Tag Archives: Johannesburg

Saying my Farewells to South Africa

In the same week that South Africa commemorates the funeral of former president and national icon, Nelson Mandela, it seems that I, personally, will be remembering the country itself – only from afar.

Which is a shame as, before returning to the UK my Beloved and I had hoped to spend a final happy Christmas together here in Johannesburg, basking in the sunshine and enjoying a bit of relaxed African downtime.

But, sadly, it seems that bureaucracy has got the better of us. Despite a trip to Namibia, advised by two alleged experts on all matters immigration in order to obtain a 90-day visa extension, I found that on returning from a weekend away in the capital Windhoek, the said extension was arbitrarily denied.

The only way I could get one apparently was to fly off to the UK and back again. Namibia, despite being a sovereign nation these days, simply didn’t cut it – even though Namibians are just as entitled as subjects of Her Majesty to enter the country for three months on a visa waiver. Go figure.

So what all of this means is that I’ve now had to change my flight from early January to this Saturday, or risk being blacklisted and not allowed into the country again. Charming.

But I must admit that this apparent making-up-of-new-rules-on-the-fly without anyone ever seeming to know about them is one thing that I won’t particularly miss about the African way of life.

Another is load shedding, the name given locally to the scheduled, rolling national power blackouts that are designed to keep South Africa’s national grid from collapsing, and which are the talk of the nation at the moment.

For one, they take place at all hours of the day or night, which is deeply inconvenient at a personal level.

On the other hand, there is lots of concern, especially among small companies unable to afford generators, about the damage being done to their businesses, the inevitable worry being that the situation, if it continues, will kill them eventually.

A question of power

To put a price tag on the debacle, some economists have pointed out that power outages cost the economy a huge ZAR6.8bn (£37 million), or 0.2% of GDP, last year, with conservative estimates indicating that the situation this year will be at least as bad.

Indeed, state-owned monopoly Eskom may have promised that the lights should more or less stay on until January, helped by generally lower power usage during high summer.

But it has also warned South Africans to brace themselves for ongoing power supply problems for at least the next 18 months until it can bring two new power stations online – a situation that, I among others, find deeply worrying for the future financial health, and related long-term social stability, of the country.

At the end of last week though, President Zuma took the interesting step of denying that the country’s energy challenges had anything to do with years of government underfunding or mismanagement. Instead he chose to blame Eskom’s current difficulties in supplying demand on the apartheid regime, which collapsed 20 years ago.

The utility, he informed delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town, had been structured to provide electricity exclusively to the white minority, “not the majority”, which is where the foundations of the problem lay.

But unlike hospitals, airports, mines and Parliament, it seems that the President’s official residences in both Pretoria and Cape Town are, luckily, insulated from power cuts themselves due to “technical reasons”. Therefore, he is in the fortuitous position of not having to share the majority’s pain.

But all of this raises two salient points about South Africa. One is the desperate, grinding poverty that most of the population still, very noticeably, lives in once you leave the well-heeled, predominantly white suburbs and business districts.

A land of contrasts

The disparity between the prosperous and the poor in this beautiful, resource-rich country is the greatest in the world. But it is this very inequality, which drastically bumps up average per capita income levels, that means South Africa fails to qualify for all too many donor programmes from bodies such as the United Nations.

As a result, the country all too often fails to get the financial aid it so desperately requires to help its needy population – an obvious wrong that should really be righted somehow.

Another distinctively South African issue raised by President Zuma’s comments is the thorny one of race, in this land still so deeply scarred by the brutalities of the apartheid regime – and one that lives on to this day, in fact, through the economic and social structures introduced by policies such as forced resettlement.

As a result, I can quite honestly say that I’ve never lived anywhere where race appears to form such an undercurrent to so many conversations, and where so few people of different heritage seem to mix socially – a culture shock after living in multi-cultural Britain, and especially London, for so long.

Despite this, what did give me huge hope – and not just symbolically – was seeing young students at Stellenbosch University, the so-called engine room of apartheid, starting to do just that – to learn together, play together and even, in some instances, go out together. And although not enormously widespread, the same is true to some extent of the younger generation here in Johannesburg too.

But in spite of its troubles, South Africa has a lot of plus points. I’ll certainly miss the climate and its balance in favour of warm/hot weather, appalling winters notwithstanding.

