Tag Archives: South Africa

The photographs of a life in motion


At last count, my trusty Canon EOS-M2 had produced 9099 images for me.

The last two months have been chockablock with professional and personal activities.  As a result, I have neglected my blog!  I know what my next post will address, and I have plenty left to say on other topics, too.  I will return to writing posts when I can sneak in some extra time (late June?).

In the meanwhile, I hope you will enjoy these albums of photographs that I took during the busy travels of 2016 and early 2017.  Looking back at that period, it is amazing to me that I traveled so much!

Inside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20161221 Table Mountain Google Photos
20161216 Cape Point Google Photos
20161213 Robben Island Google Photos
20160908 Kimberley Google Photos
20160702 Northern Cape Google Photos
20160319 Eastern Cape Google Photos
20160312 Cape Agulhas Google Photos

Outside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20170113 Prague Google Photos
20161019 Warsaw Google Photos
20161015 Berlin Google Photos
20160926 Shanghai Google Photos
20160917 Beijing Google Photos
20160611 London (no post) Google Photos
20160416 Ghent Google Photos

Bang for the buck: U.S. aid to South Africa

Out of $4 trillion dollars in the U.S. federal budget, how much is spent on foreign aid?  While most people in a recent poll thought it was around a quarter of the annual budget, the true answer is around one percent.  In this post, I want to explain two key programs that have impacted my new home country: PEPFAR and AGOA.  The United States plays a substantial role in making the future of South Africa brighter!

PEPFAR: Curtailing the epidemic of HIV/AIDS


During the first eight years of the millennium, I rarely had anything positive to say about the President of the United States.  President George W. Bush, though, signed into law the “U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003,” which transformed medical care in southern Africa.  His name is still respected in South Africa because of this law; it yielded the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  This program has been renewed twice by bipartisan vote, in 2008 and 2014.  In the thirteenth year of the program, PEPFAR supported anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for 11.5 million people living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), with that number having climbed by 50% since 2014.  Some two million babies have been born without HIV from mothers who carry the virus.  This is an amazing accomplishment, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

The HIV crisis in South Africa began as it did in the United States, with AIDS appearing in the community of gay men during the early 1980s.  Cases were documented in the heterosexual community in 1987.  By 1990, the crisis had begun to grow rapidly.  It is worth noting that South Africa was coping with tremendous changes during this period as the Apartheid government was compelled to cede power; Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February of 1990.  When he became President in 1994, however, the new government was unable to do much about the growing epidemic.  1996 was a watershed year for HIV as ART was announced, and the first drugs became publicly available (though expensive).  In 1999, Thabo Mbeki was elected President, and the public thought that HIV prevention and treatment might become a priority under his leadership.  His Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel, however, was dominated by HIV denialists / “AIDS dissidents” who claimed the virus had nothing to do with AIDS.  Not only were ART drugs not made available widely, but ART was withheld from pregnant women carrying the virus.  Nelson Mandela re-entered the debate in 2000 by a powerful closing speech at a Durban international conference on AIDS.  The topic became even more personal to him when his son died of AIDS in 2005.  Against this complex historical background, the prevalence of heterosexually transmitted HIV-AIDS was surging.  “By 1994, this had risen to 7.6%, and by 2005 was 30.2%, with an estimated 5.5 million of South Africa’s 47 million people infected.  An estimated 1000 new HIV infections and 900 AIDS deaths occurred each day” [Giliomee and Mbenga, p. 418].

PEPFAR has a tremendous role to play in today’s South Africa.  The program currently estimates that 7,000,000 people in the country are living with HIV, with approximately half protected by ART.  180,000 people die of AIDS each year in South Africa. “South Africa now has the largest number of patients on anti-retroviral drugs in the world, and South African life expectancy has increased by more than a decade.” [Bekker et al.]  Just imagine the impact if PEPFAR were no longer paying for HIV treatment!

Please be aware that there have been changes in the Trump Administration that suggest this program may be in trouble.  It is no exaggeration to say that real people will die without PEPFAR.

AGOA: “Trade, not Aid!”


