I was dying to get to Botswana, to help out with the conservation research work being done in the Tuli Wilderness, and even more so to just immerse myself once again in the African landscape and lifestyle. But to get there I first had to go through South Africa, my old stomping ground.
On the way to Botswana, I had to make an overnight stop in the town of Polokwane, South Africa to wait for my ride. I decided to add an extra day or two there, to see a little bit of a part of South Africa that I had never seen before—and to experience an Africa completely different than the Africa I would be getting in the Tuli Wilderness.
There were only three flights a day from Johannesburg to Polokwane, the first arriving at about 11 a.m. and the last arriving at about 5 p.m. Since my ride up to Botswana was picking me up at the airport at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, this meant I had to arrive in Polokwane on Tuesday and spend one night there.
After thinking about it, I decided to arrive in Polokwane on Monday afternoon, and spend two nights there before departing for Botswana. This would give me time to rest, relax, acclimatize, and adjust to the time change.
Rest. Relax. Adjust. It was a great idea. Then I started looking at a map.
Only a few miles away from my hotel was the Polokwane Game Reserve. Sandwiched between almost every kind of development imaginable, it was a wild island in the midst of modern chaos, like a jewel of nature carved out of the suburban jungle.
I made reservations to take a guided safari tour there on Tuesday. Polokwane Game Reserve versus the Tuli Wilderness would be the ultimate contrast, and my return to Africa would be a tale of two game reserves: one fenced, one free; one managed, one wild; one mostly modern, one almost primeval; Polokwane versus Tuli.
Walking across the tarmac and into the Polokwane Airport, I was instantly struck with how modern, clean, well designed, and just plain nice the facility was. I could have been standing in almost any small, ultra-modern airport in the world. Driving out of the airport towards my hotel, I was immediately reminded that I was in Africa. There were numerous haphazard wooden shacks set up on the side of the road—some even in the center divider—selling food. Surrounded by stacks of firewood, many were cooking potjie, a South African stew, in cast iron pots over open fires, the thick smoke rising from the fires. They were selling cheap, ready-made meals to the working poor. This was the Polokwane fast food district.
A lot had changed in my 35 year absence from southern Africa, but there was much more that was immediately familiar.
I was back.
Situated on the Great North Road to Zimbabwe, Polokwane is in the heart of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Formerly known as Pietersburg, the town was renamed Polokwane after the fall of apartheid, when many geographic names with a colonial history were changed.
Today, Polokwane is the capital of the Limpopo province and boasts a bustling population of more than half a million people. When South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it literally put Polokwane on the map: Peter Mokaba Stadium was built in Polokwane to host part of the tournament, one of five new stadiums built across the country to support the World Cup.
Before the Peter Mokaba Stadium came to town, the primary attraction in Polokwane was the Polokwane Game Reserve. Owned and operated by the provincial governing authority of the Limpopo province, it is one of the largest municipal game reserves in South Africa. Featuring a beautiful mix of grassland, acacia woodland, rocky outcrops, and open savannah, it is a completely fenced, carefully managed game sanctuary. It preserves one of the only remaining examples of the Pietersburg Plateau false grassland, a localized ecotone that is home to a number of rare birds and plants. The carefully selected combination of animal species in the reserve were free to roam anywhere they wanted on its 13 square miles of territory, but no further.
Compared to the Tuli Wilderness, the Polokwane Game Reserve is not a wild place; with no predators present on the property, it is a heavily managed, almost manufactured big game experience. But that’s not to say it has no value. It plays a vital role in conservation, preservation, and education.
The Polokwane Game Reserve was the polar opposite of what I would be walking in to in the Tuli Wilderness less than 24 hours later. But for many people living in modern Africa, it was as close as they were going to get to real, wild Africa; Polokwane Game Reserve was the New Wild.
For me, it would be my only chance to see a rhinoceros in the wild on this trip.
Lisa, my guide for the day in the Polokwane Game Reserve, picked me up at my hotel a little after 8 a.m. We drove in her pickup truck to a location just outside of the reserve where we switched into her Land Rover. I was the only one on the tour with her that day. “I normally don’t do tours for less than six people,” she said. “But you booked so far in advance, I decided to go ahead and take you.” And just like that, for less than the price of a tank of gas back home, my simple little group safari had become a totally private tour.
