Experience South Africa Series: What exactly is so amazing about us?

by Marlijn van Berne

Sawubona! Dumela! Hallo! Hello! Molo! Lothjani! Ndaa! Avuxeni! Your roadmap to South Africa and the XIX International AIDS Conference starts now!

AIDS2000

But first, let’s take a step back in time to 2000, when for the first time in the history of International AIDS Conferences, the world’s largest gathering of HIV researchers, community members, activists and people living with HIV was hosted by a country in the global south. It was viewed by many as a ‘monumental’ task, and overshadowed in part by our then President’s expressed doubts that a virus could lead to AIDS. But despite the many obstacles in its path, those contributing, supporting and attending the 13th International AIDS Conference marched to a single-minded drum – “Break the Silence.” “Break the Silence, Break the Silence.” And broken it was. The staggering impact of AIDS2000 was, and remains, undeniable – and for many, including myself, this was the Conference that changed our lives and put a “human face on the epidemic.” The conference became the turning point of making treatment access a reality for many millions of people living with HIV around the world.

AIDS2016

Fast forward to 2016, and the upcoming 21st International AIDS Conference on 18-22 July, which will once again will be hosted in Durban. More than a decade ago, the silence was broken and the drum of life has not stopped beating since. This year’s theme,             “Access Equity Action Now” builds on our many past achievements, without shying away from the harsh reality that many of the obstacles that impeded effective HIV prevention and treatment programs in 2000, still exist today. At a glance, the Conference program promises critical key insights into, among others, the latest global and local research, civil society’s calls to action, treatment, care and service developments, scientific breakthroughs, accountability strategies, a dynamic Youth Programme and so much more. So join us in Durban for a conference that is poised to mark another landmark in the course of HIV and AIDS.

Our country and its people

Although seemingly insignificant on their own, when brought together, the pieces of a puzzle can transform into a perfect picture. Connecting people with places and creating memorable experiences! Nestled on the African continent’s southernmost tip, where the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans meet, you will find South Africa. Here, rich cultural heritage, colourful traditions and natural beauty are interwoven with a modern and more contemporary side of life. Warm weather lasts most of the year, and the sun’s rays can’t wait to engulf you in their arms as adventure beckons around every corner.

Our tale begins some 2 to 3,3, million years ago, following the discovery of some of the world’s oldest hominid fossils at the Cradle of Humankind, close to Pretoria in Gauteng. Our historical journey is indeed pervasive, and traces of our ancestors can be found across the length and breadth of the country; from the aboriginal Khoi and San (Khoi-San) who lived in the region for millennia, to the Bantu who entered Southern Africa some 2000 years ago, followed by Jan van Riebeek in 1652 and the subsequent influx of European settlers.

Today, it is more than 20 years since Nelson Mandela changed the course of history when he led the struggle against apartheid which culminated with the country’s first multi-racial election in 1994. His inspiring legacy is grounded in his absolute belief that despite the often inhuman, divisive, racial oppression and suffering, it was possible to embrace one another and forgive. Often addressed as ‘Tata’ (a Xhosa word that means “father”, and a term of endearment given to him by many South Africans), Nelson Mandela’s enduring lessons and visions of a free, democratic and better life for all South Africans have taken root.

With over 50-million people, our ‘Rainbow Nation’ is home to a lively, multi-hued, and totally unique society, with origins, culture, quirky habits and beliefs as different as they are complimentary. We also boast 11 official languages, Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu, but rest assured that for your visit English will suffice (although attempts at mastering the Xhosa ‘clicks’ will be met with much appreciation and merriment). On that note, if you want to practice your ‘clicking’ abilities beforehand, check out the wonderful Miriam Makeba’s famous ‘The Click Song’ (Qongqothwane) about a beetle and the ‘click’ it makes as it escorts you home!

