The Real Alcazar

March 12, 2020
“Real” in Spanish means “royal”, and the “Real” Alcazar we saw today is real in both senses—regal (it’s the oldest continuously used palace in Europe) and the top of the line.
Our guide pointed to it as one of the contributors to her story of Seville as a blend of the three world religions. I beg to correct her characterization, at least to a small degree.
One of those religions is reflected in the name of our hotel—Casas de la Juderia—the house of the Jews. True, it’s in the old Jewish Quarter, but there’ve been no resident Jews here since their expulsion from Castile in 1481 and Spain in 1492. There were none here during Muslim times either (the 500 years from 711 until the conquest in the 1248. The synagogue next door was demolished, and on its site sits the baroque church of Santa Maria la Blanca, complete with a painting by the 16th century local, Murillo, who refused to move to Madrid and thus is still a local favorite. True, from 1248 the city housed the second largest Jewish population in Spain, and there’s at least one street named for a Levi, who was treasurer to the King of Castile. But the Sephardic museum that might have shed light on contributions that have lasted is undergoing renovations.
The “real Alcazar” does make a case for the blending of the Muslim and Catholic traditions, however. The original Alcazar is now mostly destroyed, having given way to a royal Christian palace on the same grounds, enlarged and embellished by successive Bourbon and Hapsburg rulers. Today’s King stays here when he’s in town—in non-public quarters. The public areas have a lot of artwork that reflects the Muslim influence; our guide said that Christian Pablo I, responsible for the rebuild in 1364, borrowed Muslim artists from Granada for the tiles that make the palace colorful. There’s even a word for Spanish architecture influenced by Islam—“Mudejar”. A later addition, however, added an altar and a Gothic wing; the gardens alone are 19 acres.
And speaking of Gothic, the Cathedral, across from the palace, is now the largest Gothic church in the world, and the third in size behind the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London. It is rectangular, having been built in the 1400s (started 1401, completed a century later) on the site of a mosque. The bell tower was once the minaret for the mosque, and its size indicates the mosque may well have been one of the largest in the world as well.
The Cathedral houses two artifacts that attest to the commercial importance of Seville. Before the local river silted, it was the main seaport facing the Atlantic, 60 miles upriver from the ocean. It was from here that the Admiral of the Ocean (Columbus) set sail for the New World, and it was to this Cathedral that eventually his bones returned (at least some of them, having rested in the Dominican Republic and Cuba at one time). It was from Seville that Magellan set sail around the world, too; of his 250 men, only 18 returned, under Captain Elcano. Magellan himself was eaten in the Philippines, I believe, so he’s only mentioned in the plaque indicating the voyage.
Two commercial sites we visited attest to the once-glory of Seville commercially. The Tower of Gold was one of the Muslim wall towers. It guarded the river and had a chain that blocked passage of enemies’ ships and charged (probably gold) for passage by friends, at least until Fernando III sailed in II broke through the chain, capturing the city. The Tower is still there.
The other commercial site was the remains of an Iberia-American fair in 1929, ten years in the planning, that brought commercial exhibits and buildings from the former Spanish (and Portuguese) colonies in the New World. Many of them are still used by the countries that built them (the US consulate is in the US building, for example), but many of them are government buildings or university buildings. The broad boulevards and parks remain as well. A similar fair in 1992, commemorating 500 years of Columbus’ expeditions, however, was more evanescent. The empty site allowed the local government to authorize a skyscraper because it was outside the central business district, where no building could be higher than the bell tower of the Cathedral.
With a little more time, the one stop I would like to have made was at the Archeology Museum. While our guide wanted to reduce Seville to the three religions, there were at least two more periods I’d have liked to know more about. This was a Roman city for 500 years (or there was one nearby), and two emperors—Trajan and Adrian—were born here, and the Visigoths swept in too, and our guide noted that the locals welcomed the Muslims in 711 in preference to the Muslims. That might have made an interesting visit.

However, when we emerged, our guide told us that the Alhambra was closed tomorrow, that all museums were closed. I knew it was time to go home. We were lucky to have had an agent, who got us home before the curtain fell on travel in Europe.

Categories: Spain 2020 before the virus hit, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

37 at 37

March 11, 2020
Jerez Seville
22 hours of flights and airports, three movies, and over 4500 miles in the air, and we’re finally in Andalusia. Checking with my gps, however, discloses that we’re at the 37 th parallel, 3737 miles from
home. And really out of touch with much news from the United States. I hadn’t realized that EU privacy laws, which changed last May, disabled most American news sources. I can get headlines, but when I click my usual sources–Trib/NYT/Wallstreet Journal, and Pantagraph–I get a notice that they are banned from delivering content. And ESPN switches to the Spanish/European edition.

