Less than nine hundred miles away from Johannesburg, Cape Town is a whole other world. It reminded me a little of leaving home to go to uni, leaving behind my cosy little life in the troubled, yet familiar, Johannesburg to enter the vibrant, cosmopolitan Cape Town. All of a sudden I was somewhere with an entirely different climate (I was met by thick cloud and heavy showers, two things I hadn't seen since leaving the UK), different languages and races (I was in the land of English and Afrikaans now, and there were white people left right and centre), and just a completely different feel. Hello tourist town!
The natural beauty of Cape Town and the surrounding area is breathtaking. I whiled away the days soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying my new freedoms - wandering around on my own in the day, meeting other young travellers out on their own adventures, and heading out for drinks after dark. I visited Simon's Town to see the cute little penguins, went wine tasting in the Cape Winelands, and visited Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope.
I couldn't visit Cape Town without a trip to Muizenberg, surf capital of South Africa and home to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which offers funded Master's degrees and PhD positions for students from all over Africa who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it. Muizenberg is also home to AIMSSEC, AIMS's Schools Enrichment Centre. It was such an inspiration to see everything that's going on at AIMS and AIMSSEC to try to improve maths education in South Africa.
On my last morning I agreed to go for a run with a friendly Swiss guy I met at the hostel. Not just any run, but a run up Table Mountain. I can honestly say that I have never experienced exercise-related pain like it, although the views were stunning. A quick jog back, brunch and then a mad rush to get showered, packed and off to the airport before heading back home to the UK. Unsurprisingly, landing in Dubai twelve hours later, it was an epic struggle to get my legs to move to transfer onto my plane to London.
The Kruger National Park is one of the biggest game reserves in Africa, and the reason why most tourists end up in Johannesburg - the bottom end of the park is just a five or six hour drive north-east of the city. Before I left the UK I promised my PhD supervisor that I’d visit the park, so it was the first place I headed to after finishing at Wits. Being a total safari amateur, I had no idea what to expect, but it’s kind of simple really. You just drive around and look at the animals.
I’ve always been a first-time-lucky kind of person, and on our first drive we saw a pair of male lions walking up the road towards us. I was actually quite unimpressed with them, until we saw them pounce on a poor warthog about five metres away from our vehicle. I learnt that you don’t mess with lions unless you want to be slowly and painfully crushed to death before having your balls ripped off and being devoured. Poor Pumba.
The rest of the trip was less disturbing. It was worth the early starts and cold mornings to get out into the park, which is beautiful as well as having some crazy animals in it. My favourites had to be the impala because they are so adorable. They are everywhere in the park (being the staple diet of most of the predators) so every drive was a successful drive for me!
The giraffes and elephants are just nuts – who invents such funny animals? And we also saw white rhinos – one of the most endangered species in South Africa due to poaching – and hippos, buffalos, crocodiles, hyenas, zebras, a leopard and various antelopes.
A combination of 5am starts and unlimited free wine at dinner has left me feeling a little worse for wear, but the trip was so much fun, and I am totally dragging my family to KNP if they ever come visit.
“Laying ghosts to rest, unleashing talent, paving new pathways, committing to human rights and striving for academic excellence.”
- The Wits Transformation Experience
Transformation is both a social and a political movement: the process of redressing the inequality and injustice generated by apartheid, and promoting South Africa’s diversity and culture. School and university curricula are being ‘Africanised’, memorials to apartheid leaders are being removed, and organisations are slowly diversifying. At Wits, efforts are being made to increase the number of black South African researchers in departments. While I fully agree with this initiative, I have some concerns about the way in which it is being implemented: by making it increasingly difficult for white and foreign academics to get positions.
To create a strong research group, it is essential to bring together not just the best academics in the field, but also academics with different backgrounds and perspectives. This is one reason why most university departments employ academics of a wide range of nationalities. As academics travel from country to country, they gain new knowledge and skills with each research group they work in, and bring these to whichever department they work in. I worry that restricting the employment of foreign academics will lead to closed and isolated research groups, with very little fluidity and a decreasing amount of international collaboration. The research culture will become stagnant, and the quality of research will drop.