Debate may never end over the best way for wealthy nations to support the growth of poor nations.  When wealthy countries give food aid to poor nations, those efforts can undermine the economic growth of agriculture in those countries.  The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was enacted in 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency.  You may be thinking, “gosh, another economic treaty I need to know about!”  In fact, AGOA is not a treaty.  AGOA is a unilateral decision by the United States to drop taxes and quotas on imports of particular goods from countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  The program began by including 34 countries and soon expanded to 40.  After the first fifteen-year run of the program, the U.S. Congress decided to renew AGOA for an additional ten years in 2015.  Each year, the President decides exactly which countries will be extended these benefits.

The metrics for AGOA success paint a somewhat equivocal picture.  The 2016 biennial report shows $23.5 billion in exports from Sub-Saharan Africa in the year 2000.  This number grew to $86.1 billion in the year 2008 before falling back to $18.5 billion in 2015.  This might seem an abject failure, but much of the decline reflects reduced oil exports to the United States and the worldwide recession of 2009.  Most Sub-Saharan countries, of course, would like to export to the world’s biggest economy!  America, in turn, uses this desire to requiring development toward “a market-based economy; the rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to due process; the elimination of barriers to U.S. trade and investment; economic policies to reduce poverty; a system to combat corruption and bribery; and the protection of internationally recognized worker rights” [2016 biennial report, p. 8].  Essentially, the United States waives taxes on imports from countries that behave as the United States would like to see.

South Africa has had an interesting story within the framework of AGOA.  As the continent’s most advanced and diversified economy, South Africa was a bit of a question mark for inclusion in the 2015 renewal of the law.  Did it make sense to give these trade benefits to an economy that was already moving rapidly?  South Africa made itself a less attractive trade partner by raising trade barriers against American farmers exporting meat to South Africa, which caused them to violate the “elimination of barriers to U.S. trade” rule above.  At the start of 2016, the situation had deteriorated enough that Barack Obama suspended AGOA benefits for South Africa.  This action was enough to convince the foot-dragging South African government to drop its trade barriers, and so South Africa is once again an AGOA beneficiary in good standing.

What will happen to AGOA under the Trump Administration? Although President Trump has been ambivalent on the subject of free trade, he has not signaled that he will seek to end AGOA either by unlisting all participant countries or seeking the repeal of AGOA through the Congress.  Africans do not expect great things from President Trump, though.  His Tweets about South Africa have had a generally negative tone.

In the end, South Africa is proud of its ability to take care of its own problems.  If AGOA comes to an end, the country will lose one of its best customers for fruits and vegetables, and the automobile industry growing in the Eastern Cape would suffer.  The loss of PEPFAR, on the other hand, would devastate health care in South Africa.  The economy of South Africa is not strong enough to bear the cost of supporting ART on this scale.  The country already relies on the permissive, pro-public health intellectual property laws of India to have access to generic ART.  We can all hope that the PEPFAR and AGOA relationships between South Africa and the United States continue under President Trump!

An extraordinary journey in three universities

Last November, I received some very welcome news.  The Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academics at the University of the Western Cape informed me that I had been named an Extraordinary Professor in the Department of Biotechnology!  My work within that department had been going well, when persistent student protests closed the university through the end of 2016.  This letter reflected the ongoing hope of Biotechnology that our collaboration would continue when the students returned to their studies.  Today I received my official badge, so I would like to write about the work that is developing at each of the three local universities at which I have an appointment.

I have written about my travels among the campuses in and around Cape Town.  I would stress that I spend most of my time at my home institution, the Tygerberg campus for Stellenbosch University.  Bioinformatics has seen considerable investment by the university.  The South African Tuberculosis Bioinformatics Initiative represents the concentration of bioinformatics investigators for our campus: Gerard C. Tromp, Gian van der Spuy, and me.  There are other data scientists, though!  The Centre for Evidence-based Healthcare, led by Taryn Young, offers statistical expertise.  Tonya Esterhuizen specializes in biostatistics.  As I will explain in a moment, I hope to work with them more in the days to come.  This year, my formal teaching duties at my home campus will double.  Don’t worry for me, though, since I will host the Honours students for the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics for only eight days!  I am glad that bioinformatics will have the “standard” module length for our Honours program, equal to Immunology and several other subjects.  I have been supplementing my teaching through an informal “course,” called the “Useful Hour.”  I have begun teaching all comers about a range of subjects, from computers to programming and statistics.  I hope to pull in some philosophy of science soon, as well.  I have been filming these subjects as a bit of an experiment, and it has been handy for those who cannot attend.img_20170126_152122

Hugh Patterton, Gerard Tromp, and I coordinate our efforts near Simonsberg.

