Category Archives: Africa

Looking Back on South Africa

By Jake Amatruda

MINNEAPOLIS – The popular image of sub-Saharan Africa is usually a hungry child standing in a dust- and dirt-floored hut.

During my time in South Africa over recent months, I witnessed something different. In the bustling cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, life did not conform to that picture of want and poverty that so often comes to mind. Life on the whole, of the entire population, was not so dire – or it was at least played out in a different context.

More luxury Mercedes and BMW cars passed us on the freeway near Joburg than would on a given day driving down the I-95 to New York City – and this was despite the prohibitive import tax that would have made those cars even more expensive – evidence of the riches that some South Africans clearly possessed.

South Africa has the most developed infrastructure of any of its sub-Saharan neighbors, even more so now because of the expansion and refurbishing that took place in preparation for the World Cup. Being more developed, the country has a particular brand of urban poverty, rather than the rural variety that many Americans associate with the area.

Places like Kliptown and the squatter camps outside of Joburg are full of people chasing the mirage of urban opportunity, an illusion that evaporates only to reveal rampant unemployment, scarcity of unskilled jobs, and thousands of others just like them pursuing the same dream.

“The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.” It’s a familiar, age-old saying – overused, maybe, but the reason for its endurance is that there is some truth to it. The gap in wealth, resources, and quality of life is astounding in South Africa.

Near Mtubatuba, my place of residence during a one month+ stint of employment, the view of Africa as epitome of desolation and pinnacle of poverty was contradicted simply by the landscape. I was surrounded by lush vegetation, much of it part of the industrial farms that produced gum trees and sugar cane for the local paper and sugar mills.

Poverty in South Africa was not worse than I expected. Near cities, in tightly packed rows of ramshackle housing, life seemed more desperate than it was in the countryside – perhaps the idyllic setting of rural areas tricked me into an unrealistically rosy perception, or the fact that misery was never as concentrated there as it was in highly populated urban townships.

The “township tours,” which show off poverty in order to make a profit, are popular attractions for foreign tourists. They make me uncomfortable, in spite of the fact that some of the money goes to people in need who might have no other source of income. I feel that I should avert my gaze, rather than risk offending or shaming them, but I wonder how much of this sentiment comes from a sense of impropriety, and how much from a desire to push the bad/struggling parts of the world aside so that I can continue living my comfortable life and attending Yale University.

Does merely raising awareness of conditions of need, whether it’s in South Africa or somewhere closer to home, lead to improvements? There must be more.

The other day, I heard a man say that the problem with direct service is that there will always be more to do, another person to help. Maybe the best way for me to help, at least for now, is to get involved in groups that can have a long-term impact on situations like those in Kliptown, South Africa.

Or maybe that’s just the easy way out.


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Filed under Africa, foreign aid, Globalist, Overseas Bureau

Cup of Contrast (a World Cup Flashback)

Night: Players from the English and American teams take the field, before singing their national anthems. (Amatruda/TYG)
And day: Bandana-clad fans from the Mtuba Football Academy at the Japan v. Netherlands match in Durban, SA. (Messing)

By Jake Amatruda

SOUTH AFRICA – This is a country full of contrasts, where first world and third world rub together every day. In Soweto, an area called Diepkloof Extension is full of houses that wouldn’t seem out of place in Beverly Hills – but just down the hill are blocks of government-built housing that have no running water, and where the only electricity comes from car batteries. Many of the domestic workers, lawn mowers and other laborers who maintain Diepkloof’s pristine appearance live in this poor area, and trudge through the grass each morning to start work.


Life in South Africa is not monolithic, and the same can be said about the tournament it recently hosted. I discovered this summer that you can go to two World Cup games and have completely different experiences. My trek up to Rustenburg to see our boys of team USA take on England was hectic. We woke at daybreak and drove 500 km to Johannesburg, rushing to beat Joburg’s notoriously bad traffic, on the way to the stadium. The game was going to be my first ever professional match, excluding the semi-pro Minnesota Thunder games that I went to as a kid, where tickets cost $1 and I played soccer alongside the field. My ticket was waiting with a friend, who I needed to find en route to Rustenburg, somewhere along the main highway. The plan went as follows: drive over the huge dam, continue past a busy market on the left-hand side of the road, and find the sign for the elephant sanctuary. Wait and pray.