But what concerns me most about this approach – of limiting employment of white or foreign academics – is that it’s not clear where the black South African academics who will be employed instead are going to come from. The problem is more deeply rooted than the fact that whites are often chosen over blacks for academic positions. It is also the case that there aren’t enough black people working their way far enough through the education system to start careers as academics. In order to get more black academics, we need more black PhD students. In order to get more black PhD students we need more black Masters students. In order to get more black Masters students we need more black honours students. And so on. In order to increase the number of black South African academics, it is critical to address the inequalities in education that start long before university.
Joining a new research group in a new department was about the least of my worries when I first moved to Johannesburg, but it actually made one of the biggest differences to my life. While some things remain constant throughout every maths department in the world - numerous coffee breaks and incomprehensible seminars - I've discovered that research cultures can be very very different.
While in the UK the standard academic pathway is PhD -> postdocs -> lectureship, most staff in the School of Mathematics here at Wits are in teaching-only positions, with teaching qualifications rather than a Masters or PhD. This is partly due to fact that maths is compulsory for all science and engineering students, and their courses are all taught by the maths department, so there is a lot of teaching work to be done. The downside is that there isn't a huge number of active researchers in the department. Coupled with the fact that there are next to no full-time PhD students here, and only a couple of postdocs, there isn't the group of young and naively enthusiastic researchers that you'd find at most UK universities. A lot of the things I'm used to - the daily departmental lunch trip, reading and discussion groups, postgraduate seminars, outreach work and regular trips to other universities - just don't happen here.
That said, things are changing. The current head of department, Bruce, is keen to boost the research profile of the department. An (admittedly sporadic) seminar series has been set up, and all staff are expected to attend. Coffee is served every day around 10 in the common room, which gets both teaching-only and researching staff together to discuss both teaching and research. Staff that were formerly teaching-only are encouraged to get into research by starting a part-time Masters, or working towards a PhD by publication, and each staff member is encouraged to spend their travel budget to attend conferences both within South Africa and abroad.
Meira, the professor I'm visiting, is taking a sabbatical this year, so has no teaching responsibilities. This means that we meet very frequently to discuss ideas, which has the obvious pros, but also means that we often spend more time discussing what we need to do than we do doing it. Our little research group also includes Carminda, who began teaching at Wits a while back, and recently completed a Masters under Meira's supervision. We meet formally a couple of times each week, occasionally along with others in the department. We each have our own perspectives on our work - Meira has a background in algebra, while Carminda views things more geometrically - so our discussions can get quite heated (this has led me to realise how useful it is to have to really argue your point, as it forces you to clarify your thoughts.) We have our ups and downs, and we spend a lot of time going round in circles, but that's maths research. Overall we work very well as a group, and it made my day to be offered a postdoc position here starting next summer!
The president of the Wits Student Representative Council, Mcebo Dlamini, made national news recently with his comments that “in every white person there is a bit of Hitler.” Much as I disagree with this statement, it did spark an interesting discussion, and raised, to me, the matter of the lingering perception of white people as being wealthy, racist and enjoying a ‘God-like status’. There is no doubt in my mind that there are wealthy, racist whites in South Africa clinging on to their apartheid delusions. But the assumption that I am one of them offends me. I don’t feel that the colour of my skin sets me on a pedestal above people of other ethnicities. I don’t want preferential treatment or a ‘God-like status’. It is, however, blindingly obvious why this view of whites still exists: Twenty years after the end of apartheid, segregation continues and white privilege prevails.
I am white. I research in a small group of white academics. I go for dinner in restaurants full of white people. I visit white people in the suburbs where they live in compounds full of white people. And then I come home to my neighbourhood, where I am just about the only white person. I shop at a supermarket full of black people. I walk home through the streets surrounded by black people. I hang around in the evenings with my neighbours who are black people. On the face of it, this isn’t necessarily a problem; there is no reason why blacks and whites should have, or want, to mix all the time. But, unfortunately, this segregation is a result of a much deeper and nastier problem.