The drive through the streets of Polokwane brought back so many memories of my youth…there’s just something about driving around South Africa; it has a unique feel to it that’s just impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s just unique to me because I lived there at a formative time of my life.
We drove by the massive new Peter Mokaba Stadium. It was stunning, but it seemed like such a waste—similar to the Olympics, where a country spends a lot of money they can’t really afford on massive sporting infrastructure improvements to impress the world, then when the event is over most of the new infrastructure falls into disuse and becomes a blight on the community. I wondered if this massive new stadium, plopped down seemingly in the middle of nowhere, ever got used now that the World Cup had come and gone.
Upon entering Polokwane Game Reserve, the first wildlife we saw was an ostrich. Soon after, it became quickly apparent to me that Lisa has a lot going on. In addition to guiding safaris in her Land Rover, she has 23 horses and takes people on horseback riding safaris and tours; she also stables horses for other people; she has at least one rental unit in town; she runs a custom clothing business; she helps her husband with his environmental consulting business; and who knows what else. She was a true entrepreneur.
I was amazed at how Lisa was able to drive her Land Rover down rutted dirt roads with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on her Blackberry, scanning the bush for wildlife while talking, texting, checking her emails, or surfing the web on her smart phone. She’s what I would call a hustler, but in no derogatory sense of the word; she was scratching out an existence here and there, doing this and that, all to make ends meet. And rich or poor, white or black, urban or rural, I increasingly got the sense that this was the way that most people here survived; that in modern Africa, most everyone was a hustler. At least the successful ones were.
Partway through our mini safari, Lisa stopped the vehicle in front of a large, beautiful tree with two huge male kudu standing underneath it. But the kudu were just a coincidence—it was the tree she had stopped to tell me about.
It was a marula tree, which produces a fruit little-known outside of South Africa that is used to make a wonderful, creamy liquor called Amarula. The seeds of the fruit are also ground up and release an oil that is used for beauty products. But I actually heard very little of what she was saying, as I was completely overcome by an amazing fragrant smell wafting through my nostrils.
“That smell,” I interrupted her, “…is that the marula tree?”
“No,” she said, “I think what you’re smelling is Salvia africana-caerulea.”
She jumped out and broke a small branch off of a nearby bush and handed it to me.
“Is that what you smelled?”
Yes, it was. It was South African sage. It was unlike the coastal sage, mountain sage, Mexican sage, and other sages I was so used to in California. This had a completely different smell to it. It took me a few minutes to realize, but I completely recognized the smell and it began to trigger memories of my adolescence in South Africa. It was something I had experienced in my wanderings through the bush in the vacant lots and other open spaces near where we used to live. It’s amazing how something as innocuous as a small sprig of leaves and flowers from a bush can almost instantly transport the mind back in time some 35 years…
Lisa was a big proponent of what I like to call “managed ecosystems,” the Polokwane Game Reserve being a perfect example. Because the animals are protected (from humans, as well as from natural predators—there were no carnivores in the reserve), from time to time it becomes necessary to cull the herds in order to keep the population of animals at a sustainable level. In the Polokwane Game Reserve, instead of (directly) killing animals, their preferred method of management involves capturing surplus animals and legally selling them at auction. The animals are then purchased for relocation to private farms or game reserves, some of which may allow hunting, as well as for public game reserves and parks, zoos, etc.
I told Lisa about my upcoming trip to Botswana, and she was very familiar with the Tuli Block and the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Five or six years prior, she had worked in the eastern section of the Tuli block, where the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers converge and where the borders of Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa meet. She also leads safaris up there from time to time, and had just returned from one about three weeks earlier. She spoke of the extensive damage there from the recent floods, the most devastating of which may have been the removal of the topsoil from the landscape, as well as the destruction of much of the mature tree canopy along the Limpopo River corridor.
She went on at length about the elephant “problem” in the Tuli, and said that going back now, even after just five or six years, the change was dramatic—the Tuli area had become much more desolate looking, almost like a desert in spots, because of the elephants destroying the mopane trees. I asked her what had caused the dramatic increase in the elephant population in recent years—was it due to the lack of predation caused by the elimination of many of the predators in the area? She replied that carnivores really don’t predate on elephants, except maybe on the very young or the very weak; no, the elephant population was not actually increasing, it was just that increased development throughout southern Africa meant that there was less natural area for them to forage for food. Their historic range has been heavily compromised by the encroachment of man. To make matters worse, in a move to establish a large trans-boundary park/reserve system, fences have been removed, which brings more elephants from the outside into the area.