Difficulties connecting with my friend and signs that read “Danger: Hijacking Zone next 6 km,” meant that we eventually decided to meet at the stadium.

When driving to World Cup games, the best option for non-VIPs is the Park & Ride. You leave your car at a lot, far away from the stadium, and take a shuttle up to its entrance. Rustenburg’s version of this was a large grass field with a vague sense of rows and an even more elusive sense of order. Unable to navigate any further through the dense traffic of bodies and buses, our shuttle driver let us off a kilometer away from the stadium. We joined the mass of fans flowing down the dimly lit street.

After all the talk of the damage that thousands of vuvuzelas could wreak on our ears, I wasn’t surprised to see a group of boys hawking earplugs along the road – if they hadn’t undertaken that business venture, I certainly would have tried.

The confusion continued inside the stadium. The ushers, volunteers in bright green FIFA jackets, sent my friends and me back and forth to different levels of the park, refusing to allow us past so we could take our seats. We finally convinced/fought our way through in time to see Tim Howard jog off the field at the end of warm-ups.

The game itself was a messy affair. Team USA’s defense was lax, and the back line let Steven Gerrard through almost immediately to give England a 1-0 lead. Neither side managed to really dictate the style of the game, and Dempsey equalized towards the end of the first half, thanks to a horrible error by the England goalkeeper. The USA supporters jumped up and embraced each other, while Englishmen around us groaned.

It seems that Americans can think of no better cheer than “USA! USA!” repeated over and over – at least they shout it with pride. Our more inventive counterparts from England have a large repertoire of profane chants and songs, but to my disappointment they were drowned out by the vuvuzelas.

Neither the stadium scoreboard nor the clock was working, but it didn’t matter. The final score was England 1, USA 1, and the American players and fans seemed satisfied with that result. One player in particular was enjoying the limelight, grinning and waving back to the crowd while his more seasoned teammates tromped back to the locker room.

As my friends and I regrouped and went back to our car, our post-game high soon evaporated. The park & ride had just one exit, and with cars descending from all angles the going was slow and exasperating. Further ahead, an endless string of red taillights wound through the night. Luckily for me, I dozed through most of the traffic, only rousing myself enough to stumble inside and unroll my sleeping bag when we returned to Johannesburg. It was 4 AM. I lay down, hoping to get some rest before the next morning’s long drive home.


The match that took place on the following Saturday between the Netherlands and Japan, on the other hand, was well-organized, clean, and beautiful. Moses Mabhida is the most picturesque of the ten World Cup stadiums, with an elegance that Rustenburg lacks. It’s in Durban, where 80º F temperatures belie the fact that Africa is in the dead of winter.

Even chaperoning nine kids from the Mtuba Football Academy, the experience was easier and less stressful than going to the game the previous weekend. We parked, went through security, and found our seats without incident.

Around us, the stands began to fill with swathes of orange and blue as more spectators arrived, decked out in their country’s colors. It was easy to tell which team the marching band, sporting neon orange tuxedos, and the guys in full-body orange spandex, were supporting – the Oranje (a common nickname for the Dutch team) enjoyed the majority of the support that afternoon. Japanese fans wearing strange get-ups resembling large bowling pins milled around excitedly. As for the man in a gaudy oranje kimono, I’m still not sure exactly where his loyalties lie.

The teams played a calm, mid-afternoon game, in which the Dutch passed the ball around with ease and established a fairly laconic pace for the match.


Despite their differences, these games shared a sense of companionship that characterized the entire World Cup. In both matches, I was struck by the lack of animosity on the pitch and in the stands. Referees gave only a few yellow cards, since hard tackles and other displays of poor sportsmanship were rare. The England fans sitting next to me were good-natured, even managing to laugh off ‘keeper Robert Green’s mistake. And after the Netherlands v. Japan match ended, I joined a seaside soccer game on one of Durban’s beaches. Each side had a motley mix of players, ranging from graying Japanese doctors to small boys who had flown in from Spain. The sun set on a scene that would have been unlikely at any other time, but was becoming commonplace during the World Cup. All the hype about soccer bringing people together? It’s not just wishful thinking. It’s real.