I’ll also miss the friendliness and courtesy of the people – being called “Tannie” (Auntie) by Afrikaans speakers or “Mami” by black Africans whose gorgeous smiles could light up rooms, despite past and current circumstances. Such terms, employed as a mark of respect for age, show a civility forgotten long ago in the UK.

But I’ll also miss learning about the country’s fascinating cultures and traditions and the ways of a nation in some ways so viscerally linked to Britain and in others, so vastly different.

So all in all, it’s been a blast. Thank you, South Africa – for everything. I’ll remember you always.

If you’re interested in finding out about the social and cultural mores of the UK, feel free to catch up with my new blog entitled www.mygreatbritishadventure.com.


Gandhi’s Satyagraha Philosophy Forged on Joburg’s Streets

Like most big cities, Johannesburg has had its fair share of famous residents at one time or another.

Probably the most well-known is Nelson Mandela who lived, among other places, in the nearby township of Soweto and the upmarket northern suburb of Houghton, depending on his fortunes at the time.

Then there was L. Ron Hubbard, the controversial founder of the Church of Scientology, who made his abode in the affluent neighbourhood of Linksfield Ridge for six months in the early 1960s in order to get his South African operations in order.

But another world-renowned denizen who also graced Jozi’s streets for a good 12 years or so was Mahatma Gandhi.

The human rights activist first arrived in Durban as a young lawyer in 1893 to handle the legal affairs of Indian merchants flooding in at that time to serve the needs of a burgeoning Asian population.

But by early 1903, as Gandhi’s clientele increasingly started moving to Johannesburg in the wake of the gold rush, he decided to follow the money, upping sticks and setting up his own legal practice at 15 Rissik Street in Joburg’s city centre.

There’s even a life-sized statue of him as a young man standing in his legal robes opposite the original offices, in what was one time called Van Der Bijl followed by Government Square but has now been renamed Gandhi Square.

Disappointingly though, it’s scarcely in the most salubrious, or picturesque, part of town. It is instead right next to a big, ugly bus terminal surrounded by scruffy, decaying tower blocks, which scarcely set the statue off to best advantage.

Nonetheless, the location is an appropriate one as it was where Johannesburg’s first court building once stood, a place where Gandhi first appeared as a lawyer and was also handed down various prison sentences for political activism before ending up in prison in the Old Fort.

Liberation figure

Now part of the Constitution Hill complex, which has housed South Africa’s Constitutional Court since 2004, the much-reviled prison, commonly known as ‘Number Four’, housed both common criminals and anti-apartheid protestors such as Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela.

Anyway to get back to the point, apart from a couple of short spells in England and India, Gandhi ended up staying in South Africa for a total of 21 years, only leaving in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

And the place certainly appears to have been key in moulding him into the influential liberation figure that he became. As Gandhi said himself: “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.”

So the country obviously had a massive impact on him – and not always in a positive way. Because the reason that he decided to stay here for so long was to fight the full-on racial discrimination that he, and other Indians, suffered routinely, with the perfectly reasonable aim of wanting to be treated as equals.

Although the noose of racist laws had been tightening for some time, the final straw came in 1906, following the proposed introduction of the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance.

The idea was that all Indian and Chinese people would be required to register their presence in the now defunct province of Transvaal – of which Pretoria was the capital – give the authorities their fingerprints and carry so-called passes as identity documents.

As a direct result, protestors got together at the Empire Theatre on downtown Commissioner Street, now the site of a cinema complex called the Kine Centre.

In fact, it was here that Gandhi first declared the very policy of passive resistance that served to rid India of British colonial rule. Based on the notion of ‘Satyagraha’, which means ‘truth force’ in Sanskrit, the idea is that violence begets violence and therefore ends up being counter-productive.

So, although the peaceful demonstration that followed the Empire Theatre gathering ended up in jail-terms for everyone concerned and was ultimately futile, it also made history, marking Joburg out as the birthplace of the philosophy.

Satyagraha House

Anyway, while it appears that Gandhi lived and agitated all over Joburg at one time or another, one former haunt of his really worth visiting is Tolstoy Farm, now known as Satyagraha House.

Built in what at the time was just empty veld far from the burgeoning metropolis by Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect with whom Gandhi is said to have had a gay relationship despite an earlier vow of celibacy, it has now morphed into a guesthouse and museum in the south-eastern neighbourhood of Orchards.

