.

On that fateful day in August 1962, the Austin Westminster Mandela was driving was stopped and he was asked by the police if he was indeed Nelson Mandela.

“I am David Motsamayi,” Mandela replied, using the alias he acquired on his travels to Morocco and Ethiopia.

Later, after some questioning, Sergeant Vorster of the Pietermaritzburg police said:”Ag. You’re Nelson Mandela and this is Cecil Williams  and you are under arrest!

Mandela would recall that earlier he had seen a Ford V-8 filled with white people shoot past and that “in that instant I knew that my life on the run was over; my seventeen months of ‘freedom’ were about to end.”

About 35 metres from the steel columns, an optical illusion occurs, the distinctive profile of an elderly Nelson Mandela emerges, looking out contemplatively towards the green hills.

Behind him, you can see the spot where he was captured.

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While the 50 steel columns mark the 50 years from the time of Mandela’s capture to the sculpture’s completion in 2012, Marco Cianfanelli says they represent much more:

[They] suggest the idea of many making the whole; of solidarity. it points to an irony as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.

It is a wonderful tribute to the moment of Mandela’s capture and its significance in the struggle to free the country from the shackles of apartheid.

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It’s one of many beautiful and powerful reminders: museums, monuments, institutions that have sprung up since 1994 to keep the story alive of the struggle, of what was sacrificed, what was painfully endured and why.

Having spent some time gazing at the face of Mandela, we returned to the car park and had lunch in the tea rooms. An old friend, who lives nearby, joined us for lunch.

She told us that on the day Mandela died – just over a year ago on December 5, 2013 – she went with a young friend to place flowers at the monument. Many others who live nearby, had done the same.

“A few years back, when it was under construction,” she said, “locals were up in arms. The government was spending all this money and all you saw were these steel poles.”

The visit to the Capture Site was one of the last things we did in South Africa. We flew back to Melbourne a few days later after a wonderful holiday.

Of all the things we saw and did over almost four weeks – some inspiring, some depressing – the Capture Site memorial reminded me of the country’s incredible ability to tell stories, to make the past come alive for future generations and of its creativity and spirit.

Footnote, travels through apartheid history

I recommend the following for anyone visiting South Africa who is interested in exploring its history and democratic evolution:

the Apartheid Museum, which tells the story of inhumane racial policy of separation and degradation and the freedom that was eventually won,

– the Hector Peterson Museum and Memorial in Soweto which pays tribute to the students who died in the 1976 riots against forced education in Afrikaans,

Constitution Hill in Hillbrow, a former fort and jail where Mandela and Ghandi were imprisoned and now the home of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court and

Liliesleaf Farm in leafy Rivonia, the secret headquarters for the resistance movement in the 1960s.

 

What Mandela gave me: one glorious day and hope for the future

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election in Port Elizabeth

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election (stands in Port Elizabeth)

This post first appeared on crikey.com.au,

It is also my 100th post on this blog. I dedicate 95 of those posts to Nelson Mandela, for each of the 95 years of his life:

I will always remember voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994. It was a miracle they took place at all; far-right-wing organisations threatened civil war, and only last-minute negotiations and concessions ensured all key political parties took part in the historic vote.

Such was the fear that some people took to draining their swimming pools and stocking them with cans of baked beans, mineral water and tinned tuna in case all hell broke loose — or so the urban legend went. But certainly there were empty shelves in the supermarket and a tremendous sense of tension in the air.

In the lead-up there had been bomb blasts at Johannesburg airport instigated by the paramilitary AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and, a year before, the terrible slaying of Communist Party leader Chris Hani carried out by a white Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus as part of a right-wing plot that had pushed the country to the brink of anarchy.

But the doomsayers were all proved wrong.

On April 27 the front-page headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper proclaimed boldly “Vote the beloved country”, a play on Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country about apartheid’s injustices, which we all read at school. Underneath the headline was a photo taken from a helicopter showing a snaking line of people stretching beyond the confines of the photograph waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives.

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

People queued for hours. In the big cities. In country towns. In townships. In rural villages. On hillsides.

Apart from getting married and the birth of my daughter, it was the single greatest day in my life. It was a privilege to be alive and still young (I was 21 at the time), but old enough to play my small part in such a defining moment in our troubled country’s history.

I remember it as a glorious crisp, early autumn day. Blue skies. Electricity in the air.

I voted at the nearby primary school just a short drive from home. I am not someone who shows his emotions, but as I drove past the line of people waiting on the pavement, there were tears in my eyes, and my heart felt like it was ballooning out of my chest.

In that queue was Nelson Mandela’s vision, why he had spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island and why he had emerged not to proclaim war against those who oppressed him but to suggest a vision of the “rainbow nation” where everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, could feel proud to call themselves South African.

That queue outside the primary school in leafy suburban Jo’burg, in queues all over the country from Cape Town at the bottom of the country to Messina on the Zimbabwean border, the rainbow nation was brought to life for the world to see.

“… white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed.”