Perhaps it’s just as well that we are enjoying where we are, which seems far indeed..We left Jerez earlier today for Seville, having seen the three biggest sites in Jerez, a city of 200000 that
has its roots in Phoenician, Roman, Muslim, Spanish cultures and histories. The Phoenicians left nothing except stories about Hannibal and Carthage, and vineyards. The legacy was one of the main crops of al-Andalusia (named for the Muslim influence, which lasted from 711 until the 13 th century, when Alfonso
the Wise, so-named because he knew at least three languages, which made him wise at the time, reconquered this part of Spain from the Muslims). The soil apparently is excellent for a white grape that lends itself to sherry, and on the hill that commands the city, one of the wine bodegas is Gonzalez Byass ,makers of Tio Pepe, the largest selling brand, and the most visited vineyard in Spain. I did my part, touring the facility, which included sampling of four varieties. Mr. Gonzalez was a banker turned wine-grower (at 23) who took on Mr. Byass, an English financier, as a partner, and the two families, now in the sixth generation, still run the company. It owns and sells a variety of wines around the globe,
including Chilean, and some brandies. I was a little surprised to learn that sherries do not get packaged by year because it is a blended mixture, and can age up to 20 years—the older, the sweeter—like people, n’est ce pas?

The second edifice on the hill that overlooks the city was the symbol of political power—the Alcazar. Apparently two Muslim dynasties ruled the city, and each was responsible for establishing part of the Alcazar (if it starts with an al—it’s probably Islamic). The Alcazar was residence/fortress of the rulers. Much of it is restored—the horseshoe archway, the three room baths—hot, cold, and ablution—with star like holes in the dome to remind the Muslims of their desert heritage, a small mosque (that became
a chapel), and square ramparts and towers that proved the best views of the town. There’s also a garden and some pools, along with orange trees whose fragrance fills the air. The Alcazar became the residence of the mayor, one of whom built an 18 th century baroque palace within it that somehow works with the Muslim architecture. Across from the Alcazar, and built on the site of the Mosque (winners can do that) is the basilica, a huge cathedral in its second version. The tower from the first remained after (I thin) an earthquake, and the rebuild was mostly gothic/baroque, two of my favorite church styles. Some of the altars and paintings came from convents and monasteries that were at one point or another confiscated. The main painting is a Zurburan of a young Mary (late 16 th century). When Pope John Paul II visited here in 1980, he elevated the cathedral to a basilica, meaning it’s the seat of the bishop.

The three main sites were within easy walking distance from our hotel—enshrining religion, political power, and the time. We’re now in Seville, about 90 miles away, with another interesting story to tell, beginning with the name of our hotel, which is how I’ll start tomorrow night’s

Categories: Spain 2020 before the virus hit | 1 Comment

Pre Mayan Mexico: land of the big heads

January 4, 2020
If you think—and some of you I know do—that I’ve got a big head, you should see some of the statues I’ve been looking at today. From the Olmec civilization, circa 1200-200 BC. You can find them in lots of places; we first did a year ago, at the National Archeological Museum in Mexico City. That’s really a great introduction to Mesoamerica because, as the nation’s major museum, it got first crack at most of the art (that didn’t wind up in Europe or the United States). There are, however, enough Mesoamerican artifacts to fill more than one museum.
For example, you can spend an afternoon in Villahermosa (literally, beautiful city), a town of some 700,000 the capital of the state of Tabasco (known in Mexico for the birthplace of President Amlo—not Tabasco sauce which is I recall a product of Louisiana imagination). Here, a very Imaginate poet conceived of moving the Olmec ruins from inaccessible La Venta to an accessible park in the city which housed a Natural History museum, an aquarium, a planetarium, a zoo, and a host of other institutions, which now includes an archeological park of some 40 Olmec statues, altars, and plinths set in the lush jungle.
The enormous heads draw speculation on the transport of tons of stone because the Mesoamericans did not have wheels. And yet…basalt and sandstone in particular, with ten foot heads were transported (my favorite guess was using whale grease), paving the way, so archeologists argue, for the later Mayans, the bas-reliefs giving rise to later steles, and some of the art patterns repeated for the next 12-1500 years by their successors (and adopted by THEIR successors, the Aztecs, and their successors, contemporary Mexicans)
The Olmec area seems to have been in the Yucutan/Guatemala/Honduras jungles, and the artifacts in the park cover about 500 years, mostly from La Venta. I had to take pictures of Carolyn with the “Grandmother”, and myself with “The Walker”, but the most stunning besides the big heads are the alters, usually with a man/bird/jaguar/crocodile half emerging from a cave (the underworld). The eagle carried the sun during the day (and is part of the Mexican flag), and the jaguar carried the sun through the netherworld at night.
From Villahermosa, our trek meant a short flight to Merida, capital of the Yucatan (and purportedly Mesico’s safest city) and then an hour and a half ride to Chichen Itza, where tomorrow we get the advanced course in all things Mayan.

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Highland Chiapas State–Colonial Mexico

January 2, 2020
Carolyn’s desire to see more pre-Colombian ruins led us to the village of San Cristobal de las Casas, high in the mountains in southern Mexico. We’re at 6600 feet, 16 degrees north of the Equator, in another charming colonial village of about 450, 000 people. The village dates from 1528, with some of the historical buildings dating to the 16th and 17th century, and the old historic district chock full of one story buildings in pastels, with iron bars on windows, and lots of charming residences and shops restored as hotels (we’re in the Casa San Lucia, with antiques, paintings, and jaguar statues), shops, or restaurants, and narrow cobbled streets full of tourists and locals.
You can tell the locals, since Chiapas state is storied. Once administered as part of Guatemala under the Spanish, the state opted to join Mexico in 1824, shortly after independence. It’s history since has been sometimes troubled, since the indigenous Indians have had the short stick since the Spanish invasion. There were a number of uprisings, most recently in the 1990s, that brought federal troops to crush the Zapatistas, but really lead to more autonomy for the 8 local tribes, descendants of the Mayans and still speaking languages that are closer to 900 than to Spanish.
We went to two of those semiautonomous villages today, San Juan Chemula, and Zincantan. The centerpiece of both were the churches, with a big difference. In Chemula, the arch over the church is decorated with animals and butterflies, rather than Saints. Inside, the locals were having a service with the village elders in white tunics and the religious clergy in black praying for the entire community. Locals came with their family to hire a holy person to pray for them, and brought offerings, including live chickens to be sacrifices (and turned into chicken soup), and coke and other carbonated drinks to induce a burp and chase away evil spirits. I read somewhere that the church no longer considers the building “Catholic,” and I can only imagine what the Dominicans (they who not only settled and evangelized here, but also brought the Inquisition to the New World) would respond.
San Cristobal brought wheat and wood as its contributions to Spain, and that led to the settlement’s prosperity for the non-indigenous peoples. The area is still a rich agricultural region (Zincantan greeted us with enormous greenhouses) but tourism, I suspect, is what keeps this region green. Originally called Ciudad Real, it was renamed after independence in honor of St. Christopher, protector of travelers, and I think the Saint’s day when the Spanish founded the city, and became de las Casas in honor of Bartholomew de las Casas, an early bishop that did his best to end Indian slavery, and whose statue embellishes one of the major squares in the city.
We spent sometime sightseeing—the colonial square with the (smaller) copy of the government headquarters on one end of the main square, the cathedral resplendent as so much of the city in pastels, and a visit to a museum that was once the Dominican Monastery (all church property was confiscated by the federal government in the 1860s; it is sometimes loaned today to the churches) that included some of the artifacts found by the foreign archeologists who made San Cristobal home.
Tomorrow we descend to the jungle for the massive ruins of Palenque, which was one of the main objectives of this trip.

Categories: Yucatan 2020 | Leave a comment

“Ruined” by 4 Mayan Sites

January 5-6, 2020
We’ve spent the past two days exploring four more Mayan sites. Though the Mayans occupied the area for over 1000 years (roughly 200 BC until 1400 AD), and left over 1500 known cities, the five (counting Palenque) we visited spanned most of the entire period.
The biggest ruins in the Yucatan might well belong to those at Chichen Itza, or at least the most excavated and most visited. Up to 19,000 visitors a day arrive by the busload during peak season (last week), and it seemed like there were that many when we were leaving.
We got there shortly after the park opened at 800, so there were still a few spots left in the parking lot. That did not last long. I can understand the fascination with a site labeled as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Our hotel there had a main entrance that was part of a hacienda purchased by Edward Thompson, American vice consul in Merida, who was responsible for some of the early excavations—and the man who used his diplomatic pouch to secret a number of artifacts to the Harvard Peabody museum. Harvard won a battle waged by the Mexican government to get the material returned. The Mexican supreme court ruled that the laws at the time were inadequate to protect the nation’s treasurers, so Harvard could keep the items; in a gesture of gratitude, some of the materials were returned. Mr. Thompson himself was hounded out of Mexico, however, and the hacienda sold to archeologists who built cabins, one of which was occupied by Mr. & Mrs. Hoyt.
Like most of the excavated sites, only a small portion of any of the sites has been recovered or restored Given time, the jungle wins, or the cost of recovery is enormous. Coba, were we visited today, for example, spanned 40 square kilometers. Less than 15% is restored.
Chichen Itza is classic period—about 1000 AD—which means the buildings were architecturally and artistically at their peak. The city-state was one of the most dominant, controlling as it did, one of the ancient world’s most important products—salt–until drought and population pressure eroded its sway. The pyramid is 42 meters high, one of the highest, built atop an earlier version which contained a tomb whose finery now graces the national museum. My favorite buildings, though, were the ball court, the largest known with a “hoop” about 15 feet off the ground (try and dunk that); a ritualistic altar with thousands of skull figures (the macabre idea borrowed apparently from the Toltecs in central Mexico; the popular but apocryphal story is that the losers were decapitated); the observatory (the Mayans, like most successful agricultural civilizations placed great emphasis on the rain god and were adept astronomers and astrologers; the construction of the observatory allowed stargazing even during the day); the temple of 1000 warriors, with a jaguar god atop, and 1000 pillars that for all the world looks like something borrowed from a Roman movie set); and, bless the Spanish, two buildings named by them, the “nunnery” and the “church”, older buildings with some of the best intact steles and bas-relief that we’ve seen. Partly because of the crowds and the wear and tear, none of the buildings is readily accessible. That’s probably a good thing because the pyramid has 365 steps (the Mayans knew the days of the year). Carolyn is super impressed with any civilization that reveres jaguars. We did see two jaguar crossing signs on the way to Cancun.
Ek Balam, the jaguar city, was older.(pre-classic period) and easily combined in one day with Chichen Itza. The site had an unusual rounded building and some excavated common folk housing—all ten feet per room—that we saw nowhere else. I liked the reconstructed Mayan “arch” at the gateway to the city, which was triangular. The road there was full of pilgrims, many on bicycles, heading to a Church of the Three Wise Men, since Monday, the day of the arrival of the three wise men, is the gift giving day associated with Christmas in Mexico.
Today’s visits were to Coba and Tulum, two later (post classic; Tulum, in fact, lasting until the Spanish explorations, which was unusual for the Mayans). Coba, as mentioned, occupied 40 square kilometers, and even though only a small portion is excavated, those buildings are sufficiently scattered that we had a trishaw with a driver to take us around. Our guide noted that the workmanship deteriorated, but it was hard to tell in a city that had two ball courts (American and National League?), and a pyramid taller than the one at Chichen Itza (but unrestored).
The most stunning site was Tulum, settled for a long time, but come to prominence late—stunning because of its location on the coast. Apparently, it was sort of a customs station or duty free shop for Mayans along the coast, protected by a wall on 3 sides and steep cliffs down to the ocean on the fourth side. Large iguanas willingly posed for pictures, but the buildings atop the hills—again, some of them resembling Roman ruins because of the pillars used to hold up a (no longer there) wooden roof. The most unusual of the gods was an upside-down man, facing west—the direction of the setting sun.
Given that the palaces of the Mayan rich were much nicer than the (mostly unexcavated) hovels of the poor, it’s fittingly ironic that our last night is being spent in Cancun, in one of those updated 21st century palaces.

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Downhill and Backwards in Time to Palenque

January 3, 2020
We’re only 58 miles (as the crow flies) and 6200 feet lower than we were yesterday, but getting from the colonial charm of San Cristobal and its nearby Mayan descendants to the classical Maya ruins at Palenque was almost a six hour trip. Part of that was the descent which followed a lot of ridgelines, which meant curved type C roads (meaning usually not wide enough to pass, at least in theory); part of the delay was from topes—speed bumps. Our driver/guide said on one trip he counted the number, and it was 259, but that needs to be updated. The speed bumps not only replace stoplights and stop sighs in towns as ways to slow traffic at important junctures (school crossings for example), but enterprising shopkeepers have them built up daily to encourage traffic to stop for bananas, the omni present coke, or pollo (chicken), or gasoline or….
Part of the length of the trip came from a short side trip to Aqua Azul, a national park (meaning three toll booths) to view cascades on the local river that is known for its blue green water during the dry season (now) and its muddy turbulence during the rainy season.
It was worth the drive down through at least three ecosystems, starting with pine and ending with humid jungle (there are howler monkeys sharing the resort we’re at with us); Palenque has a well deserved reputation as one of the top ruins in the Mayan period, and deservedly so.
While the settlement began about 100 bc, the heyday was during the reigns of King Pakal, his son, and grandson, in the 8th century (700-800 or so). Pakal was a successful warrior, and constructed buildings that were artistic monuments to his success. And he lived to be 80 years old, unheard of at the time, and thought to possess magical powers because of a deformed leg.
The temples/tombs/palaces, which comprise the majority of the excavated sites (a small portion of the site) mark the architectural highlights of the classic Mayan period (700-900). The buildings are mostly pyramid shaped, towering probably 150 high, at one time embracing a city of maybe 100000 people. There’s a tomb for Pakal, his official wife (the Red Queen, so named because of the cinnabar sprinkled on her, an unexcavated Jaguar temple (something like 20 temples have been excavated, or at least named (as I saw in Cambodia, left alone, the jungle always wins), and a huge palace with an underground stream forced to go through a narrow passage and thus speeded up to the point where it had enough pressure to supply the palace with running water.
I was really glad that we’d gone to Mexico City last year and visited the National Archeological Museum there, because some of the choice relics are there—in particular the jade death mask of Pakal. The highlight in the museum here is a replica of the sarcophagus of Pakal, a huge box with elaborate stone bas reliefs that have some of the best-known glyphs of the period.
Our host at the resort is an Italian/German who studied Mayan linguistics and he told us that the writing was initially translated by a Russian (as part of the cold war efforts to find things useful to intelligence) while Westerners were slower to decipher the writing. The big push came in the 90s, and he estimated about 85% of the script can be read. As a result, we know much about the Mayans.
I’m struck again at the similarities between the Mesoamericans and the Cahokia mound builders. For example, the classic birdman paisa stone looks like something out of Mayan central casting, and the pyramid in Cahokia is a pale earthen copy of the Mayan ruins. I suppose what it shows is that even before the internet and air travel, there was cultural sharing in the Americas, perhaps even more than there is today.

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Is a game drive like a box of chocolates?

May 22, 2019 in the Johannesburg airport

Carolyn insists that a game drive is “like a box of chocolates”, but after six drives at Sabi Sabi (not counting  the ride to Skukaza airport which went through the Sabi Sands game preserve, which resembled another one), I’m not entirely persuaded.

Her point is that “You never know what you’re going to see.”  I think that’s one of the best things about game drives.  On that topic, I’m a “chocoholic.”  Any animal you see (that you don’t see at home in the wild) is chocolate.  And you always see something. 

Generally, the game drives are twice a day, roughly 6-9 am and 330-to 6:30 (by which time, it’s dark at 24 degrees SOUTH  of the equator.  That’s when the animals (most of them anyway) are smart enough to be active.  During the day, the predators we’ve seen were usually flopped on the ground, in the shade.  The old leopard we watched settle in around 8, was still there at 430, snoozing blissfully, exhausted from the impala he’d consumed or the leopardess he’d satisfied. The lions were similar in the heat of the day, which might have given rise to the Gilbert and Sullivan line, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”  Every day we saw different animals (and I needed only ten to reach my nature requirements). Besides the big cats, we saw the other three of the Big Five—buffalo, elephant, rhinocerous. In addition, we probably saw the predator food—kudu, impala, duiker, ngala—and a springbok that was traveling, said our guide, as fast as he’d ever seen a springbok—there was a hungry leopard in the area.

Carolyn was right: you never know what you’re going to see, or where you’re going to see it.  Sabi Sands, a huge game reserve that’s adjacent to Kruger National Park is known for its abundant leopard population, even though it’s a pretty solitary animal.  We chanced upon one that was sauntering along the road, heedless of the safari vehicle.  We experienced another advantage of being in a private reserve when heading back in the dark, we spotted a leopard bent on something. And we followed through the bush until the leopard stopped for a drink in a pond just outside the warden’s fence.

In Sabi, a crew of two mans the Land cruisers.  One is the driver, driving on mostly unpaved roads (at best).  In a seat in front sits the “tracker” (another childhood dream), scanning for signs of wild life.  Our tracker, with a spotlight, saw a chameleon about 50 feet away (in the dark and brought him back to show us).  The tracker also helped the driver as we set to follow the leopard in the dark over hill  and dale. 

I did take a nature walk, accompanied by two of the driver/rangers, armed with an elephant gun and five bullets (that’s what it takes to kill a rogue elephant), where they showed us plants (the amarula[FH1]  tree produces a liqueur that is a match for Bailey’s, and elephants like the pulp of the fruit, too, and will atrample the area under the female tree—it’s the only one that produces the fruit—in their enormous appetite for almost everything green (we examined elephant and rhino poop and compared what they’d eaten).

The “chocolate” included hyenas, jackals, the African civet cat, the genet—I think you get the picture.

But the reason I think its not like a box of chocolate is because you can’t “eat” the box, but you can certainly devour the outdoors.  The bush, dry in winter, extends across the horizon as far as you can see. So even if you don’t spot the big five, you’re left with an awesome sight.

