Humans – old and recent history in South Africa

We’re two weeks into our June road trip that will round out our year here.  Today is a “down day” in the middle of the Karoo; think Texas, only this is “lamb country” with butcheries on every block.  While waiting for laundry to dry and looking for a dentist, we’re taking some time to regroup.  I’m sorting photos of recent days, so I’ll share some of what we’ve seen so far.

We started in Johannesburg, a sprawling mega-city with a reputation for crime and little to see.  We learned it’s one of the only cities in the world that is not located on a water source.  Its birth and explosive growth resulted from the discovery of gold in the area.  Even though gold is not mined there now, that history is evident in the enormous sand tailings around the outskirts of town.


We spent our first day at the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its role in unfolding the story of human evolution.



This is the location for some of the most important discoveries about human origins.



We enjoyed the exhibits as well as observing scientists at work on real specimens.


We also visited the nearby Sterkfontein caves which turned up this discovery in 1947.


Or you may remember the announcement two years ago of the new species Homo Naledi, discovered in the area by this team of women.  (Photo is by John Hawkes, from The Atlantic article about them.)

Simon and Elsa Ruth had never been in a cave before.


The guide emphasized how challenging it would be descending 60m underground, but with the steps, lighting, and clear pathways we decided we had it pretty easy comparatively!

Our first day was a day of wonder, marveling about how our species evolved and all that is understood about that process.  And our second day provoked a different kind of wonder, puzzlement really, about how it is possible that humans can be capable of such cruelty and ignorance.  We spent Day 2 in Soweto where we gained a better understanding of life under apartheid and how that system was ultimately dismantled.  The content at the Apartheid Museum was pretty challenging and we all absorbed it on different levels.



What would it have felt like to see these vehicles patrolling the neighborhood, or to be the men inside?


I especially enjoyed learning more about the first democratic elections in 1994, one of the few historical events from South Africa that I can place in my own memory timeline.  I remember seeing the photos of snaking lines of people waiting to cast their votes and the news that Nelson Mandela had been elected.  What I did not know was that there had been so many parties on the ballot – 18 of them!  The sense of possibility and participation must have been so inspiring.


Who knew there was even a Soccer Party!?  I like their acronym which stood for, “Sports Organization for Collective Contributions and Equal Rights.”


There was also one party running a paired team.  I would love to learn more about these two individuals.


Another site in Soweto was the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.  It tells the difficult story of Pieterson’s killing at age 12 by police, along with many other students who were protesting the required use of Afrikaans in schools.  The famous photograph of his sister and friend carrying his body rallied people around the world and fueled the subsequent rioting throughout S.A.


In fact, that event occurred 40 years ago today; June 16th is now a public holiday known as “Youth Day.”

“Heavy-duty” pretty much sums up the day in Soweto- a lot to take in and react to.  There were lighter moments though – art tucked in here and there personalizing the spaces.



And many school children were out and about on field trips.  Here a group watches street performers outside the home that belonged to Mandela’s family.


The Orlando Towers are a site to behold.  Visible from Soweto, these towers were part of a station that supplied power to white neighborhoods during Apartheid (while Soweto went without).


Today they are painted with colorful murals and you can watch the adventurous bungee jump from the middle.






One thought on “Humans – old and recent history in South Africa

  1. Another powerful and educational posting! So exciting you got to the Cradle of Humankind site. WOW – I would have loved that! You have seen some very old and recent history and yes some of it painful, but so important to remember. I thought the ballot was so interesting with pictures of the candidates but no names. Thanks for sharing and enjoy the rest of your travels. I am counting the days till I meet you at the airport! Love, Grandma Nancy


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