Out of South Africa, reminiscing the indelible Eden

By Joel Lee

South Africa is a “rainbow nation,” where diverse people, cultures, languages and religions exist in harmony. It is also a land of magnificent wildlife, landscapes and vegetation, also a hotbed of thriving urban culture, music, festivity, food and wine.

  • Published : May 25, 2018 - 19:49
  • Updated : May 29, 2018 - 22:41

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Promenading on a pier in front of Port Elizabeth at sunset, Michael Makeleni ran into friends of all sorts, young, old, white, black and Asian, who hugged him and exchanged pleasantries.

It struck me, a reporter from South Korea, how serendipitous, frequent and unassuming the encounters were.

“Thank you for giving us hope, respect and love,” said the 50-year-old Xhosa man, as the sunlight cast its golden glow over the beach and the city.

“People like me have been given so much help from international tourists like you. Through them, I learn about the outside world, exchange knowledge, receive money to support my family, and am given opportunities to explore my own country.”

People enjoy the sunset at a pier in front of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
Port Elizabeth, South Africa, at sunset (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Makeleni, exuding a warm smile and speaking in Xhosa-accented English, stressed, “It was thanks to people like you from abroad, who helped us fight against the apartheid system and make this country free for everyone, as Nelson Mandela dreamed of.”

I was on a familiarization tour of South Africa in early May with a group of South Korean journalists and tourism agency representatives, supported by South Africa’s Department of Tourism. We participated in African Travel Indaba 2018 in Durban, the continent’s largest travel trade show.

International tourists invest in South Africa and reach out to people in need, the tour guide noted, adding they often do volunteer work on top of giving a boost to the economy.

“It’s not just about the money, but the hope, love and respect you give us, which are reinvested in our poor townships,” he said. “We appreciate your presence. It makes a big difference in our lives.”

He urged me to “tell other people about us, so that they can come to South Africa and enjoy and see what they have contributed to make today’s South Africa.” 

Michael Makeleni, a tour guide in Port Elizabeth, is of the Xhosa tribe. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
A couple takes in the view overlooking the port of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
Locals enjoy the shade under a tree in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

As I scampered across the vast country for over a little less than two weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to find my expectations about the country surpassed time and time again.

We visited Amakhala Game Reserve, with its safari boasting malaria-free wildlife and dedication to its conservation, only an hour drive from Port Elizabeth.

The Eastern Cape safari offers game drives, bush walks, birding and river cruises crossing into habitats of many animals including the “Big Five” -- lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo -- as well as cheetahs, giraffes, zebras and antelopes. 

It also provides superb accommodation, relaxation and hospitality from its chic yet earthly lodges and country estates. One of them is the Amakhala Safari Lodge operated by the descendants of original settlers, where you can see animals up close from your suite or swimming pool.

“While the Asian water buffalos have been domesticated for thousands of years, the African Cape buffalos couldn’t be tamed for their wild nature,” said field guide ranger Martin Bronkhorst atop a safari Jeep, when we chanced upon a horde of Cape buffalos.

“They form a herd of up to 2,000 to protect one another from lion attacks. Lions risk their lives attacking one, each weighing up to 800 kilograms, compared to a 500-kilogram cow.”

Our team saw most of the Big Five animals on two game drives at evening and early morning. 
An elephant grazes at the Amakhala Game Reserve in Eastern Cape. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
A horde of African Cape buffalos at the Amakhala Game Reserve in Eastern Cape. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
The Amakhala Safari Lodge in Eastern Cape (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Sauntering throughout Port Elizabeth was a manifold experience, with the former colonial city exhibiting a myriad of imperial hallmarks, modern attractions and exotic countenances.

The second oldest city in South Africa, Port Elizabeth was first colonized in the early 1800’s as a port on the Dutch East India Company trade route. Its geostrategic importance grew as a base for British colonists and troops, whose commercial footprints are now ingrained in the city’s colonial edifices, most of them juxtaposed within the central Market Square. The square brings together elements of Victorian architecture and colorful African tapestry, a stone’s throw from the tranquil, picturesque sea.

A visit to a township -- a ramshackle residential area borne out of apartheid and home to nonwhites, and where large numbers of black people still live -- revealed a parallel universe inside Port Elizabeth.