And it’s lovely. So lovely in fact that it has just won a 2014 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence and was listed as being among the country’s top 50 tourist attractions by leading South African online travel agency, Travelstart.

Although the House’s disconcertingly suburban approach makes you wonder what you’re going to find when you get there, once you move beyond the functional, little reception area, a tranquil haven of peaceful serenity and calm awaits you behind.

Set in a pretty, well-tended garden, the white-washed main house-come-free-of-charge museum, with its thatched roof, two bedroom rondavels and charming dining area leading onto a stoep, is simple yet stylish. It’s all about wooden tables, woven baskets, black ceramic pots and little panels with Gandhi quotes on them.

Run along similar communal lines to a kibbutz, at its peak, Tolstoy Farm was home to 50 adult satyagrahis and 30 children who tended the fruit trees, grew their own vegetables and lived an ascetic life of personal and spiritual discipline.

These days though, the museum and nine-bedroom guesthouse is owned and managed by Voyageurs du Monde, a French tour operator that invested about R20 million (£109,000) in purchasing and renovating the place, which opened for business at the end of 2011.

And it’s been careful to keep the spirit of Gandhi at least nominally alive. So the double rooms are all TV-, alcohol- and cigarette-free, although there is a smoking area out the back and WiFi on tap. The restaurant, located in the museum, serves only organically-grown vegetarian food and there are morning yoga and meditation classes for those keen to get into the vibe.

But with accommodation starting at E175 in low season and rising to E590 for a family cottage in high season, it isn’t exactly cheap and cheerful. Gandhi, presumably, would turn in his grave.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Fuel South Africa’s Rising Violent Crime Rate

South Africa’s dreadful international reputation for violent crime will certainly not have been helped by the latest statistics released last Friday (19 September).

While overall crime levels may be falling, the most scary offences such as murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery are all on the rise, according to Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko.

For example, the number of homicides during 2013/14 rose for the second year running, this time to 1,7068, a leap of 5% on the previous 12 months. This means that the equivalent of 47 people were killed each day last year.

Just as worryingly though, it appears that social unrest is also on the up in the form of protests against poor or non-existent service delivery in the townships as well as strike action, particularly in the mining sector.

Interestingly, the number of sexual offences against women and children was down slightly though, with rape levels falling by 6.3%, something Nhleko attributed to a “higher consciousness” in society as a result of government and media campaigns.

But the country is far from being in a position to pat itself on the back. It still has one of the highest rape rates on earth and to make matters worse, the estimates are that only one in 25 incidents is ever reported.

As to the cause of this increase in violence, meanwhile, Nhleko attributed it at least partially to high levels of substance misuse. “The prevalence of drugs and alcohol abuse in our community is extremely concerning,” he said. “They tend to a production point for criminal activity.”

Of particular concern these days is a cheap narcotic known as ‘nyaope’ in Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, and ‘whoonga’ in Durban – an illegal drug to which President Jacob Zuma warned earlier this year the nation’s youth were becoming “slaves”.

According to the United Nations, this heady cocktail of heroin, dagga (marijuana) and other substances ranging from milk powder to even anti-retrovirals and rat poison to pad it out, is unique to South Africa.

Although it first emerged in Durban in only 2010, its use has spread like wildfire among impoverished township dwellers over recent times, particularly since Afghanistan started flooding the world market with heroin following bumper opium poppy crops.


Sean, an addict who spoke on African news channel eNCA’s recent Checkpoint documentary, ‘Whoonga Addicts Special’, indicated that, in Durban, where heroin is smuggled in via the city’s port, the drug costs as little as ZAR20 (£1.10) a parcel or straw, which can be either smoked or injected.

Hence his decision to move there from Joburg, where the price is more like ZAR100-200 (£5.50-11) per hit, of which most addicts need several a day.

Sean was, in fact, one of the thousands of people who were cleared out of the slum-like King Dinuzulu Park near Durban’s city centre – now dubbed Whoonga Park by locals – in July.

The police arrested some 2,000 addicts, including girls as young as 15 who were involved in prostitution to fund their habit, following gang warfare by two rival groups the previous year.

Worryingly though, says Ishara Poodhum from the South African National Council for Drug Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of nyaope addicts is growing by 10% year-on-year, and its dreadful withdrawal symptoms, which include diarrhea and vomiting, make it a particularly difficult habit to break.

Even worse, statistics show that the average age of drug dependency in South Africa is now 12 years and dropping, a figure that is shocking by anyone’s standards.

