I confess. I am a political junkie. I have absolutely no stake in the outcome of the South African election. I gain or lose nothing personally in whatever the eventual outcome (except for a possible move in the exchange rate), but I have been drawn into many conversations with South Africans over the last several months about the election and find myself fascinated. I love democracy, and it has been great to find out how South Africans view the privilege of voting. It is especially interesting to talk with black South Africans who still remember their first chance to vote fifteen years ago.

It has been a remarkably quiet election day across South Africa. There have been isolated incidents of violence, some voting irregularties and political grandstanding from the parties, but nothing like the violence that had been seen in the past.

Analysts have been calling this the most closely watched and anticipated election since the first true democratic election in 1994. The main reason is that this year the outcome of the election is not entirely a forgone conclusion. The African National Congress has held an overwhelming majority in the country since 1994. In the past election they received nearly 70% of the vote. The constitution can be changed with a vote of over 66%, so there is a significant push by the dozens of competing parties to capture that elusive 33%. As of this writing, the few polls that have been conducted suggest that the ANC will probably receive somewhere between 60 – 66% which is a real reduction of their past performance, but nonetheless a significant majority. The ANC will remain that way for the forseeable future, or in the words of the soon to be president, Jacob Zuma, “until Jesus  Christ returns”. News of the ANC’s demise is, no doubt, exaggerated.

Whether Zuma is a prophet remains to be seen, but hearing and reading the stories of one of the world’s newest democracies celebrating another election is exciting. Long lines were recorded all over the nation and it is expected that up to 80% of the registered voters will have participated today.

I am reminded of a Peggy Noonan piece written in 2000 entitled, The Meaning of the Vote. It is somewhat dated in the details of the election itself (Bush/Gore before the Supreme Court settled it), but I love how she closes her essay. I think about this every time I go to vote myself. Democracy is an incredible blessing not to be taken for granted.

A final word for those who will vote, and who even look forward to it and, corny as it is, feel a spring in their step as they go to the polls.

The other night I was dining with another family and I turned to a mother and said, “I actually get choked up when I vote. Do you?” I said it because it’s true but also because kids were there and I wanted us to do a little spontaneous commercial for democracy.

And she said, “Oh yes,” and I was surprised. She told me she takes her kids to vote with her, so they’ll remember.

I do that too, I told her, I take my son. I let him press the lever with his finger over my finger.

When I vote I get kissing sickness, and have to stop myself from embarrassing my son. But I want to kiss the curtains of the voting machine, I want to put my lips to them quickly in gratitude. I would like to kiss the metal knobs and paper with the candidate’s names.

My heart beats quickly when I’m in the booth, and my hands tremble a little. I get choked up as I wait on line. I go and sign in at the big registration desk and I am so proud to write my name, it gives me satisfaction, and I make a joke with the ladies who hold the book, and I look at the people on line and smile and I notice a lot of people are kind of–there’s a heightened feeling.

I know I should be thinking things like, “Good men died so I could do this,” and “God bless the Founders,” and in a way I guess I do, but really I’m thinking, Thank you God that I’m so lucky I can vote, isn’t it wonderful this country has been voting for more than two centuries, aren’t we the luckiest people on earth that we have this gift. And we all do it together and we’re all equal and Bill Gates has a bigger boat and a bigger house and a bigger pool than the girl at the counter at the deli next door but his vote is no bigger and has no more weight.

She is his equal.

We are all equal. In the eyes of God, in the eyes of the law, and in the voting booth. It’s really wonderful. It leaves me choked up. Maybe it does you, too…


What’s In Your Wallet?

April 22, 2009

It seems that I posted a few hours too soon about us not having been a victim of any criminal activity while in South Africa. I discovered this afternoon that someone had stolen our Capital One credit card information at some point in the past few weeks and made over $2000 in charges over the weekend. To Capital One’s credit, they flagged the transactions which were posted in Johannesburg and put a block on the card. They did not reveal what triggered the automatic block, but I am grateful that of the $2000, we are only potentially on the hook for $600. After speaking with their fraud division today, the most likely scenario is that we will be credited for the entire amount after the fraud investigation. Credit card fraud is another ongoing reality in SA, and now we have our own personal story to add to all of the others.

Freedom certainly is not free today.

Freedom Isn’t Free

April 22, 2009

Folks have asked me over the past few months what it is that I miss the most about the United States, and I usually respond with “pizza”. This usually raises some eyebrows and causes a general sense of defensiveness concerning the doughy substance covered in some approximation of tomato sauce, mozeralla cheese, etc. that is served up here in the malls. You need to keep in perspective that I say that I miss pizza in rural Virginia as well. I’m from New York, and we New Yorkers take our pizza very seriously and, sorry, but South African pizza is not the real deal.