The Stellenbosch campus of Stellenbosch University has made strides in bioinformatics, as well.  Hugh Patterton, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, has been named to lead bioinformatics efforts at this campus.  Naturally, our group (SATBBI) has been talking with Hugh about ways we can reinforce each other’s efforts.  Some of our consultations on the Stellenbosch campus have pointed in the direction of microbiome research, an area that is replete with bioinformatics challenges.  I look forward to seeing what emerges!

I am highlighting the University of the Western Cape in this post, of course!  In describing bioinformatics at the campus, I should start by mentioning the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI).  Alan Christoffels leads this group of investigators.  They’re an interesting group, with considerable success in capacity development within South Africa and across the continent.  My home on the campus, however, has been with the Department of Biotechnology.  In many respects, this reflects how I have spent my career.  I set the mold in graduate school, when I was a bioinformaticist surrounded by analytical chemists.  I like being close to the people who generate the data I work with!  In the Department of Biotechnology, I work most closely with the group of Ashwil Klein, the lecturer who heads the Proteomics Research and Service Unit.  They have primarily emphasized a gel-based workflow, meaning that they partially isolate proteins on a 2D gel before identifying the spot based on the peptide masses they observe on the Bruker Ultraflex TOF/TOF.  The group is actively moving toward additional instruments, though, and the acquisitions should greatly broaden their capabilities.  I enjoy the intellectual challenges their group produces, since the rules of the road are somewhat less established for agricultural proteomics.


The new UWC Chemical Sciences and Biological Sciences Buildings rise above the Cape Flats Nature Reserve.

In attending the department’s recent strategic retreat, I was introduced among the researchers of UWC Biotechnology more broadly.  I was particularly glad to meet with Dr. Bronwyn Kirby, who heads the Next Generation Sequencing Facility.  We discussed the Honours course offered for the department (I taught bioinformatics for the proteomics module last year), and I believe I’ll get to add some bioinformatics for the sequencing module in 2017!  I was also delighted to meet the SARChI chair who heads the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM), Marla Trindade.  We spoke about what the students of the institute most needed, and establishing a structured curriculum for biostatistics seemed very high on the list.  I mentioned the biostatistics researchers at Stellenbosch above.  My hope is to be able to use much of the structure Stellenbosch has already built in its Biostatistics I and II classes as a model for teaching biostatistics at UWC Biotechnology.  It would be my first effort at teaching biostatistics formally; I hope that I have absorbed enough to be a good teacher for this subject!

I continue to spend my Tuesdays with the University of Cape Town medical school and to visit the Centre for Proteomics and Genomics, as well.  UCT named me an Honorary Professor in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences halfway through 2016.  My interactions there have principally taken place within the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), borrowing from the network of relationships that Jonathan Blackburn has established there.  I have worked with Nelson Soares, his Junior Research Fellow, to create monthly programs for the Cape Town community invested in proteomics.  This Tuesday, we started this series for 2017 with an introduction to the methods we use for identifying and quantifying proteins.  I was really pleased that Brandon Murugan, a senior graduate student in the Blackburn Lab, felt comfortable enough to present this material!


I enjoyed my sundown cruise with the SATVI team in May of last year!

From the very beginning of my time in South Africa, I have been working with the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI).  Recently they began having their research in progress meetings on Tuesday morning, allowing me to take part.  I really like the interaction.  They take my questions seriously, and I think we all learn from working together.  Certainly I would find great meaning in being part of a successful vaccine trial for this disease!

I have another group I must mention in describing bioinformatics across these three universities.  Nicola Mulder’s “CBIO” team has been an opening wedge in bioinformatics education for South Africa.  Their H3Africa BioNet courses have been used to supplement the content of B.Sc. education in places like the University of Limpopo.  It should be no surprise that many of the people I have mentioned in today’s post have collaborated in a manuscript describing the growth of bioinformatics in South Africa.  Our field is key to the future of public health and to the advances in biotechnology yet to come!

