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South Africa Anniversary: Looking Back

[Ten years ago, we celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary with a trip across South Africa. This is what we saw.]

Lost and circling downtown Pretoria, our Black driver erupts in exasperation. 

"I don't often come to the seat of apartheid," explains the only South African we meet who mentions the old South Africa before we do.

Five years ago had someone told me South Africa was a great getaway for African Americans, I would have suggested they get their head examined. But the new South Africa beckons us with an atmosphere that is welcoming, relaxing, and uplifting.

Market Theater Complex in Johannesburg was a historic rallying point for multiracial challenges to apartheid and is still a bustling, popular meeting place.

On one end, MuseumAfrica's stirring exhibits chronicle the struggle for democracy and Black life in the townships and mines. Around the corner, Koforiki's offers people-watching and inexpensive outdoor meals while Gramadoelas's serves traditional dishes from an extensive menu in a more upscale setting.

 Down the street in a converted bag factory, Fordsburg Artists Studio gathers internationally acclaimed artists in free workspace. Recent residents include African American Annette Lawrence and South African Sam Nhlengethwa, both visual artists, and Zimbabwean sculptor Flinto Chandia.

Our biggest splurge is the Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town. Since 1928 those with time and money have crossed South Africa on these gleaming coaches in private, paneled staterooms outfitted with sunken tubs, brass fittings, and marble floors.

Townships and squatter camps, barren and destitute, flash by along the railroad tracks, haunting backdrops for the luxurious ride that was once for whites only.

From Cape Town, we drive to Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. The Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, combine for breathtaking views from the lighthouse atop craggy cliffs. En route, Mariner's Wharf Restaurant in Hout's Bay serves up fresh lobster, great wine, and a clam appetizer so scrumptious we lick the shells and suck our fingers.

Next up, pristine coasts and sapphire ocean stretch out along the famous Garden Route. At Tsitsikamma State Park, we walk across the mouth of the Storms River on a  swaying suspension bridge as waves crash thirty-five feet high nearby.

In Knysna, unhurried one-stop shopping for handmade traditional crafts. Finally, Plettenberg Bay's deserted beaches fill our remaining days on the continent, peaceful reminders of why we travel off-season.

The new South Africa, still burdened by painful contrasts, challenges African Americans who travel with our racial history intact. The District Six Museum in Cape Town stirred rage from my growing up days in Amerca's apartheid, the 50s and 60s US south. Once described as "the soul of Cape Town," District Six was a thriving mixed-race community until the government named it a "whites only" area in 1966 and bulldozed it into the sea.

I comforted myself by purchasing the double-platinum CD "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" in the huge shopping mall on Albert and Victoria Wharf near the recently bombed Planet Hollywood. I am reminded that at last, the Black majority controls the strongest economy on the continent. The more tourist dollars we leave behind, the more money there is to fund Black home ownership, education, health, and new minimum wage laws.

South Africans of all colors were incredibly gracious, helpful, hopeful. They seem honest in their insistence on letting bygones be long gone. Though it is hard to match the example set by South Africa's present, imagine if their future becomes the one they dream.