Having parked my car some distance away, I took my place in the line. Ahead of me white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed. Dapperly dressed old African men, once forced to carry “passbooks” regulating their movements in white areas under apartheid, stood beside Portuguese-born restaurateurs, Italian hairdressers and sun-loving British immigrants. Petrol attendants stood next to lawyers, suburban housewives, next to black mini-cab drivers. Black gardeners stood side-by-side with white doctors and accountants. Petrol attendants in blue overalls stood next to white old ladies with permed hair and tissues tucked under their sleeves, who stood behind Indian shopkeepers and coloured fruit sellers.

There was something in the air that day. Yes the tension remained, but there was the sense the dream could be real, that we could all learn to get along and in doing so rebuild and repair centuries of inequality, injustice and brutality. It would not be easy, but it was possible.

Soon after, the votes tallied, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as our first president.

The following year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup; Mandela famously wore his No.7 jersey alongside Francois Pienaar (I retreated to my bedroom, head under my pillow, too anxious to watch the dying seconds of the match before Joel Stransky’s wondrous drop goal) and we all danced together in the streets, waving our new and strange-looking flag with gusto. The following year our soccer team, Bafana Bafana (“the boys”), won the African Cup of Nations in front of 120,000 screaming fans in Soweto.

Of course the euphoria over those early days of freedom have faded into reality. There are many challenges still facing the Rainbow Nation: crime, AIDS, inequality, corruption. But the new South Africa, even with these big problems, is a vastly better place than I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my privileged white upbringing.

I never met Mandela, though I often drove past his imposing Houghton house a few suburbs from my own on my way home from work. With a bit more luck I might have bumped into him as his picked up his medications at the local pharmacy in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Norwood, a few kilometres down the  road. Sadly, it never happened.

What would I have said to him? Perhaps, thank you for those glorious days in April. And for giving us hope and a glimpse of what might still be.

A day in the life: a review of “In Every Face I Meet” by Justin Cartwright

evryface“In Every Face I Meet” is a 1995 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Justin Cartwright that takes place over the course of a single, pivotal London day in February 1990 in the life of melancholic forty-something business executive Anthony Northleach.

Northleach, a former talented rugby player (he once trialed for England ‘B’), works for a failing company (what it does is never quite revealed), convinced that the imminent release of Nelson Mandela will fundamentally shift the trajectory of the world, Britain and his own sense of existentialism.

Much of the novel is the inner monologue of Northleach – he recalls, with detailed wonder and awe, a brilliant try scored by English rugby captain Will Carling in a weekend drubbing of the French, he remembers pivotal moments from his childhood in the kingdom of Swaziland, he ponders his marriage, a passionate affair he once had, and his friendship with his best mate and fellow former rugby player Mike, whose life is spinning out of control.

The secondary storyline is that of Chanelle, a crack-addict and prostitute living in a council estate and her black boyfriend/pimp Jason – sporting a medallion of Nelson Mandela around his neck – living on the outer fringes of London society in the final vestiges of Thatcherism.

Without giving too much away, the two worlds – Northleach’s and Chanelle and Jason’s – are on course for a horrifying collision, but what the novel is really about is Northleach’s longing for the past and his disappointment with the present.

It seems that Cartwright has honed in on the second difficult period in an adult male’s life, (the first being adolescence with all its clumsy fumblings and urges) that period from about 40 onwards when there is cause to reflect and ask the question: “Have I lived a purposeful life?”

And if not, “Is there still time to find some meaning?”

Indeed, the character of Northleach must contain parts of Cartwright himself – who was born and schooled in South Africa, the son of a left-wing newspaper editor, and who wrote the book in London, when he was in his late forties.

I have read “In Every Face I Meet” twice – once while travelling overseas in 2010 and now again, when it turned up in a crate of goods shipped over from South Africa.

What’s so enjoyable about reading the book is being inside Anthony Northleach’s head for one day of his life, following him from the office, where he muses about whether his dowdy secretary will ever make it to Thailand, then on the Tube into Soho for lunch in an Italian restaurant with Mike (bumping into Will Carling along the way) where he invites Mike to come with him on his odyssey to Cape Town and finally on his fateful drive home where he encounters Chanelle and Jason.

Northleach, despite his many failings, is immensely likeable with his sardonic political and philosophical commentary, and his honest reflectiveness.

He (and the novel itself) will particularly appeal to white South African-expats (be they in Britain, Australia or entrenched in any other “safe” country),  nearing or past forty that still have a strong sense nostalgia for the old country, especially if you were there at the time Mandela was freed and the inkling of a utopian “Rainbow nation” first emerged.

Indeed, the book was a gift from a South African expat colleague and friend who raved about it and was right when he said I would find it immensely enjoyable to read.

Looking back to February 1990 when Mandela took his first steps to freedom, they do feel like halcyon days, filled with hope and the prospect of something new and fresh, but also scary and uncertain. We certainly lived through history in the making.

Reflecting back on my own life as I fast approach forty – there is much about Northleach’s longings and existential angst that resonates with me.