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The politics of infrastructure

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Cape Town railway historic

What type of infrastructure would be best for South Africa’s future? The answer, of course, depends on your point of view. If you live and work in Gauteng, your answer might well be to expand the Gautrain network. Or if you reside in Cape Town, you might prefer investments in desalinization plants. Your occupation may also be relevant. If you’re a miner, you are unlikely to support the expansion of renewable energies. A trained software engineer? Well, you’re likely to support large investments in telecommunications infrastructure.

An important – but often underappreciated – role of government is to choose the type of infrastructure that is destined to shape the country’s future development path. This choice is never neutral though: for every decision, there are winners and losers. Choose to build a new coal-fired power plant? That will benefit coal mine owners and workers, while the users of electricity, were the costs of alternative sources to fall rapidly, will pay. Choose to build a high-speed train network across the country (a hyperloop, perhaps!), then users of this network, likely to be high- or middle-income South Africans, will benefit, while long-distance bus services, taxi operators and rental cars will pay. The government’s job, in theory at least, is to choose the projects that will maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.

But things are never that simple. A research paper that will soon appear in the European Review of Economic History, written by Alfonso Herranz-Loncan and myself, investigate the infrastructure in the Cape Colony built during the second half of the nineteenth century. Before the discovery of diamonds in 1867, the few railways that existed (in and around Cape Town) were privately-owned and largely unprofitable. But the discovery of diamonds and the rush to the mines meant the demand for fast, affordable inland transport increased exponentially. The Cape government had to react.

They did. They bought the few existing lines, and then began to the process of connecting Cape Town to Kimberley, finally achieved in 1885. The connection to the booming diamond region brought huge economic benefits: we estimate that the railway may account for 22-25 percent of the increase in income per capita in the Cape during the diamond-mining period (1873-1905). This is a massive share for a single investment and a clear indicator of the transformative power of railways during the first era of globalisation.

But these benefits were not equally shared by everyone. Surprisingly, the government itself earned a meager 3.7% average return on its capital. Had a private firm built the railways, far fewer branch lines would probably have been built. As Stellenbosch PhD student Abel Gwaindepi now shows, the government incurred huge debt to build this infrastructure, and although the government did benefit through customs duties and other tariffs, the main beneficiaries were the owners of the diamond fields. The railway link between Cape Town and Kimberley could now transport the machinery and foodstuffs required to feed the growing Kimberley population. Western Cape wheat farmers, who supplied the mines with food, was another group of beneficiaries. It is not entirely coincidental that it was also these two groups – mine owners and Western Cape farmers – who had formed a political alliance in Cape parliament.

Of course, it was not only mine owners and Cape farmers that benefited. As detailed reports of passengers show, Cape Colony residents from all walks of life used the railways. But, ultimately, it was tax payers who had to foot the debt that were incurred, and often these tax payers were spread across the entire colony (far from the direct benefits of the railways) – and after unification in 1910, the rest of the country. And the location of the railways meant that those with less political influence – like Basotho farmers, who were of course producing wheat much closer to the diamond fields – lost out. Here is one missionary report from 1886, the year after the railway line was completed: ‘Basutoland, we must admit, is a poor country… Last year’s abundant harvest has found no outlet for, since the building of the railway, colonial, and foreign wheat have competed disastrously with the local produce.’

The nineteenth-century Cape railways contributed significantly to economic growth, but it inadvertently also had distributional consequences: some benefited more than others, and some even suffered as a result of its construction.

The lessons for today? Politics shapes the type of infrastructure that’s built. And infrastructure shapes the direction of economic development. So the key question is this: Are we building the type of infrastructure that will put South Africa on a path of broad-based economic development, or is the choice of infrastructure determined by the self-interest of those with decision-making power, much like Cecil John Rhodes and his cronies during the late nineteenth-century?

Put differently, when we choose a new power-generating facility or national air carrier or telecommunications license, do we consider the benefits for society as a whole or the benefits for a specific interest group?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 5 October 2017.


