TRAVEL DIARY: I Once Had a Trip to Africa

Posted on May 28, 2012 by


Nov 8 – Dec 2 2003

Map of South Africa

Since I was a small boy I have always wanted to see ‘black’ Africa. My interest stemmed from an atlas we still have with a photograph of a beautiful Masi woman and a Zulu warrior. Later I saw the film Shakker Zulu and started to read some of the history of that nation to do with the wars against the British. Then came the film, ‘Out of Africa’ and the story ‘South of the Limpopo’ by Dervla Murphy. A long-time friend (Garry) knew of my interest and offered to take me to South Africa where he was working on a Poverty Alleviation project in the Limpopo Province.

Arriving There

It started with a thirteen-hour flight from Sydney to Johannesburg where we were picked up by a project vehicle and taken north to Petersburg. I was astonished to find the highway and the highway service stops were better than those in Australia; albeit that the road tolls amounted to around $20 for a 150 odd km trip. Our lodge, beautifully appointed and very well managed by obliging host and owner Klaus, was to be our main base for most of the stay. I also had a good look around Petersburg (once regarded as one of the most red-necked right-wing cities in SA) with our host Klaus, a little alarmed at the electrified fences, razor wire, guard dogs and security notices indicating an armed response by security firms to any intrusion onto properties. I also visited the celebrated Petersburg Club and some top restaurants.

In chatting with Klaus some unusual attitudes to black people emerged. Klaus insists that black people cannot appreciate the concept of straight, have poor three-dimensional vision as they are always carried on the backs of their mothers and they cannot translate directly from their local languages to English. I had some fun teaching Klaus to water divine as, after being a real sceptic, he found he could do it himself. He was even more pleased when his Black gardener couldn’t do it.

There were some interesting people who stayed at the lodge, one a woman who had been farming in Zimbabwe all her life but had the farm taken from her by the Mugabe Government She was returning to Zimbabwe to provide money for her loyal long time black farmhands; they were starving being without pay from work on the farm. However her first job was to immediately pay her annual taxes so that she would not be arrested during her visit.

The Project

When Mandela came to power in 1994 a lot of countries promised assistance for poverty alleviation and development projects. One such country was Japan and through JIDA, a Japanese group of private consultants (plus Garry) was engaged to carry out a $6 million project entitled “Integrated Holistic Rural Development and Soil Conservation Programme in the Limpopo Province (one of seven such provinces in SA) in the Northeast of SA and is located on the Tropic of Capricorn. Garry is a livestock specialist interested in demonstrating the advantages of beef husbandry rather than having cattle roam the countryside.

I spent the first few days relaxing at the lodge reading their preliminary reports and attending project meetings to get an understanding of the soils, climate, vegetation, agricultural and industrial pursuits and the socio-economic aspects prevailing in SA. I also met many of their counterparts, Brazani (a Zulu),  Gerrit (an Afrikaner) and Shadrick (a Sotho), who contributed their different perspectives to the information I gained.


On the fourth day after our arrival I was driven to the project site during which I experienced the worst displays of driving behaviour that I have ever seen in any country I have visited so far. This explained the project rules that all staff must carry a mobile phone, any staff travelling during the day had to ring a nominated safety officer at 4pm and no one was to be on the road after 6pm.

I later learnt that in this country with approximately twice (41 million) our population the annual road toll is between 15000 and 20000 annually with 1200 to 1500 people killed each Xmas and Easter holiday period. Vehicles travel at speeds up to 200km/hr (legal limit 120km/hr), are frequently unlicensed/unroadworthy and driven by drunk drivers. Africans also often use roads as footpaths and their dark skins and clothing combined with poor night lighting add significantly to the appalling accident statistics. The problem is compounded by the lack of traffic police available, but I was assured that increased numbers would make no difference as they are all corrupt. I had heard a lot of negative comment about SA police and after a minor car accident involving a bellicose Afrikaner, I decided to visit a police station; the officer could not have been more helpful and obliging.

Race Relations

White attitudes to the current situation vary considerably – with most educated people either working hard to affect the ‘transition’ to the new order or taking the decision to leave their country for reasons I will outline later. At the Poor White end of the scale, racism is expressed in the most bitter phrases eg ‘black ants crawling all over the country’, ’oxygen stealers’, ‘AIDS will square things up’, etc. South Africans, rightly, point to so many countries where racial discrimination is alive and well and the phrase I heard several times is “our only mistake was to write it down”.

The other anomaly I observed was the relation between the English speaking people and the Afrikaners, the latter having had the wives and children of their ancestors die in thousands in concentration camps and their properties destroyed by the English in the Boer War.  The impact of these ‘Methods of Barbarism’ in fighting a war is still apparent in the number of Poor Whites existing (but less visible) in the population. I was amazed while watching the world rugby final in a local pub of the unqualified support of Afrikaners for England rather than Australia; so much so I asked the question at some risk to myself. The answer was not centred on our condemnation of Apartheid per se but rather the aspect that we had refused to play sport with them! Another comment was they can’t stand us because we beat them so often in sport – just another sport mad country like Australia where the real issues are glossed over!

Trying to review my thoughts about South Africa I have reread Dervla Murphy’s book and two others ‘Goodbye Dolly Grey’ (The Story of the Boer War) by Rayne Kruger and ‘Methods of Barbarism’, again to do with the Boer war by S. B. Spies. I guess I was trying to come to grips with the existing relationships between Blacks (73%), Coloureds (8.5%), Whites-(Afrikaners/English speaking- 13%) and Indians (2.5%). As Dervla Murphy puts it, there is an astonishing degree of forgiveness by the Blacks for past treatment by the Whites. Maybe this stems from the Zulu tradition regarding battles fought, where if they lost (despite tremendous causalities), no grudge was held?

Socio-economic Issues

A democratic government was elected in 1994 after decades of control by the white minority including the formulation of Apartheid policies after the Second World War. I don’t want to describe the struggle for democracy other than to say it wasn’t a simplistic movement and much of what is described in more populace writing leaves a great deal to be desired. The existing government is the African National Congress led by President Mbeki.

Most people I spoke to suggested that considerable improvements have been made in the last nine years both in the social and economic areas. There is a social wage, child endowment and an old age pension; these payments are distributed at pension points throughout the country. A giant armoured vehicle (Euclid type) carrying millions of rand and accompanied by heavily armed guards pulls up in a village and people line up for their money. At the same time mobile markets are set-up so the people can immediately access their requirements. Despite the armoury involved in the distribution of pensions, these vehicles are subject to vicious attacks usually by being rammed with heavy trucks to overturn them followed by the slaughter of any attendant security guards.

Government expenditure on infrastructure such as housing and water supply has increased dramatically. However, at the behest of the World Bank, the ANC government is pursuing the economic rationalist line via privatisation and raising prices for essential services like water and electricity for the poor at a much higher rate than for the business sector. So much so, that an estimated 10 million people have suffered water cut-offs and electricity disconnections under privatisation because they couldn’t afford the new higher rates. As a result, the country’s cholera epidemic continues with more than 140,000 cases since August 2000 (New Internationalist April 2003). It is difficult to reconcile seeing Black people pushing wheelbarrows full of jerry cans of water (from the river) miles to their homes, past farms with centre pivot irrigators in use.


Unemployment levels range from 40 to 60%, there is no unemployment benefit, and so there is trouble and a very significant amount of armed robbery. Staying at Villa Rostrata in a town called Hazyview I had a personal experience of what the latter felt like. The guesthouse was a beautiful mansion high up in the hills and surrounded by banana plantations. My host, Michelle, was a charming young woman and as we were the only occupants until late at night, we discovered, during a lengthy conversation, that we were like-minded people. Suddenly the dogs began to bark and Michelle became very tense; the situation deteriorated when the guard on the banana plantation fired a number of shots and Michelle activated a panic button. In a few minutes there was an armed response by a Neighbourhood Watch group and the situation returned to normal with the departure of the would-be robbers/assassins.

I later learned that since 1997 some 1600 persons, mostly farmers, had been brutally murdered during armed robberies. An investigation found that the offences were primarily related to the isolation of the properties, which were seen as soft targets by criminals or desperate people. Michelle was, of course, concerned with such violence but even more so, by the effect of positive discrimination (which she agrees with) on opportunities for employment for any children she might have in the future; in light of this she was considering migration.

Michelle was upset the incident had affected my stay and wanted me to remain for another day. She offered me her truck and fishing gear to spend time at a lake on the property about 100 metres away. I declined but wondered why the truck for such a short distance. Oh she said ’we always fish off the back of the truck because if the sinker hits a hippo it will come for you’!

The Zionist Christian Church

I have often wondered what place religion would play in the world scene if all religions had been left to their own devices rather than being interfered with by zealots from other religions who are convinced that their way is the only way. While there would almost certainly have been some problems I doubt that religion would have the image it has today of being the cause of a large part of the world’s problems.

The religions of South Africa can be broadly separated into Christian (Dutch Reform Church, Lutheran, Catholic, Protestant) and the old African beliefs. The latter seem to have been immediately branded by the incoming Europeans as pagan witchcraft and something to be altered as quickly as possible. As a result, a number of local churches have emerged in the Black community, which try to incorporate beliefs from the past with elements of the religions more familiar to us: one of which is the ZCC.

I had noticed many Black people wearing a strip of green material on their lapel with a medal in the form of a Star of David or a dove pinned thereon. I also learned that a considerable part of their worship was carried out in song and dance and I just had to experience that! It turned out to be an unforgettable experience, which moved even an old cynical agnostic like me.

At first I was told that the Black community would not appreciate my white presence at their church service but I thought that I would ask anyway. I asked Martha, a black woman working at the lodge, and she immediately agreed to take me. We were to attend the founding church which is really a mountainside some distance from Petersburg; on feast days some 3 to 4 million people gather at that site from all over southern Africa. However, due to a misunderstanding re times, (not unusual), we went by taxi to a slum church on the edge of the city. That was an experience in itself which, when relayed to some white citizens, was met with expressions of horror. The taxi was a beat-up Hiace, which eventually held somewhere around 15 people on their way to church. The person beside the driver became the fare collector and money passed up and down the bus until all fares were paid and the change returned to the passengers.

Upon our arrival Martha handed me over to an Elder of the church who led me to the entrance of a compound of several acres surrounded by a high tin fence. On entry we were splashed with holy water (taken from a waterfall some distance away) and regarded as powerful because of the energy contained therein. With other elders of the church, we were then seated on a raised platform in a shed, which was situated at one end of the compound. At our feet were rows of children, then rows of older women dressed in yellow and green, then younger women in blue; these were the lead singers for the service. I asked if I could record the singing but was quietly told that my attendance was for my experience only.

The Church Service

At one end of the shed a lectern was set up and a speaker announced the program for the day, which was for three preachers to address the crowd of around two thousand people – all seated on the ground around the shed. Every speaker welcomed the white man from Australia; some expressing the wish that I might take the church back to Australia. When the preaching was in a native language it was interpreted in English, I believe for my benefit.

The messages were simple and repetitive but with a slightly different twist. I later learnt that this form of presentation is, to the African way of thinking, skilled oratory. The messages came mainly from the Tora and Old Testament and could be encapsulated as follows – don’t criticise one another, live in peace, don’t drink alcohol, don’t steal, confess your sins and confess your illnesses. It seemed to me a valuable way of welding disparate tribal groups from rural areas into a community where people could co-exist in a metropolitan setting. Elements of ritual including people leaving by bus to be baptised in a nearby river; timelines for receiving baptism /confirmation; a formal welcoming back of sinners and blessings bestowed by touching parts of the body with a scrap of paper all making the ceremony more formal than just a blast from the pulpit. However, the practice that firstly frightened, confused and then had a profound impact on me, is best described as Confession as practised in the Catholic Church.