But if Sabelo Qwabe, a resident of Clermont township in Durban, is to be believed, the sheer ubiquitousness of whoonga, which people can become addicted to after a single hit, is part of the problem.

He told Checkpoint that it was possible to buy the cream-coloured powder almost anywhere – in “the food shop, clothes shop, supermarket, even the tuck shop because they see it gives them money”.

Sadly, Qwabe’s 13-year old brother died smoking it after having been an addict for only six months.

While the government has already built seven rehab centres across the country to cope with all kinds of addiction and plans to build six more, waiting lists are huge and addiction rates mounting.


But despite the dreadful toll that nyaope is taking on the townships, it is alcohol that is the single most abused drug in South Africa, according to Quintin van Kerken.

A former addict himself, van Kerken heads up the Anti-Drug Alliance of South Africa to provide education and support services to substance abusers and their families.

Alcohol, he says, accounts for roughly 20% of all addiction at the national level, while drugs of all types come in next at another 20%. The remainder is made up of a heady mix of prescription medication, gambling, sex and porn.

In fact, it turns out that, according to this year’s World Health Organisation report on alcohol and health, South Africans are actually the heaviest drinkers on the continent and the 29th biggest topers in the world – although they behaved better than the Brits who come in at number 25.

In real terms, this means that the average person here consumed just over 27 litres per annum in 2010, about 10% higher than the global average.

But it is also important to bear in mind that, because three out of five South Africans do not drink at all, the ones who do are making up for the rest, particularly in binge-drinking to get drunk terms.

One of the most shocking things I have come across in relation to the whole alcohol thing in this country though is the so-called ‘dop’ system (Afrikaans for a drink).

Now mostly but not entirely defunct, the system, which was widespread in the Cape Winelands until relatively recently, saw local wine farm workers being paid a portion of their wages in the form of daily measures of cheap, low quality booze.

The practice, which was made illegal in 1961 although prohibition was not enforced until the end of apartheid in 1994, led to large numbers of people with serious addiction problems.

And they are problems that, sadly, are still being played out in all too many families today.

Indulging in the Unusual: an Urban Circus and L. Ron Hubbard’s place

It’s always refreshing to see people using their skills and talents to full advantage – and loving what they do as a result.


And that definitely seems to be the case for Natalie and Orlando Vargas, the husband-and-wife team who set up Sircusynergy, a performing arts company based in Joburg that we happened to see doing their thing last Saturday night.


Located for two evenings at the Crossfit 360 Vida gym in the suburb of Craigavon, the troupe of 14 or so wowed the audience with everything from beautifully choreographed and imaginatively scored dance routines to eye-watering acrobatics and death-defying aerial stunts using a range of trapeze, silks and nets.


My favourites though had to be the guy seemingly using every bit of his upper body to juggle a huge cube that changed colour with the light, and a punky-looking pole dancer who climbed, slid and plunged her way up and down her equipment in a fashion that managed to be both sensual and seriously acrobatic at the same time.


Anyway, the idea behind the show entitled ‘Urban Circus’ was to portray ordinary city people living ordinary city lives who, with a bit of imagination, could end up doing extraordinary, fairy tale things.


And nowhere is this concept more pertinent than in Joburg, Natalie believes, where a lot of people don’t seem to do much beyond having a few drinks on a Friday night, braai-ing and shopping.


And I would tend to agree. When we moved up to Jozi from the Cape, one of the things that I’d been looking forward to most in the ‘big city’ was indulging in a bit more culture, particularly the theatre and performing arts, which I love.


But so far, I must admit I’ve been sadly disappointed. It may be that I’m just looking in the wrong places, which is always a possibility, or maybe it’s a demand thing, but there just doesn’t seem to be that much going on.




And what there is appears to lurch from one extreme to the other – either light entertainment a la Disney on Ice or stuff that’s really pretty dour. Whether you’re talking about plays, photography exhibitions or even novels, a lot of culture here seems to be focused on apartheid, what it was like during apartheid, the after-effects of apartheid etc etc.


Which is understandable seeing as the regime only collapsed a generation ago leaving deep societal scars that in many cases have yet to be healed. It’s just that it seems so ubiquitous and ending up traumatised isn’t necessarily what you always want on a Saturday night.


