Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Out of Africa Add to ...

Hunched behind a low stone wall outside the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel in Mumbai last week, I took my eyes off the burning building for a minute to do a quick head count: There were at least 300 other journalists in the plaza with me; CNN was live at one end of the plaza, the BBC at the other, and a dozen photographers I know from war zones around the world were crouched in between.

My days of being alone on the big story appeared to be over.

In five years as this newspaper's Africa correspondent, I found myself in such a crush of reporters just three times - at the 10th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide, the controversial 2005 elections in Zimbabwe and the ousting of South African president Thabo Mbeki as head of the African National Congress a year ago. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I was alone. Even on really big stories - like the start of the latest war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which 350,000 people have fled their homes - there was exactly one other foreign correspondent with me at the front line.

Last week's attacks provided lots of justification for The Globe and Mail's decision to open a new bureau in India, and my own desire to report there. But for me, it was also a powerful reminder of the amazing scope and scale of the stories I was leaving behind in Africa, and what it was like to cover them, knowing I was struggling against a limited Western attention span, with its defensive and weary expectation of yet more bad news - and trying not to succumb to that sensation myself. I had never set foot in South Africa before the day in July, 2003, when I landed in Johannesburg to open the new bureau. In years of reporting from the continent, somehow I had never made it there.

But I had an old and dear friend in Jo'burg, Ngaire Blankenberg, who is the daughter of South Africans forced into exile by apartheid. Ngaire was born in Canada and we became friends in university. She moved to South Africa after the transition to democracy in 1994, and she told me in our crackly long-distance phone calls about the changes happening here, the sense of opportunity and possibility. She made me want to live here.

Johannesburg was also a logical place to station a bureau that would focus on Africa's AIDS pandemic, which at that point was one of the most important yet least-covered stories in the world: South Africa had the highest rate of HIV infection anywhere, with five million people living with the virus. Plus, the phones and electricity were reliable and the airline connections were good.

The night my partner, Meril, and I landed, Ngaire and her two young children picked us up at the airport, wedged us and our heap of luggage into her Hyundai and whisked us toward the bright lights of the city I soon learned to call Jozi.

That first night, she took us to a party for a television show she was producing. We walked through the door of a bar into the Rainbow Nation that I thought existed only in tourism commercials.

The sound system throbbed with kwaito, the homegrown blend of hiphop and blues. There was a long buffet table that mixed the traditional foods of all of this country's different cultures - sour samp (a mash of crushed corn kernels) and beans, spicy Cape Malay curries, stewed pumpkin and spinach in peanut sauce.

A great polyglot mix of people, all of them stylish, were swaying on the dance floor and calling out to friends in a mishmash of languages.

That night, I fell for Jo'burg.

There were certainly challenges that came with living here: having to be on constant watch for hijackers and bag snatchers and home invaders; hearing people (of all colours) casually say astoundingly racist things.

But Jozi thrummed to the energy of people from across South Africa and the rest of the continent, people who came here to launch a fashion line or make a film or make their fortune. They worked hard and played even harder, and I met young black business tycoons, newspaper editors and filmmakers whose lives would have been unimaginable to their own parents a decade before.

And the politics were addictive. Everyone here talks politics all the time - eventually I learned enough isiZulu to know that the janitors at the mall and the ladies in the nail salon were debating the latest events in parliament; every dinner party buzzed about which ex-communist cabinet minister was making a million in mining.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular