Tag Archives: South Africa

The trail of three dreamers: the Inanda Heritage Route

August 7, 2017

Why would Nelson Mandela cast his first vote in an Indian township in the homelands of the Zulu when he came from the Xhosa people?  Today’s adventure in Durban took me some distance from the standard tourist fare. Instead, I was able to learn a little bit about the lives of three men who began bending the arc of South African history toward justice: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Isaiah Shembe, and John L. Dube.

My destination was the Inanda Heritage Route.  From the information I could find online, it was apparent that I would be heading well off the beaten path for this adventure.  I was able to navigate the construction site at the entrance from the M41 to the N2.  The red earth of Durban was very apparent!  I traveled south to the R102 and headed away from downtown; very shortly I was on the M25, traveling into townships and industrial areas.  The M25 was tarred, which gave me some confidence.  I grinned when I passed a garbage dumpster that was literally on fire; I hear the phrase “dumpster fire” frequently in relation to the news, and here was the real deal!  Every kilometer or so I saw a series of blue and white flags celebrating the people whose former homes I would visit today.  Soon I turned onto a small dirt road, flanked by shacks, that led up a short hill to my first site for the day.  An attendant waved me into the parking lot for Phoenix Settlement.

Mohandas K. Gandhi

While people associate Gandhi with India casting off English rule, few realize that the first two decades of his career in social justice took place in South Africa. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893, he was really struggling to get his law career into motion. After he was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg for trying to use his first-class train ticket, his consciousness that racial discrimination must be countered began to grow. He read Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau avidly.

IMG_9907In 1904, Gandhi decided to create the Phoenix Settlement on 100 acres of land to the northwest of Durban. He named his house “Sarvodaya,” meaning “progress of all.” Life for the community that grew there was very spartan; Gandhi held that human work should always target needs rather than desires (a theme John Ruskin popularized in Unto This Last). He began to spin his own thread to weave homespun clothing.

IMG_9919His wife and children moved to join him, as did activists from throughout South Africa. Gandhi began a newspaper, entitled the Indian Opinion, and published it from the Phoenix Settlement. He continued to live in South Africa until 1914.

In the closing days of the Apartheid government, different ethnic groups were deliberately played against each other. During 1985, the Inanda area, adjoining the Phoenix Settlement, erupted in riots. Much of the Phoenix Settlement, including Sarvodaya, was burned to the ground. After 1994, however, the democratic government recreated the main buildings of Phoenix from historic photographs. Today, the former printing press serves as a computer skills training laboratory for the surrounding community under the Gandhi Development Trust, charging only R20 ZAR (less than $2 USD) for ten hours of training in Microsoft Word!

I enjoyed my time at Phoenix.  The site acts as a guidepost to other historical sites linked to the Inanda community, with a museum featuring information about all three people I highlight in this post.  I had the place to myself for a bit, but then two busloads of students from New Hampshire arrived at the site.  They had come to Durban on a church mission trip.

Isaiah M. Shembe

Born in the 1870s to a Zulu family, Isaiah Shembe experienced a powerful vision while a young man, and he became part of the Wesleyan Church and then the Baptist Church. He became an evangelist, and his interaction with Nkabinde, a formerly Lutheran prophet, led him to create a healing ministry in 1910. Just a year later, he created the iBandla amaNazaretha (Nazareth Baptist Church), and he transformed a farm within walking distance of Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement into the holy city of Ekuphakameni.


The replica staff was not bolted down. I am a rebel.

Shembe’s church has continued to grow in membership since his death in 1935, now incorporating millions of followers. Much of its appeal comes from his syncretic abilities, transforming the Zulu art of praise poetry into a powerful set of hymns. His hymnal, primarily composed between 1910 and 1940, may have been the first book ever published in the Zulu language. Today, one may see the “Nazaretha” described as an “African Initiated Church,” reflecting that its practices were defined by Africans for Africans. In 1976, the church suffered a schism, resulting in a new settlement being created a short drive to the west in Ebuhleni.

I was curious to learn more about the Nazaretha, but their towns were not set up as museums or monuments.  I would have needed to set up prior arrangements with a tour guide to visit those locations.  Instead I followed the buses of students from Gandhi’s site back to the tar road, through a couple of turns, and then hopped off the M25 onto a dirt track.  It jolted upwards to a ridge featuring the Ohlange Library and the Ohlange High School.  We had arrived at the Ohlange Institute!

John L. Dube

Born in 1871 to Christian converts at the Inanda Mission Station, John Dube was destined to become the first president of the African National Congress. As a boy, John Dube got into a fight at school, and American missionary William Wilcox was asked to have a word with him. Their relationship grew over time, and when Wilcox returned to the United States, John Dube came along, becoming a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. His collaboration with Wilcox continued, though, and Dube began raising funds for a school in South Africa by giving talks on a tour through several states, and he authored a book on the challenges of being caught between the traditional values of his home and the structures of the Western world. He alternated between South Africa and the United States between 1892 and 1900, gaining an ordination as priest by the Congregational Church and forming a relationship with Booker T. Washington, who impressed upon Dube the importance of career training for empowering young people with self-reliance.


This, the oldest extant building of the Ohlange Institute, is barely mentioned on-site.

John Dube began making his mark on South Africa in 1900, when he founded the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute, renamed a year later to the Ohlange Institute. His chosen site was, again, within walking distance of the Phoenix Settlement and of the Shembe town of Ekuphakameni. It ranked as the first educational institution with a black director in South Africa. Its initial enrollment of 63 students soon bloomed to more than 100; by 1917, women were also allowed to enroll. In 1903, Dube created a Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal (the Natal Sun). His message of “Honour the man who works” and scornful “demise of the idler” began reaching a wider community. The school’s finances had become threatened enough by 1924 that Dube allowed the school to become part of the “Department of Native Education” (note that while the Nationalists did not bring “Apartheid” to the government until 1948, the earlier government under Smuts had plenty of racial limits in place).

Dube’s enduring relationship with the American religious community put him in a difficult position. He was committed to non-violence, and the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion put him on the opposite side of the Zulu chiefs. Nonetheless, his prominence in fostering the growth of the Zulu community positioned him well for the 1912 convocation of educated South African elites to establish the South African Native National Congress, renamed in 1923 to become the African National Congress.

IMG_9955When Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in 1994 at the John L. Dube building of the Ohlange Institute, he walked to the memorial monument at Dube’s grave and said, “I have come to report, Mr. President, that South Africa is now free.” He explained his decision to come to this site with these words:

I voted at Ohlange High School in Inanda, a green and hilly township just north of Durban, for it was there that John Dube, the first president of the ANC, was buried… When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day, the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now finally succeeding… I did not go into that voting station alone on 27th April; I was casting my vote with all of them.

During my time at the Ohlange Institute, the students of the high school on the site showed a lot of curiosity about their visitors.  One boy asked to have his picture taken with me.  A group of girls were giggling behind me, and when I turned around to say hello, one said, “you are handsome!”  We all laughed.

Mzinyathi Falls

With these three giants in my mind, I was ready for a moment apart from the world. I should be clear that the two sites I had visited (Phoenix Settlement and Ohlange Institute) were quite close to the M25 highway that burrows into the heart of this principally Indian township. Both sites had security gates and personnel guarding entry, and I could walk around each with a sense of security. The dirt roads connecting the sites to the highway were somewhat worrisome, with shacks or cinderblock houses beside them. My next destination was at least a kilometer off the M25, though, and I was unsure what I would find.


This mix of formal and informal buildings appears just above the falls.

Just navigating to the turnoff for Mzinyathi Falls was a bit shocking. On that route, the M25 juts north from a traffic circle that doubles as a public square / taxi minibus rank, and I missed my turn on the first attempt. I was soon back on course, driving past “tuck shops” built from shipping containers. When I saw the turn for the Falls, my face fell. The route south was just a dirt road of one lane. The Litchi-Car bounced and jostled merrily along, and soon the endless rows of shacks and cinderblock houses gave way to a ravine on the left side. No sign indicated that I had reached the falls, though, and I bounced on another quarter mile before turning around for fear that my car couldn’t navigate back up the slope.

When my eyes landed on the falls, though, I felt it was all worth it. Ironically, they were easier to see on the way back to the highway! I fell into conversation with Nehemiah, a Zambian who had come to South Africa to work in a friend’s shop (it didn’t turn out well). We stood at a half wall on the edge of the ravine, and I shot photos and videos of the cascade.

When one has been in a dry country for a while, the sound of water becomes a little magical, really. It does not surprise me that these falls are considered a holy place for baptisms by the followers of Isaiah Shembe.  I loved the rainbow reflecting off the water vapor at the bottom. Perhaps South Africa has “moved on” from being the Rainbow Nation, but I still take comfort in my belief that the leaders of tomorrow still feel inspired by luminaries like Gandhi, Shembe, and Dube.


On foot in Durban

August 6, 2017

My plan to visit museums today ran afoul of a simple scheduling problem: it’s Sunday. I reassembled my plans last night so that I would spend today visiting the center of Durban, taking in its beaches and historic center. Why not take advantage of the fact that the business commuters are staying away today?

I decided to drive my rental car to Mini Town, which sits at the northern end of Durban’s Golden Mile. I parked near some sports fields in an area used for overflow event parking at the Olive Convention Center. To be able to park in downtown for a full day with no charge was an unexpected bonus! I walked a couple of blocks and found myself right at the entrance to Mini Town.

On the Beach


The electric train has passed the trestle bridge at Mini Town.

I don’t really have much to say about Mini Town as an attraction. I thought that it would contain models of famous buildings throughout the world or even throughout South Africa. Instead, the great majority of its models are small buildings carrying logos and advertisements for local businesses. A few were rather nicer, such as the Durban City Hall and a couple of Muslim shrines. If you are a fan of model railroads, you might enjoy the site, because it is encircled by a track. At one point, it crosses a bridge over water, and the bridge has a central section that raises in order to allow a tall ship through the channel. With that said, Mini Town was mostly a bust.

I turned my face to the south and began a long trek down the beach. Durban’s beaches are quite lovely. They’re wide and sandy, just like the ones I enjoyed in San Diego, and the water of the Indian Ocean is a lot warmer than what one would experience in Cape Town! The beaches are lined with massive hotels, such as the Southern Sun.


A park sandwiched between the beach and hotel

One of the hotels had constructed a lovely park on the beach, featuring fountains and flowers. It looked like an excellent place for a picnic, but it was still only 10:30 in the morning.

I had not walked very far when I realized that I had made a serious mistake in omitting my hiking hat from my packing list. Even though we are in winter, Durban’s sun was making my head hurt. I pulled off the beach trail and found a flea market full of sales booths. Durban has long been home to a substantial number of people descended from the people of India; they were recruited to South Africa to support the sugar-growing agriculture of the area. Today, Durban has the highest concentration of Indian inhabitants outside India! Surrounded by booths of sellers, I was struck by the change in ethnic makeup. At Parow Centre in Cape Town, I would be surrounded by people from the Cape Coloured population (48.8% of the Western Cape population in the 2011 census), but in Durban, the Indian population is ascendant (7.4% of the KwaZulu-Natal population in the 2011 census).

I found a seller who had some buffalo leather caps for sale. It reminded me of one I’d purchased years ago near London (that I never get to wear in Cape Town’s climate). The listed price wasn’t too bad, just R150 ZAR, but I asked him if there were a Sunday morning discount. He suggested that R130 ZAR would be the Sunday price, and I took it. I think a $10 USD hat that keeps the sunburn away from my scalp is a bargain!

Down the beach I trod, watching people playing on the sand and hawkers trying to draw interest to their wares. A fair number of them were selling Zulu art, either the furry headdress of a warrior or colorful bead-work for earrings or chokers. Of course, one cannot really stop to look, because the moment he or she does, a crowd of salesmen will begin calling! A very persistent leather belt salesmen required direct communication before he went away.


Panorama produced through Microsoft Image Composite Editor

The beach has several piers pointing into deeper water. I walked out to the end of one to watch surfers attempt to ride the waves. On the whole, though, I did not see many people enjoying the waters. I am sure it would be quite different had I been visiting in summer on a school holiday!

uShaka Marine World

As I crossed into the southernmost beaches, the area became less inviting. It was clear that many of the people around me had slept outside last night, and the buildings were not in great repair, either. I kept my head up until I passed that zone.


I believe this is a restaurant!

At last, I found myself in the area of uShaka Marine World, a water park offering the “highest water slide in the Southern Hemisphere” along with Africa’s largest aquarium. I had considered spending some time in there, but I’d left my swimsuit in the car. I still enjoyed the fact that some of their attractions had been built inside a ship hull!


Lentil “Bunny Chow” at Nadia’s Curry Cafe

Instead, I visited its restaurants at Village Walk! Three years ago, researchers from K-RITH (now AHRI) had taken me to the Moyo Restaurant, where I had been wowed by a troupe of traditional dancers. I think that would be the first time I’d seen Zulu warrior dancing. This time, though, I opted for its next door neighbor, Nadia’s Curry Cafe. For my lunch, I ordered a “bunny chow,” that Durban-most of Indian cuisine! The restaurant cut an unsliced loaf of bread in half, and then they made a hollow inside it by pulling out a plug of bread. They poured my lentil curry into the hollow and added a salad on the side. It was delicious!