Anyway, one of the lovely things about Urban Circus was that it was lively, sassy and upbeat – and much more raw than South Africa’s current Cirque legend, Madame Zingara, where Natalie and Orlando worked in the early days, before leaving the Cape for Johannesburg to set up Sircusynergy.


They now earn their crust putting on corporate events and offering circus training to both kids and adults, many of whom are part-time artistes and form a pool of talent that can be accessed for shows.


But they also do their bit for the community, teaching performance skills to children from disadvantaged backgrounds in a bid to help boost their confidence and provide them with tools for self-expression – or even start out on a possible career path. It’s great.


Another idea that I really liked though was using the CrossFit 360Vida gym, where many of the performers train, as a kind of pop-up venue.


Not only did it look suitably urban with its high ceilings and steel pipes everywhere, but it’s a great use of space outside of working hours – and one that the UK, given its crippling cuts to arts budgets outside of London, could perhaps learn a trick or two from, if it hasn’t already, that is.


A further unusual spot that we found ourselves at this weekend, meanwhile, was L. Ron Hubbard’s former residence, sited on Linksfield Ridge near the Chinese neighbourhood of Cyrildene, where we decided to go for a spot of lunch before our by-appointment-only tour.


Linksfield Ridge House


For those of us who don’t know who L. Ron Hubbard is, he was the controversial founder of the Church of Scientology and a prolific writer of science- and pulp fiction.


In fact, he was entered into the Guinness Book of Records an amazing three times for his pains – as the world’s most published and translated author and the author with the most audio books under his belt.


Anyway, it seems that Hubbard moved to Johannesburg for six months or so in the early 1960s in order to sort out the underperformance of his organisation there.


And during his time in the city, he rented the lovely Linksfield Ridge House. Thought to have been designed by an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was built by a Greek timber merchant about a decade before and has stunning teak parquet flooring in the living room to prove it.


The place has since been purchased by the Church of Scientology – along with four other residences in the US and UK – and restored to its original glory following a series of insensitive alterations, based on film footage taken by Hubbard using a Bolex 16mm movie camera.


And it’s been made into a museum to his memory, preserved just how it was when he lived there and full of tasteful and very collectable 1960s furniture – with the addition of various cabinets of memorabilia in what were the bedrooms, of course.


A fine example of an affluent Joburg home of the period, in fact, and one of the few left in the city apparently. But one greatly enhanced by the glorious views from the French-door-fronted living room and enormous balcony overlooking downtown Johannesburg, perched as the house is on the side of a reasonably substantial hill.


For those interested in such matters, there are also insights aplenty into the workings of Scientology as well as a go on an “E-Meter”, which, like a lie detector, appears to measure physiological responses and apparently lets you know whether you’re suffering from spiritual blockages caused by past experiences.


Not really my thing, I must confess, so I can’t imagine converting any time soon. Still, exactly who was it that said there was nothing to do in Joburg?





Getting Arty in Downtown Jozi

I’ve never been a huge fan of art galleries – or museums for that matter.


Although I know lots of people disagree with me and are horrified by my philistine notions, I find them a bit sterile, full of too many pictures or artefacts stuck on walls or in cabinets with no real context and very little explanation.


Because I’m a big story girl – I really do like my narratives. Tell a story around something and you can make even the most boring facts or abstracted objects d’art seem interesting.


The thing is that, to me, art is all about communication. Which means that to get it beyond a simple, gut-instinct-based ‘I like it or don’t like it’ thing, you need to understand the context, the ideas behind it and where things fit together. Otherwise you’re just gawping at random things with arbitrary values assigned to them by often capricious ‘experts’.


So, with that in mind, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the story-telling nature of the ‘Migrant Journeys’ exhibition held at Wits – short for the University of Witwatersrand – Art Museum in Joburg’s trendy downtown area of Braamfontein this National Youth Day (16 June) weekend.


Youth Day, which like so many of South Africa’s public holidays is Struggle-related, happens to be particularly poignant in that it marks the start of the Soweto Riots in 1976. The uprising was sparked by an edict from the apartheid government that all teaching in black schools had to be undertaken in Afrikaans.


But it ended up in international condemnation of the regime after an iconic picture of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead by police during a peaceful protest march, was beamed all around the world.


Although 16 June was associated with resistance for many years, the message has now thankfully been turned into something more positive, with the holiday meant to remind South Africa of the importance of its youth.


