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South African Memories

December 14, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Several years ago I visited Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was a long, long flight: first a hop from Tokyo to Hong Kong, a short lay-over, then a long one on Cathay Pacific across Southeast Asia, over the Indian Ocean under the tip of the Indian peninsula, then flying over dhows sailing the Arabian Sea, and southwards to the officially-named Republic of South Africa, the southern tip of the vast African continent.

I arrived in late June, which meant the season was early winter, and people wore sweaters and jackets. While I was indeed in Africa, I was not in a hot bungalow next to lions and giraffes (as many assume, given all those old Tarzan movies and “Mutual of Omaha” African safari documentaries of a few decades ago), but in a cool temperate climate in the middle of a sprawling city. I even recalled rolling green hills during the taxi ride from the airport reminiscent of Fairfield and Vacaville in northern California.*

I stayed in a nice hotel in the Sandton Mall, now a very exclusive part of Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa. Jo’berg, as the city’s residents refer to the vibrant metropolis, is the size of Honolulu in population, and is not the capital – that distinction belongs to Pretoria, a slightly smaller urban center, also in the same Gauteng province, the wealthiest region in all of Africa.

In a corner of up-scale Sandton Mall filled with jewelry shops, mobile phone stores and restaurants stands a huge statue of Nelson Mandela, who passed away recently aged 95. He spent 27 years of his life in prison, much in solitary confinement. To give just a small insight of the legacy he leaves behind as a revolutionary leader, then President, and then global statesman, below is a list of his awards.

South Africa has had much pain in its history, and there are still extreme statistics in poverty, education, violent crime, and HIV/AIDS. On my ride from the airport we casually passed a man lying next to the road with a bloody shirt, surrounded by two nonchalant police officers; on my visit to a PR agency, the office was surrounded by a barb-wire fence and a security guard checked all cars arriving into the parking lot.

It is a country where merely putting a famous individual’s face on a South African currency bill will offend and antagonize some group in South African society, so all the bills I carried in my wallet had pictures of finely-etched animals, including wildebeests and antelopes, all “neutral” images (my late father, who loved African wildlife documentaries would have been happy at the promotion of animals, although for the wrong reasons).

At dusk I walked outside in the brisk air and found myself next to the giant statue of Nelson Mandela. A passerby kindly took my photo (see upper right-side of blog). Upon peering at the photo again, I can discern the long winter shadows and a man sitting engrossed in a newspaper. The surroundings could be in London or New York or even San Diego.

I recall a few memories of my South African business trip:

When I booked a car for a business meeting, a concierge asked me for my name. I said my name and then he repeated it perfectly.

I was startled, as very few people (almost none) could pronounce my name outside of Japan (and even in Japan, it is a rare name, and I have to repeat myself at least twice, sometimes three times to get my name across). I immediately asked how he pronounced my name so well, so quickly.

He looked at me and smiled. He said that in his native isiXhosa language (Xhosa is the tribal name, “isi” added as a prefix means the “language of the Xhosa people” similar to the term ‘olelo Hawai‘i) the “Tsu” sound, alien to Indo-European languages, was actually prevalent, and why was “chi” and “yama” so difficult?

I was delighted. I had found a home. From then on, I would tell South Africans my name and would be clapping away when they got it immediately – a kind of child-like game, but given years of tortured pronunciation of my name by so many people, it was a wonderful experience.

I also learned some isiXhosa and isiZulu, like “Molo? Unjani?” (Hello? How are you?), and was an immediate big hit among the hotel staff, who would almost collapse in delight and thankfulness that somebody would take the time to learn some phrase in Bantu (the local linguistic family group in South Africa). (Who knows, the concierge may have spoken about me and my curious name to his family during Sunday dinner at their home in a Johannesburg suburb.)

The late Nelson Mandela was an isiXhosa speaker (there are eleven official languages in South Africa) and with a surge of immigration from India, Pakistan, and surrounding African states (Botswana and Mozambique harbored African National Congress exiles for decades), there are even more languages added to the crowded South African linguistic mix, including Arabic (Lebanon, Egypt), Hebrew (Israel), Hausa and Igbo (Nigeria), Swahili (Kenya and Tanzania), Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi (India), Portuguese (Mozambique), French (the Congo and African Francophone states), and even Mandarin Chinese (Mainland China). Yes, there are a couple of Chinatowns in Jo’burg, and many Chinese immigrants lead start-ups, restaurants, all kinds of ventures.

In twenty years, Jo’burg will transform into a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic community with some business and community leaders who look Asian and speak Mandarin, isiXhosa plus English and Afrikaans. The city will still be in southern Africa, though, but by then few would find such a multi-ethnic society so unusual, even in Africa.


See my older Blog: China Turns Its Focus to Africa

*The resemblance to northern California also translates to great wines. The Jo’berg airport has a huge South African wine selection and some reds are exceptional in tasting, and also not over-priced.

**South Africa has a "pidgin" English dialect that Hawai'i residents would comprehend instantly.

Nelson Mandela’s Awards: Nobel Peace Prize, Bharat Ratna, Time's Person of the Year, Sakharov Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal, Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Gandhi Peace Prize, Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, Lenin Peace Prize, Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, Nishan-e-Pakistan, Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, Ambassador of Conscience Award, International Simón Bolívar Prize, United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, Order of the Nile, World Citizenship Award, U Thant Peace Award, Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize, Isitwalandwe Medal, Indira Gandhi Award for International Justice and Harmony, Freedom of the City of Aberdeen, Bruno Kreisky Award, UNESCO Peace Prize, Carter–Menil Human Rights Prize, Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, Giuseppe Motta Medal, Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, W E B DuBois International Medal, Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, Harvard Business School Statesman of the Year Award.


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Nelson Mandela Statue