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Filed under Africa, Culture and the Cup, sports

The Summer of the Vuvuzela

Fans showing their World Cup spirit with the ubiquitous vuvuzelas.

By Jake Amatruda

It is the summer of the vuvuzela, and people are marching through the streets blowing those obnoxious plastic horns that seem to be a staple of South African fan craze. The vuvuzela has been around for the past decade, usually at matches between local soccer clubs like Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs, whose players and fans are mostly black. Historically, soccer was the “black” sport, while rugby and cricket were the domain of whites with Afrikaner or British ancestry. Soccer now seems to be gaining widespread popularity, in part because South Africa is hosting the World Cup, and people who a few years ago might not even have known if the national soccer team had a match are now donning Bafana’s bright yellow colors and piling into stadiums, bars and fan parks to cheer on their team. (Bafana Bafana means “the boys” in Zulu, and refers to the South African soccer team.)

The World Cup has disrupted the traditional racial hierarchy of sports in SA, at least temporarily bringing different populations of the country together. The finals of the Super 14 rugby tournament were displaced from the home side’s usual stadium, in use for World Cup matches between Spain and Chile (among others), to Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Formally known as the South West Township, Soweto is a black township (in)famous for Apartheid-era protests and violence.

Most of the white South Africans that I’ve met have never been inside Soweto because they are afraid of crime or they “have no reason to go there, really.” A lot of South Africans, irrespective of race, were surprised to hear that I had stayed there – even though I’m part Japanese, I am still seen as umlungu (the Zulu word for “white man”), a rare sight even today for the predominantly black Sowetan residents. I soon became used to the stares, greetings and cheers that I got on my morning runs. I was staying in Orlando West, a nice neighborhood that was ten minutes’ easy jog from the stadium where rugby came to play.

On the night of the Super 14 final, triumphant Blue Bulls supporters of all races trumpeted their vuvuzelas and embraced each other in the streets. I was surprised to see such a widespread racial mix of friends joining each other for drinks in the popular, but technically illegal, drinking houses called shebeens. The night passed without the muggings or other incidents that some had feared. By moving the rugby to Soweto and bringing a country together behind Bafana Bafana, the World Cup has achieved some Invictus-style reconciliation through sport. Sights during my time here remind me of scenes from the movie, which documents Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a fragile new nation in the wake of Apartheid.

Not everyone likes the vuvuzela – it disrupts communication amongst the players and coaches, drowns out the chants and songs that give a special atmosphere to European soccer matches, and will probably lead to hearing loss like the kind that our parents are starting to experience as a result of a few too many rock concerts in their youths. Still, it adds a distinctive character to the 19th iteration of the World Cup. The vuvuzela is unique to South Africa, and it seems unfair to begrudge the hosts bringing a bit of South African style to the tournament. I figured that I’d like join in the fun as well, so I got a vuvuzela of my own, and I can blast away with the rest of the chorus.

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Filed under Africa, Culture and the Cup, sports

Soccer and HIV in South Africa

By Jake Amatruda

MTUBATUBA, South Africa — Just inland of Africa’s southeast coast, a downtown taxi rink bustles every day around 4 p.m. as people make their way home from work. Mtuba has only a few thousand people and three modest grocery stores.  It is the proud host of two KFC franchises. The surrounding area is dominated by sugarcane fields and rows of identical gum trees, which feed the local sugar and paper mills. Most of the residents (98%) are Zulu-speaking blacks, and the rest white Afrikaners — excluding the odd American volunteer or two.