Decidedly bite-sized


Anyway, given all that, the multimedia-based exhibition at Wits Art Museum about the lives of migrant workers who built the country’s economy from the sweat of their brows, seemed strangely appropriate.


Because, it seems that the whole thing came about through social engineering anyway. The colonial authorities, on deciding they needed cheap labour to extract the gold and diamonds discovered across southern Africa, imposed a so-called ‘hut tax’ on black communities.


The tax not only raised revenues to fund colonial activities, but also forced people to leave their rural homesteads and move to urban centres to find work in order to pay it – a migration that still continues to this day.


But what struck me most about the exhibition was just how, despite the ugly treatment metered out to them, people still found it within themselves to create beautiful things.


In fact, the geometric patterns of Zulu and Xhosa beadwork laced into everything from pipes and necklaces to jackets and belts, reminded me very much of the designs found in Native American Navaho arts and crafts. Amazing really when you consider the distance between the two continents.


As for the gallery itself, being billed as the “leading Museum of African art on the African continent”, I’d expected it to be massive. But, refreshingly, it was decidedly bite-sized. So doable and relatively petite, in fact, that we thought we’d missed something.


We even came back next day to see if we had, but were reliably informed by the guy on the door that the decidedly white-coloured, three-storey space was definitely all there was. So we took his word for it.


Our second cultural experience of the weekend, meanwhile, took place at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Again grandly pitched as “the biggest gallery on the sub-continent”, my Beloved and I were expecting the equivalent of the Tate in London or the Louvre in Paris.


Instead what we found was a lovely neo-classical building designed by British architect, Edward Lutyens, which seemed at once both remarkably empty and distinctly marooned.


Downtown art


Built in 1915 when downtown Joburg was at its peak, the beautiful building now appears abandoned to its fate in the middle of rundown Joubert Park – despite the security gates surrounding it.


The Park, established in 1887, is the largest and oldest in the city and was once home to an open-air theatre, little lakes full of fish and a Christmas theme park. But the theatre is now abandoned, the fishponds empty and the grass covered with poor inner city residents, sleeping it off in the sun.


It doesn’t feel particularly safe, with the whole dodgy neighbourhood in distressingly marked contrast to the grandeur of the sandstone cultural edifice only a few steps away, a place where even the rather dowdy paintings seem careworn. I wouldn’t recommend it.


Much less depressing though is the site of our new, favourite market and lunch spot. Market on Main at the Arts on Main centre is located in another downtown regeneration spot, the Maboneng Precinct, a stone’s throw from Braamfontein.


Formerly a bunch of dilapidated warehouses and offices dating back to the 1900s, Arts on Main has now been transformed into an airy complex, housing everything from art galleries and private studios to boutique-y shops selling designer gear and homeware.


It’s even got its own microbrewery called Smack! Republic and plays host to German cultural organisation, The Goethe Institute, which puts on different plays there.


And of course, there’s Sunday’s Market on Main, with its ground floor food extravaganza and upstairs clothes and hand-made jewellery stalls.


It’s fab. Lively and buzzy and quirky and bright. Definitely a case of urban culture by the living rather than art by the dead.






Conservation: South Africa’s Last Stand

South Africa really does have some stunning birdlife.


Since arriving here, we’ve been lucky enough to spot everything from pretty, yellow weaver birds of elaborate, woven nest fame; a rarely-viewed African goshawk and eye-catching pin-tailed whydahs with their striking black-and-white plumage and red bills.


And then, of course, you also can‘t fail to notice the seemingly ubiquitous hadehas, a type of ibis with a penetrating squawk that would wake the dead.


But in fact, these avian gems are only really the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that South Africa, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, has a huge 846 species of birds either on shore or out at sea, about 8% of the world’s total.


Sadly though, about 133 of them – the equivalent of about 15% – are threatened by extinction, with the main problem, as ever, being habitat loss.


Grasslands, which make up a mere 16.5% of the country’s landmass but act as home to 350 of its bird species, are particularly important but also particularly threatened due to widespread agricultural and mining activity. To make matters worse, only 2.8% of such habitats, mostly in the Drakensberg mountain region, are currently protected.


As a result of all of this, Daniel Marnewick, manager of Important Birds and Biodiversity Areas Programmes for conservation charity, BirdLife South Africa, believes that the country is approaching its “last stand” in conservation terms.


