Richard Dowden spent last week touring South Africa looking at projects where the country leads the world or is working on things you would not expect to find in Africa. These are some of his reflections on the trip.
I’d never been down a coal mine before, but I imagined it would involve going down in darkness in a cage full of big men with coal-blackened faces carrying picks and shovels. The noise would be deafening and the dust choking as they drilled and hacked at the coalface with only their lamps for light.
Not these days. We drove down – steep at first then almost flat – into a quiet world of well-lit whiteness. A breeze of fresh damp air wafted through the grid of passages with safety messages and phones every few yards. Methane detectors are everywhere. The mine is level, a regular grid of straight horizontal shafts about 15 feet high, leaving blocks to support the roof. The walls are white and sprayed with powered rock to seal the coal.
Finally we arrived at the coal face where a huge horror-movie machine was being repaired. Like a mine-clearing tank it had a roller with 9 inch curved spikes that bite into the coal face at a rate of 60 mm a second and hurl it back into a hopper behind. The mine turns out 18,000 tonnes a day. Repaired, with appalling noise the beast ground forward and attacked. A spark could mean disaster. But the black coal face is kept cool and by a constant gush of water sprayed to keep the dust down and suppress methane gas. As the beast moves forward, the exposed wall is sprayed and sealed with white dust.
Until the early 1990s, in an industry renowned for its macho image, all the mine bosses would have been white and the labourers black. So I was fascinated when Karabo Mothapo, a petite black woman from Limpopo, stepped forward to greet us at the coal face. She is in training but holds a degree in mining engineering from Pretoria University and will be a boss shortly. She already spoke with calm authority and enthusiasm about the machine and the mine in general. So how will she manage in the ‘new South Africa’?
Overall – from the entire visit – I would say the younger ‘born free’ generation are easier with each other then the older generation. But both black and white are wary of each other and the relationship is kept cool with lots of jokes and laughter – a bit like water on the coal face. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the new South Africa although I would not like to take it too far. I will leave to the poets the image of the exposed black coal face immediately being cooled with water and then sprayed white with stone dust.
Anglo- American, which owns the Greenside Mine, had a reputation for paying low wages during apartheid but currently pays an average wage of 9,400 Rand (£533.8) per month at the mine. It has not suffered from the strikes that have occurred at other South African mines recently. Safety is the top priority with the accident rate falling steadily.
Not far away Anglo has built what they say is the world’s first plant for changing polluted mine water into drinking water. Water is often scarce in South Africa and as the economy grows and develops more and more people will be using a diminishing resource. It’s expensive at 1.4 billion Rand and it won’t cover its costs. At the moment South Africa relies heavily on coal for power but in the longer term it is looking to the Congo where the proposed new dam at Inga on the Congo River, could provide power to the whole of South Africa.
* * * * *
In South Africa last week I saw: a mobile robot being programmed, a magical film studio, a radio telescope system that explores galaxies and dark matter, polluted mine water being purified. And I went down a coal mine.
Meanwhile, South Africa's newspapers ran reams on the Pistorius murder trial and the row over the 200 Million Rand (£11.3 million) 'renovation' of President Jacob Zuma's private residence at Nkandla.
Everyone knows what news is but no one can define it. In my experience humans are drawn mostly to the bad stuff. The coverage of success is often limited to lives of celebrities that we identify with but envy. So the headlines are full of human dramas, scandals and celebs that feed that human need - plus a bit of politics. But if you treat 'the news' as a first draft of this week's human progress, you will be misled - it does not give a comprehensive picture of where a country, or the entire human race, is headed.
Africa - including South Africa - has suffered from this. It has been a source of 'bad' news stories because its day to day life and politics do not affect western countries or interest western media. Until recently only the disasters, the wars, the suffering got covered and that has accumulated into a picture of perpetual - and continent-wide - African misery.
South Africa's fundamental reality is that the vast majority are much better off than they were 20 years ago when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Real per capita incomes are 27% higher. The economy has grown by more than 60% since he was let out of jail. Yet there is a widespread feeling that the country is not where it could be or should be. The gap between rich and poor has widened and many South Africans are worse off than they were then.