Lisa is what I like to call a “true” environmentalist; like me, she believes that sometimes unpopular solutions are the best answer to vexing environmental problems. For example, sometimes you need to kill wild animals to help preserve a wild ecosystem live. She talked about how many so-called environmentalists want to protect and save animals at any cost, no matter how impractical, or how in the long term it very well could result in destroying an entire ecosystem.
In addition to the direct ecosystem benefits of culling, we also talked about more benefits to the local community. If carefully managed and controlled hunting is allowed in the form of culling, it can actually be an economic boon to the local community. The skin of the animal can be used to make clothing and shelter and for a variety of other purposes; the meat can be used to feed poor people; and in the case of elephants, you could even sell the ivory (if it wasn’t illegal) and pour all of that money back in to the local community. Lisa’s views were certain to be unpopular with the majority of people who refer to themselves as “environmentalists.”
Because of its proximity to such a large urban population, I asked Lisa if poaching was a problem in the Polokwane Game Reserve. She told me a story about how a few months earlier she had been leading a safari through the reserve on horseback when they came across a female rhinoceros with a tranquilizer dart stuck in her hind quarters. The dart had not fully penetrated the skin, so the tranquilizer had not taken effect. Lisa immediately used her cell phone to call the local authorities, who immediately sent out helicopters to search for the poachers. They never found the poachers, but a week or two later they found the carcass of a male rhino in the reserve that had been poached for its horn.
Before that incident, the rhinoceros population in the Polokwane Game Reserve had been 15; it was now down to 14. And, she told me, the day before our safari, in a different reserve about 30 miles west of Polokwane, authorities had found two more poached rhinos. The killing of rhinos for their horns has always been a problem in southern Africa, but in the last year or two it had escalated and was now reaching a level which was unimaginable.
She said that arresting one poacher is not the answer to the poaching problem; as soon as you arrest one, there are 5,000 more waiting in line to take his place. She sees the mafia as the real problem, and the solution is taking down the organized crime kingpins, not the individual poachers.
I disagree. I think the real problem is poverty, which is why people kill rhinos for their horns. As Jane Goodall says in her TACARE program, “to take care of the animals, you must first take care of the people.” If the people are not taken care of, they are going to use any method possible to take care of themselves—even if that means poaching an endangered animal
After giving me some rough estimates of what various species of game animals would sell for at a legal auction, Lisa noted that the value of a rhino is next to nothing because they are such a huge liability to own. She sees legalizing the sale of rhinoceros horns to be a solution—taking them off of the black market and instead regulating the legal sale of the horns so that there is a financial incentive for ranchers to buy and breed rhinos, and to harvest their horns without killing the animals.
In general I agree with this idea, but would take it even further than that: using genetic engineering techniques, we should work to isolate the DNA for rhinoceros horn, and then create a hybrid rhino/cow that can be raised for milk and when it is mature can be slaughtered for its meat and horn—and then watch how quickly the world market for rhino horn collapses. While we’re at it, let’s also isolate the DNA for elephant ivory as well, and then create a hybrid cow with rhino horns and elephant tusks. It’s an idea that may seem radical to some, but it’s an idea whose time has come.
While we were driving around the reserve, Lisa pointed out a strange tree that I had never seen nor heard of before. There are many species of aloe native to South Africa, the most familiar to inhabitants of the rest of the world being aloe vera, but the “tree aloe” (aloe barberae) grows to a height of 30 feet or more and looks like a palm tree, except that at the top where you would expect to see palm fronds, there is an aloe plant. The aloe trees of Polokwane Game Reserve are all mature, nearing the end of their natural life cycle, and no young ones are sprouting to take their place. Lisa’s theory is that the seeds were transported to the area and planted by the local inhabitants about 300 to 400 years ago, because you only find these plants in areas where there is also evidence of pre-colonial habitation.