“Habitats are so fragmented or lost now and so few remain pristine that we can’t afford to lose any more,” he explained at the Sasol Bird Fair organised by the charity last weekend. “We can do species-specific work, but the issue is that if we’re not protecting habitats, it won’t do any good long-term.”


But so far only about six per cent of the country’s total land surface is actually receiving the protection required – although the government has promised to up this figure to 10% at some unspecified point in the future in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s recommendations.


One of the problems is that the necessary resources to create formal national parks and nature reserves are scarce in developing countries such as South Africa.


Biodiversity stewardship


Therefore, BirdLife SA focuses mainly on promoting “biodiversity stewardship” these days in collaboration with provincial governments and other non-governmental organisations such as WWF and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.


To this end, some 122 ‘Important Bird Areas (IBAs)’ – protected areas recognised as being globally important bird conservation habitats – have already been created across the country, with another in the shape of Greater Lakenvlei in Mpumalanga expected to come online within the next six months.


Three IBAs have also recently been assigned priority status in a bid to try and protect endangered specis: Memel in the Free State, and Chrissiesmeer and Steenkampsberg in Mpumalanga, a poor rural province to the east of Johannesburg where 70% of the land is deemed to have mining potential.


As for the actual Bird Fair itself, meanwhile, this was held against the lovely backdrop of the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, about 30km to the west of downtown Johannesburg.


The 300-hectare reserve is one of the youngest of South Africa’s eight national botanic gardens, having only formally been established in 1982, but it is a deservedly popular local walking and picnic spot for those keen to indulge in a bit of nature.


Rather appropriately, it also happens to be home to a pair of Verreaux’s or Black Eagles, which we spotted soaring above us while eating our lunch at the well-attended restaurant.


These beautiful raptors are simply immense with a vast wingspan of up to 2.8 metres and they nest on the cliffs of the Garden’s centrepiece Witpoortjie (‘White Gate’ in Afrikaans) Waterfall, which was remarkably full seeing as we’re in the dry winter season.


Speaking of water though, another interesting talk that my Beloved and I attended, this one by WWF volunteer and sustainability manager at Standard Bank, Emily Adair, related to ‘Sustainable Fish Choices’ – the rather obscure link being, I think, that the Fair’s theme this year was seabirds.


Anyway, it appears that South African waters are home to 16% of the globe’s marine fish species and 15% of its coastal plant and animal species, with about 12% being found nowhere else in the world.


Sustainable seafood


As elsewhere though, overfishing is a huge problem, with almost half of the country’s marine resources now being fully exploited and a further 15% overexploited, including important commercial species such as rock lobster and yellowfin tuna.


To try to manage the problem, WWF set up the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) in 2004 with a range of partners including the Save our Seas charity.


SASSI’s aim was, and is, to promote awareness of, and support for, marine conservation among all members of the seafood supply chain from wholesalers and retailers to restaurants and consumers in a bid to make the fishing industry more sustainable.


And its sterling work to date has meant that 80% of the South African seafood industry, which includes supermarkets such as Woolworths and national restaurant chain John Dory’s, now offer at least some Marine Stewardship Council-certified products as options.


To its credit, supermarket giant Pick ‘n Pay has also just become Africa’s first retailer to guarantee that all of its seafood will be sourced sustainably by 2015.


Another important programme that will soon start making its presence felt both locally and globally, however, is the Acquaculture Stewardship Council’s certification and labelling scheme.


The not-for-profit organisation was set up by WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative in 2010 to try to encourage the industry to farm seafood in a more responsible manner and, while it may have had a low profile to date, this situation is scheduled to change over the year ahead.


Despite these worthy initiatives though, an inevitable lack of resources means that safeguarding South Africa’s marine life from illegal activity is likely to remain an uphill struggle.


While the country has more than 3,000 square miles of coastline to protect, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a mere four patrol boats to help it do so, only two of which are out-and-about at any one time. And with odds like that, it certainly won’t be easy.



Mixing it at Joburg Music Festivals

I’ve always liked a good music festival. But since my Beloved and I came to South African shores, we’ve not indulged ourselves once.


So, when digital satellite TV service DSTv started advertising its ‘Delicious International Food and Music’ event, we definitely thought we should give it a go. Not only were we promised wondrous sounds aplenty, but “foodie-friendly fun and good vibes” too. How could we resist.