I usually wink and tell them that after pizza what I really miss is my freedom. This usually raises the eyebrows even further. “What are you talking about”? is the most common response.

I miss not having to always be looking over my shoulder nervously, checking and double-checking to see if the car is locked, if we have hidden the cameras/computer/wallets every night, if we have armed the alarm properly, if my office door is locked every time that I leave, wondering whether I should drive with windows down, wondering whether a street that the GPS is suggesting that we should turn onto is safe, quickly and seldom using the ATM, nervously watching and admonishing the children constantly when we are out, and the list goes on and on. There is a degree of low level anxiety every day while living in South Africa. The US Consulate lists the safely threat rating in South Africa as “critical” for embassy employees…the highest rating possible.

That said, nothing has actually happened to us individually or as a family, although there seemed to have been a close call a few months ago. This pervasive feeling is a constant reality of life. There are certainly days when we let our  guard down and wonder whether it is all overblown, but then we drive through Pietermartizburg and see all manner of dodgy things happening and hear the stories. Everyone has a story of a friend or a family member or themselves that were victims of a crime.

We have felt freedom on a few occasions, and that is when the homesickness really sets in. At Hluhluwe we could walk out onto the back porch and leave the doors open. In Swaziland, the crime did not nearly feel as palpable, and in Shakaland, it felt like we were safe. However, even in these places of relative security, we felt more like we might feel in a larger US city…cautious but not threatened.


I don’t go running at night any more. That may not seem like a big deal, but I have still not been able to figure out how to make running work with my schedule. The “safest” time is to run early in the morning-5:30 am. I’m not really a morning person, and the times that I have tried to get up that early and run have usually resulted in me waking the entire house up by the time I disarm the alarm, and unlock the two gates and the front door to get out of the house. Running at night is out of the question. When I tell people that my usual running time in Virginia is 9:30 pm after the children have gone to bed, they immediately respond with “you musn’t do that!”

I have stopped riding a bike. The first reason is that I don’t have one, but that problem could have been overcome as I was offered one when I first arrived and told the person that I have been training for a triathlon. I don’t want to ride his bike. The drivers are dreadful, the roads are narrow, and I don’t want the responsibility of the relatively high likelihood that the bike will be stolen.

There are so many things to love about this country. The people are wonderful, the scenery is magnificent and there is so much potential here.

But on this election day, I miss my freedom. And a slice of meatball pizza.

Here are some of the places and faces that have captivated us in the past several months that I put together for a seminar at UKZN. It is challenging to compress so much into four minutes, but captures some of the scenes.

Hope you enjoy. (Warning 36Mb):

Music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

The presidential elections in South Africa are looming. The outcome is as much in doubt as the 1 vs 16 seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament. Jacob Zuma will be the next president of South Africa. He is the head of the African National Congress and will be elected on April 22. There are several opposition parties vying for the presidency, but they are the Radford’s in South African politics. Their greatest hope is that the ANC will receive less than 66% of the electorate so that they cannot change the constitution. Our biggest concern is that there will not be violence between the ANC and the Inkhata Freedom Party which is strong here in KwaZulu-Natal and has engaged violently with ANC supporters in the past. In 1994, there was nearly a civil war between the ANC and the IFP throughout KwaZulu-Natal.

If you want to read more about Jacob Zuma, here is a recent article in the UK’s Daily Mail.

Here are Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s comments in Pietermartizburg’s The Witness on Zuma from last week in Durban.

For those who are interested, the charges against Zuma were all dropped last week thus clearing the way for a smooth election.

We have been nominated for the coveted “Worst Parents/Best Tar Heel Fans of the Year Award”. It is an award given annually to the family that displays the qualities of outstanding loyalty to the UNC Tar Heels, but in the process inflicts untold psychological damage upon their children–damage which may require decades of counseling and medication.

Dook fans would argue that any parents who root for UNC are abusing their children, but in order to be considered for this award, one needs to do more than simply indoctrinate your innocent children into the Carolina Blue traditions. Simply being a member of the “light blue mafia” is not nearly enough to win this august award. Herewith, I make the case for two Tar Heel families, a Clemson fan and a South African for the 2009 WP/BTHotY Award:

We begin with the coveted UNC Golden Gourmet Peanuts:championship-cupThese were imported from Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina–getting past customs in Johannesburg, South Africa. The children have been asking to sample the peanuts since our arrival in January. We told them emphatically…not until UNC wins the national championship. (n.b. expiration date November 2009, so they will not taste so great several years from now.)

