I recently had the opportunity to visit South Africa, which has seen its fair share of challenges over the past few years. Arriving in sunny Cape Town with its beautiful views of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, spectacular Table Mountain and invigorating weather, I found it difficult to become too negative about the country, at least from a traveler’s perspective simply because the people are so friendly and because the integration of so many cultures living and working together make me optimistic.
Cape Town sits at the southern tip of Africa, and is just one corner of a tremendously diverse nation. There are 11 official languages in South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
I had just finished reading Roger Crowley’s “Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire,” which tells the story of the intrepid, ambitious and aggressive Portuguese explorers like Bartolomeu Dias who, after the deaths at sea of many of their compatriots, were finally able to reach and pass around the tip of South Africa in 1487. Portuguese King John II named that tip the Cape of Good Hope (which eventually became Cape Town) because of the fortunes they expected to find ahead in the East Indies.
In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company overtook the Portuguese and established resupply posts for their ships in the Cape area. The Dutch-style homes are testament to how favorable they found the place. Afrikaans is actually a dialect stemming from Dutch settlers, sometimes referred to as “kitchen Dutch.”
By the start of the 1900s, Britain had won full control of the country, and South Africa’s gold and diamonds created many fortunes. Traveling via train from Pretoria to Cape Town, I stopped at the historical De Beers diamond area, where millionaires were created almost overnight in the late 1880s for those lucky few who discovered large diamonds there.
My colleagues and I were able to see the “Big Hole,” an enormous crater in the ground that was dug out over the years by hand. Two brothers (Diederik Arnoldus De Beer and Johannes Nicolaas De Beer) had owned the land and rented out plots where diamond hunters could dig. Eventually, Cecil Rhodes (who became famous for the Rhodes scholarship, among other things) purchased and consolidated all the mines and became one of the world’s richest men.
There are, of course, many books and articles about South Africa’s history and apartheid, a legacy the country still grapples with. The African National Congress (ANC) spearheaded the struggle to end apartheid, and by the 1990s, apartheid laws were abolished and the ANC’s most notable political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was released from jail.
I had the opportunity to meet President F.W. de Klerk around that time and heard him describe the very difficult time he had reconciling his own party to the change.