Tag Archives: tourism

Gang Violence Devastates Cape Town’s Townships

Despite Johannesburg’s reputation for being the most dangerous city in South Africa, it now appears that the tourist mecca of Cape Town has stolen its crown.

According to a list of the top 50 most violent urban areas on the planet compiled by Mexican NGO Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice and published last week, the Mother City was ranked a startling number 20.

The ratings are assigned by measuring the number of homicides per 100,000 citizens each year and do not include war zones. So on this basis, Cape Town recorded an average of 50.94, making it not only the most violent city in the country, but also the entire continent.

Joburg, on the other hand, did not figure in the rankings at all, which were, in fact, dominated by Latin American cities, with San Pedro Sula in Honduras topping the list (187.14).

But this is not the first time that Cape Town has been singled out for its high levels of violence. Although domestic arguments turned nasty are the most likely reason for murder in the region, accounting for a third of all 2,580 such incidents last year, next on the list is gang-related violence (18%), which has been escalating in recent years.

As for the areas with the highest murder rates last year, these were found not so much in the region’s high-profile tourist areas, but rather in the townships of the Cape Flats.

The Cape Flats are a vast, barren area about 30km to the south east of Cape Town itself, where people designated as “non-white” during the apartheid era were compelled to live as part of the regime’s forced removal policy.

Among the most afflicted townships there are Gugulethu, where Anni Dewani, whose British husband is currently on trial for her murder, was killed, and Mitchell’s Plain, a predominantly “coloured” (a South African term for people of mixed race) settlement that suffers the highest levels of gang-related murders.

Because, while “black” townships may experience the highest murder rates overall, it is “coloured” communities that suffer disproportionately from organised gang activity.

Craven Engel, a minister and chief executive of NGO, First Community Resource Centre, which is based in the troubled area of Hanover Park, explains that, while gangs have existed in one form or another for generations, before forced resettlement in the 1960s, they were largely benevolent.

But the social dislocation, disempowerment and anger resulting from the policy led to a change in focus. A lack of action by law enforcement then entrenched the situation, leaving communities feeling increasingly hopeless, marginalised and abandoned.

Gang dynamics

In fact, as the gangs increasingly moved into drug trafficking, some corrupt police officers also started taking a slice of the pie. This scenario led to whole roads being “contaminated with drug outlets”, specialising mainly in tik (methamphetamine) and, progressively over the last two years, heroin-based nyaope.

But there are also other factors at play. For example, overcrowding is rife and urban design alienating, something that Engel hopes will be tackled by City planners following an external assessment for a much-needed redesign next year.

To make matters worse, he says: “Unemployment is crazy – 70% the last time I checked – and poverty is crippling people. There’s a lack of opportunity and educational levels are also quite low, with school dropout rates terrible. This makes recruitment to gang culture very easy as there’s derailed youth everywhere.”

In fact, the gang’s recruitment policy with regards to age has now dropped to 12 years old as it is perceived that children will get off more lightly and not be sent to prison if caught.

But being a tattooed member of a gang not only generates an income, it also confers respect, a feeling of identity and of safety by belonging to an organisation that promises to protect you.

What this all means, Andre Standing, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, points out in a 2005 policy discussion paper – the most up-to-date estimate available – is that there are now as many as 130 street and prison gangs operating in the Cape Town area, which between them have around 100,000 members.

In a bid to reduce the levels of violence that ensue though, Engel set up a social crime prevention programme called CeaseFire four years ago after attending a workshop hosted by a group with the same name from Chicago in the US.

The scheme, which is funded by the City of Cape Town, is based on the idea that gang violence is like a contagious disease. Therefore, when it breaks out in the community, individuals need to be quarantined by so-called “violence interrupters” to prevent it from spreading further.

“An interrupter is like an antibiotic,” Engel explains. “He’s a street-level guy who spends most of his time on the beat and mediates to prevent violence or retribution taking place. Once that’s done, he hands the case over to an outreach worker, who is more of a social worker. They then do risk work with individuals and find out what we can offer them.”

Possible services here include residence at a half-way house to help people deal with substance abuse, skills development, legal support and help in finding work.