Inequality between blacks and whites in South Africa remains widespread and extreme. Although less than 10% of South Africa’s population is white, it is these white people who still have ownership over the vast majority of the country’s land and economy. White people are 10 times more likely to have a job than black people, and amongst all those who are working, white people tend to earn over five times more than black people. Access to good healthcare and education is difficult for most black South Africans too. As a result of this, their life expectancy is considerably lower that of whites, not helped by the fact that they are nearly 50 times more likely to be HIV-positive. While nearly 30% of white South Africans have studied in education beyond high school level, 22% of black South Africans have no schooling at all. Quality of living too is much worse for black people, with 20% having no access to running water (compared to only 0.6% for whites), and many having little or no access to electricity. Of course people think of whites as enjoying a God-like status, because, really, they do.
I am a privileged white, but I'm not proud of it. I wear my white skin as a permanent reminder of the shameful part that the British played in the making of modern-day South Africa.
I've been in Johannesburg for six weeks now. People often ask me how I'm finding it here, and I'm never quite sure what to say. This country is both wonderful and horrifying. I've seen the most beautiful sights, and I've seen things that I wish I could forget. At times I've felt like I never want to leave, and at times I've felt like I can't wait to get home. But I'm happy here. I've adjusted to life in South Africa. And here's what it's like.
If chicken’s feet, assorted livers and instant noodles are what you’re after, then my local Pick n Pay has it all. If, however, you want a loaf of brown bread, orange juice, or any kind of vegetable, then you might be stuck. I don’t have anywhere else to shop (except the overpriced hipster Neighbourgoods Saturday market) so I’ve tried to adapt my diet, although I’m still struggling to work out how to make a balanced meal out of what’s sold in the supermarket. Fortunately, the Pick n Pay Liquor next door is better stocked, and you can pick up a bottle of Gordon’s, tonic water and two bottles of acceptable wine for less than a tenner.
Seeing as eating out is so cheap, I sometimes wonder why I bother trying to cook. On campus it’s possible to get a large meal for around R25 – a bit more than a pound – and you can get a three course meal with wine in a good restaurant for a tenner. And the quality beats anything you’d find in the UK for even double the price.
The Johannesburg winter is dry and sunny, while the summer is hotter with afternoon thunderstorms. I still can’t get used to the fact that every day here is cloudless. So far the highs have been between 20 and 25 degrees, so although it’s cool in the shade, it’s hot in the sun. It’s worth putting on Factor 30 if you’re going out for the day (at least if you’re ginger like me). The only downside to the Johannesburg winter is the lack of daylight – it’s dark by 6pm now, and only gets light around 6:30am. The early sunset means that evenings are cooler, and I’m glad I brought a jacket. I tend to take a long lunch break to make the most of the sunshine, and work more in the evening when it’s dark. I’m not sure this working pattern suits me, but I seem to be genetically programmed to head outside at the slightest sign of sunshine, so I’ll have to make do.
The thing that has made me happiest over the last few weeks is finally managing to sort out some kind of exercise routine. A month back I started running with Varsity Kudus, a Wits running club that is also open to alumni and locals (and visitors). Training is Wednesday evenings at 6, and there’s a choice of 5k, 8k or 12k, or sometimes further. I’m determined to finish the 12k before I leave, but it’s tough with the hills and the altitude. There’s definitely a motivation to keep up with the herd – alone in the dark isn’t where you want to be in Joburg. People here are keen on their distance – a lot of people train for the annual 90km Comrades Marathon. I’m not that fit, so the only other training I do is the Saturday 5k Parkrun in Delta Park.
Last week I also got my pool membership sorted. Wits has a gorgeous 8 lane 50m outdoor heated pool on campus. It’s usually virtually empty and I can see why – it’s genuinely the coldest pool I’ve ever swum in. Colder than the North Sea in February. I get headaches and feel sick after swimming, which isn’t great seeing as the only time I can use it is over lunchtime. But it’s worth it to be in the water. Quite a lot of the pool users are students who have come to university and decided to learn to swim, so I’ve also gained an informal role as a swimming coach!