Polokwane Game Reserve is completely boxed in by human land uses. It’s surrounded by a silica mine, a platinum smelting plant, coal mining, rock quarrying, residential housing, and agricultural and other land uses. And as South Africa increasingly becomes a player in the global economy, these types of activities are increasing at an alarming rate, with little or no government planning, regulation, or oversight.
Near the end of our suburban safari, Lisa stopped the Land Rover and said we would finish by taking a hike up a nearby kopjie (an Afrikaans term for a hill covered with rocks). We walked through the remnants of stone walls and a large hut circle constructed by the Bushmen who lived here 300 to 400 years ago, and she said that little is known about these archaeological sites because no research or study of them has been done.
We walked along the trail towards the top of the hill, looking for animals, when I smelled smoke and saw movement out of the corner of my eye in the bush off to the right. It was a person, who looked like he was barbecuing and having a picnic. As we approached, I realized that this was in fact our lunch! Even though I was the only one on her safari that day, Lisa had still gone through the trouble of having her assistant come out hours earlier to start a fire and cook us a meal.
She introduced me to her assistant, Joffrey, who had prepared a delicious meal of brown rice, Malay chicken curry, carrots, green beans, and butternut squash over the open fire. We also ate a salad made from fresh vegetables Lisa had grown in her garden, some fresh bread, and cheese. We sat down to an elegant lunch in the bush, the midday heat cut to a manageable level by the large shade trees we sat under. Dessert was a delicious lemon tart that Lisa had made from scratch.
Over lunch I got to know Joffrey a little better. Joffrey was nearing the end of a 3-month internship working for Lisa, sponsored by the local college where he was studying tourism. After working with Lisa, he was now interested in continuing with his studies and focusing on conservation biology. He was a very nice, smart young man, and an excellent chef. I believe he has a great future in tourism, wildlife management, or whatever he ultimately chooses. He represents much of the future of Africa.
On our short trek back to the Land Rover, Lisa pointed out an aardvark den in the middle of the trail, but the aardvark was nowhere to be seen as they are usually only active at night.
As the day progressed, it got increasingly hot under the harsh African sun. The only thing that made it bearable was an occasional breeze, and the canvas canopy over the top of Lisa’s open Land Rover. Most of the animals were hiding in the shade themselves now, so by the end of our safari we were seeing almost nothing.
On the drive back to my hotel, I noticed a huge crowd filling Peter Mokaba Stadium. I don’t know exactly what they were there for, but it was good to see the place packed almost three years after the end of the World Cup, in the middle of the week. Ironically, at the nearby Polokwane Game Reserve, weekends can get quite busy, but weekdays can be practically empty. Lisa and I were the only two people I saw that Tuesday in the reserve. South Africans love their animals, but apparently they love their sport even more.
In the end, although we never saw any of the 14 elusive white rhino that day, we saw quite an impressive array of wildlife in the reserve, including ostrich, waterbuck, impala, duiker, kudu, zebra, blesbok, sable antelope, red hartebeest, tsessebe, blue wildebeest, giraffe, springbok, vervet monkey, a leopard tortoise, and countless birds. Even more important than the animals I saw that day was the experience of the place—a carefully managed yet still intriguing game park, the polar opposite of what I was about to see in the Tuli Wilderness, and the company of a fine guide who made it personal.
It’s been more than 20 years since I regularly wore a watch. For the first 10 years, it was because I found that I never really needed to look at one—there was a clock built in to the dashboard of my car; at home, clocks (and appliances with built-in clocks) were never more than 10 feet away; I had clocks in my garage and in my backyard; at work, there was a clock on my computer, and if I was away from my office at a meeting, there were clocks in most of the conference rooms. Then when cell phones came along about 10 years ago, I suddenly had a “watch” of sorts again. It wasn’t a bulky piece of metal strapped to my wrist, but I became reliant on it.
I had opted not to take a cell phone with me on my trip to Botswana earlier this year because of the supposedly spotty reception in the Tuli Wilderness, where I would be staying for two weeks. But even more than that, I really just wanted to get away from all of that. I wanted a vacation form technology.
I soon realized that not having a cell phone with me while traveling would not only deny me of communications, but it would also deprive me of any way of accurately and consistently telling time. I had flights to catch, people to meet, places to go, and a 10-hour time difference to deal with on top of all that. So I did the unthinkable. I went out and bought a watch.
Ironically, my quest to go technology free, or at least as “technology light” as possible, was quickly backfiring. And it wasn’t just with the watch.