A happy 28 September

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Drenched: An unexpected rain storm added to the fun of a memorable day

Drenched: An unexpected rain storm added to the fun of a memorable day

On this day six years ago, Helanya said ‘yes’. It was in Riverside park, New York, on a bench with the inscription ‘…forever…when the wind whispers…’. (A tip for future proposal-hopefuls: I asked her to marry me on that spot because I couldn’t find the place where Kathleen Kelly meets Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail, although we found it immediately afterwards, of course. It worked out well, though, that place was pretty crowded.) Much of that day is a blur. I remember that as we were walking home to our illegally-rented room-stay apartment on the East Side (those were the days before Airbnb), we got absolutely soaked in an unexpected autumn rain storm. We hid out in a Central Park cabin until the worst had subsided. But I was happy, she seemed happy, and that made me even more happy.

Today is another day for celebration. Tonight, Helanya will become an alumna of Utrecht University. She graduates with a Masters in Economics and Law. I am told she did pretty well. #proudhusband

Now to figure out how this thing called a dishwasher works…

(Also: a shout-out to my brother who got engaged last week! Advice: buy a dishwasher with only one button.)

Written by Johan Fourie

September 28, 2016 at 07:10

On mystical discoveries

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The Trinity College Library Long Room is a must-see.

The Trinity College Library Long Room is a must-see in Dublin. Photo: Johan Fourie.

Our stay in Utrecht is quickly coming to an end. We’ve been here eights months, and it has been a wonderful time to be productive and also, sometimes, less productive. We traveled often, mostly to conferences and seminars, but occasionally just to explore new places. To Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and, the past weekend, to Ireland, one of the few places in Europe South Africans can enter without a Schengen visa. We rented a car and stayed in a wonderfully nondescript farm cottage with thick walls, a fireplace and a few dozen cows browsing outside our window.

Rural Ireland is a mystical place, exuding a sense of wonder. North of Dublin is Brú na Bóinne, an ancient neolithic site that was built before Stonehenge or Egypt’s pyramids, around 3000BC. Evidence of long-distance trade suggests a sophisticated society, and entering the sacred tombs – where a beam of light only enters once a year during winter solstice – confirms an advanced knowledge of their environment and complex social rituals. This mystical aura lingers across Ireland, in the evergreen forests and tiny towns and black stone walls that dot the landscape, interspersed with more cows and sheep. We also visited the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of the island, a breathtaking sight I won’t recommend to anyone with a fear of heights. (At least, the fear of watching others take selfies precariously close to a 120m slippery ridge.) And then it was back to Dublin, for some whiskey and music and, of course, a visit to the world famous Trinity College Library with its splendid Long Room (pictured).

Although our time in Europe is sadly coming to an end, the prospect of returning home – good wine, food and friends (and sun!) – is certainly exciting. But first, I will be taking a technology hiatus in the next month as I travel to northern Spain to hike part of the Camino de Santiago, starting in Oviedo. It will be a physical challenge but certainly also a psychological one: I cannot remember a time when I did not have access to email for more than a few days. Away from the busyness of modern life, perhaps it will be good to rediscover something of that mystical world the ancients inhabited.


Written by Johan Fourie

April 22, 2016 at 09:15

The American future: notes from a visit

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Owl in flight

Take-off: Photo by Johan Fourie at Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona, October 2013.

Yesterday our stay in Tucson came to end. It’s been a great experience; Tucson, a mid-size city in southern Arizona, is an eclectic mix of university town, military base and hippie culture. It’s also close to the Mexican border, which means that you will find excellent Mexican food, a welcome alternative to typical American fast-food diet. (How is Chipotle not yet a global franchise?) Oh yes, and Tucson is also in the desert, which means you’ll encounter saguaros, javelinas, ocotillos and fantastic autumn weather.

