An Advent Adventure – South Africa, 2002

Security was a hot topic in December 2002, just over a year after a gang of mostly Saudi suicides had hijacked four American airliners (along with the good name of Allah “the Compassionate, the Merciful”) to murder thousands on 11 September 2001. I’d been invited to give the keynote address to a security panel at the International Ocean Institute’s twenty-ninth Pacem in Maribus conference. It was to be held in Cape Town, but I wasn’t going to travel all the way to South Africa without seeing something of the country. So, I flew to Johannesburg to visit a friend in nearby Pretoria (the nation’s capital), then boarded a train for Cape Town, 1,500 kilometres away.

It was a pivotal time in South Africa’s domestic affairs. Just eight years earlier, racial apartheid (apartness) had ended with Nelson Mandela’s election as President of a truly democratic multi-racial republic. Five years later he had stepped down after completing his first term, announcing in 2001 that he had cancer. But hope was in the air and his inspiring messages of peace and goodwill were resonating.

My first taste of South Africa (literally) was in Pretoria where a friend introduced me to braai, the magnificently elaborate South African approach to backyard barbecue. Then, a 550 kilometre train journey to Kimberley for a few days in the middle of the county. My primary objective was to find the grave of a young Nova Scotian soldier killed at the battle of Paardeberg in 1900 (I’ve shared that story earlier). The spectacular “Big Hole” diamond mine was worth visiting as well, but for me the more memorable experience was exploring Galeshewe, one of the racially segregated townships established under the old regime to keep “Blacks” impoverished and segregated from “Whites”. A clerk at my historic and hospitable hotel lived there and offered to show me around on his day off. It was a generous insight into the human face of apartheid and the injustices which had sparked the famous anti-apartheid uprising in 1952.

The final leg of the journey involved an overnight train across the Great Karoo, a vast semi-arid plateau which takes its name from the Khoisan word for “land of thirst.” Two older men were already in the six-person compartment to which I’d been assigned. One was a “Black” retired railway employee and devout Christian. The other was “Coloured” and a devout Muslim; a “hajji” who had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. We were well into a serious discussion about matters theological when the others assigned to our compartment arrived. Two “young “White” men entered with a burst of youthful enthusiasm and colourful language, plunking a half-finished case of beer on the floor. This’ll be interesting, I thought. And indeed it was.

This impromptu cross-section of former apartheid racial categories and generations soon developed a surprisingly warm relationship. We (comparatively) old guys learned much about the attitudes of young South Africans, as well as details about the cross-country cycle races that they were heading for. In turn, they were interested to find that potentially boring “old fogeys” like us had actually had great adventures of our own, ranging from Suleiman’s pilgrimage to Mecca, my experiences with skydiving and submarines, and what all three of us had learned from life generally. What struck me most was that embracing Mandela’s vision of new beginnings was a “no-brainer” to these decent and likeable young men. They will be well into their 40s by now. I wonder if their youthful openness has survived the years of venal behaviour by leaders who have lacked Mandela’s wisdom and ethics. I hope so.

Passengers on the train
The post-apartheid face of South Africa

Cape Town offered yet more insights. Among them, the conference organizers had arranged for an optional visit to Robben Island, a 1/2-hour jet-powered catamaran ride away. It’s where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison and is now a museum. Our guide, a former prisoner himself, shared vivid and moving dark memories, but ended by emphasizing that we shouldn’t leave with a message of repression and inhumanity, but rather of hope; that from within these walls came the spirit of freedom, tolerance and reconciliation that had become an article of faith among so many.

Guide at Robben Island
A former prisoner describes life in Robben Island

As a grand finale to a succession of memorable experiences, a new-found friend invited me to “Kirstenbosch carols” in the Botanical Garden at the foot of Table Mountain. Since 1988 the Rotary Club has been organizing this event to which participants bring a late afternoon picnic, enjoy a concert of Christmas music and, as darkness falls, sing along to familiar carols.

KIrstenbosch crowd
Photo courtesy

At the end of the evening, an entire hillside lit with hundreds of gently swaying candles as the crowd sang “Silent Night” is a memory that still brings a lump to my throat.

Despite South Africa’s challenges in the two decades since, memories of that journey are a reminder of what hope looks like among people of goodwill. They also serve as a reminder that peace and justice don’t just arise from wishful thinking, but from steady, conscientious effort by all of us.

May hope and goodwill fill your Christmas season wherever and however you mark it.