More about this some other day...
Yesterday, the International HIV/AIDS Candlelight Memorial was held on campus. Throughout the day, students and staff members lit candles in memory of loved ones they have lost to the disease, and left messages of support for those living with HIV and AIDS. Additionally, a very moving exhibition was installed, presenting images and stories from two projects led by photographer Gideon Mendel.
South Africa is believed to have more people living with HIV than any other country in the world. We’re not living in the Mbeki era any more; most people know of HIV, the dangers it poses, and how transmission can be prevented, and treatment is available for free now to most South African citizens. It is the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS that makes the disease so deadly and freely transmitted. A HIV-positive diagnosis for many means being forced out of their community, out of their job and out of society. People will die rather than get treatment, or get diagnosed, or even admit even to themselves that they have a problem. And, meanwhile, they pass on the virus to their partners and their children. To halt the spread of HIV, it is this stigma that needs to be addressed, and projects like Mendel's aim to do so.
THE HARSH DIVIDE
The 2003 project ‘The Harsh Divide’ aimed to explore the fault line between those with access to antiretroviral drugs – those able to regain their health and live relatively normal lives – and those without – those condemned to death. This was a time during which AIDS denialism was still a problem within the government, and HIV-positive people and their supporters took to the streets to campaign against the unfair access to antiretroviral drugs. The photos exhibited at Wits were taken in the Braamfontein office of the Treatment Access Campaign, and show protestors along with their chosen messages.
Mendel also directed a series of four short films exploring and contrasting the lives of those living with and without treatment.
“If I had money, I would buy life. Because, seemingly, nowadays life is for sale to those who have money.”
Thankfully, free treatment is available to most HIV-positive South Africans these days.
THROUGH POSITIVE EYES
The 2010 ‘Through Positive Eyes’ Johannesburg project gave 17 HIV-positive South Africans the chance to tell their stories through text and photography. These stories are at once both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Stories of rape and violence, of fear and sickness, and of exclusion and marginalisation, yet also stories of love and hope. These men and woman show a courage and strength that I could only dream of. The images below are photographs of some of the stories featured in the exhibition at Wits.
The Through Positive Eyes Johannesburg project is part of a larger Through Positive Eyes project affording HIV-positive people from all over the world the chance to tell their stories.
It takes exceptional courage and strength to stand up and say “I’m positive” in this country, and this is why I have so much respect for the people who have participated in Mendel's projects. People like these, and the projects that they take part in, are powerful tools for combatting the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS, and give hope that this huge barrier may one day be broken down.
I'm back in Johannesburg after 10 days in the states for the IMS XXV "Celebrating 25 years of low-dimensional dynamics at Stony Brook" conference at Stony Brook University, New York. The grim 16 hour flight there was well worth it: The conference covered a large variety of topics, and featured some of the greatest mathematicians of the past century. Aside from the maths, which was phenomenal, here are some of the highlights.
THE WINE RECEPTION
No conference is complete without a wine reception, and this one was particularly fine. The opening of the conference coincided with the official unveiling of a new wall in the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. Not just any wall, this one features some of the most iconic pieces of mathematics from the past 3000 years, from Pythagoras' Theorem to the Navier-Stokes equations and beyond, carved into limestone. We celebrated with bubbly, wine, cheese, fruit and an impressive ice sculpture of an umbilic torus.
THE CONFERENCE DINNER
The conference dinner was held in a country club overlooking the sea near Port Jefferson and consisted of an open bar, the poshest buffet I've ever seen, and a disco. Not many people can say that they have danced with John Milnor, Misha Lyubich, Mitsuhiro Shishikura and John Hubbard. But we have.
The conference also featured an American-style picnic, complete with US flag hats and red party cups, which we travelled to on a school bus. We also spent a bit of time in the hotel pool and soaked up some sunshine on the beach!