I was there to visit the University of Arizona’s Department of Economics. I presented the day after my arrival, which allowed a quick introduction to the faculty and students. First observations (of the US system in general): math ability is effectively the only criterion used for entry into the PhD programme. A significant proportion of students fail their first year (of five). A high proportion, often more than 50% of the graduate student body, is Asian-American, especially within the University of California system. In Tucson, foreign students from countries as diverse as Iran, Korea, Uruguay, Kazakhstan and China make up a large proportion of graduate students (in Economics). There are very few African students, at least at the universities I’ve visited. (I’m not referring to African-American students, although they are also underrepresented, as are Hispanic Americans.)

(Perhaps this warrants another post, but by considering the proportion of Indian and Chinese students at US universities, it’s easy to understand why these countries can be optimistic of their economic future. In contrast, even though some African economies are growing at rapid rates, it’s clear that the skills shortage will soon dampen this growth if these countries do not actively import skills from abroad.)

Our stay in Tucson was especially enjoyable thanks to the generosity of our Airbnb host, Ross, my host at the Department, Price Fishback, his colleague, Tiemen Woutersen, as well as that of Taylor Jaworksi (who is on the job market this year). Price treated us to a visit to the Desert Museum (where I snapped the above picture), and tickets to attend two college basketball games, a college football game (with more than 50000 spectators, close to 100 players per team and a show so professional I’d give them a World Cup to host any day of the week) and several lovely dinners. Arizona is mining country, so Helanya and I also visited Bisbee, a quirky mining town close to the Mexican border. We even took a tour of the old copper mine, which I am embarrassed to say was my first experience of an actual mine (discounting Gold Reef City). While here, I read Bill Carter’s Boom Bust Boom. As a resident of Bisbee, Bill explores the ways in which mining affects his own town, but also copper’s pervasiveness in our everyday lives.

Helanya and I also flew to San Francisco where we rented a car to visit Stanford (distinguished, high-tech, Asian), the Google campus (expectant, powerful, hipster) and UC Berkeley (classy, affable, under construction). The next day, I presented at UC Davis, their Economics department has a strong emphasis on economic history. Greg Clark submitted the final manuscripts of a book that morning which, in typical Greg Clark-style, promises to challenge prevailing ideas of social mobility.

This was my first extensive visit to the States, and I’ve made several observations. Helanya and I lived close to the university in a place we rented through Airbnb. The great advantage of the apartment was that my office was a 10 minute walk. The bad thing about Tucson (and the US in general), though, is that you need a car to get pretty much anywhere. Even though public transport is available in Tucson and they are building a new tram system linking campus to downtown, the differences between European university towns and the US are stark. I guess the US is more like South Africa (or South Africa more like the States); cars are ubiquitous and central to how Americans work and play. This culture of the car is both expensive and time-consuming, a consequence of the American Dream and subsidized home-ownership which created vast suburban areas resistant to public transport. Reducing this dependence on cars – or transforming this car into something more efficient – will be the greatest challenges (and opportunities) of the future.

Americans are known to be extroverted and self-assured, and our experience largely supports this generalization. The upside of this is that they are overtly friendly, sometimes irritatingly so, like when Helanya ended up next to a guy on the two-hour San Francisco flight who wanted to be her non-stop tour guide and personal councillor. (Do you really ask someone whether they are happy in their relationship ten minutes after you’ve met them – when their husband is sitting across the aisle?) This is, for someone used to the diffidence of Europe, both refreshing and awkward.

But America is also straddling a thin line between a country united and divided. Before any college sports game, the crowd falls silent and turns to the national flag that hangs prominently in the stadium. A trumpet plays the The Star-Spangled Banner and the crowd follows in song. It is an impressive display. The frequency of American flags (massive ones) that are visible across American towns, the regularity at which veterans and current soldiers are celebrated (at airports, on TV, at sports games), and the pervasiveness of American Culture, from fast food to news and movies and fashion, made us sympathetic and somehow part of this country built from an eclectic mix of migrants. (But that, of course, can easily lead to ignorance too: no, the World Series is not a world series.)