I usually charge my camera batteries by hooking the cameras directly to my computer through a USB cable. But not taking a laptop with me, I would have to take three separate battery chargers with me. And since my chargers all worked on standard 110 volt US current, I needed a 220 volt power converter, as well as the appropriate adapter for South Africa and Botswana.
It just kept getting more complicated.
One of the attractions of heading off to the wilds of the Tuli Wilderness for an extended time was to get “off the grid”, so to speak—and what better place to do that than at Mohave Camp, a remote, technology-challenged outpost where you were not even allowed to shower in the open bathrooms after dark because the elephants would come right up and snap off the shower heads looking for water; a place where laptop and camera batteries had to be charged for just an hour or two every night by running a power inverter off of the battery in the Land Rover.
When Mohave Camp was taken out of commission by the floods and we instead rolled into Serolo Camp, my decadent half loved the idea of staying at a “luxury” camp for the duration of my visit and taking advantage of plush creature comforts such as electricity and hot showers. But my primitive half, the half that loves sleeping in the dirt and redefining what “personal hygiene” means, was more than a little upset that I was missing out on my chance to truly go off the grid. But that was OK. I could live with it.
The technology dichotomy in modern, rural Africa was quite interesting. I imagined I was going to a place where the sun is the power grid, the local stream is the water line, and talking around the campfire is the equivalent of the cell phone or social networking. Boy, was I wrong.
Over the course of my stay there, I saw many things.
Although I opted not to take my cell phone with me to southern Africa, I saw at least as much reliance on cell phones while there as you would see on a typical college campus back in the US. Everyone had cell phones—and everyone used them. Constantly.
Traveling to and from Tuli, it was not uncommon to see South African women with two cell phones—one for talking, and the other so that they could text while talking. And I thought people in the US were addicted to technology…
When driving across the Tuli Wilderness at night, besides the light on the vehicle and the stars in the sky, there was only one other light visible: a red light several miles south of the Limpopo River, inside South Africa, that marked the closest cell phone tower. Except for a few spots, it was usually fairly easy to get a cell phone signal in the Tuli.
There were two-way radios in each of the vehicles at Tuli, and they were used frequently for both day-to-day and emergency communication, but sometimes cell phones were more reliable. If your vehicle broke down and you radioed for help and nobody answered, you then called that person’s cell phone—because you knew that they always answered their cell phone.
One night there were eight of us sitting around the campfire at Serolo Camp, and I was deep in conversation with another person. As our conversation slowed, I noticed we had been the only two talking and glanced over towards the others. All six of them were sitting with their faces down in their cell phones, frantically texting.
I can only hope they were not texting each other.
Let’s face it, technology—and our reliance upon it—isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s easy to see the rampant destruction of the natural earth and blame modern technology, but that same technology also has a number of positive aspects.
Even though there was no Internet connection in the Tuli Wilderness, there was a laptop. And we used it daily. The goal of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project, after all, was data collection; what we did, every day, was to drive around the Tuli Wilderness and log data manually onto paper forms held on clip boards. But every evening the data we had collected on various animals throughout the day had to be entered into the computer so that it could be shared with researchers around the world and thus contribute to the advancement of conservation science.
Another good example of the positive side of technology was creative use of an iPod by Andrew, who ran the conservation volunteer program. He had it loaded with guidebooks detailing the bird, mammal, and even fish species found throughout southern Africa. He would identify a bird from a distance, for example, and then bring up that species on his iPod, show us detailed drawings and photographs of the species, and even play us an audio file of the birds call. Leveraging the latest technology took the idea of a printed guidebook to an entirely new level of utility and interactivity.
Good or bad, technology was everywhere in Africa. I had gone into this trip thinking I was going to be almost completely off the grid and technology-free for a few weeks.
One night in camp as we were enjoying a very quiet dinner of mincemeat, mashed potatoes, and a fresh salad by candlelight, I heard a familiar sound that at first I paid no attention to. It took a second or two before I realized that it was a sound I shouldn’t be hearing out here in the remote wilds of Botswana. Then Laura pulled her ringing cell phone out of her pocket and answered it.
“Hello, mummy,” she said to her mother back in the UK. “We’re having tea just now, can you phone back at 9?”
