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IXP – South Africa: From Cape Town to Johannesburg

Cape Town is situated in between a mountain range and the Atlantic Ocean, and this unique geography makes it one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. It is also a city of extremes as some residents live opulent lifestyles while others live in abject poverty.

A few weeks ago, I journeyed to Africa for the first time. I, along with approximately 60 students and partners, went on the Africa Business Club’s two week trek through South Africa. After a 30-hour pilgrimage from Miami, I arrived in Cape Town. Unsure of what to expect but thoroughly intrigued, I got in a cab to my hotel and began surveying the landscape immediately. While on the drive from the airport, I noticed rundown shantytowns and upscale suburbs, located just a few miles from one another, which struck me as odd. And although New Years’ celebrations had taken place the day before, the city of Cape Town was still incredibly vibrant and in a festive mood.

The next morning, I began exploring and concluded that our plane must have mistakenly taken us to the Mediterranean. Cape Town is situated in between a mountain range and the Atlantic Ocean, and this unique geography makes it one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. It is also a city of extremes as some residents live opulent lifestyles while others live in abject poverty. Venturing into the townships, the pristine image of Cape Town quickly evaporates as one comes face to face with extreme poverty and neglect. The HIV rates in South African townships are among the worst in the world and the government and civil society are still trying to craft a strategy to deal with this issue.

While staying in Cape Town, we visited a number of tourist attractions. For starters, we journeyed to the wine country of Stellenbosch and visited 5 different wineries in about 100-degree heat. At one of the wineries (which doubles as a cheetah sanctuary, naturally) we petted cheetahs while sipping Cabernet Sauvignon. I know that sounds random, but you never know what to expect in South Africa! Another highlight of our Cape Town experience was climbing the famous Table Mountain, which overlooks the entire city. Despite sleeping through my 6AM climb due a late night visiting Cape Town’s nightlife destinations, I joined the group at the summit and took some amazing pictures. A third highlight was visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many political prisoners were housed during the 1960s and 70s. Robben Island was a particularly moving experience as the tour guides are all former political prisoners who spent time in the Robben Island jail.

After Cape Town, we ventured to the Kruger Gate for a safari. We observed each of Sub-Saharan Africa’s big five game animals (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros) in their natural habitats. We also stumbled upon zebras, giraffes, hippopotamuses, baboons, impala, and countless others. Watching a full-grown male lion walk up to our open-air vehicle definitely caused my heart to skip a few beats, but the animals couldn’t have been better-behaved. Well, actually, we almost got attacked by the same lion the following night, but that was because our tour guide told us to get out of the vehicle for a drink in the middle of a dark field. You can guess what happened from there… Other than that, the Safari went off without a hitch.

Our final destination was Johannesburg. In Johannesburg, we visited local business leaders and got a better feel for big city life in South Africa. While Cape Town is somewhat laid back, Johannesburg is a bustling metropolis and the business capital of Africa. All of the major firms are located there, and you can sense that it is the engine of the South African economy. After meetings with a number of companies (which are all looking to recruit HBS students), we visited Soweto, the largest slum in Africa. In Soweto, we found homes belonging to three Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Albert Lutuli) on the same block.

All in all, the trip to South Africa was a success. While South Africa is a country with enormous potential, it is plagued by a number of problems. Racial and socio-economic tensions still exist although the situation has improved considerably since 1994, HIV/AIDS has claimed millions of lives and will continue affect countless others, the government’s educational system is horrendous, and illegal immigration has brought in 5 million new inhabitants to South Africa, searching for work despite the 30% to 40% unemployment rate. Furthermore crime is rampant in certain urban areas, and the civil service is corrupt. Nevertheless, there is still enormous potential and I’m putting my money on South Africa to solve these problems and emerge a much stronger country!

February 7, 2011
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