During the service, I heard a loud single clap of the hands and looked up to see a middle aged black woman with an anguished look on her face pointing straight at me. My immediate thought was that I had somehow offended her but I could not understand how, as I was just sitting listening to the preacher. The next moment the elder who was looking after me reached over, gently took my hand and led me off the stage through the seated crowd, to a corner of the enclosure and into a small area surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, about a metre high. He indicated that I should kneel down with my hands flat on the ground in front of me; he did likewise until our heads were almost touching. After a short time, the woman I described earlier, came into the enclosure and knelt with her head almost touching ours. Then it started; she was obviously distraught, telling some story in her native tongue, twisting her hands together, picking up and dropping pebbles to the ground and all with the tears streaming down her face. My male companion occasionally murmured a sympathetic note and inclined his head – but mostly we listened in silence. I thought. ‘I am right out of my depth here and should not have imposed myself on these people’. Then it stopped. The woman rose and left and the elder led me back to my seat. I was quite shaken and attempted to inquire of my companion as to the nature of the woman’s problem. All that I could glean with our language difficulty was, “it’s always the same”. Later on, I was to learn what that meant (a fearful prediction from the Sanchoma –the magic person in the village). During the service, the same procedure occurred three times, with two women and a man.

At the conclusion of the service I was surrounded by well-wishers who wanted to know what I thought of the service – to which I truthfully replied, I was moved; not so much by the content, but by the impression that they appeared to get so much from it. One person said to me,” This is our church that our Bishop created for us, we are not Moslems – that is for the Arab people, and our form of worship includes some of the old ways”.


Tina (74yr) was the person I got to know best of the white people in South Africa. She was the mother of Linda (married to Bill) at whose home I stayed for several days on a beautiful property in the hills above Herteresburg. While there, I visited every pub in the district and attended Rotary with Linda. I also saw a unique facility wherein a crèche coexisted in the same complex as an old-age home; the synergism I saw in terms of the benefits to the children and the old people was a pleasure to observe.

Linda and Bill’s property, like many others, is subject to a land claim whereby some Black group can claim to have been forcibly moved off the land under the former White Governments. Where land claims have been proven, the Black Government has, to date, paid fair market price to retrieve the land, unlike the situation in Zimbabwe. The history of the repeated forced movement and swapping of land is a complex story in itself, and I will not dwell on it here.

Tina’s father had been a big game hunter who would pack up the family each year and head into the bush taking a cow for milk, chickens for eggs and then live off wild game. Her father was a friend and guide to John Wayne and provided advice for the production of the film ‘Hitari’. She also met the woman portrayed by Merrill Street in the film ‘Out of Africa’, describing her  behaviour as’ wild’, and her boyfriend as ‘looking nothing like Robert Redford’. From her front veranda, we could almost see the mountain village where Bryce Courtney was born and in which he commenced his story of ‘The Power of One’.

Tina’s family was kicked off their farm in Tanzania and she is in constant fear that the same thing will happen in SA as the Government is running out of money for land buy-back. She, like others, expresses anger with countries such as Australia interfering in SA when our record with the aborigines is far from blameless. Many of her values regarding contemporary issues such as euthanasia, defacto relationships etc seemed so old fashioned to me – but we could still talk and became good friends. In addition, she taught me a valuable lesson about ageing and the need for detailed consideration of retirement plans.

Tina hates the shooting of game and the proliferation of private game parks, where farming used to occur. I was amazed to hear that Americans are still flying out to shoot half-drugged animals and are prepared to pay $US 80,000 to kill an elephant and $US 40,000 for a buffalo. Tina is a friend of Kruger National Park and spent two full days in soaring temperatures to show me practically every animal and bird that could be seen at the northern end of Kruger. As a warning about getting out of the car at any time, Tina said, “Some people don’t see enough animals close up and others too close”. At around that time a lion took a visiting Chinese woman, a leopard killed a guide, and since my return to Australia, a leopard has taken another tourist. According to local wisdom, a lion is a better choice – as a leopard plays with its prey before killing it! I later had the opportunity to visit the southern end of the Park and a fascinating reptile zoo (Swadini Reptile Park). The only other visitor there was an English Vet whose practice is entirely concerned with reptiles and his clients are mainly gangsters (nasties attracted to nasties). Between him and an excellent guide – they completed my education on African wild life.


After a long period of denial, the Government is now mounting a massive advertising program to alert the public to the problem of AIDS. Petersburg is plastered with posters and boxes of condoms are available in the toilets of most offices visited. However, the message may have been delivered too late as the death toll continues to climb.