Technology. Sometimes we are master, and sometimes, it seems, we are slave.
“From the ecological point of view an outbreak can be defined as an explosive increase in the abundance of a particular species that occurs over a relatively short period of time. From this perspective, the most serious outbreak on the planet earth is that of the species Homo sapiens.”
Earthzine Seeks Student Essays on ‘Science Technology for Observing Earth’s Climate’ for International Contest
Earthzine (Earthzine.org) invites undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to submit an essay to its 2013 Student Essay Contest on “Science Technology for Observing Earth’s Climate.” The contest offers students an opportunity to sketch visions and raise critical thoughts that can be discussed with Earthzine’s global readership.
Earth observation technology collects and processes data on climatic conditions on Earth. The 2013 Student Essay Contest is a platform to share views on Earth science technology, which includes hardware for data collection, computer infrastructures for data management, and software and algorithms for data analysis.
The essays can be reports on how you use Earth observation technology or your critical views on developments of these technologies.
What further technological advances do we need to understand Earth’s climate? What problems have been solved with Earth observation technology? What are your experiences with this kind of technology? What insights did you gain on climatic conditions on Earth from using Earth observation technology?
Accepted essays will be published at Earthzine.org and judged by a panel of experts, with $1,500 (U.S). in prizes awarded to the top entry or entries. The process for judging will include two weeks of online discussion with Earthzine readers and judges.
The prize funding is sponsored by Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company.
What is “wilderness”?
In the United States, we have a very specific, legal definition of the term. The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88–577) defines wilderness as such:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The American government defines wilderness as a road-less, car-less area, with no electricity or other modern conveniences. The use of motorized vehicles or other types of mechanized transport devices is strictly prohibited in these legally protected areas.
To many, the United States is looked at as a model for environmental protection and conservation initiatives. Yet if the American idea of wilderness really is to protect places where “man and his own works” do not “dominate the landscape,” there is a problem with many of the wilderness areas I’ve visited in the US. The overwhelming imprints of modern man are well apparent beyond the obvious things like roads, cars, electricity, and buildings. Airplane contrails crisscross the skies during the day, and numerous satellites blaze their trails across that same sky at night. Bridges and other trail improvements have been carefully engineered to make backcountry travel both safe and speedy. And although not nearly as obvious, even the very fabric of the landscape itself has been unmistakably altered.
Everywhere, pristine outdoor wilderness is covered by the heavy fingerprints of man, disguised by a thin veneer of wildness. It’s virtually impossible to escape. In countless ways both seen and unseen, the ecosystems we have worked so hard to set aside and maintain as natural have become strange hybrids—part natural, part man-made, struggling for balance all while under the watchful eye of human management. This is the new natural.
In contrast to the American ideal of wilderness, the Tuli Wilderness in eastern Botswana is crisscrossed by roads, traversed daily by vehicles, and features permanent inhabitants who live in a few houses connected to the electrical grid. But the roads that mark the landscape of the Tuli hardly disqualify the area from being referred to as wilderness. I’ve hiked on trails through wilderness areas in and near Yosemite National Park that are much more eroded and have caused much more significant damage to the natural environment than many of the roads in the Tuli Wilderness have. And while the American wilderness is defined as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” man has been present in the Tuli Wilderness for probably as long as humans and their immediate ancestors have been on earth. Man is an inextricable part of this wilderness.
In the end, “wilderness” is just a word, used by different people, in different ways, to describe different things. I preferred bundu. The word “bundu.” It’s a less restrictive definition of wild places, not bound by strict legal mandates. It’s more…natural.
Even though the Tuli Wilderness may not be “wilderness” by the American definition, it is one of the wildest places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. I guess that true wilderness is where you find it…
In January 1976, I moved to South Africa. I was 13 years old. It was my first time out of the United States. It was my first time on an airplane. But it wasn’t my first time moving away from home: for as long as I could remember, we had been moving, from one southern California suburb to the next. Changing schools and having to make new friends was always unpleasant. But this was different. I was moving halfway around the planet, to a strange, foreign land.
My apprehension was tempered by excitement. After all, this wasn’t just another cookie-cutter southern California suburb we were moving to; it was Africa. I yearned for it to be an amazing adventure.
And it was.