“During the apartheid, black people couldn’t purchase homes, because they didn’t have money,” explained Makeleni while driving through a township that had been his hometown since childhood.

“Following the end of apartheid, young married couples who used to live under the same roofs with their parents came out and nested new homes inside townships. That’s why the townships nowadays are so full, while lacking a water supply, sewage and drainage, and electricity.” 

Port Elizabeth Market Square (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
A signpost in Port Elizabeth’s Market Square shows remarks by the late Nelson Mandela, who visited the city. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

As our van carefully drove from one narrow, unpaved street to another, all littered with rubbish heaps and pockmarked with putrid potholes, Makeleni explicated the social and economic disparities within townships that separated the relative haves from the have-nots.

While the poorest of the poor dwelled in decrepit huts barely standing above the ground, those better off took significant care of maintaining and upgrading their homes, installing new windows and rooftops and even cultivating front door gardens, often using bank loans.

The highlight of our tour was a stop at a tavern inside the township, called a “shebeen.” Roused by the pumping beat of classic rhythm and blues, a group of inebriated men, some appearing to be alcoholics, accosted us with curiosity. They tried to engage us, shaking our hands and offering beer. Although I didn’t have the guts to jump in the drunken coterie, some of my courageous colleagues did.

The shebeen was originally an illicit bar or club where alcoholic beverages were sold without a license. South Africa’s shebeens are now legal and mostly located in townships. During the apartheid, they served as dens for the brewing discussions and dissent against the racist system that kept a stranglehold over blacks until the nation’s first democratic elections in 1994. 

Children play in front of a decrepit house in a Port Elizabeth township. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
A resident of a Port Elizabeth township and Korean tourism magazine journalist talk over beer at a shebeen. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Shebeens, where people still haunt in search of a sense of community, identity and belonging, are reportedly bouncing back, as South Africans try to preserve their cultural heritage in a rapidly globalizing world. 

“Today in South Africa, we have lots of political challenges,” Makeleni said in an interview. “Out of our 57 million people, 14 million are unemployed. Our children are not getting proper education, which is absolutely necessary for their careers. Many people also have HIV/AIDS.”

Black people fought together to upend the apartheid regime, but the freedom and democracy embodied and instituted by Mandela and other democrats did not tangibly translate into economic equality, he argued.

“We cannot wait another 50 years for better education, wages and health care. We need a solution that would bring all South Africans together, to give equal opportunities for all,” he stressed. “We can no longer blame apartheid or white people. It is upon us right now.”

The sea off the coast of Port Elizabeth (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
A bottlenose dolphin swims off the coast of Port Elizabeth. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Leaving Port Elizabeth, we headed to Cape Town, a picture-postcard cosmopolitan haven facing the South Atlantic Ocean. We drove along the coast of Cape Peninsula, passing through grasslands grazed by horses and sheep, coastal towns splashed by waves and shrouded in oceanic mists, as well as rustic wineries ensconced between sun-drenched hillsides.

We stopped by the Cape of Good Hope -- a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast at the south-westernmost tip of Africa -- and the nearby Old Cape Point Lighthouse, located on a cliff edge overlooking the blue-rimmed ocean. There, distant mountains on the horizon formed graded silhouettes.

Riding a cable car, which took passengers up on a 765-meter hair-raising trip to the plateau at 1067 meters above the sea, we finally reached the top of the Table Mountain that towered above Cape Town. The sky, the sea and the land, all seamlessly, entered into view.

“Did you enjoy the view?” one Korean tourism agent asked me.

“It was the most beautiful scene of my life,” I answered without hesitation.

He added, “I heard that people wanting or awaiting death come to the Table Mountain as a bucket list destination, but after witnessing nature’s grandeur, they want to live again.”

By Joel Lee, Korea Herald Correspondent ( 

A view of the ocean and beach from the Cape of Good Hope’s Old Lighthouse (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
The Cape of Good Hope’s Old Lighthouse (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
A group of students from Denmark pose for a photo at the Cape of Good Hope’s Old Lighthouse (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
The harbor front at Cape Town (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
The harbor front at Cape Town (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
From the Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
From the Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
From the Table Mountain overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
From the Table Mountain overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)