28 March 2009: 4:00 am (UNC-Gonzaga Sweet Sixteen)

The Augustine’s and new Tar Heel convert and South African native Adrian Murray arrive at Jeremiah von Kuhn’s apartment at 4 am in time for the tip off of the UNC-Gonzaga game. The game is shown on ESPN on digital satellite TV in South Africa. Jeremiah has DSTV unlike the rest of us. The Passaro’s arrive fifteen minutes later. Total tally: 5 adults, 6 children under the age of 12.  Jeremiah is a Clemson fan, but agrees to both host us and cook eggs and bacon along with Adrian, thus disproving the rumors that Clemson fans are worthless. There is at least one great Clemson fan in this universe and his name is Jeremiah von Kuhn.

three-cheers-for-clemsonThe Americans promptly fired up the laptops not content to rest at 4 am. Kristi is copying photos from our various trips, Paul working on some spreadsheet or sending important emails or whatever it is that businessmen do, and Brian is trying to hack into the Tar Heel Sports Network. Paul usually gets up at 4 am, so he is looking particularly chipper-Brian not so much.tar-heel-laptops-on-fireFortunately, at least Brian was successful as the UNC-Gonzaga game was not the featured game, so we listened to Woody and Eric for most of the game only catching the last fifteen minutes on TV.

The kids celebrated the 98-77 victory at 6 am:unc-child-abuse-part-1

Lightning strikes twice:

30 March 2009, 4:00 am (second half UNC-Oklahoma Elite Eight)

The Augustine’s, Adrian and Jeremiah repeat the March Madness celebration of two days earlier. We arrive at the gate at 4 am and are greeted by Jeremiah. We announce that we are here for the “Worst Parents of the Month Conference”. Jeremiah readily agrees that we are in strong contention for this months award. Tip-off time for the game was an hour earlier on the East Coast, and thus the Elite Eight game started at 3 am in South Africa. We arrive for the start of the second half. Not watching the entire game could be the one hitch in our otherwise strong resume for the WP/BTHotY Award nomination. The girls have vacation from school, but Brian does not have the day off from work. We all celebrate the 72-60 victory while holding the South African flag. If you look carefully, you can see Ruthie’s sleeping feet sticking out from under the flag. They don’t make 3 year old’s the same any more.unc-child-abuse-part-21

Preparing to watch the Final Four, we are excited as we are all traveling to Swaziland to stay at the Ezulwini Sun hotel. We figure that they would be sure to have DSTV in one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Swaziland. Not exactly. We had DSTV, but not ESPN and the Tar Heel Sports Network was not connecting either. So we wake the kids up at 5 am on Tuesday, 7 April to listen to the second half of the UNC-Michigan State national championship game on the CBS Sports radio broadcast. We celebrate the Tar Heels National Championship with a breakfast of eggs, bacon and golden gourmet peanuts.

Our official nomination reads as follows: The Augustine’s of Bridgewater, VA and Passaro’s of Chapel Hill, NC, Tar Heel Fans for Life, are nominated for the prestigious “Worst Parents/Best Tar Heel Fans of the Year Award” for cheering for the UNC Tar Heels in their National Championship run in the 2008-09 season. They are nominated for waking up six young children during the middle of the night to watch or listen to three NCAA games in two countries six time zones away, for using gigabytes of expensive data time to listen to the UNC-Dook game, two ACC and several NCAA tournament games, for importing Tar Heel gourmet peanuts, Jersey Naps napkins and UNC bottle openers to South Africa and for converting one South African and one Clemson fan into Carolina Tar Heel fans for life. (We’re stretching on the Clemson fan.)

GO HEELS! Let the psychological studies begin.dth-unc-nat-champ-040709

The Land Over the Hills

April 10, 2009

There was a strange dynamic in the “urban planning” used during apartheid. Don’t begin to ask me how decisions were made about the location of “white” versus “native” settlements. The end result today, however, is clear. Wherever the major national and regional roads connect were the European communities, and just over the hills out of sight of the roads were the Bantu communities. Close enough to provide workers, far enough away to be out of mind. While the absolute barriers to locations have changed, the vestiges still remain and are quite obvious if you happen to stray just a short distance from the main roads over the hills.

