COLUMNS

South Africa looks bright

  • The Washington Examiner
  • |
  • February 21, 2006

by Karen Feld

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The quiet Presidents Day weekend gave me time to recover from jet lag, having just returned from South Africa. Fortunately, I was able to fly directly from Dulles to Johannesburg on South African Airways. I visited the Eastern Cape – economically, the poorest of South Africa’s nine provinces. But it’s rich in natural beauty and the home of influential political leaders, including President Thabo Mbeki and former President Nelson Mandela.I traveled by car from Durban to George along the Wild Coast, the Sunshine Coast and the Garden Route. The diverse Eastern Cape not only has beautiful beaches but is malaria-free. That, for me, was a huge incentive to visit a game reserve to view “the Big Five” (I saw lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalo – only missed sighting a leopard) without having to take preventive medication.

Proud of their politicians

South Africans are proud of their top diplomat in the U.S., Barbara Masekela, the ambassador in D.C. She was an anti-apartheid activist and former chief of staff to Nelson Mandela. She’s also the sister of the great jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

Huge sports complex attracts pros

South African tennis pro Gary Muller showed me his new project, a world-class sports facility called Field of Dreams at the new environmentally aware Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa (located on the 2,500-acre private estate developed by visionary Keith Stewart, a South African who made his fortune in office equipment in the U.S.).

It’s located in Knysna, the Riviera of Cape Town. Muller, the sports director, has attracted golfers David Frost, Nick Price and Jack Nicklaus, Wimbledon champ Roger Federer, doubles champ Jonas Bjorkman and cricket captain Graeme Smith to buy property there.

The sports stadium doesn’t look anything like our stadiums in D.C. There’s no concrete. It’s a natural oval in the wild where spectators sit on grass embankments and deer play nearby.

Muller hopes to host international tennis and cricket events. More importantly, he wants to train young athletes for the Olympics.

Muller compares this project to “that Kevin Costner movie where he’s a farmer and a ghostly voice tells him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield. That’s what we’ve got here.” It’s awesome.

Leaving apartheid behind

It was amazing to see the progress under way in the dozen years since apartheid ended. In Capetown, I visited New Rest, a pilot community development project initiated by a team from the University of Cape Town. They’re transforming an informal settlement – a squatters’ camp on the side of the road – that lacked electricity, running water and adequate health care facilities into a viable community without displacing its residents.

Tundra, a New Rest resident trained as a tour guide, proudly showed me around as youngsters rushed over, grabbing my hands. The camp now has toilets, running water, roads and has recently acquired a brickmaking machine so residents can build their own houses.

Unifying power of tourism

“This project has become a mission for me,” said Norman Pieters, a South African who emigrated to the U.S. and wants to give back to his homeland.

Pieters, president of Karell’s African Dream Vacations in Miami, which specializes in high-end custom tours, helped fund the program. I’m glad he encouraged me to visit this remarkable community. “Many tourists today want to experience the local culture with the leadership of a resident guide,” Pieters said.

Yes, this trip was refreshing and eye-opening. The sunny optimism of South Africa, shaking off its shackles and racial hatred, gives us hope and a different view of the often petty jockeying locally and on Capitol Hill.

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