For the past few weeks, I have been working for an NGO called Grassroot Soccer (GRS) and one of their partner organizations, Mtuba-based Mpilonhle. GRS uses soccer as a teaching tool for its HIV/life-skills curriculum (called “Skillz”), and Mpilonhle provides health counseling, HIV testing, IT classes, and other services. HIV education is desperately needed in the rural communities near Mtubatuba, where 52 percent of women aged 25-30 and 45 percent of 30-35 year-old men are HIV-positive (statistics for Umkhanyakude District, from Mpilonhle). My efforts have been focused on five-day camps that combine the two groups’ services. I’ve helped train the Skillz coaches who actually teach the GRS curriculum to local kids and joined the late stages of planning and logistics. Now I oversee and troubleshoot at the camps, which are nearing the end of their second week.

This is the first time that GRS has condensed its curriculum into such a short period – the coaches usually visit schools once a week, for a total of nine “practices” – so it’s not surprising that the camps have been a little messy at the beginning as they sort out new issues like safety and catering. Mtuba is a special case, since here we are fusing two distinct programs.

“Camp” is a distinctly American concept, and this may be the root of problems with attendance. Parents here often don’t have the luxury of time and money to drop their children off each day, and kids aren’t used to the format, especially during their special World Cup holiday from school. The good news is that despite a few stumbles along the way, things are going well for the kids, and their experience is more important than any other aspect of the holiday camps. More to come soon about finding my place in this new community.


Filed under activism, Africa, culture, education, health, Overseas Bureau

An Interview with Justice Richard J. Goldstone

by Jennifer Parker

On Wednesday, January 27, I interviewed Justice Richard J. Goldstone before he delivered the George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture entitled “Accountability for War Crimes.” (I also reported on the event for the Yale Daily News.) Justice Goldstone is a widely respected jurist with an equally intimidating résumé: he has served as a member of the South African Constitutional Court and as Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. As head of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, he recently published “The Goldstone Report.” It charges both Israel and Palestinian armed groups with committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. Israel is heavily censured throughout the report, particularly for its use of “disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population.”

Q: If one were to look at South Africa during the height of Apartheid, one would have said that the situation looked insoluble, and that the brutal repressive regime could never be changed peacefully. Yet that happened, and South Africa has become in many ways a shining example for the world. What is the lesson there for Israel and Palestine?

A: To me the biggest lesson is that there is no problem that is irresoluble. The position in South Africa was generally accepted by 99% of South Africans and 100% of world as being irresolvable and heading for a bloodbath. There appeared to be no prospect for the White minority who had oppressed Blacks for over three centuries, handing over government to a Black majority. It just seemed an impossible scenario. And yet, it happened. The associated lesson is that these things don’t occur without good leaders. For that reason, I have always applauded the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize to both Mandela and De Klerk. They came from opposite corners, they didn’t particularly like each other, but they respected that the other could deliver on what he promised. That required leadership on both sides. There are no good leaders on either side of the Palestinian/Israeli issue.

Q: The American government has been accused of being an obstacle to a reasonable peace process through excessive bias towards Israel. Do you agree with this? And if so, what steps can America take towards becoming a more effective force for peace?

A: This doesn’t apply exclusively to America, but in order to effectively mediate one has to be completely objective and completely open, and not be perceived justifiably or unjustifiably as being biased in favor of one side. I think that this is the problem at the moment, that the U.S. is seen as being overprotective of the Israelis. I think that makes it difficult for the United States to play a really meaningful role.

Q: If you were in charge of a peace process in the Middle East, what would you be doing?

A: I would certainly be getting all parties to come to table without preconditions. I think that’s an essential first step. I don’t believe that there should be any issues that shouldn’t be capable of discussion, as much as they may be anathama to one side or the other. I don’t believe that you can have meaningful discussions with important issues being left off the table. Nor can you leave the important issues for the end– it’s a waste of peoples’ time to deal with easily resoluble, less important issues.

Q: Do you see a solution to the settlement issue?

A: I’m not an expert on the Middle East, I think that should be something on the table. I’m sure there are possible solutions of land swaps and boundary discussions, border discussions. It’s difficult to tell any South African that there’s no solution, even to the most intractable problems. When there’s goodwill and there’s leadership, I have no doubt that the truth can be resolved.

Jennifer Parker is a junior Modern Middle East Studies major in Silliman College.

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Filed under Africa, law, Middle East