But trauma counselling is also available both for gang members and their families who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to living in what is essentially a continuous warzone.

Another thing worth noting though is that both interrupters and outreach workers are all former gang members themselves, often with prison stretches behind them. This status not only gives them street cred, but also means that they are intimately familiar with the issues faced by others.

CeaseFire

As a result, over the last two years, CeaseFire’s Hanover Park programme has successfully intervened with 158 youths, some 70 of whom have left gang life and are now in gainful employment.

“The primary aim is to stop guys shooting and to mediate conflict so as to stop violence spreading. But the hidden agenda is to get people to exit gangs,” Engel says.

Although many programme participants have yet to do so, “almost 70% aren’t shooters any more”, he adds. While they might still carry weapons to protect their turf, “they’ll now think twice before using them”.

This means that, since the scheme began, violence levels in the area have dropped by about 50%. While 38 people died last year, the figure up until 16 September had more than halved again to 16.

One tool that is proving useful in supplementing limited manpower levels, meanwhile, is the Shotspotter gunfire detection system. Despite its far-reaching work, the CeaseFire programme is only able to employ five interrupters and outreach workers respectively, two office staff and two volunteers.

The system, which was developed by California-based SST to alert police should shots go off in troubled US neighbourhoods, is also being used in Kruger National Park in the fight against rhino poaching.

But since 15 August, Shotspotter has likewise been taking part in a three-month pilot project covering a 1kmsq area of Hanover Park. Once a shot goes off in the area, the sound is triangulated using sensors, and audio and location data is sent to interrupters via an SMS message.

They are then able to respond to the incident within minutes and without having to depend on often-unreliable information from members of the public.

Another key advantage of the system is that it provides analytical information, which enables both CeaseFire and law enforcement bodies to deploy resources when and where they are most needed.

Engel explains: “We now know that most activity takes place between 12pm and 3am on Monday mornings, which we didn’t expect. So the data has navigated us much closer to the trouble spots and, because we can see areas heating up and cooling down, it’s now possible to deploy people more effectively.”

A decision on whether to extend the trial or have the system go live will be taken early next year, most likely around the same time that CeaseFire begins extending its scheme into nearby areas such as Manenberg and Kewtown.

As Engel concludes: “There’s much hope around the programme. It takes time for a community to heal, but peace attracts positive things like investment and job opportunities. They’re now starting to happen and so, while it’s taken a long time, we’re finally beginning to see positive rays of hope.”

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Ebola Hammers South African Tourism, while Rampant Bilharzia Goes Unnoticed

Although South Africa has had no confirmed cases of ebola and is thousands of miles from the epicentre of the epidemic in West Africa, it appears that its tourist industry is being hammered anyway.

According to local reports, panic over the disease is reminiscent of that generated by SARS in 2003, causing holiday-makers from Europe, the US and particularly Asia to cancel their travel plans to the country in droves.

Enver Duminy, chief executive of Cape Town Tourism, told national Sunday newspaper City Press over the weekend, for example, that, even though the organisation had issued numerous statements confirming the Mother City’s ebola-free status, its Asian tour promoters and trade contacts were experiencing cancellation rates of up to 90%.

And this despite the fact that the city is actually further from the centre of the epidemic in Freetown, Liberia (3,365 miles) than it is from London (3,172 miles).

But as unwarranted as such fears may be, they could potentially be disastrous for the local economy. Tourism is worth about ZAR18 billion (£1 billion) to the Western Cape, South Africa’s largest sightseeing destination by far, and employs a huge 150,000 people.

In fact, across South Africa as a whole, tourism contributes a significant 9% of GDP and accounts for one in 11 jobs, making it a hugely important, and often underestimated, industry.

As a result, in a bid to help try and prevent the spread of the disease to these shores, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene has allocated an extra ZAR33 million (£1.9 million) to help support the continent’s worst affected nations – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Each of South Africa’s nine provinces has also designated certain key hospitals to handle an outbreak should one occur, introduced trained response teams and implemented surveillance at all ports of entry, including thermal scanners at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo and Lanseria airports.

And such preventative measures would appear to be vital. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week, the disease has already killed 5,160 out of the 14,098 people who have been infected with it in eight countries across West Africa.

