Following South Africa's Path

by on December 7, 2008 at 1:15 am

If you are looking for a guide to how humanity should move forward to a sustainable future, there’s no better place to visit than where we all started.

Our whirlwind bloggers’ tour of South Africa included a dizzying 22 stops during the first five days. We’ve seen so much — including the rich and diverse cultures of the native peoples, the technology that seeks to build a greener future, the urban centers, and the lush landscape — that it is easy to miss the forest for all these lovely trees.

Why — other than making for great travel entertainment — does South Africa matter so much to the world today and to our collective future?

During the tour we’ve seen how South Africans, including non-profits, community groups and the provincial and federal government, are working to protect the language, culture, and natural beauty of the nation. While much of the population still lives in the poverty of shanty towns, the government and private sector are getting better at sharing the new wealth from the  diamond, gold, platinum and coal mining industries with the indigenous people.

Granted, this is a sponsored tour that attempts to show South Africa in the best possible light. But the interactions with people in the cross section of cities, towns and villages has revealed a strong commitment to making sure that future generations will have access to the nation’s rich heritage.

The !Khwa ttu center in Darling is preserving the spoken languages and tribal rituals of the San people to prevent them from being forgotten. The San people have been dispersed across all of Africa over the decades as more powerful groups have pushed them from their native lands. Parents of the current generation are no longer teaching the language, so the center is training children in their tribal culture and bringing together different San groups from all over Africa to share their common stories. The center also hopes to increase the financial resources for the local people by developing educational programs for tourists.

In the Richtersveld community on the west coast, money is flowing in after the resolution of a 10-year court battle over land rights and revenue from diamond mining after the land of the Nama people was taken away nearly a century ago. The local council of government is now determining how to spend the millions in back payments, with much yet to be decided about community and training programs.

The Richtersveld is also home to a 400,000 acre protected park of desert and mountains. The park is also home to many priceless petroglyphs (stone carvings) dating back 10,000 years.

In many parts of South Africa, conservation programs are returning animals to their native habitats and invasive non-native species are being removed. I was overwhelmed by the majesty of many species of birds and mammals that are once again roaming the plain at the Plumari Game Reserve. Being able to connect with some of earth’s grandest species up close is a powerful reminder of how we need to act to prevent climate change from damaging their fragile habitats.

The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site contains the world’s richest deposit of hominid remains. Zuza Fakude, a native of Soweto, talked with me about the importance of researching and preserving our ancestors. Maintaining archaeological sites enhances our incomplete family tree, she says. “It is important to know where you’ve come from, because it gives another way to look at things. It offers another piece of the puzzle.” She said visiting Magaliesburg is “especially important for us black people, because we are very much people of our ancestors.”

Anthony Paton, Public Relations manager for the Gauteng provincial government, agrees that visiting the Cradle of Humankind drives home our common ancestor. “We are far closer together as a race than our superficial differences lead us to believe. That unity of people is symbolized in th[is] place… That we all started from a single source reinforces that we should consider our impact on the planet and each other as we move forward in what is expected to be a resource constrained and environmentally challenged world. If we have an awareness that we are all one, then we can avoid the tragedy of the commons” (in which farmers allow their animals to overgraze because of a desire for personal profit, even if it imperils the entire community).

A sustainable future requires a “communal effort in not putting in an extra cow. The challenge for now is to not add to the burden on the commons, or the planet.” However, Paton concedes that there is not an equality in interest in understanding our common ancestry. He says that his area’s historic and cultural centers are having difficulty attracting wealthy South African whites. “Many are arrogant and don’t want to be educated when they are on holiday. Conversely black Africans who can least afford to come to the area are the most interested in visiting.”

In Soweto, museums highlight the recent history of the struggles against and victory over apartheid, the system of government that suppressed the rights of black South Africans until 1994. The Hector Pieterson Museum is named for a 13-year old boy killed by police during a demonstration on July 16, 1976. The incident sparked outrage inside South Africa and around the globe and paved the way for the collapse of apartheid.

At the nearby Mandela Family Museum (which we sadly were not able to visit), the life of the former prisoner of apartheid and later South African president is detailed. Fakude says “the apartheid museum teaches us about what the worst people can do, but also about the best of what they can do. That shows us the possibilities of what we can still accomplish; that we can do so much more.”

While humanity has shown a sickening ability to abuse portions of the population, the victory of apartheid and coming together of the races in building a better South Africa is a lesson for all strife-torn regions. “We have gone through all of this rubbish and put it aside — not behind us, but aside. It shows what you can do for the future from your strength. It is important to have these things to hold on to.”

Going back to where it started — where the earliest land masses formed, where the oldest mountains reside, and where our common ancestor once foraged — drives home the need for a future that can sustain our entire global family. “We have to realize that we all have common problems regarding the environment, regarding carbon (emissions) … and the over-fishing of the seas,” says Paton. “These all stem back to a common thing — there are too many of us in our family (to consume and emit greenhouse gases like westerners). The only way we’ll have a long-term future is to realize that we’re part of the same family.”

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