We have been living in South Africa for years, yet knew very little outside of our Western Cape home. Too many holidays were dedicated to maintaining contact with family and friends abroad; too many business trips to Johannesburg, Durban or Port Elisabeth were spent visiting clients' offices and airports so we never explored the rainbow nation properly.
The first leg of our BRICS journey, therefore, was planned to be an epic roadtrip, dedicated to driving through as many nooks and crannies as we possibly could, including neighbors Lesotho and Mozambique. We will eat up dusty kilometers as we roam from Namaqualand to the Karoo, get lost on the Eastern Cape's Wild Coast or on the slopes of the Drakensberg all the way to the wetlands of Saint Lucia.
Chapter 1 Completed between Aug. and Oct. 2016
In South Africa, we did almost exactly what was planned in our initial approach. It is after all the only leg of the BRICS trip that will forever remain faithful to the original idea!
It proved to be everything we expected and more: South Africa is gorgeous, as we knew, but it is also extremely diverse. It is a gigantic country, perfectly suited for a road trip. The real gems are unearthed when you cover vast distances. Despite the many hours spent in the car, the kids never got bored. The landscape constantly evolves, rarely monotonous except in some stretches of the Karoo where immense skies compensate the desolation.
People & Language
South Africa bears the moniker 'rainbow nation' because of the diversity of its people. There are 11 official languages spread across a large variety of ethnic groups. While the tensions this has caused in South Africa's troubled and violent history are well documented, people unfamiliar with it rarely know the nuances that lie beyond the simplistic black/white skin divide.
Among whites, the Afrikaners and the English are split by language and history. Among blacks, Zulu and Xhosa are the most numerous but the Sotho, Tswana, Pedi, Venda and Ndebele are substantial too. Lengthening the list are less populous cultures such as the Tsonga, Pondo or Swati and the Khoi San, whom colonial ruthlessness nearly wiped out.
If that wasn't complex enough, the Dutch and English brought scores of slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia and India. The mixed race culture referred to as 'coloured' (sometimes called Cape Malay) is a product of their intermarriage with European settlers and indigenous people. Add to that some immigrants both from older (Portuguese, Baltic jews, Italians, Greeks, etc.) and more recent (Zimbabwean, Congoloese, Somali, etc.) waves and the rainbow is complete.
22 years after apartheid, it isn't yet clear whether this social mosaic is a curse or a treasure. What is certain is that if humanity ever finds a way to overcome racial and cultural prejudices, South Africa will have been its greatest testing ground.
Music & Literature
Mirroring the diversity of its society, South African music is amazingly rich and varied. Its most renowned artists enjoy worldwide fame, not only because of their talent but also because their sometimes politically-charged music forced them into exile. Musical expressions go way beyond the cultivation of tradition such as maskanda, marabi, kwela, mbaqanga or isicathamiya. South Africans have a knack for successfully adopting trends coming from elsewhere to give them new, local identites and flavors (most notably "goema" jazz but also pop or hip hop). They have also created distinctly unique genres of modern popular music such as, for example, kwaito.
Likewise in literature, South Africa's tortured past and complex social make-up has spurred tremendous creativity and bred several world-famous authors, including Nobel laureates J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. On our roadtrip, we will take copies of books by Zakes Mda, Antjie Krog, Sol Plaatje and Lewis Nkosi to make the landscape come alive with their stories.
South Africans of all origins agree that the national obsession is to grill meat or braai. They even have a public holiday cheekily (re)named braai day! Beyond that, specialties and dishes will depend on region and culture. Durban curries (eaten in a hollowed bread, they're called bunny chows) are renowned for burning all but Indian throats, smileys (whole roasted goat heads), mopane worms (pictured), walkie-talkies (chicken feet and heads) for frightening tourists who venture in the townships, umngqusho for really filling a person's belly, biltong (cured, dried beef or game meat) for making you desperately beg for toothpicks and most other famous dishes (boeber, bobotie, koeksisters) for being owed to Malay ancestors. South Africans also love a good potjie (cast iron pot). Potjiekos (pot food) is not really a specific dish but rather what you call any food slow-cooked in it over a fire - guaranteed to make you lick your fingers. Desserts too are popular, stars among them are malva pudding and melktert.
Did you know?
Post-apartheid South Africa is only 22 years young and has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world;
Their first president, Nelson Mandela, spent 27 years in jail and is the recipient of a Nobel Peace prize;
There are three other South African Nobel Peace laureates, the most for any country (tied with Sweden);
Coal-to-liquid technology, a process that turns coal into oil was invented by SASOL, the national chemicals company;
The first ever successful human heart transplant was conducted at Groote Schuur hospital, Cape Town, in 1967;
Table Mountain, the iconic peak towering above Cape Town, has been voted one of the new 7 wonders of nature;
There are more than 2,000 ship wrecks off South Africa's tumultuous coast;
At 216 meters high, Bloukrans Bridge is the highest commercial bungee jump in the world;
South Africa has lifted the rugby world cup twice (1995, 2007) in six participations to the tournament;
SAB Miller, the world's largest brewery, supplies 50% of the beer consumed in China.