Enjoying Solstice on Table Mountain

December 21, 2016

There is hardly a location in Cape Town where Table Mountain does not dominate the skyline. Throughout the city bowl, its sheer cliffs loom above you, seeming almost impossibly close. From the moment I arrived, I knew the moment would arrive when I would walk atop the table! Oddly enough, barriers to my visit appeared before I ever left the United States. I encountered my U.S. Representative at a minor-league baseball game in Nashville. When I mentioned I was thinking of moving to Cape Town, he snorted derisively. “You’re not going to move there. A tourist cannot even go up Table Mountain without getting mugged!” Even though I have lived in South Africa for more than a year, my hikes have been limited to the lower slopes of Table Mountain. The arrival of a friend from Denmark, however, gave Natasha and me the push to visit the mountain top!

Hiking to the top of Table Mountain requires a very early start and a fair amount of energy. We opted to spend our efforts at the top rather than taking the climb on foot. We started by driving to Tafelberg Road (Tafelberg is the Afrikaans name for the mountain). This road is at a very impressive height, reaching 417 meters above sea level (40% the height of Table Mountain). We arrived at one of the outlying parking lots near 8:00 AM, and we saw the first cable cars swinging into motion as we walked to the cable way. Even though the lift had only started moving, we found ourselves in a pretty substantial line to purchase tickets (we couldn’t get the Wild Card discount through the website). I snapped a photo or two of the City Bowl of Cape Town.


By 8:02 AM, the sun had been up for two and a half hours.

After approximately a half hour, we had our tickets in hand. The cable car pricing is expensive enough (R285 or more than twenty dollars for an adult’s round trip) that many Capetonians get tickets only on their birthdays, when it is free! We moved from the queue for the tickets to the queue for the cable car. This wait was also about half an hour. We saw a lot of people who were dressed for summer, not realizing that the temperature at the top is quite a few degrees lower. At last we were in the holding area for the next car! The sight of the gondolas swooping down out of the clouds was pretty dramatic.


The current cars, installed in 1997, carry 65 people.

The marketing team at Table Mountain has thrown all its weight behind the 2011 declaration that Table Mountain is one of the seven wonders of nature. When I looked at the list of sites chosen for this honor, I admit to feeling my American pride pricked a bit. Where was the Grand Canyon? (It was one of 28 finalists.) Yellowstone? Why did the New7Wonders site spell the mountain’s name as “Tabel?” In the end, selection depended upon votes cast by phone, SMS, or website. Table Mountain is making the most of it.

Our ride up the cables was uneventful. We were perched at the center of the car since the outer ring rotates; I was unsure how I would handle the slow spin since my head inclines in that direction anyway! Suddenly, the car was surrounded by mist, and we arrived at the upper cable station. The area immediately around the station was a bit crowded, even at 9:30 in the morning, and the environment felt very close, with the clouds blocking a view beyond ten meters or so. I enjoyed a silly moment with the tourist binoculars.


What a view!

Our path led away from the heavily-touristed area, though. Our destination was Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the Mountain. Our course would begin in a southeasterly direction across the top of Platteklip Gorge, then continue along the “back table,” along the south edge of the high, flat area of the top, until we reached the Beacon near the easternmost part of the Table. Then we would return via a path on the “front table,” overlooking the City Bowl, returning to the upper cable station.


Abstracted from an image at SANParks.

Our walk southeast was shrouded in mist for quite some distance. Our first crossing of Platteklip Gorge was a bit unnerving as a result; the path just seemed to vanish in a steep slope downwards, at first. We passed other trails I have heard mentioned in connection with the mountain, such as Kasteel Poort and the India Venster. After those junctions, though, the path was relatively level, with the high plain dotted by sandstone and pretty stands of fynbos. Some were quite lovely blooms! Soon, though, we passed into a marsh. It might seem strange to think of a marsh on top of a mountain, but enough rain falls on the mountain to produce several streams to water the city below.


Boardwalks helped us navigate areas that were sometimes slippery.