Yesterday was Freedom Day, the public holiday commemorating the first democratic elections held in South Africa (on 27th April 1994). I was invited away for the long weekend by Aubrey, one of the lecturers in the Wits maths department, and his partner. We went to stay in Magliesberg, with two of their friends, Carol and Neil, who have a house in Damhoek, a private nature reserve.
Magaliesberg is a mountain range lying about an hour's drive north west of Johannesburg. The region is interesting geologically. Apparently a large chunk of northern South Africa used to be a huge lake, until around two billion years ago when there was a huge volcanic eruption that weighed down one side of the basin, pushing the other side up to form the mountains. There is also evidence of glacial scarring in some of the rivers, which seemed hard to believe in the heat. On top of the hills are remnants of forts from the Anglo Boer War, and the views stretch over 50km to the north west and the south east.
It was great to experience a bit more of South African life. We had a braai (barbecue) for lunch with boerewors, a type of really long South African sausage, and lamb chops. Apparently a lot of South Africans follow a high protein, high fat, low carbs diet. It is supposed to reduce cholesterol, but as soon as I got home I started eating carbs and chocolate and couldn't stop.
One of the highlights was going on game drives and walks. It was incredible to walk so close to the wildlife. We saw giraffes and zebras, as well as various types of antelope, warthogs and cheeky little monkeys. We even saw a huge kudu - the type of antelope on the Wits University crest, and one of the biggest. The whole weekend was incredible - sunshine, fresh air and amazing company. Huge thanks to Aubrey & Co.
Xenophobia seems to be a growing problem in the UK, fuelled, no doubt, by the steady rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP (and not helped by the nasty mouth of Katie Hopkins). But the white British do not have a monopoly on xenophobia.
A series of brutal attacks has taken place in South Africa over the past couple of weeks, targeting mostly, but not exclusively, immigrants from other African countries. Most of these attacks have taken place in the KwaZulu-Natal province, but some here in Johannesburg too. These incidents have involved a large number of people and have so far resulted in at least seven fatalities. The closest of these attacks wasn't far south of my apartment. No one was killed, but bricks were thrown at fleeing shopkeepers whilst their shops were looted, and nearby cars and property were damaged. Although I stayed locked in my apartment, I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the sounds of the attack, the screams of anger and fear and pain.
I’m not South African. I know I don’t know the full story. But here’s what it seems has been going on.
WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?
Although there are some who say that peace was never fully restored after the 2008 spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, most are blaming incitement from the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, who gave a speech in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal a couple of weeks ago in which he apparently described foreigners in the country as ‘lice’, and urged them to pack their bags and leave. This was a cue for several violent attacks on foreign nationals in the province, with many of the attackers operating under the excuse that, in a country where unemployment is at 24%, it’s unfair for foreign nationals to take the jobs that South Africans so desperately need. Despite the Zulu king later claiming that his words were taken out of context, and making a plea for peace, the violence escalated.
WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT IT?
Many South Africans are upset and angered by the violence, which has prompted scores of anti-xenophobia marches, drives and vigils. Over 30,000 people are expected to march through Johannesburg to unite against xenophobia on Thursday. The government, however, seems to be showing little leadership on the matter; they certainly seem to be doing a poor job of holding those in positions of responsibility accountable for their inciting comments. Their response has been slow off the mark, and doesn't extend much past holding foreign nationals in refugee camps - although they have recently deployed troops to certain areas to support local police.
But the local police seem to be doing their best to cover up the problem. During the attacks here, the police released statements claiming that nothing was going on, and that shopkeepers were fleeing the area to avoid raids on illegal goods, despite videos having been uploaded onto YouTube of the violence. Sickeningly, the xenophobic murder of Mozambican Emmanual Sithole in Alexandra, which was documented by photojournalist James Oatway, was explained by the police as “a robbery gone wrong.”
Although fresh reports of xenophobic incidents are still appearing, things seem to have settled lately. I am praying that this is the end of the attacks, and that those living in South Africa, the majority of whom are incredibly kind and generous people, can live in peace.