Bubbles and Troubles

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the caldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.

William Shakespeare: Macbeth: IV.i 10-19; 35-38

Dear Blog Readers.

I will not bore you with my first-world complaints of jet lag.  Of leaving Istanbul airport at 2am, only to end up in an hour-long Johannesburg airport passport control line – with certifiable jerks cutting ahead – and finally being greeted by Cousin Ruth Nicola in the early afternoon that same day, who, with calmness and patience, was waiting for me in the passenger reception area.  Oh. Please excuse. That was a complaint.

I’ll move on. (But perhaps bore you in other ways!)

My first evening in Joburg (see, I’m already on a first nickname basis), was a festive dinner at the home of my cousin Joy Margolis. I had first met Joy, briefly, when, as an adventurous woman in her 20’s, she visited my mother in early 1980’s Seattle. The second time we met was 15 plus years ago in the Joburg home of her mother, Lillian Stein, for a grand shabbat dinner.

Lillian and her husband Leon – both of whom I actually met at Lillian’s sister Mavis’s home in London whilst our family was living there in 1972 – were founders and owners of a major egg and poultry business in South Africa.  Lillian’s mother Frieda was my mother’s aunt.  That made Joy and me second cousins.

Joy has been an educator and a writer – she has published several children’s books and one topic of our post-dinner conversation was her exploring the choice of publisher for future books. She is also a heckuva wonderful cook and laid out a magnificent feast for our evening of food and conversation.

Joining Joy and me at the dining table were her brother Swami Padmapadananda, her significant other, Roberto Valente, and our cousin, Ruth with whom I stayed three nights at her nearby flat.  Joy’s son Josh, who was busy in the next room engaged in his real estate consulting work, popped in to say hello.

Swami’s story is fascinating and fantastical. As a young man, named Raymond Stein, he got into a horrible traffic accident and nearly died. His family were all yoga practitioners and as Raymond healed up, he found himself attracted not only to yoga, but in general to Hindu practice and belief.  Eventually, he turned his youthful physical crisis into a lifelong mission and became a Hindu monk. For the last decade he has devoted himself to helping educate and lift children out of extreme poverty in Kenya.  Annually he returns to South Africa for medical check-ups and to reunite with family.  I was fortunate to be there at just the right time to meet him (for my first time).  To read more about Swami’s inspirational life and work, click on this link: https://about.me/swamipadma

Roberto and Joy have been in relationship for around 10 years. Mostly retired now, Roberto has a background in real estate development. He has been working to develop housing for low-income residents and I was able to delve into the practicalities, financing, and goals of one of his projects.

Ruth is an educator, writer, and editor. Her work is varied, including editing of student PhD dissertations and textbooks. She is the daughter of Abie Swersky, Lillian Stein’s brother, which makes her exactly the same relation to me as Joy.

I met Abie only once, in 1998, when Zac and I were in London. We were staying at Cousin Mavis’s home – everyone in the family throughout the world always stayed at Mavis and husband Harry’s home in the London Borough of Chiswick. (Turnham Green tube stop, and a 5 minute walk to 29 Abinger Road – we all memorized that address!).  Abie and his wife Joyce had us all over to their lovely home for a delightful Passover seder that year along with children and grandchildren Nadia, Allison and Adam.

Ruth told me more details about her father that I hadn’t known.  He was an attorney (called an “advocate”) and major authority on tax law in South Africa during the Apartheid era.  He knew some of the significant anti-Apartheid advocates and helped the cause as he could, but his specialty was not the prime subject of the struggle against that government’s core social policy.  Nevertheless, he – like so many others – left South Africa during the Apartheid-era because he couldn’t abide the regime. About 60% plus of South African Jews have left the country.

Around the dining table, our conversation that evening at Joy’s was wide-ranging and animated.  Everyone asked detailed questions about the latest political machinations in the USA, and like other South Africans I encountered in the rest of my stay, they all demonstrated an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the most minute issues facing our country.  Later in the stay, I asked my cousin Gary how and why he knew so much about American politics.

“It’s because ours is so hopeless and depressing, that we like to focus on something a little more positive and exciting.”  

It’s a bit more than that, of course. Wither the USA goes so effects the whole world. So, they need to keep up. But their depression about their own domestic future seemed real.

Back to Joy’s meal.

A theme of my communications with my relatives during the entire stay in South Africa has been a consistent set of questions:  Are things getting better or worse in this country? Roughly 30 years after Apartheid fell, and White minority government was no more, is inequality increasing or decreasing? Is crime? Are public services getting better or worse? 

The answers from my relatives were consistent and emphatic. Things were getting worse. Always worse. Pretty much for everyone, both the rich and the poor.  Bad for the poor for obvious reasons… more poverty, greater inequality and fewer opportunities.  But bad for the relatively rich as well.  More crime, poorer public services, and currency devaluation making foreign travel – or emigration – far less affordable.

The details would then pour out.  The government is incompetent and corrupt.  Public services continue to deteriorate. Violence has increased as has income and wealth inequality. Whites are leaving as they can. Jews among them.