Then, too, the packaging at Sabi Sands includes the lodges.  Well known for their luxury, we were at one that was top of the line-the Earth Lodge.  Featured in National Geographic’s list of unique lodges, the individual rooms were billed as being “the Future.”  Dug into the earth, and covered over with dirt, creating a cave=like effect, the earth tones inside were fitting in well with the environment.  We had the Presidential Suite, which was so big that I think the whole presidential party, including the foreign service, could have fit in it. Two bathrooms, a full kitchen, a study, a living room, with really nice touches inside.  The most impressive, to us, was a pool in front of the bedroom window where elephants came to drink at all hours.  As we watched, several playfully (I hope) sprayed our windows before they went on their way.

So, yes, Carolyn, it’s like a box of chocolate, but better.  And now we have to figure out how to leave Earth Lodge and come back to Earth and Bloomington Illinois.


Categories: Southern Africa 2019 | 2 Comments

“Africa is a great place to do business . . . if you can navigate the drama”

May 16, 2019 Sandton City

“School” started again (loved that four day weekend), and we had a full day of business speakers.  The overall theme reminded me of a comment a speaker in India contributed to my repertoire, “Whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true.”  The same may be said about the African continent, as our four speakers assessed business options from the optimistic to the (at least my conclusion) pessimistic, “Who’d want to do business here.”

The optimists tend to point to the future.  There’s the simple demographic of a young population, growing exponentially, now reaching about the size of China/India.   There is no doubt that there is wealth, some of it potential. 

Johannesburg is a case in point for both extremes.  Located on the site of the discovery of a gold mine in the 1880s, the city remains the commercial capital of South Africa, and perhaps the single most important business center on the continent (Kenyans and Nigerians might take exception).  The area where we are located, Sandton City, has the most expensive real estate on the continent.   On the other hand, though the mines once supplied over 2/3 of the world’s gold, AshantiAmerican (we’ve visiting tomorrow), whose pedigree traces back to Cecil John Rhodes, announced it is selling its last mine in South Africa.  That mine is 4 kilometers underground, requiring half of an eight hour shift just to get to the vein.  Plus, doing business in South Africa can be costly.  Once  using coerced labor under apartheid, the mines are now unionized, and the unions are one of the three legs of the ruling African National Congress (the others are the Communist Party and the revolutionary descendants). Strikes are allowable in the constitution, and it’s difficult to fire workers. It costs the company more to mine the gold than the current price on the world market.

There you have both the alpha and the omega of doing business here.  Potential, some reality, and many problems. As another example of the wealth, we’re located across from the Nelson Mandela Mall, which makes Oakbrook look like K-Mart.  If there’s an upscale store anywhere, it’s here.  And the mall is multistoried and several blocks long.

As for Johannesburg itself, it’s unusual to have a major commercial city that’s not on the coast or a waterway.  Its population is about 4.5 million.  The central business district, when apartheid ended, suffered from violent riots.  We’re driving around it tomorrow, but I remember the area had very high vacancy rate, with the tall buildings having perhaps shops on the ground level, and broken windows above. The major businesses then moved to suburbs like Sandton City.  It’s rather like Chicago with all the corporate headquarters moving to River Forest, to take a Chicago comparison.

One of the businesses that presented today I remembered well from three years ago.  It’s Discover Vitality, in South Africa, an insurance and financial services firm with a distinctive spin.  When you become a member, you get an Apple Watch that you can get for free—if you practice healthier living.  For example, you get points for working out, for eating healthy, for stopping smoking.  Your rates go down, and you qualify for prizes, such as plane trips.  Discover rolls out new products every year to keep the buzz, and has added auto insurance (your watch monitors your driving) and a bank (get extra rewards for saving more for retirement). Discover has also bought companies overseas (UK), and partnered with or franchised its software to the US (John Hancock) and China (Ping An Insurance company).  It reinforced what one of our speakers (he runs a company that consults with various state governments, and American and foreign businesses on how to do business in Africa) suggested was a potential for the future:  African solutions to global problems. The global problem is the BIG FAT problem, which Discover has addressed by changing behavior.  It’s not surprising that one of the company’s consultants was Dan Ariely, one of the leading behavioral economists. His book, Predictably Irrational, is a primer in the field.

While Johannesburg still has some mining—platinum, for example—South Africa’s biggest challenge is the need for social initiatives (to decrease poverty and reduce really high unemployment) and economic initiatives (encourage foreign investment to aid, for example, in the renovation of obsolete power facilities).  The system of Black Enterprise Empowerment puts some restrictions on foreign businesses in the South African market.  There are requirements for black ownership (26%), black management, use of black owned suppliers, skill training, etc., that the GE speaker described as requiring him to plead with corporate headquarters for additional funding and support. We were also told that American businesses, though providing only  2% foreign direct investment, have been responsible for 20% of the “transformation” of the economy (“I meet a lot with our compliance people,” the GE executive said), demonstrating the challenge of balancing social and economic initiatives.