But just like South Africa, America is also a country divided along racial lines. As mentioned above, university entrance is highly disproportional to the population; Asian-Americans and whites are overrepresented, Hispanic and African-Americans are in the minority. (What happened to Native Americans, you might think? Aside from an excellent museum in Washington, they really are at the fringes of society.) There are affirmative action policies in place to redress these discrepancies, but they can have perverse outcomes. Francisca Antman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics and the University of Boulder Colorado, shows, for example, how people of mixed-race reclassify themselves depending on the type of affirmative action programmes. “Consistent with supporting evidence showing that individuals from underrepresented minority groups face an incentive to identify under affirmative action, we find that once affirmative action is outlawed, they are less likely to identify with their minority group. In contrast, we find that individuals from overrepresented minority groups who face a disincentive to identify under affirmative action are more likely to identify with their minority group once affirmative action is banned.”

Disunity is not only by race, but also by political affiliation. On our journey across America we’ve met staunch supporters of the Republican Party, outspoken Democrats and many who are critical of both. We’ve also endured the consequences of failure by the American government to reconcile differences across party lines. We’ve watched MSNBC and CNN but also FOX. We’ve heard debates about gun control, legalizing marijuana, Obamacare, the debt ceiling and the future of democracy. These are not easy issues in a country that is increasingly unequal. Those at the lower end feel their privileges eroding: immigration threatens their jobs, they believe, while gun control threatens their leisure. Those in South, or those in rural areas, feel more vulnerable, they argue, than those in the North, or those in cities. Obamacare’s intricacies make it an easy straw man for all the things wrong with government.

There are no easy answers, but Americans easily forget that they still live in one of the most remarkable countries on earth. Two days ago, someone asked me what my thoughts are on the future of the American economy. ‘Is it really going down?’

No, it’s not. Other countries may be doing better, but that’s a good thing. America is still the land of opportunity. It still provides the best platform for any entrepreneur – local or foreign – to turn their ideas into reality and ‘make it big’. Think about Google, now fifteen years old (and founded by an immigrant). Think about Facebook, who is only ten years old. Or Airbnb, who is only five. Its universities still draw the best of the global best to America’s shores, and many come to stay. Its politics may be perplexing and convoluted, but it is still the country that can elect a president from one of its smallest minorities.

Because of its promise, America will continue to be a country of migrants. (The political challenge is in supporting this, not inhibiting it.) Minorities will grow bigger; Spanish, which is already widely-spoken, might even become an official language. Americans of Asian heritage will increasingly be an economic elite, a consequence of their excellent tertiary education.

That means the American of the future might look very different, but she will continue to live in a country that inspires hope and belief in a better future.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 21, 2013 at 17:15

Turning 31

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Trimming time: Gardeners at work in Geneva © Johan Fourie (2012)

It is another perfect day in the desert. It’s early still, six o’clock, and the day is pregnant with possibilities. I read my mails, scan Facebook. It is a more remarkable day than usual. Today I turn 31. Lots of messages of congratulations and well wishes. I really appreciate each of these, take time to think about each friend. When did we last speak, have a drink or dinner, laugh together?

31 is a special number for me. It happens to be a combination of my two favourite numbers, 3 and 1. Like most habits, I don’t know when it started. It happened to be my first-year room number in Eendrag. In the off chance that I play roulette, I always bet on 31. Mostly I lose, but I remember the one time it actually won me something. When the world was my oyster, it was also the name of my fictional company – Group31. I think the plan was to own 31 farms across South Africa and Africa. Yes, farms. A tourist-farm where visitors can enjoy the delights of rural living while the farms, each carefully selected for its diversity of produce and experiences, produce organic goods for the top-end of the retail market. Or Hotels31, with boutique hotels in my favourite university towns; Utrecht, Coimbra, Geneva (photo), Lund, Tuebingen. Or Books31, because, well, it’s books.