Speculation is rife as to where this pandemic started but many believe it was in the White population in Johannesburg. Mining companies are blamed for much of the spread in the Black population as their refusal to provide family accommodation has led to an influx of prostitutes and homosexual activity in the mining camps. While the men can be away from their villages for long periods, when deaths occur they are expected to be at the funerals and thus carry the disease to their families in the villages. The funeral has its own attendant problems with the ceremony requiring a BBQ for all in attendance at an average cost of 10000 rand including the slaughter of a bull costing approx 2500 rand. Many people no longer have sufficient money and are burying people all over with the hope they can dig up the bones later when they have sufficient money for a proper burial. As an aside, a complete skeleton seems very important to Black people, as media reports of a police hunt for a crocodile victim only stopped when a missing arm was finally discovered.

Apart from these general comments I then experienced the impact of AIDS up close and personal when I visited Delia’s friend Sister Sally at Tzaneen who showed me the Parish Register which listed an astonishing number of families with no father, mother or older children. Often a family consists of just the grandmother and a few small children. Sally had just returned from a village where the whole population was so affected, and in addition a number of the grandmothers had died. The result was that there was no pension money and after sharing what they had, the people had begun to die of starvation. For 6000 rand, she had arrested that process by providing enough maize for a month, with the local community adding the necessary protein by catching red ants and gathering acacia seeds. She has set up regional ’watch groups’ to keep an eye on these types of situations so that immediate action can be taken to provide assistance and to ensure that relevant government authorities or NGOs follow up these tragedies.

Sally arranged for her secretary to take me to their AIDS hospital at Ofcola. The hospital has accommodation for 20 mothers and children. In the last18 months 8 mothers and 4 children have died. Sisters Pauline (Papua) and Eunice (South African) spend their day caring for the sick and providing these beautiful young children with love and attention knowing full well that the latter will be dead by the age of 11. It really is a pitiful sight and the only medicine available is an Amoxil bacterial suspension; the Government has just started to consider supplying anti viral drugs.

To provide another dimension regarding the impact of AIDS, I learnt of a person working for a funeral director in Tzaneen (probably with a similar population to Shepparton), which is one of three such businesses in the town. The business he works for has 63 hearses and the previous Saturday they conducted 56 funerals.

Driving back from Ofcola to Tzaneen we encountered a severe storm and I was informed we were close to the home of the Rain Queen. This is an actual Royal line kept pure by intermarriage and has protected the local subjects from invasion for decades by the Queen calling down severe storms which drive the enemy away. The Queen has this power as she leads an exemplarily chaste life in virtual solitude. However, the old Queen has recently died and her 21-year-old replacement is a real goer and has shocked her subjects by coming out of seclusion and running off with a married man.


I finished my stay in this beautiful country with its panoramic views of tree-studded plains (particularly the Marula trees), magnificent mountain ranges and fascinating wild life, experiencing a pang of pity for those people who have decided to leave for the sake of their families, and the hope that things will improve for all who remain. So Bono Garry and thanks again.


Frank McClelland has a Masters Degree in Agricultural Science and has worked on rural development projects in Egypt, India, Vietnam, China and South Africa.  During his early career he worked in Victoria’s Wimmera and Mallee regions as a research scientist, an agronomist and as a Regional Director in the former Victorian Department of Agriculture. Frank has training in mediation in public disputes and in crisis management.  In 1986, when the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs created the Office of Rural Affairs, he was appointed as its first Director. In that position he provided advice to Government Ministers with major portfolio responsibilities in ruralVictoria.  He also initiated Community Cabinet Meetings whereby Ministers regularly travelled to rural centres to meet in person with their constituents. A number of programs resulting from that interface have achieved national significance and international recognition. These include the raising of the profile of rural women (Rural Women’s Network), the establishment of the Rural Counselling Service, and Business Advice for Rural Areas.  Frank retired from the public service in 1999 and was awarded a Senior Agribusiness Award from the National Bank and the Centenary Medal from the Federal Government for his work with rural communities. He was awarded the Victorian Public Service Medal in the Australia Day Honours in 2000, for his service to rural communities.  Since then, as well as operating a private consulting business, he has served on a number of Boards, including the Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water Board which has just completed one of the largest pipeline projects in Australia. Frank completed the Australian Institute of Company Directors course in 2003.  He now works privately and recently completed two studies on volunteerism in small rural communities for the State Government.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.