We had been trudging in the mist for around a half hour when we reached a bit of an upland, featuring a beautiful king protea. At just the right moment, the sun burst through the clouds. The colors around us blazed with new light. My companions allowed me yet another photo opportunity.


It was a beautiful day, and I was standing on top of the world!

A raised area had come into sight before us, and we were happy to draw nearer. A cairn of stones had been piled on this highest point of Table Mountain. After almost exactly one hour of walking, we had reached the summit. That sounds more impressive than it really is; Maclear’s Beacon is only nineteen meters higher than the upper cable station! I was delighted to learn that the Beacon was used by nineteenth century astronomers to measure the curvature of the earth (an early effort had misleadingly found the earth to be pear-shaped). The view from the Beacon is stellar. When the mists cleared, we could see all the way to False Bay and the Cape Peninsula. Even though Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain are essentially the same height, Devil’s Peak just looks like a bit of a wedge rather than the massive mountain that it is. Our group paused for a snack, taking pictures of other groups who had reached the Beacon from much longer hikes than ours.


One shouldn’t act like a hero for climbing less than 100 meters.

Getting down to the “front table” path from the beacon took a bit of scrambling, but we made it okay. Very soon we saw charred undergrowth all around us. Natasha explained that a fire in October had burned this area, including some of the boardwalk. Many species of fynbos, however, have evolved to require the occasional burn. We saw signs all around us that the plants were returning to life.


Even a big fire cannot keep the greenery down!

The walk back to the cable station skirted the cliff’s edge on the north side of the mountain. The sun was once again losing its battle with the “tablecloth,” and so our views of the city below were frequently mottled by clouds. I fired photo after photo down at the city, but I never really found the clear view I hoped for. I think this image, though, helps to illustrate just how much altitude we had gained since my shot of Signal Hill and downtown at the top of this blog post.


Oh, this city that I call my own!

Forty minutes had passed since we left Maclear’s Beacon when we encountered Platteklip Gorge again. I stumbled down the rocks into the depression at its head, and my mind was blown when I saw how far down that gorge leads! Hikers were gasping up that last narrow path to the table top. I really admire the folks who make the effort to climb the Gorge. When I saw, in person, the routes that our intrepid graduate student Wout Bittremieux had taken to the top, I was pretty stunned!


It’s a long way down.

By noon we were back to the Upper Cable Station. We caught some glimpses of the Atlantic coast as the mists battled the sun, but the fog was most dense around the station. I was glad that we had enjoyed as much sunlight as we did on the eastern extent of our walk. I feel bad for the people who did not leave the vicinity of the station, since they probably saw little else but clouds. As for our group, we headed back down the cable way and hoofed it back to the car. I drove the Strawberry to the nearby Knead Bakery. We ate ravenously. Our Solstice adventure was at an end!

A calm day at the Cape of Storms

December 16, 2016

Natural beauty surrounds Cape Town, and even a short drive can make me feel like I am a thousand miles from civilization.  Navigating down to the Cape of Good Hope (originally named the Cape of Storms by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488) takes a fair bit of driving.  Two friends and I made the drive south on Friday for my first look at this stunning National Park.  We started by driving south through the tony Constantia area on the M3 expressway, but traffic bogged down quite a lot by the time we hit the M4 coastal highway at Muizenberg.  We passed through Fish Hoek and bypassed the penguins at Simon’s Town, suddenly turning sharply uphill on the switchbacks of Red Hill Road.  Perched atop the peninsula, we saw our first real view of False Bay, the body of water defined by the sweep of Cape Point.  I later learned that Red Hill Road marked the point where many long gun batteries were established to protect the naval base at Simon’s Town.

In some respects, we had climbed away from civilization when we mounted that slope.  We encountered just a few businesses and homes in the remaining miles until we reached the entryway for the Cape of Good Hope portion of Table Mountain National Park.  At first we were in line behind a car where a gentleman was arguing that he could pay a fee once for the entire car rather than per person (coincidentally, his car was full of people).  We joined the other line.  When we reached the gate, the ranger asked us if we had the paperwork with our Wild Card rather than the card itself.  They struggled to prove it was valid (it has an embedded chip, but I think they lacked a reader), but eventually they waved us through.


The area east of the visitors centre is wide open and beautiful.