When the government set up Brand South Africa to promote a better global perception image of the country I wrote an article saying this was nonsense. Improve the reality, I said, and the image will take care of itself. Branding also seemed a commercial concept which should not be applied to nation states. The word should be 'reputation'.
But because journalism tends to deal with bad news or single issues, these became The Narrative in places like Africa and other parts of the world whose progress has little global impact on America or Europe. The story of Columbia is drugs, the story of Brazil is the rainforest, and the story of Australia is bush fires (and cricket). Africa's story is war, poverty and elephants.
And the story becomes the one-dimensional image - usually created by outsiders. And the image affects investment decisions. So I now concede that African countries do need to try to manage how they are viewed by the rest of the world. And that means bringing in journalists to write about progress and improvements as well as disasters, war and hunger. So last week I accepted an invitation to visit South Africa to look at some of the better things it is doing in the lead-up to the May 7th election.
We were a small but diverse group - two young Chinese workaholic women journalists, a tall, quiet American, a British Turkish woman who writes for an Africa magazine, the editor of Africa.com who is Nigerian-American and a South African journalist. With our black South African guides we were hard to label. The first destination was not good; a trip to a poor part of Soweto, a reception area where people newly-arrived from rural areas stay while they look for somewhere to live. It felt like a visit to the zoo with the 'local' guides as the keepers. We were assured that what we were seeing was real and told not to hand out money, but any encounter between poor people and tourists is very uncomfortable and unreal. They know the patter to feed the visitors and I sensed they had learned their lines.
Then we drove through Diepkloof, the posh part of Soweto, where I noticed that the smart two or three story freestanding houses, unlike houses of the same size in the richer parts of the northern (formerly whites only) suburbs, had little protection. And their very smart Mercedes, BMWs and some even flashier cars were parked in the street - unthinkable in the northern suburbs. No one steals here I am told. "If you steal a car from here people will see it and find the thief. But if you steal a car in the northern suburbs, the owner will not dare to look for it here," says my guide.
We then drove to the Soweto museum near the Hector Pietersen memorial which marks the death of the 14 year-old demonstrating student, shot by police in the 1976 student uprising. The picture of his body being carried away is one of the iconic images of that era, as powerful as the picture of the burning Vietnamese girl fleeing her napalmed village. The museum gives the squalid history of Soweto's beginnings in the 1930s and the fight-back in pictures and film on loops.
The biggest transformation I saw was around the Regina Mundi Catholic church where so many meetings were held, demonstrations began and people were shot or clubbed by police. I remember the church in the late 1970s as a bleak, barren ground covered in broken things, stones and rubbish. Nearby was a tiny shack, the clinic where the great Albertina Sisulu worked as a nurse. She was banned from organising meetings so could only meet one person at a time. I went to see her and, once she had completed her work in the clinic and was able to meet me alone, she made me tea and told me about life, misery and hope in Soweto. Then on her fingers she counted her close family. All were either in prison or exile except one who was at university: "I don't know where I went wrong with that one,' she said lightly.
Now the clinic is gone and the whole area is grassed over and a tree-lined avenue leads to the front of the church. Groups of coolly dressed kids hang out, laughing and chatting. And the thick yellow Soweto smog from the power station and a million small coal fires has gone, replaced by electricity. The endless rows of tiny brick houses without water or electricity have mostly been rebuilt, except for Mandela's old house in Orlando which is now a museum and tourist venue surrounded by stands selling merchandise. I found it hard to feel what it was really like. However, I was shocked to see that many of the notorious hostels are still being used. Built to cram in migrant workers from all over southern Africa, some still do not have running water.
In the few unused spaces in Soweto, squatter camps of corrugated iron and plank shacks still spring up as more and more migrants come to the city, but they are gradually being transformed into new homes. In the past a white man standing here would have been watched warily and at times attacked depending on the anger levels. Last week I never felt anything but safe. Instead I felt comfortably ignored. The only time my stomach churned was when one of our group, Sinem from Turkey, decided to do the bungie jump from a platform between the two cooling towers at the disused power station.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter @DowdenAfrica
AllAfrica Editors' note: This post has been updated by African Arguments since first published.