And so it was that on Saturday lunchtime, in admittedly rare fashion for the usual car-bound whites in Jozi, we set off on foot to the park-like Joburg Botanical Gardens near Emmarentia Dam – a mere 40 minute walk or so from our place in Parkhurst.


Just as we were tramping through grass already brown due to lack of rain during the dry winter season, however, we suddenly happened upon a burst of colour.


To our delight, it was a wall covered in bright and beautiful tags made familiar by our downtown graffiti tour and placed there courtesy of Mars, Tapz and the rest of the Demolition Squad, one of Jozi’s most well-known, and prolific, crews.


Just as we were getting over that particular bit of excitement though, we came across another. Following the clarion call of Scottish bagpipes, we found ourselves lured to a ‘Highland Gathering’ in the grounds of De La Salle Holy Cross College in nearby Victory Park.


And there amassed before us were multi-ethnic pipe and drum bands dressed in every shade of tartan known to man; red-haired and red-faced girls dancing competitive reels on a black stage; and multifarious ‘craft’ stalls selling everything from tam-o-shanters to tartan boxers.


A noticeable absence from the proceedings though was the authentic Scottish cuisine. Without so much as a neep or a tattie to be had, the culinary highlight was that old South African staple, boerewors (beef sausage), with the odd cone of chips thrown in for good measure.


Long history


Another thing scarce on the ground was the good, old Scottish accent. Although it seems that the Scots have a long history in South Africa, dating back to at least the 1880s discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold in the Transvaal (a former province in the north east of the country), there didn’t seem to be many people around from the mother-country last weekend.


No matter how remote the heritage though, the desire to maintain a Scottish identity does appear to be strong. In fact, there are as many as 15 Scottish Societies spread across the country, an official Highland Dancing Board, and even a 75-year-old Scottish deli in Vereeniging called ‘Wee McGregors’ selling everything from the inevitable haggis to black pudding and Scotch pies.


There are also a good many Scottish place-names dotted around the place too, ranging from Gordon’s Bay and McGregor in the Western Cape to Orkney in the North West Province and Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal.


The connection is even more marked in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg though, with a six-mile belt of Hibernian-sounding neighbourhoods stretching from Blairgowrie and Craighall in the west to Waverley and Highlands North in the east. So the Scots definitely left their mark here.


Anyway, from our halfway stopover point at the Highland Gathering, it was only a short, if amazingly warm 23-degrees, stretch to the DSTv Food and Music do.


As the music blared out from the stage to greet us, the first thing that struck me were the seemingly endless queues – queues to buy food, queues to buy booze, and the longest and most impressive queues of all snaking their inevitable way to the spotlessly clean ladies’ portaloos.


None of your filthy, stinking British festival toilets here, let me tell you, thanks mainly to the hordes of hardworking, and most important of all cheap, labour. But that leads me on to one of the most gratifying, and equally conspicuous, things about the event.


While most of the festivals we’ve been to have so far been relentlessly white with only a handful of other ethnicities present at best, the attendees at this one were predominantly black. The burgeoning black middle classes were out in force, and they were loving it.




Although such a situation would barely be remarked upon in the multi-cultural heartlands of the UK, in South Africa, with its very different history and background, you really do notice it.


Not only do black and white of all classes stick mainly to their own apartheid-induced neighbourhoods even today, but economic power still resides in mainly Caucasian hands, with a per capita income differential of nearly eight times (South African Institute of Race Relations).


This means that, while your doctor or lawyer will most probably be white, the person cleaning your house or serving you coffee in a bistro will almost certainly be black. It’s very noticeable to an outsider.


So it’s no real surprise then that people of different ethnicities still don’t mix much here. The 2013 annual South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey revealed, in fact, that just over two out of five people never or rarely chat regularly with someone of a different race.


As for socialising together, it simply never happens for almost a third, while a further 40% do so sometimes or only rarely.


Despite all this though, my Beloved and I found last Saturday’s festival to be the friendliest we’ve been to here bar none – and we’ve been to quite a few by now. Whether it was chatting with someone about their love of ‘Top Gear’ on hearing our English accents or having a little dance and a joke with the guys standing in front of us, we had a whale of a time.


While I can’t say that the all-British headliners – jazz-funk pioneers, the Brand New Heavies; club favourites, Soul II Soul; and acid jazz combo, Icognito – were quite my musical thing, it really didn’t matter too much.


What mattered most was the optimism and hope that the day inspired in both us for the future of this troubled country.