Bilharzia

But another dangerous illness worth considering, even though it has received nothing like the global attention of ebola, is bilharzia – or to use its scientific name, schistosomiasis.

Despite being a rather neglected condition to date, the WHO expressed concern last month that the spread of bilharzia may be about to hit epidemic proportions in South Africa.

It is estimated that as many as five million out of a total population of 53 million could be infected, with the problem being particularly acute in Kwa-Zulu Natal’s (KZN) humid, low altitude coastal areas.

The disease itself, meanwhile, is caused by a schistosoma parasitic flatworm that enters the skin through contact with infected fresh water from rivers and lakes. These parasites, which can live in the blood stream of their host for up to 30 years, develop over time into worms, which mate and release up to 500 eggs a day.

Some of these eggs are passed out in an individual’s urine or faeces, while others remain trapped in body tissue, the most common being the intestine, liver, bladder or reproductive organs, causing inflammation or scarring in the process.

While symptoms vary, for many people, they start with a rash or itchy skin within a few days of infection. The next stage is often a fever, chills, a cough, muscle aches and diarrhoea a couple of months later.

But, while the illness takes a number of forms and can even remain dormant in people’s systems for years, the ultimate outcome is generally immune problems and progressive organ damage.

While children are most vulnerable to the disease, it is actually its effect on women that is causing most concern to experts. Estimates are that about two million South African females are currently infected with bilharzia, which can cause severe gynaecological issues, including infertility.

Taking action

Other problems include severe pain and chronic bleeding, particularly during sexual intercourse, which mean that women are as much as three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS – a disease already at pandemic levels among disadvantaged women in rural communities – if having sex with an infected partner.

And even more worryingly, the WHO believes that more than 150 million women across the continent suffer from this generally unrecognised form of the disease.

But there are things that can be done. If diagnosed early enough, the worms can be killed off quite easily with a single dose of the drug praziquantel, although the eggs cannot.

Children in particularly affected areas of South Africa are already given such medication once every two years for prevention purposes, although some experts believe that an annual dose would probably be more appropriate.

But there is currently no vaccine for bilharzia and, to make matters worse, the illness tends to go largely un- or mis-diagnosed. Too few medical practitioners are even aware of its existence, and those that are tend to look for blood in the urine as a primary symptom, which is not necessarily the case.

As Dr Eyrun Kjetland, an honorary lecturer at KZN University and the Norwegian Centre for Imported and Tropical Diseases, told a gathering of WHO experts, African doctors and leading researchers at the University last month: “It is a neglected tropical disease and there’s not a lot of attention on it. The pharmaceutical companies don’t care about it, there’s no donations coming forth and the authorities are not doing enough in paving the way to make it less of a public health problem.”

As a result, she is currently working with a number of other health experts in order to compile an information booklet. The document, which is due to be published within a couple of years, is intended to help doctors recognise the condition and treat it more effectively.

A team from KZN University is also undertaking research on the province’s south coast, where infection is rife, in a bid to come up with a wider plan of action for treatment and prevention. To this end, a draft report is already in the pipeline – and so it would appear, not a moment too soon.

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.

Revisiting the Happening Cape

Sometimes you don’t realise how much you miss a place until you go back.

 

And so it was with our five-day jaunt to Cape Town last week, with me in my official capacity as hanger-on, and my Beloved working his socks off at a conference.

 

Because, although it undoubtedly depends on what you’re into and what your tastes are, Joburg, to me, simply isn’t a patch on the Cape.

 

Particularly at this time of year during the dry winter season when everything in Jozi is turning a parched, ugly brown, and bush fires, some laid as fire breaks and others just ignored, appear to be breaking out all over the place.

 

The Western Cape, by way of contrast though, is looking lush and green and gorgeous as ever – and just has so much more going on, even during the tourist low season.

 

Even the shopping’s better. For ages now, I’ve been looking all over Jozi for a nice ornamental bowl to act as a wedding present from my Beloved and drawn a complete blank, disheartened as I’ve been by either the pedestrian or the showy bling that a lot of shops seem to specialise in here.