31 is also the division, for me at least, between young and old. It is complete fabrication, I know. I’m in no way more older from yesterday to today, than from two days ago to yesterday. But it does feel as if I’ve turned a corner. My body is less malleable; training and running will only make marginal differences from now on. My future is less malleable. At school, I used to play a game where I would imagine five different futures: Johan the jet-setting businessman, Johan the publisher, Johan the history teacher, Johan the architect, Johan the Protea cricketer (don’t laugh). Aside from the small issue of talent, those were all potential options for teenager Johan. Not any more (although I still harbour a faint hope that somehow I’ll discover a new variation of spin-bowling that will catapult me into cricketing stardom).

So what determined that I now teach, do research and write a weekly blog? I don’t know. It was never just one decision. I never decided to do this. It happened, but also not in a fatalistic, deterministic sense. It happened through the cumulative effects of millions of tiny, every-day decisions. Yes, some were bigger: my choice of university programme certainly influenced my future options, or my choice of where to apply for jobs, and whom to marry. But these bigger decisions, I would argue, were contingent on many smaller, earlier decisions. Take my PhD, for example. Had I not met Jan Luiten van Zanden at a Social Science History conference in Lisbon, where we happened to be at the same meeting for economists, and, if several months earlier, I had not come across a link to the conference website while browsing online, and a few months before that happened to find a dataset that intrigued me (a dataset I wasn’t searching for), Utrecht would have been nothing more than a pretty Dutch town. And so on, and so on.

Life is a happenstance of uncoordinated decisions. The bigger ones we tend to overthink: we try to analyse the costs and benefits much like an accountant balances books. I think these ‘decisions’ are overrated. The smaller ones, the ones we make without thinking about it, are sometimes vastly more important. The future, then, is the outcome of thousands of small decisions, each the result of an earlier one. Like sending that last-minute email – Drink jy koffie? – to the girl that would later become my wife. Or the smile, only visible for an instant, that made me send that email.

And yet, we don’t celebrate these little decisions. We often don’t even take notice. We tend to live from one special event to the next – birthdays, anniversaries, business targets, sport milestones – all the while forgetting that life is in the detail. We may have big plans, dreams, aspirations, and that is certainly not a bad thing. But, now that I’ve moved through my proverbial veil of ignorance, perhaps I understand better what Paul Cilliers meant when he urged us to ‘make every act in one’s daily life a quality act’. Note the difference between ‘Enjoy every moment’, the cliched phrase of Supersport commercials, and ‘Make every act a quality act’. Not all moments are enjoyable; I certainly don’t enjoy washing dishes. But the next time I watch cricket with buddies, talk to students, walk to work, or, as Cilliers recommends, eat an egg, I’ll try to rush it a little less, to occupy the moment a little more. Because, to quote another famous 20th century philosopher, you never know what you gonna get.

Being in Tucson, we don’t have big plans for today. I’ll miss watching the Boks play Wales. Instead, I’ll attend my first game of American Football; it is Homecoming weekend here and, thanks to Price Fishback, Helanya and I have tickets to the big game between UofA and UCLA tonight. I can’t see how this will help me reach the goals I’ve set myself. Or help me realise those disillusioned dreams.

Instead, it promises four hours of fun and laughter. Perfect.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 9, 2013 at 20:27

Why visit South Africa

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When visiting South Africa's famous Kruger National Park, you are sure to spot an iconic Bosloerie, one of the many treasures of this diverse country.

When visiting South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, you are sure to spot the iconic Bosloerie, one of the many treasures of this diverse country. © Johan Fourie

It’s only when you get to travel in other countries that you realise how fortunate visitors to South Africa are. Make no mistake, there are many parts of the world worth seeing, not least the rural towns and landscapes of the US where Helanya and I recently travelled. But a list released October 16 by Condé Nast Traveler shows just how much South Africa has to offer: three of the world’s top four hotels and restaurants are found in South Africa. La Residence in Franschhoek, a scenic town in the Cape’s winelands, shares first prize with a hotel in New Zealand. Singita Sabi Sand, a game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park, and Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Resort outside Clanwilliam on South Africa’s west coast, are joint third. Three other South African hotels and resorts are also included in the Top 30, while Cape Town is ranked 11th of all cities/towns in the world. (San Miguel de Allende in Mexico is first.)