After lunch, I wandered through the uShaka shopping mall where I had bought my niece and nephews some beaded Christmas ornaments back in 2014. I was happy to see a team from the Department of Science and Technology running a table for National Science Week at the aquarium.


Farewell to the amusement park!

As I left Marine World, I was a bit unsure of my course. I felt that it was important for me to try to see the historic center of the city, but I had already walked some distance that day. Resting my feet over lunch, though, seemed to have restored them. I decided to strike out to the west toward the City Hall.

Don’t look like a tourist on foot in downtown Durban.

I would not recommend the walk to City Hall from the beach for most tourists. My walk North along Mahatma Gandhi showed me many building in poor repair. Several churches along my route were ending Sunday services, and I took a look inside St. Peter’s Catholic Church for a moment. As I continued my walk, I felt pretty out-of-place, and the ever-present taxi shuttle buses didn’t help my mood. I turned left on Margaret Mncadi and saw more of the same disrepair. A tourist map I acquired on the beach showed a “Revolving Restaurant” overlooking the enclosed harbor. I looked up at it from below, and I am not sure I would want to depend on its structural integrity. In any case, it was closed on Sundays. I turned up Samora Machel to reach the City Hall, and I was pleased to see buildings from an earlier era had been preserved properly.


A shady verandah at the Old Court House!

I started on the grounds of the Old Court House Museum (closed on Sunday). The style of the yellow and white building seemed to fit this area like an old shoe. The covered walkway around the building would have been a great relief from the relentless sun.

I was walking toward the city hall itself when a security guard stopped me and said I had to stay outside the parking area since it was closed for Sundays. I crossed the street into the Medwood Gardens and snapped a couple of photos of the massive building, trying to find the right moment to snap the photo so passing cars wouldn’t appear!


Find the right place to photograph the entire massive structure would be a challenge!

I continued to Church street and found another informal market in progress there, but a substantial number of panhandlers were nearby. I pulled my camera from my bag for a moment to capture the Post Office, and immediately people began approaching me for money.

I turned my heel on the area and struck a brisk pace back toward the beach along Dr. AB Xuma. I did see some much newer buildings that were clearly getting much more attention than the run-down district through which I’d approached city hall. The Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre was massive and gleaming! I wondered just when the building would end as I turned the corner to follow Stalwart Simelani North.  Eventually I reached the M4 on foot, and soon I was reunited with the Litchi-car.

I returned to my hotel for a lovely, lingering nap.

From the Beach to Bloem!

August 5, 2017

There are only so many places one can conveniently drive from Cape Town. The drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg, for example, would take thirteen and a half hours, by the book. My desire to see the eastern half of the country motivated me to plan a week-long road trip; I would fly to Durban to kick off the trip and fly home from Bloemfontein at the end!

20170817-Road-MapMy trip plan began in Durban, the third-largest city in South Africa (after Cape Town). I hoped to take in some of its tourist sites as well as learn a bit more about Gandhi‘s life in South Africa. From there I would drive inland to Pietermaritzburg, a smaller city founded by Voortrekkers. The next two stops were considerably less urban! My visits to Monk’s Cowl and Golden Gate Highlands National Park would let me see some of the most glorious mountain scenery in the country. While surrounded by South Africa, I would leave it by visiting the nation of Lesotho while staying in the nation’s capital, Maseru. Finally, I would visit the judicial capital of South Africa, Bloemfontein. I hope that this map makes the plan of this trip easier to follow!

My experiences with South African Airways has mostly been positive, but I decided to return to a non-governmental airline for this trip. I first flew with Mango Airlines in November, 2014, during my initial trip to the country. Coincidentally, my new trip would recapitulate that first flight as I hopped from CPT to King Shaka International in Durban. I flew on a Saturday afternoon, and Natasha was very kind to drive me to the airport through traffic crowded with sports fans on their way to Newlands Stadium.

The flight was quite uneventful. Mango used a Boeing 737-800, the same kind of plane one frequently sees with Southwest Airlines in the United States. The seats were plain, though reasonably comfortable. I believe South African airlines are less prone to packing passengers in like sardines than we frequently see in the States. Only two hours were required to go from coast to coast across South Africa.