And as he pointed out, “Africa is a great place to do business… if you can navigate the drama.”  Right now, the drama is probably higher in South Africa than in many other places on the continent. South Africa, once touted as one of the BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa) for the future of business, has had slow economic growth and a slew of problems.   The business community is no doubt looking to see what happens as a result of last week’s election. That’s part of the drama here.

Categories: Southern Africa 2019 | 2 Comments

Dr.Livingstone, I presume?

May 11, 2019

Perhaps the most famous words in African journalism in the 19th century were Stanley’s quest to find Dr. Livingston [sic] , a medical missionary/explorer who was the first European to see Victoria Falls.  Partly in honor of finding what is the number one tourist spot in Zambia, the grateful British renamed Constitution Hill in his honor.  That’s the city we’re at today, 1200 miles and 16 degrees north of Cape Town (I almost said “Los Angeles,” a city it resembles), and we’re here to “discover” Victoria Falls for ourselves.

We packed a lot into the last day in Cape Town before we left at  5 am this morning.  We had three visits that helped put a little more heft into our understanding of the Western Cape’s role in the South African economy.  Cape Town generates 11% of the country’s GDP, mostly by providing financial and business services, as well as being the hub for agriculture and agricultural exports.  The economist for Wesgro, a kind of chamber of commerce for the region, gave us the kind of reasons she gives potential investors: if you’re seeking a footprint on the African continent, Cape has an educated work force (4 major universities), a 17% lower cost of living than Johannesburg and 60% less than New York, and a business friendly government.

A visit to the Port facility confirmed many of her statistics.  Part of a government run business that manages freight trains, pipelines, as well as 8 ports (the largest being Durban, in the Indian Ocean, the harbor at Cape moves 86% of the country’s fish exports, 60% of its beverages (read l million bottles of  wine), and 50% of its agriculture in general.  The biggest exports to the United States are usually metals and minerals, especially platinum.

The dockage includes some exotic features, such as a freezer terminal (to keep the fish at -10 C), and two rather interesting special features.  We had to take a breathalyzer test to get into the facility; the manager emphasized the importance of safety.  The port requires one of its pilots to get the ships into the harbor, and sobriety is essential.  What was probably the neatest feature of the visit was that the control tower is 11 stories high, and from its walkway, we had stunning view of the waterfront area and the harbor.

On the way back to our hotel, I got dropped off at one of the museums I had marked as a “must do”—e the Old Slave Lodge, which had been an old slave lodge where the Dutch East India Company kept its company-owned slaves.  Ironically, the building subsequently saw service as the location of the Supreme Court before it was reconstructed.  What I learned was that 1) the first ship carrying slaves arrived from Portuguese Angola in 1658; 2) the majority of slaves came from Mozambique or from the Indies.  The latter helps explain the persistence of a Muslim community in Cape, the so called Bo-Kaap area, with its colorful homes and mosques; 3) Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, and frequently enforced the law by capturing slavers and releasing the victims (though frequently as indentured servants); and 4) Britain banned slavery in 1834, which was one of the triggers that set the Boers (Dutch for farmers) trekking east and establishing republics, that were to last until the second Boer war.

I didn’t want to leave the subject of Cape without mentioning the election last Wednesday.  Our third visit yesterday was to a newspaper agency which had a post that captured “much about muchness.”  The ruling African National Congress got a majority, as expected, but was down about 5 per cent from the last election five years ago.  The Democratic Alliance won the Western Cape and will have the premier, but it also lost percentages from five years ago.  The winners were the left and right extremist parties; though they have small numbers, they still will be represented in parliament because of the proportional seating.  Everyone claimed victory.  Perhaps we’ll know more when we return to Johannesburg next week.

One other important (for me) Cape factoid: in 1641, before the founding of Cape Town (and maybe one of the impetus for it), a Dutch ship’s captain was lost.  What was “found” was the Legend of the Flying Dutchman, one of my favorite Wagnerian operas.

We’ve got a variety of activities available tomorrow, but tonight I’m looking up at Orion, who left our hemisphere a few months ago to move into the southern hemisphere.  As I mentioned, we’re 17 degrees south of the equator.

Categories: Southern Africa 2019 | Leave a comment

There’s Gold in them hills

May 19, 2019 Sabi Sabi

We spent yesterday exploring Johannesburg, and, in the process, learning about the history, which, as in many other countries, helps explain the present (and the challenges of doing business there).