Why could so many South African hotels and resorts do so well, even ones that are not familiar in South Africa? The sceptic may say that it’s due to small sample sizes. The list is based on a Condé Nast Reader Choice survey. They claim to have received more than 1.3 million votes from 80 000 readers. I’m not sure how many of these 80 000 voted for La Residence. Nevertheless, these hotels and resorts are not one-shot wonders; they’ve performed admirably over the last few years (the survey has been running since 1986). Even if only a few voted, these visitors have been sufficiently impressed by the service, food, architecture, activities and other characteristics required for a high ranking; remember, in small samples, an outlier at the bottom can have devastating consequences.

No, this is not a statistical fluke but is, instead, a remarkable achievement, and one that we should be rightly proud of. (It’s akin to winning the Nobel Travel prize; the owners and employees of La Residence should be revered!) Two factors, I believe, are pivotal to South Africa’s competitive advantage in these awards: our rich endowment of natural and cultural diversity (necessary but not sufficient for success), and its relative affordability, owing, perhaps, to the high share of wages in the total cost bundle of this labour-intensive industry. And because wages are relatively low in South Africa (and wages are unregulated in the tourism industry), hotels and resorts can splash the luxury without straining clients’ budgets (which also makes the tourism industry one of the leading employers in South Africa, notably employing mostly unskilled workers). More importantly, it is nearly impossible to replace friendly personnel with computers or other machinery. This has an important lesson for countries at lower levels of development: focus on those export industries where labour is irreplaceable. Tourism is one of those.

I have yet to meet a visitor to South Africa who have not enjoyed their visit. If you believe these are just selection effects in my sample, read here and here and here for the opinions of established travel bloggers. So if you’re planning your next holiday and are unsure of where to go, South Africa is calling.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 17, 2013 at 05:39

Why I travel

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A recent column in the Mail & Guardian suggested a number of reasons why Afrikaners should travel more. These included, and mostly with reference to Europe, 1) to appreciate our (presumably good quality and inexpensive) meat, 2) to learn to be on time, 3) to rediscover our cultural roots, 4) to understand how language can bind people together, 5) to realise that one can have more than one cultural identity. Although I’m sure the column was well-intended (and was perhaps filled with some nostalgia after a few weeks away from home), there are simply too many generalisations to take it seriously: “Europe is essentially individualistic and the downfall of one individual or family rarely affects the rest of a community. Ask someone what the surname of their neighbour is and they would not be able to tell you.” Here’s my confession: I’ve lived in South Africa all my life and I cannot name one of my many neighbours’ surnames.

McGregor, South Africa

McGregor, South Africa

But the piece did get me thinking about why I travel. I am fortunate to travel relatively frequently, mostly to attend some economic history congress somewhere in Europe. I usually manage to take a day or two after a conference to see the sights. So, apart from attending conferences, why do I do it? I guess we all have our own reasons for travelling (and, I should add, ways of travelling), but I think it boils down to this:

Travelling is a conversation with yourself. It is a way to take stock, to reflect, to reassess, to change course. To adopt what is good and to discard the bad. Destinations become beacons – Uganda 2003, Utrecht 2010 – the value of which only become apparent much later in life. Travelling is a conversation with friends. About shared dreams and desires. About shared hopes and disappointments. About plans for the future. About the good old times. It is laughing together, fighting together, being-late-for-the-train together. It is about writing new stories – together (New York 2010). Travelling is also a conversation with strangers. Stef Bos, the Dutch-Afrikaans word maestro, sings: ‘Ek wil praat met ‘n vreemde om myself te verstaan’ (I want to chat with a stranger to understand myself.) Travel allows us to define who we are (Afrikaans? South African? African?). It is a way to define what we believe (in), and what we do not. Travelling forces us to confront our own prejudices and stereotypes. It is also about changing perceptions. (Nearly every South African travelling abroad will have a story about stranger’s ignorance about Africa. Mine was on a train with a Belgian student. She asked me where I was from. I said South Africa. She responded that her brother had been to North Africa. I said ‘South Africa’ is a country, not a region. And it’s about as far away from North Africa as Brussels is from Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. The remainder of the three hour journey was awkwardly quiet.)