When I first landed at OR Thambo International Airport – I knew I had ‘arrived!’ People are friendly and genuinely eager to make you feel at home, and my most endearing memory includes LOUD chatter, a fire, stuffed mushrooms, meat and a sad-looking cabbage that turned out to be mouth-wateringly delicious! For should you stay with us for a while, count on being invited to a ‘braai’ (otherwise known as a BBQ) and being served ‘pap, wors and sous’ (spicy meat sausage, mielie porridge and sauce). The ‘braai’ is a truly traditional      past-time, passed down from generation to generation. Some families have even refined and fiercely guard their recipes; without as much as a hint of spice quantities and that special secret ingredient. Suffice it to say, this is a fun and ‘gezellig’ (cosy) activity well worth attendance. In fact, South Africans are so serious about their ‘braaing’ that there is even a yearly braai day that coincides with national heritage day!

Our way of life

From the minute you set foot on our soil, there are so many adventures and experiences to enjoy, it’s hard to know where to start! Try to plan for your stay. Distances here are vast, so you need to give yourself enough time to make the most of your stay.

Most of the year, our country’s warm and tropical climate is conducive to spending much of your time outdoors. Having said this, a significant amount of city shopping is conducted inside cavernous shopping malls. South Africans LOVE to shop, sell, and haggle. Strolling around town is not that common, although smaller high street shops, informal markets and larger flea markets can be found in all major centres. Those who don’t have shops, prefer the hustle and bustle of the street curbside, plying their wares at traffic intersections, minibus taxi ranks, along major thoroughfares, at traffic lights (robots to us South Africans) and on bustling city pavements; selling everything from hair extensions and fruit to carved sculptures and brightly coloured ‘flip flops’ (a light sandal, typically of plastic or rubber, with a thong between the big and second toe).

When you have had enough of vying with hawkers and street vendors, take advantage of the endless sundrenched coastline from Kosi Bay in the north, down past Coffee Bay in the Transkei, along the Garden Route to the Cape Peninsula – and then winding your way up to fishing village of Paternoster on the west coast for some Cray fishing and whale watching. Our beaches, mountains, forests and deserts are truly something to behold and your adventure of choice awaits you! From bird watching and game viewing, bush walks, ostrich racing, sea kayaking, hiking, bungee jumping, rafting and diving, to wine tasting and exotic culinary delights, to mention but a few.

Exploring on a shoestring

Sadly, some of our adventures do have a price-tag attached, which, although good for the economy, not everyone can afford. Happily, this does not mean that you will automatically be excluded from enjoying life outside of the Conference, with a lot that can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. We have budget rental agencies, budget accommodation and cheap travel deals galore (which just requires a little research in anticipation of your arrival). While in Durban, take a stroll along North Beach’s Golden Mile and check out craft stalls long the way, soak up the sun, jump off New Pier (if so inclined), eat a Bunny (hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry; vegetarian or otherwise), or visit the People’s Park at Moses Mabhida Stadium. To escape the hustle and bustle of the city, rent a car for a day or flag down a Minbus Taxi which is cheaper than the conventional ‘Taxi’ but be prepared to share a seat. Head out of town to the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve and take a stroll through the coastal dune forest and across the Ohlange River towards the Umhlanga Lagoon or travel just over half an hour drive from Durban to the Valley of 1000 Hills to the PheZulu Safari Park. Apart from the breathtaking beauty, there is ample opportunity to get up close and personal with its menagerie of crocodiles and snakes.

And now to get back to the puzzle analogy. While not minimizing the immense challenges that we as a country still face, for me, what started out as an explosion of colour, sound and smells, has evolved into a near-perfect picture. I hope you enjoy visiting our country as much as I enjoy living here! For more information on South Africa visit: http://country.southafrica.net/country/us/en

Read more next time, about what you need to know and want to know, including travel requirements, a Do and Don’t Directory, music, literature and cuisine highlights, going on safari, what’s ‘rockin’ Durban and much, much more!

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