Johannesburg is a late 19th century city, founded on gold.  As I’ve mentioned, that gold  helped shape South Africa in more ways than one.  The Boers, who had left the Cape Colony partly because the British had abolished slavery, settled two new Boer states—the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.  The discovery of gold brought in an influx of non Dutch miners.  President Paul Kruger engineered legislation taxing the foreigners, but denying them the vote.  It was one of the pretexts the British seized upon to pressure the Boers, who declared war and essentially fought the British empire to a standstill; the truce which ended the conflict was the beginning of the Union of South Africa.  Thus, what is now South Africa (as opposed to the Cape Colony), started in Johannesburg.

It’s now over seven million people, and while only 8 of the 30 or so mines that once gave the world over 2/3 of its gold are still functioning, many barely, the slag piles that resemble yellow mountains around the city can now be mined profitably with new technology—and sometimes yield uranium, platinum, and manganese. Thus, there is gold in them hills, still.

The mines, as I mentioned, also fostered the race relationship that eventually hardened into apartheid, the rigid separation of the races. The Union of South Africa in 1910 began the process; middle class blacks had been able to vote in the Cape Colony, for example. The Union took that vote away from all black people. As apartheid reached its peak after World War II, the system became law.

We learned about the evolution of apartheid at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.  Ironically, the museum has a connection with gold, too.  It’s located next to a theme park, Gold City, and a casino, that are on the site of the original gold mine.  The concessioners got the right to build the casino in exchange for constructing the museum documenting apartheid.  When you enter, you randomly get a ticket identifying you as white (Blankie in Afrikan) or colored (non-white) and you enter the appropriate gate for the first exhibit, which gives you an idea of what apartheid was like. 

Actually, as our guide pointed out, there were five “classes” of races. Northern Europeans were in class 1; in class 2 were southern Europeans (Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards were not quite class 1); class 3 consisted of mostly Asians; and class 5 were blacks.  Class 4 were blacks who changed their name to a Dutch variant.

One such was Hector Peiterson, who was born Pitro, in the black township of Soweto (Southwest Township), once home for mine workers, now a neighborhood of  2.5 million blacks, with six whites—four priests and two NGO workers.

Soweto played prominently in Apartheid Museum.  Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, who won Nobel prizes for their work in ending apartheid, lived on the same street in Soweto. Mandela’s house is a tourist spot, complete with bullet holes from several police raids (he spent many years in the Robben Island prison, while his wife and daughters lived in the government-built house in Soweto; they added a brick wall between the kitchen and the living room so they could defend themselves from the random police violence).

The Apartheid museum documented the struggle to end apartheid, which got tangled up in the cold war. South Africa, being against communism, was helped by the United States in its war to keep Namibia and Angola from being taken over by political parties supported by Cuba, China, North Korea, and Russia.  In fact, it was the CIA who told the South African government where Mandela was hiding, which led to his arrest and incarceration until 1990.

The Pieterson museum in Soweto focuses on one of the key events in the movement to end apartheid: a student uprising in Soweto.  The target was to get a repeal of a white South African demand that all classes be taught in Afrikans, the quasi-Dutch language of the Boers (and even today the second most spoken language in the country, but mostly by whites).  The protest turned ugly, and between 67 (official) and 700 (unofficial) protesters were shot, the first being  the twelve year old Pieterson.  It led to a number of boycotts of South Africa by most other countries, and the isolation of the country internationally.  In the effort to become self-sufficient, South Africa created businesses that were not competitive when the bans were lifted when apartheid ended, a gap still plaguing the economy. Blacks had essentially been denied all opportunity for upward mobility.

To round out the story, we went through Johannesburg’s Central business District, the old downtown. Once a prosperous white-dominated area, the city’s core suffered from violence and white flight, with many buildings having only shops of the first floor. We went to the SAB museum in the area, and our guide called the buss to take us the two blocks to AngloGold rather than let us walk it. In a lot of ways, the plight of South Africa is a function of its history. The government has built, we’ve been told, over 3.5 million homes, but needs to build 10 million more to end the shantytowns of containers converted with aluminum roofs.  No wonder foreign investors are squeamish and South African bonds are mostly junk rated.  That’s the cost of capital again!

There’s gold in them hills, but not all glitters.

Carolyn and I are experiencing the new “gold”…tourism, in one of the private game reserve parks. Our new best friends from the faculty development in business trip have mostly started their way back home. As you might have gathered from my blog, it was an enjoyable group and a great experience, capped last night by African dancers and an oxtail dinner. Now to deal with only animals….

Categories: Southern Africa 2019, Uncategorized | 4 Comments