Positano, Italy

Positano, Italy

Travelling is an education. Much like in Night at the Museum, it brings history alive: I would have known very little of the Moorish invasion of Spain had I not been to the Alhambra (Granada, Spain), or little of the devastating impact of communism had I not walked through the streets of Riga (Latvia). The slave trade and its many atrocities only fully manifests on a visit to Goreé, an island off the coast of Dakar (Senegal), and the plight of the early Christians is evident in the catacombs of Rome (Italy). Travelling is also about geography, of course: Where is is the origin of the Nile? (Answer: Jinja, Uganda. But don’t swim in those waters – I did, only to discover crocodiles on the opposite bank.) What is the highest mountain in Western Europe? (Answer: Mont Blanc, France. But don’t forget your gloves. Ever.) And it teaches ethics (should I pay the bribe?), arithmetic (try the 14 (English Pound), 25 (Hungarian Forint) or 55 (West African Franc) multiplication table to get to Rand), negotiation (‘Welcome to Istanbul. This is my lowest price.’ The best response: ‘Okay, let’s begin at half of that.’), and music (Who knew the Germans are stuck in the 80s?).

Brown bear, Finland

Brown bear, Finland

Travelling activates the senses. The smells of port in the Porto (Portugal) caves, of home-brewed beer in Talinn (Estonia), of meat on the braais in the Kgalagadi (South Africa), of gluhwein at the Christmas markets of Budapest (Hungary). The tastes of deep-dish pizzas in Chicago, of pastries in Holland, of chocolate cake in New York, of a brie and fig steak in a guest house next to Augrabies Falls (South Africa). The sounds of Mozart in Vienna (Austria), of the US national anthem (sung by the Chicago Gay Choir) before a baseball game at Wrigley Field (Chicago), ‘vergeet om niet uit te checken’ announcements on the Utrecht (Netherlands) buses, and of a vuvuzela at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (South Africa). And then there are the sights: The colours of Istanbul (Turkey), Maputo (Mozambique), of Sintra (Portugal) or Durban (South Africa). The breathtaking awe of cathedrals (Cathédrale Saint Jean-Baptiste, Lyon), and mosques (Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul), and temples (Pantheon, Rome) or the tiny chapel in which I got married (McGregor, South Africa, pictured). The majestic beauty of elephants on the plains of the South Luangwa National Park (Zambia), or of a rhino in the Kruger Park (South Africa), or of polar and brown bears in Finland (pictured). And the epic landscapes of the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, or of Positano (Italy, pictured), or the Alps, or Lake Victoria just before landing at Entebbe (Uganda).

But, ultimately, travelling gives ‘home’ new meaning. It forces us to consider the possibility that our own (people, places – policitians?) are not unique, not different, not special. That we share all the vices and virtues with all of humanity: I’ve encountered sloth, pride (racism, sexism), and greed everywhere I’ve been. But I’ve also experienced the greatest patience, humility and charity. We all share a common ancestry, a common history, a common humanity and – the sooner we realise this the better – a common future.

Stef Bos also writes: ‘Ek wil reis rond die wêreld om huis toe te gaan’ (I want to journey around the world to go home). Not only should Afrikaners travel more. We should all travel more. Even if it is simply to meet our neighbours (next door or on another continent).

PS: At the start of this year, my wife and I started a travel blog in Afrikaans to document our journeys. We called it Grensloos (borderless). There are also numerous other sites, but if you want to be inspired to travel (and perhaps laugh and cry at the same time), watch this.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 7, 2013 at 10:42