Our drive through the park to the Buffelsfontein Visitor Centre was uneventful, though we were a bit jittery about encountering baboons.  We acquired a trail map and decided on a gentle stroll through the fynbos.  We saw evidence of the fierce winds for which the Cape is renowned, with some trees growing at a peculiar slant to the ground.  Some protea bushes had started to put flowers forward.  I saw one of my favorite succulent plants spreading across a wide area, as well!


These happy greens are “suurvye,” or sour figs.


The da Gama cross

The sun was quite unforgiving, so I was grateful for my hat.  We visited the sites of two navigational aids that had been named for Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama.  The two are on a line pointing to Whittle Rock in False Bay, a hazard to ships.  Many ship wrecks, after all, surround the southern coast of Africa.  The original padrãos are gone, but pillars topped by crosses were constructed by the Portuguese government at a later date.  Their height allows them to be seen at considerable distance.  When viewed from the correct direction, the deep black of one side makes them stand out very well from the sky.  In this photo, the scientist may give a distorted sense of scale; the history teacher in the background, however, is standing right next to the monument.

I was reminded of the “boot” formed by southern Italy when I saw the map of the Cape.  Cape Point is the “toe,” pointing east toward False Bay.  Diaz Beach forms the instep, and the Cape of Good Hope itself is the heel of the boot.  We parked near Cape Point and rode the cable car up to the lighthouse.


False Bay appears to the right in this image of the funicular.

The photo opportunities at the lighthouse are spectacular.  The lighthouse itself is 238 meters above sea level.  The view of the Cape of Good Hope, lying off to the west, is quite lovely, and it seemed to be begging for a photo!


Diaz beach is in the foreground of the Cape.

Cape Point is no slouch for beauty, either.  The lighthouse stands on a knife’s edge of rock, with sheer edges plunging into the ocean.


Cape Point towers above the water.

After our visit to the lighthouse, we drove down to the Cape (even our short hike in the sun had reminded us that a more strenuous hike might be a problem).  We had a delightful time there.  The tide pools featured little fish and sea anemones.  I felt one of the anemones pulling my finger!  A group of terns or cormorants watched us from a nearby rock, and seals considered whether the birds might be a good option for dinner.


The seals appear at the right.

After playing in the surf for a while, we enjoyed people watching as various groups posed for the photo opportunity of a large sign.  Rather than jostling elbows in the queue, we opted for a smaller sign nearby with fewer people near it.


Your humble narrator

I thought that our visit was complete, but the Cape of Good Hope had one more surprise for us.  As we drove back to the park entrance, we encountered a troop of baboons marching rapidly down the side of the road.  Their leader was massive, but he also seemed to be nursing an injured paw.  We kept the windows rolled up, and we slowly drove past the group.  I was delighted to get one proper photo as we moved by.  I was grateful that we could see these powerful animals safely.


Do not cross a baboon.

Robben Island, sun-blasted and separate

December 13, 2016

If I were planning only a week in Cape Town, I would have visited Robben Island much sooner.  After my first year in Cape Town had passed, I was glad that at last I could set foot on the island that Nelson Mandela made famous.  What can this island show to a visitor from a different nation?

First, it is worth noting that Robben Island is one of only eight World Heritage Sites in all of South Africa, and it is one of only two in the Western Cape (the other is the Cape Floral Region, extending into the Eastern Cape).  Its history has reflected the many resources the island can provide, ranging from port to post office to hospital to military outpost and to prison.  An excellent timeline showing its uses throughout history was produced by the Robben Island Museum.  Its name derives from the Dutch for “seal island.”  One of the last creatures a visitor is likely to see when boarding the boat for the island, in fact, is a seal.  A colony of seals occupies an area near the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.


A photo of the V&A Waterfront from May, 2015

The ride to the island does not take long, only about 35 minutes on one of the modern, fast ferries.  My friends and I stayed below deck since I don’t deal well with direct summer sunlight.  The crew were pretty efficient in ensuring that the passengers knew about life vests and about having too many people on the bow or stern viewing areas.  In no time at all, we pulled abreast of the island.  The island covers an area just over five square kilometers, and its shoreline is dotted with low structures around the old medium-security prison where the guards (and now the museum docents) live.  The crossing to the island may have been short for us, but winter storms can make it quite perilous.  In the past children moving between the island and mainland for school frequently missed days of classes because the ferries could not run.