I saw large, wild animals in their native habitat. I spent countless hours wandering through the brush and grasslands by myself. I entered high school, made new friends, and attempted to learn a new language. I experienced riots, unthinkable repression, and even war. I hiked across the stunning high plains and tasted some of the best that Africa had to offer. I built cool things, explored interesting places, and reached for the stars.
My move to South Africa took place more than 35 years ago. I think about my time there frequently, reliving the unforgettable experiences of my adolescence. But only recently was I able to put all of those experiences into context. Although I only lived there for a short time, it happened during an important stage: my transition from child to adult. And this is the story of the most disturbing thing I saw while I was down in Africa.
Once we moved out of our temporary quarters at the Johannesburg Holiday Inn and settled into South African suburbia, I began attending Florida Park High School in Roodepoort, just a couple of miles down the hill from our townhouse in Quellerina. In a country ruled by the iron fist of apartheid, I wasn’t surprised to be attending a whites-only school. But I hadn’t realized that in a society so heavily steeped in divisiveness, there was even a division between whites: the great English / Afrikaans divide.
Afrikaans is a language which evolved in southern Africa from the Dutch speaking peoples who settled there in the 1600s. A good friend of mine from Belgium, who spoke fluent Dutch, once described her experience on an extended trip she took through Botswana and South Africa with horror as such:
“It was so weird, it was like everyone was speaking some sort of strange 17th century Dutch dialect…”
Even though I was attending an English high school, all English speaking whites were required by law to take classes and become fluent in Afrikaans. (The opposite was also true—native Afrikaans speakers were required to learn English in the Afrikaans school as well.) English speakers like me who were dropped in to this alien territory without being exposed to Afrikaans since our first day of kindergarten were obligated to take “Immigrant Afrikaans” classes—accelerated language training that, at least in theory, would in very short time let the slow kids like me “catch up” with the rest of the class.
On my first day in Afrikaans class, the teacher put me in a corner and had me listen to a recording of 20 basic Afrikaans words. I then took home a piece of paper with those words on it, to study that night. The next morning in class, she said “So, you’ve memorized those 20 words”—it was more of a declarative statement than a question—”now let’s move on to the next 20.” I immediately knew I was in trouble. Deep trouble.
In the United States, we use the “A/B/C/D/F” grading system, where “F” stands for “fail” and is the lowest grade you can get. But in many places outside the U.S., you can actually be more stupid than getting an “F”. My first term grade in Afrikaans class ended up being a miserable 23%. Yes, I got an “H” in Afrikaans.
Ironically, the Soweto riots in 1976 were originally started by high school students just like me—black high school students no more than 10 miles away from my school—who were protesting the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which required all black schools in South Africa to teach classes half in English and half in Afrikaans. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with learning Afrikaans.
Apartheid was an elaborate architecture for racial segregation, practiced in South Africa for more than 45 years. Many people oversimplify apartheid as a “black / white” thing, but it was more complicated than that, taking into account races other than black and white, and mixed race people as well.
Protests and uprisings against apartheid and related policies took place across South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, led by Nelson Mandela and others. In June of 1976, there was yet another uprising, this time in the town of Soweto. But this uprising was different. It caught the attention of the nation and the world, shining a new light on the dark condition of apartheid.
From the standpoint of ending the injustices of apartheid in South Africa, the Soweto riots of 1976 were a failure. But their real success was in bringing the apartheid situation to the forefront on the international stage. “Soweto”, a non-descript shanty town west of Johannesburg, quickly became a household name; a symbol for a South African government out of step with modern ideas about equality and freedom, a term synonymous with injustice.
Mandela himself was imprisoned about a week before I was born; while I lived in South Africa, he was incarcerated at the notorious Robben Island Prison. He wasn’t released from prison until 1990. Three years later he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and then in 1994 was awarded the ultimate redemption when he became president of South Africa.
The Soweto riots did not the end apartheid. But they certainly marked the beginning of the end.
I vividly remember that afternoon in shop class at Florida Park High School. It was Wednesday, June 16th, 1976. Word was passed down to each classroom from the school administration. Our teacher shared the news with us rather bluntly:
“The blacks are rioting.”
