Further Impressions of South Africa

We became known as the “ACS Folks.” ACS President Nancy B. Jackson, Denise Creech, director of the Membership & Scientific Advancement Division, and I had that moniker or some version of it applied a number of times during the SACI/FACS meeting last week in Johannesburg, South Africa. As in, when University of Massachusetts, Amherst, chemistry professor Vince Rotello asked the audience at his plenary lecture on nanoparticles, “Are there any Americans in the audience?” and we raised our hands, he said, “Oh yes, the ACS folks.” It was a very good scientific meeting for the ACS folks. As I pointed out in a previous blog entry, Jackson spoke at the opening ceremonies and gave a keynote lecture in the green chemistry segment of the conference. I gave the after-dinner talk at the conference dinner on Thursday night—I was filling in for someone who couldn’t make it. I talked about my tour of the Cape Peninsula (see the first South Africa blog entry), the strengths of the American Chemical Society, and climate change. But that’s not what this blog post is about. It is about the last day Denise and I spent in Johannesburg, the Saturday after the end of the SACI/FACS meeting. Our flight on South African Airways from Joburg to Dulles didn’t leave until 5:50 p.m., so we had a full day to fill. We chose to fill it by touring Johannesburg. But before I get to my impressions of Johannesburg, I need to make a couple of points. Nancy, Denise, and I were overwhelmed by the warmth of the South African people we met during the week we spent in South Africa. From the professional colleagues we interacted with during the SACI/FACS meeting to the staff at the Winston Hotel where we stayed during the conference, we were welcomed with open arms and bonhomie wherever we went. That said, Joburg is a very dangerous and violent city. The University of the Witwatersand, where the SACI/FACS meeting was held, sits on the northern edge of downtown Joburg. To the north, where the Winston Hotel and other upscale hotels are located, is the affluent area of the city. To the south of Wits, as the university is universally known, is downtown and the dangerous and partially lawless sections of the city. In the northern, affluent suburbs where we stayed, the houses are uniformly surrounded by six- to eight-foot walls topped either with razor wire or electrified fences. The Winston Hotel is surrounded by an eight-foot-high fence and an electric gate that is opened only for vehicles that identify themselves. (An aside: after a scheduled outing to Lesedi Village on Wednesday that lasted much longer than planned, the bus arrived back at the Winston around 9:00 p.m. Denise was on that outing. When the bus pulled up to the gate at the hotel, the gatekeeper asked the driver whether he was “picking up or dropping off.” When the driver replied, “Dropping off,” the gatekeeper said, “I don’t see anyone on that bus.” The driver, whose name was General, retorted, “You need to eat more carrots. There are people on this bus.”) All of this is to say that, in Joburg, one doesn’t go anywhere on one’s own. As you traverse the city, you see almost no white pedestrians. White Joburg residents (and affluent black Joburg residents) drive almost everywhere, and visitors such as Nancy, Denise, and I have drivers, even to travel a few blocks to the Rosebank Mall or to Wits for the SACI/FACS conference. Lot or his wife Rejoice were our drivers the week we attended the SACI/FACS conference. Lot is a successful entrepreneur, who owns 10 Mercedes cars and two Toyota buses to transport people around Joburg. Lot, who is 40 years old, is gregarious and a sharp observer of the overall social situation in South Africa. So, on Saturday before our 17-hour flight home to Washington, D.C., we contracted with Lot to give us a tour of Joburg. It was an incredible and moving experience. Clearly, Lot wanted us to understand, as much as is possible in a five-hour tour, a little about the history of his troubled but beloved homeland.

Constitution Square on Constitution Hill; structure on right is one of four stairwells of the Awaiting Trial Block where prisoners were first housed when they arrived at the prison

Our first stop was Constitution Hill, now the site of the South African Constitutional Court. It is built on the site of the notorious prison that housed both common criminals and political prisoners, including Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, for nearly a century until it was closed in 1983.

Isolation cells at the Old Fort Prison Complex on Constitution Hill

It is a harrowing place, designed to demean and demoralize even the strongest human beings. Common criminals were packed 60 to a cell, and there was a brutal hierarchy among the inmates. Political prisoners were housed separately—so that they could not infect the common criminals with their seditious ideas—in even more crowded circumstances, as many as 120 prisoners to a cell. Rations were strictly defined along racial lines. Plates were washed once per week; blankets once per year. Showers were provided once per month. Inmates ate in a courtyard where they crouched in front of the open latrines where prisoners were forced to defecate in front of the assembled prisoners while they ate. The Constitution Hill Court is an open, airy space. The doors to the court are tall, heavy, carved wooden structures. They depict the 27 freedoms guaranteed by the South African constitution, one freedom for every year Mandela served his sentence on Robben Island. Inside the court hall is remarkable artwork depicting aspects of the struggle by blacks and other non-whites for their rights and for respect. From Constitution Hill, Lot drove us to Soweto, which is an acronym for “southwestern townships.” It is the area 10 miles southwest of downtown Johannesburg where blacks were forcefully relocated in the 1950s. I am 57 years old, and I well remember the protests, riots, and random acts of appalling violence that occurred in Soweto in the 1970s and 1980s. We stopped at the Hector Pieterson Museum, which memorializes the student strike that led to the Soweto Uprising in 1976 that left 21 students dead. The first to die was 12-year old Hector Pieterson. We also visited the Mandela House, a small, two-bedroom, corrugated-metal-roof dwelling where Mandela and his first wife lived, and where Mandela and Winnie Mandela lived prior to his imprisonment on Robben Island. From the Mandela House, Lot took Denise and me to the Apartheid Museum, located between Soweto and Johannesburg. We only had an hour left before we had to head for the airport and it was a pitifully short period of time to experience this remarkable museum. We spent most of our time in a temporary exhibit celebrating Nelson Mandela’s life before we even discovered the main museum, which chronicles not only the history of apartheid but the history of racial discrimination that characterized South Africa since its founding in the late 19th century. One would need at least half a day to explore this testament to human resilience and perseverance in the face of appalling racism. During our day with him, Lot provided a running commentary on the sights we were viewing and the current situation in South Africa. As a successful businessman and an affluent South African, he is horrified by the violence that has engulfed his nation. It is not only whites who live behind eight-foot fences topped by razor wire or electric fences; it is also successful blacks like Lot, who told us that the criminal element in South Africa is the greatest threat to the future of his country.

Denise and Lot

I have travelled widely during my 36-year career at ACS. This trip to South Africa has been one of the most moving and most powerful. I will be honest: I have never had a burning desire to visit Africa prior to this trip to South Africa. Now, I have a strong desire to return to South Africa, to spend a week in Cape Town and the areas around it, to revisit Johannesburg and connect with our newfound friends at Wits and the University of Johannesburg and Lot and Rejoice, and to further explore this remarkable country and then go further and connect with others doing chemistry and furthering the livelihoods of people throughout this vast and endlessly fascinating continent.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. @curious wavefunction: Thanks! I’ll fix that.