The Cape of Storms did not defeat us!

Once we left the boat, we all boarded buses to get our tour of the island.  I would suggest that you open a separate tab in your browser to view a free map of the island from Slingsby Maps.  In driving southeast along the coast road, we soon passed a sizeable, crumbling cemetery.  Our guide explained that in 1845, a leper colony near Caledon was moved en masse to Robben Island.  The Moravian missionaries who had cared for the ill moved with the 70 people in their care.  Many mentally ill patients were also shipped to the island.  Today, the only building standing from that period is the beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd, designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker but built by the community living on the island.


The Robert Sobukwe house is at the left. The rest of the buildings housed dogs.

Our introduction to the island’s significance in Apartheid history began as we arrived at the Robert Sobukwe complex.  I first learned his name in driving to the University of the Western Cape; the institution is on the well-traveled Robert Sobukwe Road (the M10 highway).  He was a graduate of Fort Hare University and completed Honours at U-Wits, becoming a compelling intellectual in favor of the Defiance Campaign.  He is remembered for founding the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1958 as a breakaway group from the African National Congress.  At the age of 35, he was put in prison because of his resistance to the pass laws.  The Apartheid government then passed a law with a clause making it possible for them to incarcerate him in prison indefinitely without reference to a particular crime.  Mr. Sobukwe was kept in isolation from human conversation for almost all of the remaining years of his life, six of which took place at Robben Island.  As the tour guide explained the harshness of his detention, I heard a series of little gasps from the bus passengers around me.


The limestone quarry is very bright, even at a distance.

The limestone quarry is a site that appeared in the movie “Long Walk To Freedom” because of its significance in the life of Nelson Mandela.  As a prisoner, he was forced to toil here for thirteen years.  The point was to keep prisoners busy since the limestone was not particularly useful.  The other quarry on the island, however, produced blue stones from which many of the buildings were constructed (including the prison and the church).  In practice, the limestone quarry became a place of education, where prisoners read and conversed.  The harsh lighting, however, took a toll on Nelson Mandela’s vision.


The Kramat is the building with the green dome. The structure at the left is a guard tower.

Our visit to the maximum security prison started with a reminder that the island had served as a prison much further back in history.  The Moturu Kramat remembers the life of Sayed Adurohman Moturu (d. 1754), one of the first imams in Cape Town.  He was exiled to Robben Island for the last fourteen years of his life.  The Kramat remains an important point of pilgrimage for the Muslim community.


Our host regales us with tales of this prison from the 1980s.

Being inside the maximum security prison was unsettling.  We were led into a long narrow room, with a bunk bed at one end.  Our host explained that he had been a prisoner in the maximum security prison from 1983 to 1990.  He had been incarcerated for sabotage and other crimes associated with his work in the armed resistance to Apartheid.  The room we were in had once housed around 50 prisoners.  He showed a menu for people from the Indian or Cape Coloured populations and another for the black prisoners, demonstrating that the government had ensured the black prisoners were fed worse than others (and he had personal knowledge, since he had served as part of the kitchen crew during his prison term).

I found myself distracted by this man’s history.  He had acknowledged that he had taken up arms against the government of his country.  How could a person change from insurgent to museum docent in one lifetime?  He related that he had been terrified of public speaking when he was invited to become a guide to the museum (he had been unemployed at the time).  At his first tour, he had frozen with stage fright until some of the elderly people on the tour had begun asking questions.  Ten years later, he knew just how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand.  I admired his skill.


The leadership wing of the prison. The black pole held up one end of the tennis net.

In the last phase of the tour, we moved to the wing for high-level political prisoners.  We gathered in what had been a tennis court lined with blue stone walls.  On just the other side of the wall, a line of small cells had held leading figures of the ANC as well as other resistance organizations.  The cell itself is unremarkable, other than being smaller than what many of us would consider a bathroom of acceptable size.  How could a place like this have been the training ground of the future leaders of South Africa?