We all huddled around an old AM radio trying to hear what was going on. There was tension in the air, not unlike that thick, heavy feeling as the skies darken right before the clouds burst open with a violent thunderstorm. It was unclear how far the riots had spread out from Soweto, and whether or not our bus route home that afternoon would be affected. In fact, we were at least 5, probably closer to 10 miles north of any reported violence, and the ruling white government cracked down hard on the rioters to make sure that the violence stayed relatively in a relatively confined area. But that did little to ease the tension.
Fearing the worst, several students began to arm themselves with large bolts and scraps of metal from shop class, which they placed in the front pockets of their school blazers. On the ride home, everyone was on high alert, positioned at the windows, scanning for signs of attack. For a few minutes, I was caught up in the frenzy, before I realized that we were all just a bunch of rich white kids living in a safe community. We were in no apparent danger from anyone, and even if we were, there was nothing we could really do about it.
I sat back in detached indifference and watched the events unfold as if watching a show on television. As the bus drove along the road, a core group of agitators got themselves more and more worked up. But there was nothing going on out there on the streets. No attacks. No threats. Not even a peaceful demonstration.
At some point, my schoolmates could no longer contain their nervous energy. Boredom is an evil motivator.
Why wait for the inevitable attack? They quickly changed from defensive mode to offensive mode, and made the decision to strike first.
And that’s when things got real ugly.
The unlucky victim was a young black man, probably in his mid-twenties, walking home from the store. He wore a dark hat and dirty suit which were probably 20 years out of style, and in each hand he held a bag of groceries. A random student on the bus pointed at this random victim, yelled something to his partners in crime, and then a flurry of assorted bits and pieces of shrapnel started flying out of the windows of the moving bus.
One large chunk of scrap metal met its mark, striking the unsuspecting victim squarely in the abdomen. He let out a squeal of pain as he dropped to his knees, then he doubled over on the pavement, both hands releasing the bags of groceries to clutch the point of impact in his midsection. My fellow students on the bus let out a collective roar, cheering loudly as if they had won not just the latest battle in the uprising, but the entire race war.
As the bus chugged along, the driver seemingly oblivious or possibly just indifferent to the injustice which had just taken place, I looked back and saw the poor man on the ground, writhing in pain, as the canned goods from his now empty bags scattered, rolling down the pavement.
It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever witnessed in my life.
Up to that point, apartheid had been sort of an abstract concept to me. Sure, I was living in the thick of it, and it obviously affected everyone and everything around me. But I felt somehow removed from the whole struggle these people were experiencing, an emotional distance which was there probably because I was just a temporary visitor in this strange land, and probably also because I was white and was not myself a victim of the institutionalized discrimination blacks suffered under apartheid. But I had now seen firsthand the ugly face of it. The day I saw that man—the man who just happened to have dark-colored skin—drop down in the street, a chunk of scrap metal smashing his gut as well as his dignity to bits, it all became very, very real.
A society built on a foundation of contempt for people who are different cannot last.
In June of this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a report examining the likelihood of earthquakes being induced by underground energy technologies in which there is a net deposit or withdrawal of fluids—on other words, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), CO2 sequestration, and geothermal energy extraction. The study concluded that all of these technologies “have at least the potential to induce earthquakes that could be felt by people” and recommended these impacts be mitigated by using techniques which “maintain a balance between the amounts of fluid being injected and withdrawn.” In other words, the National Academy of Sciences did not call for an end to fracking because of the likelihood that it would lead to an increase in earthquakes; they instead suggested a solution based on sound science.
Potentially much more significant than “earthquakes that could be felt by people” (but may cause little or no actual injury or damage) is the scenario where critical groundwater resources are contaminated by fracking and other underground energy technologies. The gas industry says fracking is absolutely safe. Environmental groups and concerned citizens say it is not. The true answer will only be found through sound, unbiased science. But where is this science?
A few studies have looked at the likelihood that fracking can cause groundwater contamination, such as a recent study by Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona that examined shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania (PNAS, 09 July 2012). The results have been inconclusive, and thus easily framed by either side of the debate thanks to their confirmation bias.
It’s time for the Department of Energy to call on National Academy of Sciences to examine all of the scientific evidence and deliver an impartial, peer-reviewed consensus report on the subject. This is what they do. The true believers on either side may choose to ignore those parts of the report that conflict with their mental models, but those of us who base our decision making on rational science can move forward in a way that balances both economic and environmental concerns.