Located in the southern hemisphere, it is now winter in South Africa. We had the first bite of this when we came out of the Johannesburg (JNB) airport. Accustomed to the long summer that stretches almost through the year in Chennai, temperatures around 5 degrees Celsius didn’t quite cut it.
It was election time in the country and several political parties were contesting for control of the municipalities. As democracies, there are many similarities between India and SA in their approach to elections. In JNB, President Jacob Zuma campaigned for his party – the African National Congress (ANC). Similar to the Indian National Congress, this party spearheaded the freedom movement in South Africa. Dozens of buses carried party workers to this election rally causing traffic bottlenecks, reminiscent of our election meetings! There were posters, newspaper supplements and stories; luckily no hoardings and no graffiti.
There were also several charges of corruption and promises of freebies: one party promised free electricity! The ANC has been in power since SA won freedom in 1994 but has been losing its grip due to poor administration and charges of corruption.
Still manual stamping and manual counting
On 3 August, I stopped by a polling booth, with long queues of voters. The system was similar to ours with polling officials checking the identity of electors, providing them with voters’ slips and with the police ensuring order. But the voting process was paper-based.
I felt proud that India had switched so elegantly to electronic voting that has made the process efficient, fast and free from tampering. I once again remembered with gratitude the scientists and engineers (including Tamil writer Sujatha) who toiled hard at Bharat Electronics to design and perfect the electronic voting system; crusaders like Dr. P V Indiresan who spiritedly defended the switchover despite strong opposition from several quarters.
A contrast between the political system in India and SA pertains to the system of proportional representation. In India, the party that has fifty per cent plus legislators- even if it had 30 per cent share of total votes polled -
enjoys full power. In SA, the seats for a political party are in proportion to the percentage of votes polled by the party. For example, the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu may account for 38 per cent of the votes polled, the DMK for 35 per cent, but from the majority gained in each constituency, the total number of seats in the assembly can be 200 for AIADMK and just 15 for DMK. But in the system of proportional representation, the seats will be allotted in proportion to the votes polled by each party. In such a system, with the combined strength of other parties opposed to AIADMK, these can form the government. Several constitutional pundits recommend this system as more scientific.
Rich country and good infrastructure
South Africa is a vast country with a total geographical area of 1,221,037 sq km. In comparison, Uttar Pradesh has an area of just 243,286 square kilometres. However, SA is sparsely populated with just five crore people, (50 million). UP alone has a population of 21 crore. It also enjoys abundant resources in the form of diamond, gold, coal, iron ore and several other minerals plus well-developed infrastructure in the shape of power, roads and ports.
The road system is of very high quality with tremendous road sense and manners. There was no hooting of horns, no road rage, and no violation of lane discipline. Bala drove through 3000 km of these roads, including well-maintained toll routes that are all electronically operated with sensors in vehicles that debit toll charges automatically. Large trucks, similar to those one comes across in the US, each carry goods of around 40 tons over long distances. Two wheelers were rare - unlike their ubiquitous presence in developing countries in Asia.
Tourism is a primary source of revenue for SA, and the economy is well attuned to nurturing this sector. A vast range of options are made available to the tourists - from luxury hotels to budget hotels, well-equipped and cozy bed and breakfast cottages and a large number of car rentals. The country promotes its delicious offerings so effectively that it results in the flooding of tourists during summer and winter!
India’s revenue through tourism during 2015 was or 6.3 per cent of the nation’s GDP in 2015; 8.02 million foreign tourists visited India during 2015 generating income of around $ 21,058 million in foreign exchange. In contrast, 12.02 million foreign tourists visited SA in 2015!
The flora and fauna of SA are two of its major attractions. We spent four days at Kruger National Park (KNP). Spread over 25,000 sq. km., this wildlife preserve is larger in area than the state of Meghalaya or the country of Israel. Imagine such a large area reserved for animals with no human habitation permitted! Well-laid roads through this forest with well-enforced rules and regulations to protect the animals attract tourists in thousands who spend millions of South African Rands (ZAR).
