The invitation arrived by email. The 1963 graduating class of electrical engineers of Witwatersrand (Wits) University in Johannesburg, South Africa was having its 50th reunion.
Should I go?
I knew if I didn’t, I’d regret it.
It takes at least 27 hours to get there, door to door, including a 15-hour nonstop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg.
Johannesburg. City of my birth. South Africa, where I grew up, living a magical, privileged life. I graduated in December 1963, a month after Kennedy was assassinated.
That I ever graduated was a miracle in itself. I made it by the skin of my teeth — and of the 44 of us in the graduating class, I was the only one who never spent a single day of those 50 years as an engineer. But that education (the disciplines of science and engineering) was the most extraordinary training for me. Those professors taught me how to think, how to analyze, how to apply logic to solve a problem of any kind. And, somewhere in the training, I learned to use my intuition which has never let me down. Those professors and that group of fellow engineering students who helped me pass my final exams — they were really special in my life, every one of them.
I knew I had to be there. I booked my flight.
Johannesburg. Jozi. Johburg. The city of gold.
I had heard terrible stories of how, in the years after apartheid ended, crime and violence had taken over. I did my research, found a black African tour guide who would keep me out of trouble while I set out to discover what had changed. When I left in 1964, Johannesburg was the center of South African commerce. Now, so I believed, it had been taken over by gangsters and destitute foreigners, desperate to find a way to make a living on the streets.
I’ve visited nearly 100 countries during the past 50 years which helped me to realize that we can never believe everything that people tell us. We have to see it for ourselves. We have to experience it. We have to be there.
In the 50 years since I left Johannesburg, everybody, and I mean every single family, has erected walls as high as 20 feet, many with elaborate electric fences at the top. Crime was — and still is — a very big problem. That said, I felt perfectly safe most of the time. I drove everywhere in a right-hand drive, stick-shift Toyota as it’s not a great idea to walk around alone at night in unlighted areas, and there are certain areas one should just avoid.
Inner city Johannesburg is somewhat rundown, but vibrant and almost exclusively black. Here and there were signs of renewal. Very recently, the municipality cleared out thousands of (mainly foreign) black traders who have blocked the sidewalks for years selling everything imaginable.
Soweto is a huge and rapidly modernizing city of three million people. Four-lane highways, small attractive homes on tiny pieces of land, clean streets and friendly people were in abundance. I was seriously impressed by a beautiful mall, as many I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Yes, there are plenty of squatter camps within Soweto and outside — one of which I visited — lots of littered, vacant land, and many poor people. But, there were no signs of crime or violence that I saw. I am well aware that my guide may have been taking me to the places he wanted me to see, but I quizzed him closely and I got the impression of a typical large city that is rapidly developing with problems that are primarily political. What a revelation. By the way, I suspect that Soweto may be a little unusual and that may not be typical of a South African township.
I joined my close engineering buddies for a long lunch and the following day joined the larger group of 27 of the original class of 44 engineers for a tour of the new engineering facilities at Wits University followed by another reunion lunch. After all these years, though it might seem clichÃ©, it seemed like yesterday we were all together as students, and once again, we had a wonderful time. Most are now retired, many after some distinguished years of engineering practice. A few made it to the top, but most of the guys who did really well had moved abroad early in their careers. We had five class members returning from the USA, UK, Germany, and Australia.
One evening I was guest of honor at a dinner given by a cousin whom I had never met. She assembled a group of relatives to meet me. So many have migrated in the years since I left; it was bittersweet.
Greater Johannesburg (including Pretoria) is becoming a world metropolis. Construction projects were in abundance. Cranes dominated the skylines. Traffic clogged the highways, especially in the northern suburbs and during rush hour on the return to Soweto. Johannesburg is rapidly expanding to the north. The suburb, Northcliff, in which I grew up, is a boomtown. I was greatly saddened to see that the house in which I grew up had been reduced to a pile of rubble in front of a new “McMansion.” On my last day, I drove out of town to visit the Cradle of Civilization, the area where fabulous archaeological finds have been discovered and where a world-class exhibit demonstrates Johannesburg’s role in the birth of civilization.
It is perhaps not reasonable for a visitor to make judgments and predictions, even with my history. That said, South Africa’s future is tough to predict, but I am optimistic, long term. Short term is a different matter, and the coming years will surely see a lot more upheaval. Unemployment is very high; political corruption is off the charts; and the Rand is low and getting lower. The whites I spoke to were very pessimistic (but they have always been so).
As Nelson Mandela’s life is being recounted on television, it has become increasingly clear that the man will be remembered for many things — above all, his willingness and ability to be a beacon and leading example of how to forgive. Such was the man.
But there is something else — his ability to lead by studying, understanding, and empathizing with his enemies. He learned their vulnerabilities, their vanities, and their points of view. Then he stood alone among his friends and followers, and said — here is how we can work together. And finally, his ability to move both his friends and his enemies to his point of view was his finest achievement, a true sign of great leadership.
So who will step forward and lead South Africa into the future by rallying his or her people to a shared vision of less extreme disparities between black and white?
What impressed me mightily were the young, educated, black emerging middle class. I sensed a lot of positive energy among these future entrepreneurs and leaders. They were friendly and uniformly upbeat. Former President Mandela’s vision for a bright future burns as brightly as ever and I believe his legacy will be carried forward by these young people.
Alan Brigish is a photographer who lives in West Tisbury.