Then came the examples.  The issue du jour was the assassination attempt on the federal head of the electrical utility.  He escaped with his life, and then called out governmental and political malfeasance and corruption.  The country has for years been going through increasing disruptions in electrical service, with regular daily power outages called “load shedding.”

Regular conversations and life choices now revolve around the load shedding schedule for the day and week. People in high rise apartments can’t get the elevator to take them up or down from the street (a huge health and safety issue for seniors). Restaurants cook food by lanterns and gas. Refrigeration is a worry.

Then there is the question of just getting around safely. Traffic lights in South Africa are called – and this is very cute – robots.  When load shedding occurs, all robots go dead, so people get stuck in huge traffic jams as they squirm through un-signaled intersections.  And while we talk about roads, a few more examples of daily life. 

Because the government can no longer be relied on to actually pave the roads – and fill potholes – the private sector has stepped in. Auto insurance companies now have pothole repair teams.  They have found that it is cheaper to fix the potholes themselves than pay for all the damages to cars from pothole encounters.

Because leaving a car in a car park can be dangerous, there are various formal and informal non-governmental security services that “watch” your car for you when you shop.  Returning to your car, men and women and children with reflective vests smile at you and you are to give them money and thank them for their service.  Same is true at robot-impaired intersections, where you develop ongoing relationships with the folks on the street.  My relatives always tried to keep coin change in the cup holder to contribute to folks who patrolled their local intersections.  Personal relations were formed between drivers and intersection guards over the years.

The above represents the opinions of my relatives and my own observations. So, I checked Wikipedia and other sources. Sadly, the trends were confirmed.

The Italian statistician, demographer and sociologist, Corrado Gini (23 May 1884 – 13 March 1965) developed a measurement for economic equality in societies now known as the Gini coefficient.  It is a measurement of income or wealth distribution measured from zero to one. Essentially, a country with a Gini Coefficient of zero meant that everyone had precisely the same income and wealth.  A coefficient of 1 meant that one person had all the wealth in a country.  And guess what?  South Africa is the most unequal country in the world! https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gini-coefficient-by-country Between 2005 and 2014 things got slightly better (65 down to 63) but it was still the worst in the world by 4 points! Yet, a more recent analysis is not promising. Inequality appears to be increasing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_inequality_in_South_Africa#:~:text=Data%20made%20available%20by%20CNN,affecting%20the%20black%20South%20Africans.

How could this be?  In the USA, we are looking at our own high levels (in the Gini 30’s) of inequality and very much seeing that it has a racial component. Native Americans and Blacks have far less wealth per capita than Whites, for example.  We have been exploring issues of institutional racism, the need for diversity, equity and inclusion and the value of representation.  Yet in South Africa, where there is Black majority rule, inequality has actually increased.

That said, throughout the trip, I also saw some clear and wonderful changes that reflected Nelson Mandela’s inspiring vision of a “Rainbow Nation.” There is an emergent Black middle class, both bourgeois and professional.  Public accommodations are now open to all. When I went to magnificent parks and swimming areas (more on that in a future blog), I saw people of all races and ages playing together. The universities, including elite ones like Wits University, are now mostly attended by Blacks.  

It all adds up to a feeling that the nation is balanced precariously between hope and despair; between a model of successful integration and a catastrophe. And it is all so horribly frustrating because South Africa has phenomenal natural and human resources to draw from.

50% of the world’s gold reserves are found here. It is the largest coal exporter in the world. South Africa holds the world’s largest reported reserves of platinum group metals, chrome ore and manganese ore, and the second-largest reserves of zirconium, vanadium and titanium. Russia may have the most diamond reserves in the world, but South Africa is close behind. It even has some of the finest universities in the world.

How do people who are used to trusting institutions or expecting basic services cope when those services are in a constant and dramatic decline? In South Africa they creatively adapt. Recoup. And adjust their expectations.

Throughout my nearly two weeks in South Africa, I saw (this is being written when back home in Olympia) both wealth and inequality, play out dramatically before me.  To one degree or another, all my relatives and their close friends are in a kind of bubble within which a mostly first-world middle class existence is possible. For some, the impacts of load shedding and potholes push on that bubble. For others who can afford their own solar arrays or private security, they find ways to adapt, continually adapt, to changed social circumstances.

Joy and Ruth had a suggested plan for me, my second day in Joburg.  Would I be interested in going to The Origins Centre on the campus of Witwatersrand University (Where Nelson Mandela got his law degree)? It is a museum which explores the begins of humanity in southern Africa. “Why yes,” I quickly reply.  Which continued my basic approach on this trip to the three nations all going through various forms of trauma.  I will “say yes” to everything.


3 thoughts on “Bubbles and Troubles

  1. It always seems to be about decline, more corruption, etc. Are there examples of turn-arounds, historically speaking? Perhaps Turkey & Ataturk would be an example although we now have the Erduwon manifestation there.


  2. Hi Daniel, we read your latest entry with interest, here in Barcelona. It does seem even with all the problems we face around the world, the standard of living for many has risen with the advent of so many technologies we take for granted. When they fail, it does feel as if we are going backwards. David says his advice to your readers is “take your Prozac and go to bed.” My thoughts are continue to give us your valuable perspectives on realities that you have experienced!


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