Well-constructed quarters with comfortable facilities, including equipped kitchenettes, quality beds and restaurant facilities, cater to all the comforts of high spending tourists.
The famed South African safari
Throughout Kruger National Park, animals move freely, and the reserve is home to hundreds of thousands of animals. The most sought after animals form the “big five” and include the wild buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion, and leopard. Within minutes of our entering Kruger, a herd of over 30 elephants crossed the road. The contrast: the animals move freely with the humans in caged vehicles! We sighted an elephant 100 meters away, and as we commented on how nice it would be if it could walk towards us. It did! We were recording a video on our phones and cameras and were enjoying it till it came within 5 meters of our car. We switched off the engine and raised the windows; we were both fascinated and worried. The elephant advanced further, stopped for a while looked at us and then quietly walked away!
On the river banks, we saw massive hippos and crocodiles and in the plains, dozens of zebras, giraffes, and wild beasts. Of course, everywhere we looked, it felt like there were antelopes around, including Impala, Kudu, and Nyala. One of the highlights was seeing two large leopards by a river, and in the night safari, we could see more variety - hyenas, foxes, and cheetahs.
The lazy lion...
The African Lion (male) is quite famous for its majesty, but we gathered that it was a lazy animal content to rest with its pride and not move about much except when hungry! Only the lionesses hunt and so we could not spot a lion though we saw a carcass of a giraffe left after being stalked by a pride of lions. The circle of life was well evident with creatures like the lions hunting an animal and then various other beings devouring every part of the kill (from vultures, foxes, and hyenas who act as scavengers to ants and termites returning the bones to the earth).
I noticed a vigorous competition for living space at KNP and elsewhere. Despite earmarking large space for national parks in years of drought, there is rapid depletion of vegetation. One could witness the systematic denudation of forests.
The deer and smaller animals clear the leaves at the lower levels of plants followed by the zebras and then by giraffes nibbling leaves at higher levels. Extensive grazing areas are cleared by the bisons, hippos, rhinos and the bigger plants trees by the elephants. A guide informed us of a planned culling of a large number of bisons and hippos to ensure food for other species.
In one of the private game lodges (Jock Safari), the facilities were several notches more luxurious – more sprawling cottages with private dip pools, viewing balconies, gourmet food and private game drives and walks. These cottages are on a river bank. Minutes after our checking in, we witnessed a herd of nine elephants feasting on the greenery along the riverbed just outside our cottage. The next morning, we also saw a few rhinos passing by as an expert guide drove us through the riverbed in a Toyota land cruiser. How wonderfully he manoeuvred driving through a couple of feet of river sand!
Over the decades, the administration has perfected the art of attracting tourists who throng the Kruger National Park and other reserves in droves. The government deserves credit for ensuring the well-being of the animals and also the safety of the tourists in equal measure.
From fauna to flora...
The car rented at the JNB airport was returned after our visit to KNP and we flew to the town of George in the southern part of the country. We hired another van and started on our journey through the world famous “garden route.” Sandwiched between the scenic mountain ranges to the north and the beautiful Indian Ocean to the south, this route, commencing at George and going up to Port Elisabeth, boasts of some of the most breathtaking scenery with every turn bringing “oohs and ahs.” One of the most visited spots on this route is the Tsitsikamma National Park with his gorgeous hiking trails and suspension bridges over the mouth of the Storms River as it connects with the Indian Ocean.
A different kind of safari…
En route to Cape Town, we had two other unique experiences: the first was the world’s largest aviary - Birds of Eden. In 2005, it occurred to a genius of a promoter to build the infrastructure to collect and assemble thousands of birds simulating ideal conditions for their living. In a vast area spread over 6 acres, tall steel masts were erected over which stainless steel nets were spread to provide a canopy. Imagine, if you will, a colossal mosquito net that covers the entire area from the ground up to more than 300 feet in height where the birds can fly freely! In select areas, the conditions of rain forests were simulated through mists and waterfalls and well-laid wooden paths allowed us to walk right by the birds and their habitats. Other areas had lakes for flamingoes and tree canopies for parakeets. Around 3500 birds of 200 species move about freely and walk along with visitors. What a range of colours and what majesty!