 

But a couple of days in the Cape and that coveted bowl is mine – a beautifully simple Zulu izinkamba, or drinking pot, traditionally used to share beer around a camp fire – courtesy of the African Trading Port at the V&A Waterfront.

 

A truly intriguing and suitably musty-smelling store, it resides over four uneven rickety floors in the Old Port Captain’s Building. And it specialises in selling genuine African artefacts ranging from sculptures to ceramics sourced from rural villages all over the continent by 500 or so art scouts. It’s fabulous.

 

Keeping on the arty theme, I also took myself off at one point for a trip to the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, initially to nose around an interior design exhibit at custom furniture producers, Leon at CCXIX.

 

World Design Capital

 

Created to celebrate Cape Town’s World Design Capital (WDC) status this year, the 12Rooms Exhibition showcased the work of a dozen local designers, including a Xhosa tribal-inspired living room and a French loft-style bedroom.

 

The WDC designation is awarded every couple of years by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design to those cities that demonstrate a desire to employ design as a tool for social and cultural change as well as economic development.

 

But Woodstock seems to have been doing it for itself over the last two or three years regardless – although the city’s WDC status certainly won’t do it any harm either.

 

Woodstock is, you might say, the equivalent of East London’s Hoxton about 20 years ago – an area that you’d now describe as being down-at-heel but was once quite dangerous, with an eccentric mix of car repair shops, tatty hardware stores, ultra-trendy art galleries and foodie hang-outs all sitting cheek-by-jowl.

 

It’s also home to what you can only describe as ‘retail spaces’ such as the upmarket and extremely pricey Bromwell Boutique Mall [http://www.thebromwell.co.za], and the Old Biscuit Mill office and shopping complex, which holds a popular food and craft market every Saturday.

 

So while Woodstock’s regeneration may still be very much a work in progress, you can definitely see that it’s a neighbourhood on the up.

 

Another suburb that’s also starting to see gradual change is the infamous District Six. Unlike Woodstock, which was one of the few multi-racial areas to escape forced resettlement during apartheid, District Six was decimated.

 

Renowned at one time for having some of the best music and nightlife in the city, after it was declared a ‘white-only’ area in 1966, the bulldozers moved in, flattening homes and evicting a vast 60,000 people to the barren wastelands of the Cape Flats.

 

Cultural zone

 

While some have since managed to reclaim their land and rebuild with the help of a Trust set up for the purpose, another 800 or so claims are still on-going. But one of the few buildings to survive the devastation was the 1860 church hall of the now disappeared Congregational Church in Buitenkant Street.

 

This beautiful red brick space reopened its doors in February 2010 as the entrance hall and downstairs bar area of the Fugard Theatre, which is meant to act as the centrepiece for a new cultural zone in a bid to breath life back into the area.

 

The theatre itself, meanwhile, was named in honour of Athol Fugard, arguably South Africa’s most significant and internationally-acclaimed playwright. Perhaps best known for the 2005 Academy Award-winning film of his novel Tsotsi (Sesotho for ‘thug’), he also won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2011.

 

Anyway, I wish I’d known about the place when we lived in Stellenbosch as I’d have been there every five minutes. While last week, I treated myself to the former Broadway romantic comedy classic ‘Same Time Next Year’, the future repertoire seemed to cover everything from Shakespeare to good, old Fugard himself. A lovely, intimate space seating just 335 souls, I’d highly recommend it.

 

And then finally for the trip’s foodie piece de resistance, there was Nobu at the One&Only hotel close to the V&A Waterfront.

 

The first restaurant in Africa to be set up by celebrity chef, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the décor was tastefully modern and the cuisine classically Japanese with a bit of a twist – my favourite.

 

Out of a six-course tasting menu though, my pet dishes simply had to be the smoked salmon sashimi and yellowtail California roll – gorgeous. The only bum-note to the proceedings, in fact, was the coffee-flavoured desert, which not only seemed out-of-keeping but also didn’t suit my caffeine intolerance.

 

Nonetheless, seeing as it was all kindly paid for by my parents who’d left us money for a culinary treat ages ago while on holiday in the Cape, I couldn’t complain too much.

 

Which means that, all in all, it truly was a good few days well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Hope

 

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.