South Africa Dispatch series

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for South Africa on March 21 to begin an eight-day trip sponsored by South African Tourism. David will be exploring "Africa beyond the safari," particularly South Africa's cultural health and sociopolitical environment 13 years after the end of apartheid. He'll be filing on-site reports to Travel Weekly's Web site on a daily basis (Internet access permitting).

In Johannesburg I'm staying at the InterContinental Sandton Sun and Towers in the Sandton section of Johannesburg. The lobby offers a sense of enormous spaciousness because it was built in an atrium style, with the rooms arranged around a central shaft that stretches from the ground floor to a skylight on top. The check-in desk is in a contiguous space with a restaurant, a grand piano bar area, glass-walled elevators and a fountain with water always flowing and cascading into a pool with real, giant goldfish. It's all one big space in constant motion.

Connected to the hotel by a 10th-floor skywalk is Sandton City, a massive multi-level shopping mall, and Nelson Mandela Square, a place so marvelous that a visitor could spend weeks exploring it. A large open plaza featuring a two-story statue of Nelson Mandela is surrounded by restaurants with open fronts and outdoor cafe seating.

My traveling companions and I had dinner at one of the restaurants, called Lekgotla, which means "meeting place" in Zulu, the dominant language of multilingual South Africa. The restaurant is conceived as a melting pot of the diverse African influences, including the Spice Islands of the northeast, the French influence of the West, the Malay and Dutch influences of the South, the Arab influences of the north and the Portuguese influences of the east.

The menu was full of wonders, hard to choose among. I settled on an ostrich fillet with a South African shiraz wine, while I enjoyed the wandering guitar player/singer with a mile-wide smile and the studious face painter. Later, I joined in to a free-for-all drum event. We sat at a table just inside but open to the plaza, bathed in the cool breeze of the autumn evening.

Fortunately I was traveling with a group of people who share my interest in South African music, enabling me to visit the site of Sophiatown, the district that achieved fame for producing a proliferation of music before it was razed by the apartheid regime in 1955. The inhabitants were evicted and sent to a shantytown called Meadowlands, which itself produced a great song of that name. And in the place of Sophiatown a new development called Triomf was built.

Though the district has been renamed Sophiatown again, practically the only part of the original that survived the bulldozer is the Church of Christ the King, which became a center of activism against the apartheid government.

But even without the buildings of the original Sophiatown, it was possible to get a sense of that one-time community high on a hill overlooking greater Johannesburg. With a soft warm breeze and birdsong in the air, there was a sense of serenity, as if the spirit of the place was glad to have been restored to its original name and to be recognized for what it had once been, for the music and the solidarity against oppression.

At the Museum of Africa, we learned much about the history of the struggle, from the time apartheid was established in 1948 through the treason trials of Nelson Mandela and more than 100 others in the mid to late 1950s, his eventual incarceration for 27 years and on to the final overthrow of apartheid in 1994.

As Willard Jenkins, a jazz writer and DJ for WPFW in Washington, told me today, it was the spirit of Mandela, who was able to stand for conciliation despite having endured great personal suffering, that had brought the country together, made it possible to start the healing process, laying the groundwork for the great social experiment that is South Africa today.

"He must have been a saint," Jenkins said.

Yet South Africa remains a land of paradox. On our way back to the hotel, we drove along Hendrik Verwoerd Drive, a street named for the father of apartheid.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].


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