A few hundred kilometres away, we saw just one type of bird but hundreds of them. The area of Oudtshoorn is home to more than 90 per cent of the world’s ostriches, and we spent several hours on an ostrich farm. The ostrich is the largest bird, weighs over 125 kg but can run at 70 kmph! The ostrich egg is so strong that up to four persons or a load of 220 kg can stand over an egg without breaking it! The ostrich is also a prolific producer: from around 14 months after birth, it becomes productive and lays one egg every alternate day. The egg is considered very nutritious, and there is great demand for ostrich meat, feathers and hide. Since the population of ostriches is large, they are culled at around 18 months though they can live for 60 years and more.
After Oudtshoorn, we drove a few more hours and stopped at the quaint seaside town of Hermanus, one of the best places for whale watching in the world. During some months, one can see whales from the shore. We were lucky to see a couple of them although not at a worthy-photo distance.
The Cape of Good Hope
Continuing further west brought us to Cape Peninsula and the famous Cape of Good Hope – which Bartholomew Diaz crossed and proved that there was a sea route around this land mass. Other explorers worked with that knowledge, and further expeditions brought more Europeans to Asia and India and the course of world history would change dramatically over the next few centuries. Vasco-da-Gama moved around this Cape to discover India .
There was more for the tourists. The beautiful city of Cape Town on the Western Cape provides for much variety. Bisected by the beautiful Table Mountain (called so because the mountain is flat on top – like a table), Cape Town is spread on both sides of the mountain. On the northern tip is the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Waterfront. This functions as the main port for the city as also the central waterfront entertainment centre – with malls, performers, boat tours and restaurants.
Six km off Cape Town is Robben Island which housed one of the high-security prisons during the colonial/apartheid regime. Its most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars in this prison. The guide graphically described the inhuman treatment meted out to generations of prisoners - initially by the Dutch and later by the French, German and the British who colonised Africa.
The need for hard-working labour was met by bringing shiploads of indentured labour from places as far away as India and Indonesia. The guide pointed to the four classifications under the apartheid regime - whites, Indians, coloured (mixed race) and blacks who had different sets of rules (Robben Island only had coloured and black prisoners). Mandela and his other political prisoners were confined to cells of 8 ft x 6 ft and were given, the guide explained, with just an aluminum plate for food, a jug for water, four blankets and a bucket to collect their urine and faeces which were required to be emptied by them outside. There were no toilets or running water. Mails to the inmates, allowed once in six months, were censored. I was moved to tears with the detailed description by a well-informed, articulate guide of the inhumanities and injustices perpetrated.
After independence, this entire island has been turned into a historical monument and heritage site and daily tours are arranged from Cape Town on boats. A well-laid museum had been set up and a tour around the island, in air conditioned buses with well-informed guides, providing excellent glimpses into South African history.
The harsh apartheid came to an end thanks to the sanctions imposed by progressive countries in a united effort. The White regime was forced to see the writing on the wall and invited the principal leaders of the blacks and agreed to freedom. Gandhiji who worked as a lawyer in the province of Natal, cut his teeth in the struggle for freedom through non-violence protesting against the inequities and the injustice of the apartheid regime. For all these, like Gandhiji, Mandela did not bear any ill-will towards the tormentors and ensured racial harmony post independence. The whites still constitute 15 per cent of SA’s population, and their properties are protected.
A small population, rich natural resources, a well-developed infrastructure and ability to tap the enormous potential for tourism have made South Africa comparable to other European countries. My visit did open up and expand my horizons on the evolution of nations.