Robben Island discharged its final prisoner from the maximum security prison in 1991.  In 1994, its most famous former prisoner was elected president of South Africa.  By 1996, no prisoners remained on the island, and in the following year the Museum was opened.  In 1999, the Island was named a World Heritage Site.  Two decades after the prisons were emptied, this American could stroll around, trying to make sense of it all.  For my part, I think I will need to keep contemplating this remarkable place in which I find myself if I ever hope to understand it!

Taxes and Trembling

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Did you realize that tax day was just a couple of weeks ago?  On November 25th, many Americans were sleeping off a tryptophan coma from eating too much turkey.  Here in South Africa, I was breathing easier because I had navigated my first time filing taxes with the South African Revenue Service, or SARS.  The 25th was the deadline for individual filing.

I have mentioned SARS once before, when I filed to acquire a taxpayer ID number shortly after starting work at my university.  Dealing with taxes is pretty similar to what I experienced in the United States.  I do not receive my gross salary each month.  Instead, I receive my payment minus the cost of benefits (such as my medical scheme) and minus tax withholding.  Those deductions, however, are pretty serious.  In a given month, I generally receive about 56% of my nominal salary.

“Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”  –Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Filing a tax return with SARS is how I get the excess withholding back in my bank account.  Taxpayers can file paper forms, or they can eFile, or they can use a tax preparation service.  Because I have been a TurboTax user for years, I decided to try the South African equivalent, TaxTim.  Because the tax code is a bit simpler in South Africa, the number of questions I needed to answer was slightly shorter.  When I went through this process on November 10th, the software eFiled my return to SARS.  Unlike the TurboTax experience, though, I still did not know whether my answers implied that I would owe more money or receive money back!

I had my answer very quickly, though.  SARS sent me a secure message right after my filing to say that I was receiving a very generous return of taxes (I had only worked at this university for three months by the end of February, when the tax year ends).  The message included a note, though, that I would be required to submit many documents for verification.  My heart sank, because the office in Bellville was likely to be incredibly busy this close to the deadline.

The wages of sin are death, but by the time taxes are taken out, it’s just sort of a tired feeling.
–Paula Poundstone

I organized my paperwork into PDFs on a USB flash drive and got them printed at the mall over lunch (I had not yet acquired a home printer).  I parked near the SARS office and walked toward it.  Yes, the line was substantial, stretching perhaps 40 meters outside the building.  Some employees from Nedbank were trying to convince people in line that they should establish accounts (millions of people in South Africa do not make any use of formal banking).  After around 45 minutes outside, I was allowed into the building to sit in a large holding area.  As a tranche of people were allowed out of the holding area, the attendants maneuvered the next section of people into position.  After another 45 minutes, I was upstairs in a smaller holding area.  After 25 minutes sitting up there, my number was called, and I was talking to SARS!

My conversation with the SARS employee was understandably pretty brief.  She asked for the documents, and I handed them across.  She photocopied them and then stamped my original cover sheet (South African bureaucracy is a big believer in the ink stamp).  I had brought my passport in order to verify my dates of entry to the country, but I forgot to bring it out for photocopying.  Once I had my papers back, I was free to return to my car.  To have spent only two hours at the office so close to the deadline was very encouraging.  Many people have commented that SARS is one of the most efficient of government services.

“The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes– naturally, no one wants to live any other way.”
–Judith Martin

With that, I was done with the tax process.  I received my next message from SARS on December 5th.  The letter notified me that SARS had required some adjustments to my return because of the documents I had submitted for their consideration.  Instead of a very big return, I was getting a pretty big return (diminished about a sixth).  The requirement that I show my passport had vanished, happily.  The complex part was that they had registered the change as a payment I needed to make to them in order to receive the larger payment corresponding to my unamended return.  I was busy at work and so I could not act immediately.  Happily, though, SARS realized that they could simply deposit less rather than having me pay them more first.  During the week, the tax refund arrived in my bank account.  I am all clear for taxes in 2016!

The really interesting part will come next year, when I must learn how to file taxes for calendar year 2016 with the United States.  All of that income will be for a year in which I was out of the country.  At that point, the tax treaty between South Africa and the United States will come into effect.  As I understand it, the United States will not tax me further on my salary so long as I have already paid at least as much tax to the government of the country where I live.  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!