Such is the appropriately named “Valley of 1000 Hills” located north and west of Durban. 1000-hills

The marketers have cleverly created a driving route (meander in the local vernacular) through the region with carefully chosen quaint stops for coffee and curios–Zulu art, beadwork, carvings, etc. We have not been on the route, but it sounds like it is a couple hour meander through the rural Zulu villages between Durban and Pietermartizburg. We followed David Alcock around this valley last week to learn about his work in Zulu villages delivering water for irrigation and drinking to dozens of communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal. His communities are not along the meander-no coffee and curio shops here.

A beginning to this story might be with the strange calculus that went into apartheid township planning. Here is a picture from atop a hill overlooking a man-made lake (called a dam) in the Valley of 1000 Hills.

valley-1000-hillsThis is located less than 20 minutes from the north part of Durban (University of KwaZulu-Natal at Westville, major shopping center, etc.) A view like this 20 minutes from the third largest city in the US would be premium real estate, even in a down real estate market. Here are the Zulu houses (called rondevals) located on the property where this was taken.valley-1000-hills-rondavelsHere is the view from inside the same rondavel:

rondavel-insideWhy was pristine real estate given to a so-called inferior race? Who knows. The road is too twisty and narrow getting back to Durban? That did not stop multimillion dollar homes from springing up in Santa Barbara, CA, and the more remote the home, the more expensive it is. I don’t understand the logic in either case.

These homes did not have toilets and electricity until recently. In fact, the majority of these black settlements did not have water, electricity, sewer, etc., and only in the last several years has this been changing. Electricity is an interesting story. The neighborhoods controlled by the ANC (African National Congress–South Africa’s ruling party since 1994) were all equipped with electricity several years ago. Those controlled by the IFP (Inkhata Freedom Party–opposition party in KwaZulu-Natal), are only now getting electricity even though these might only be several hundred meters from ANC communities.

The Alcock’s have been working side by side with Zulu’s for the last 130 years, and have made as much inroads into the Zulu community as almost any white family in South Africa. David’s father and step mother were featured in the intriguing book, My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. David grew up a farmer working and living with Zulu’s in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Zulu is in his blood as it is perfectly on this tongue.zulu-women-workers

David is a tinkerer. He likes to design and build things. Not exactly an engineer, but someone with an engineer’s heart and mind. He has designed a ram pump for delivering water to rural communities. It took fifteen years to perfect. It works on the pressure differential created by drawing water from a higher elevation than the pump. This produces the ability to gain a 10:1 mechanical advantage which can be used to pump water any distance from the pump. The genius of his ram pump is that it is designed and built from off the shelf parts, and the diaphragm in the pump is the only part that needs replacing–it can be made by cutting out a section of a used tire.ram-pumpThis pump is not flashy. It is not something that you will be reading about in an airline in-flight magazine. He has had several taken out by international aid agencies looking for something with a little more glamour. He has also returned the next year after the photo ops were over to replace them when they were too complicated to operate by the locals, or parts broke and they could not afford to replace them. The Alcock Ram Pump does what it was designed to do…pump water, 24/7 with no external power source and with almost no maintenance required. A complete system generally costs less than $3000 to install providing enough water to irrigate (by hand so as not to waste water and irrigate weeds) a three acre farm. The cooperative farm for this particular pump is now supporting over 30 families with their own food and enough to sell to the neighboring grocery stores at a profit.zulu-rondavelHe has partnered with the Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) Engineers Without Borders chapter who has been sending students for the last several years to help install these systems during their summer break and learn about sustainable design in impoverished communities. What he cannot find are South African engineering students, black or white, to volunteer their time and expertise during the other ten months of the year.

Unfortunately, David is growing tired. Tired of the late nights building ram pumps because he is spending his days cutting through government red tape. Negotiating with the local politicians has been endlessly frustrating. He points out that they all sit in comfortable chairs in air conditioned offices twenty minutes away in Durban. They have water and electricity and food whether they deliver the services that they have promised in a timely fashion or not. It does not matter to them whether a deadline is met that means getting the crop in on time or not. The indifference is maddening.

I asked him whether it got discouraging to see so much need and so many challenges facing the rural Zulu communities that he serves. He said that seeing his pumps working day in and day out, knowing that the precious water that he has helped to deliver is literally changing peoples lives keeps him going.

One final observation. There is always beautiful and somewhat haunting Zulu singing to be heard from the dusty rondavels dotting the hillsides. In a people empty of most of the “creature comforts” of modern life, there is an inner peace and beauty to be found in the lands just over the hills.rural-kzn-hills