South African Power Trip

Soweto, South Africa

“Some cities were founded on a river, some around a church,” says our tour guide, Pumla, as our bus leaves Johannesburg, South Africa, heading toward Soweto, the sprawling shantytown where she lives. “Johannesburg was founded on greed.”

In our three days together on and off the bus, it’s the only time bitterness creeps into her voice, and even now, Pumla says it far more mildly than I would have expected, given this country’s history of brutal White supremacy that ended just 17 years ago.

I’m traveling with a group of two dozen American secondary school teachers, on the Toyota International Teacher Program. The auto maker has been funding these trips for thirteen years, always with an environmental theme. This is the first time the destination has been on the African continent. While environmental issues can rarely be understood taken out of their social and political context, that’s particularly true in the case of South Africa. The first two days (out of 17) are devoted entirely to the history of Black struggle against White domination and exploitation.

Johannesburg was a gold rush city, born in the 1800s. To ensure cheap labor, the British rulers of the time imposed a general tax, while prohibiting blacks from owning land sufficient to pay the tax. The only work available was in the mines.

Today, Jo’burg, as the city is informally known, is South Africa’s financial and business hub. And, while there is now a Black middle class in the city, most Blacks still live in the nearby township of Soweto.

Soweto has changed since the racist “apartheid” government was ousted and a Black man, Nelson Madela, was elected president. But some changes are agonizingly slow. For example, most residents of Soweto live in poverty and a meaningful education is still out of reach for most of the children here. The official unemployment rate is 23 percent – but if you include those involved in the informal economy, that rate goes up to 43 percent.

Social studies teacher Zach Taylor at the Apartheid Museum.

Yesterday, Pumla led us through the Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg, which documents – to devastating effect – the history of struggle against a bureaucratic system of organized oppression. A couple of teachers liken it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and when we gather that evening to talk about the day, the room is filled with sobs.

Today, we visit several historically important sites in Soweto, including the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, named for the 12-year-old boy who was shot to death during a peaceful protest march on June 16, 1976. It was the spark for what became known as the Soweto Uprising. From a window in the museum, two cooling towers from an old coal-fired power plant are visible. They’re located in Soweto, but until recently, the power lines ran just one way – toward Jo’burgh.

We pass close by the towers on the way back to our hotel. The giant brick structures are brightly painted with post-apartheid murals of Black musicians, artist and leaders.

Coal plant cooling towers, Soweto.

“There used to be a saying,” Pumla tells us over the bus’s PA system. “We used to say that the towers bring electricity to Whites and pollution to Blacks.”

And that is one measure of change since the end of apartheid. Today, Soweto receives electricity – just as Jo’burg does. Only residents of Soweto, however, must continue breathing the contaminated air.

[To be continued.]

A GigaPan View of Piestewa Peak

I got up before “the great heat” descended on us this morning and hiked to good spot to hone my GigaPan skills. Gotta learn quickly — the trip to South African is just around the corner. I want to get as many decent GigaPan shots in as I can before embarking on the Kirstenbosch Project.

Piestewa Peak is a special place for me. It’s just a short drive from my house and I’ve hiked to the summit too many times to count over the past decade. Mostly, it’s special because I’ve had the good fortune to get to know the family of the young soldier for whom the peak was named: Lori Ann Piestewa. What started out as an article for Rolling Stone magazine on the first Native American woman to die in combat fighting for the United States (Iraq March 23, 2003), became much more. I drove up to Tuba City to interview Lori’s family. Her mother, Percy, and father Terry lived in Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation at the time. Her Dad is Hopi, her Mom is Mexican American, and the husband of her two (adorable) children, Carla and Brandon, is Navajo.

After the article was finished, we all stayed in touch. Percy and Terry included my family and me in birthday celebrations and I met aunties and uncles, brothers, Lori’s sister, grandparents, cousins. That’s the thing I’ve noticed about a lot of Native peoples — there’s a very thin line between friends and family. Once you’ve become a friend — you suddenly have a new extended family!

I often think about Lori when I hike on Piestewa Peak, especially when standing on the summit. It’s a strange feeling — Lori, the young warrior I wrote about, is one of the few people in her family I’ve never met. And can never meet.

It’s a special place, Piestewa Peak. Enjoy the view. (It’s easier to see it fully over here on the GigaPan site.)

Join the Kirstenbosch Photographic Project

When people go on photo-safaris, it’s usually to capture images of large mammals like lions, giraffes, elephants, and gorillas. I understand the draw: these are magnificent animals. (Full disclosure: I spent three years diving with, photographing, and writing about sea turtles.)

But there’s a whole other kingdom out there that we often overlook: plants. Africa is brimming with an incredible diversity of plant life.


The Cape Floral Kingdom

Nearly half of all plant species found in the southern half of the continent exist on one tiny sliver of land surrounding Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Floral Kingdom is home to an astonishing 6,200 species of plants found nowhere else on earth.

The Six Floral Kingdoms

Located on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is the heart of this unique kingdom. Only indigenous plants are grown here; in fact Kirstenbosch was established in 1913 to preserve the unique species of the Kingdom. Today, Kirstenbosch is recognized as one most the most important botanical gardens is the world.

Few people outside of South Africa have heard of this world-class treasure, and far fewer will ever get the opportunity to visit the garden at the very bottom of the African continent.

A View of the Garden

My plan is to visit Kirstenbosch and document as much of it as I can, allowing people to “visit” the gardens through the images I take, using everything from macro- to GigaPan photography.

I’ll make these images available in several ways. I’ll create a website devoted to the Kirstenbosch Gardens with the bulk of the photographs. The enormous GigaPan photos will be posted to the GigaPan gallery for exploration. I’ll also place them on Google Earth for viewing there.

I’ll print some of the best images and send them to project donors.

I’ll collect the best of the best images into a full-color bound catalog and send them to top donors.

Oh, one more thing: I plan on buying seeds from the Kirstenbosch collection and, if U.S. Customs allows, giving packets to donors so that you can experience a living part of Africa’s garden!

Thanks for reading about my project. If you like the idea, please consider passing the word on, via Facebook, twitter and other social media.

Go to the Kirstenbosch Project Page.