The Litchi-Car

Perhaps not many people know this about me, but I enjoy driving quite a bit less than others. I feel okay when I am in my own car, but driving a friend’s car or a rental car is distinctly uncomfortable. For this trip, I had rented a car with Tempest Car Hire, which has an agreement with Mango Airlines. Despite the fact that most of my drive would be uphill, I opted for the least expensive cars they rented. When I arrived at the Tempest office at King Shaka International, however, a problem arose. Their records showed that I would drop the car off at Bloemfontein, so that was fine, but they looked at me quite blankly when I asked them to confirm that I could drive into Lesotho (apparently the border guards check to see if rental cars have written permission for crossing the border). At first, the administrators simply said no, but I asked them to reconsider since my entering Swaziland (another small, landlocked nation in the northeast of South Africa) was perfectly fine with their policies. A telephone call later, the staff handed me my letter within the rental contract. I wandered out to the car to see my chariot for nine days!

I know it’s quite silly, but I tend to give my cars a name. Strawberry, for example, has been a very reliable ride for me since I found her in December of 2015. To stay with the same theme, I decided that the pretty white Kia Picanto from Tempest would be called “Litchi.” Her first gear made me stall out on my first few tries to start from a stop, but soon I felt that I was learning her rhythms. I started my running battle with the car’s turn signals (here called an “indicator”), though; the headlights and indicators are reversed on Litchi versus what I have become accustomed to in Strawberry.

I had a small city map of Durban, but I did not have a map to get me to my hotel, the Road Lodge Umhlanga Ridge. I had some misgivings about staying in Durban proper; it’s a huge city, and it has a bit of a reputation as a rougher place (this may be entirely unfair, since Cape Town is now the ninth most dangerous city in the world by murder rates). As a result, I set up my room in Umhlanga, a northern suburb of Durban that has a growing economy and a legendary beach.

Alone in the dark without a map in a foggy rental car

20170817-Bad-NavigationMy drive to Umhlanga was my worst navigation experience in years. I entered the N2 southbound without a problem, and I made it through the toll plaza without stalling out the engine (the fee was just five and a half Rand, or about $0.41 USD). My attempt to improvise by hopping onto the M4 coastal highway ran into a snag when I got mixed up on the interchange and found myself heading back toward the airport on the N2! I was able to reverse course at the next exit, but the sinking sun cooled everything down, and condensation started to collect inside the windscreen. I dropped a window.

I still had the “M4” in my mind when the exit for the M41 in Umhlanga came up, and I careened southward on the N2, still looking for the right road. There were no nearby exits, though, and soon I was cresting a rise to the north of Durban. A moment of magic happened that jolted me right back into my memories of Durban in 2014; as I continued south down the hill I just mounted, I saw the first valley that is home to Durban. From a dark landscape all around me, I was suddenly surrounded by streetlights in every direction. It’s a very impressive way to first experience the city.

At long last another exit appeared, this time for the KwaMashu highway. I mostly knew the name of this road from Rob Byrne‘s traffic news on SAFM; during rush hour this road is frequently quite busy! I decided to take the exit and head east on the R102 (into Durban North). The road curved to the south, though, and soon I was almost to Durban itself. I took another road east to the coastal highway, and I was soon on the M12, headed north to Umhlanga.

In fact, I reached Umhlanga before I knew it! I drove through the lovely Umhlanga Ridge, a wealthy business district crammed with new buildings, and I turned east on the M41 at a traffic circle, which headed me away from Umhlanga Ridge, right back toward Durban. I had returned to the M4 along the coast before I was able to exit and beg a security guard for help. I was, by that time, very close, and Google Maps on my Android phone was able to get me the last mile. In the future, I will try to spend more time with that option first. (I’ve had no Internet at home for the last two days before my trip. Thanks, Telkom!)

At any rate, I was able to reach my hotel before seven P.M. I had to take a couple of tries at parking near it. My hotel is jammed between a NetCare hospital and the massive Gateway Theatre of Shopping. I was arriving just in time for dinner on Saturday night, and the roads were as crowded as you might expect. After looping through the hospital and mall areas a few times, I was able to maneuver into the mall parking lot, and a few minutes of stalking exiting shoppers finally acquired a “rock star” parking spot, just thirty feet from the hotel door.

I was at my “home” for the next three nights! After checking into my room, I trudged over to the mall to enjoy some pesto fettuccine for dinner. The evening would be a good one, despite my having driven roughly five times as far as necessary to get to my hotel!

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!