“I Am So Sorry, I Missed My Airport” Reflections May 2010

Durban’s new international airport opened on 1st May. This was not a revamp or an upgrade of an existing airport, as has been happening across most of South Africa, this is a completely spanking new airport. On Friday 30th April, the last scheduled flight arrived at the old airport. During the evening a number of aircraft flew, empty and low, across the city to be repositioned for the next day’s operations. It was exciting for airport and aeroplane geeks like me. It meant that for a few days there would be chance to say: “I am sorry I missed my airport”, rather than “I am sorry I missed my flight”.

I flew out in the evening of the first day of operations. It was astounding how well everything worked. On the downside the airport is some distance to the north of the city. It will mean allowing 40 minutes to get there rather than the usual 25. It costs more in terms of taxi fares and there is not the small, intimate feel of the old airport. On the upside it is really beautiful, will handle all the projected traffic for the next 30 years (indeed it is planned to be operational in 2070), and I really hope we will start having direct flights to Europe. If that happens it will make a huge difference! At the moment there are many flights to Johannesburg and a fair number to Cape Town but for Durbanites there is only Emirates (with the connection in Dubai) for Europe. There is a really good Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Shaka_International_Airport.

This sort of change gives me mixed feelings. When the planes approached the old airport from the north, the route was across the coast in the vicinity of Balito then down along the beach, across the harbour and coming in to land over the industrial area. As a passenger it was spectacular, and always made me feel we were coming home. Looking out of the window there was the Umgeni river mouth and the Blue Lagoon; then the stadia (the new world cup stadium, Moses Madiba is truly spectacular white, glistening and very large ); the green circle of the Greyville race course; the houses and blocks of flats spilling down the Berea ridge. Usually the plane would be over the central city so that was not visible, instead there was the highway bisecting the city and the University: with the gold dome of Howard College and the phallic Memorial Tower building dominating the skyline. Looking up from the ground it was as though the planes hovered over the city. That will all be a thing of the past now, instead it will be the sugar cane fields and perhaps glimpses of the Valley of 1000 hills.

Because it was the first day of operations, I was a little concerned that there would be some mess up in the handling. I got there extra early and even allowed for a longer lay-over in Johannesburg. It was unnecessary as it was one of the smoothest experiences I have had. The airport was really busy, but not with passengers, people had come out simply to look at it – they were local tourists; families who had decided: “Let’s not go to the beach today, let’s go to the airport”. According to one of the staff, some local people are excited that there is a new shopping mall in the area, and are saying: “and it has even got an airport”.

I actually approve. While there are arguments against air travel and spending huge amounts on infrastructure we did need longer runways: the existing one was not long enough to handle inter-continental traffic. There was a period when British Airways flew a jumbo in to Durban, but it had to stop in Johannesburg to refuel before going on to London. I doubt that there will ever be a Durban to Norwich flight, but I sincerely hope there will be one less connection to make in the future.

I was fortunate when I went into the lounge in Johannesburg to bump into Sigrun Mogedal, the Norwegian AIDS Ambassador. She was travelling with a colleague, and had just been to a meeting on foreign policy and health. We chatted, and as a result the layover went by quickly. We discovered that we were sitting next to each other on the plane, but true to airline etiquette put on eye masks and headsets and only spoke briefly in the morning.

The hostess brought me breakfast; it is my habit to have the granola with plain yoghurt but the pot had a picture of lush strawberries on top.

“Excuse me”, I said, “I asked for plain yoghurt”.
She replied, “Yes we were confused by this too so we tasted it, and this is plain”.
Then realizing what she had said she added, “Not this one of course”.

I will be away from Durban for a month. In this time I must make serious progress on my Political Economy of Swaziland book, which is now seriously overdue. This month is also the time when Douglas has to complete his revising for his GCSE exams so I will be here and hopefully he can revise and I can write. A form of bonding which I don’t think he will necessarily buy into. Oh well! It has also been a good month in Durban because we have finally managed to appoint an Operations Director for HEARD which has been a huge gap in our staffing. The person accepted the position, and will start on 1st June, so we will just have to get through the next month.

The recent films and books are

“A Single Man” directed by Tom Ford, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood and starring Colin Firth made in 2009 and set in Los Angeles.

This is the story of the day in the life of a gay man whose partner of 16 years has been killed in a motor accident, while visiting his parent. It is set in the early 1960s. The man, an English Professor is informed of the death of his partner by a cousin and at the same time is told it is a ‘family only funeral’. The plot tells of his despair as he goes through a typical day – but this day he intends to commit suicide. The story of the partnership is seen through flashbacks. The theme of suicide is evident in his preparation: writing notes, cleaning his office and buying bullets for the gun. In the end he cannot find the right environment to kill himself, goes out to buy whiskey, meets one of his students, they have a drink and go swimming and return to his house where the boy tenderly dresses the cut on George’s head. The boy undresses, and there is a suppressed sexuality, but nothing happens. George blacks out and when he wakes the boy is asleep on the couch, holding the gun. George takes it away covers the sleeping boy goes through to his bed and has a heart attack and dies. At one level this is a touching drama about human relationships and the difficulty of being gay at that time and place. There are also deep questions, and it is one movie I would have liked to see with someone to discuss the meanings. Well worth seeing.

“Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign”, Nathan Geffen, Jacana Press Cape Town, 2010 248 pages.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is one of the world’s best examples of a social movement. It was established to push for treatment in South Africa in the face of overpriced antiretroviral therapy and subsequently denial of the existence of the problem in South Africa. Formed in December (10th December 1998) when it argued that the State should develop “a comprehensive and affordable treatment plan for all people living with HIV/AIDS” . For the first two years it targeted multi-national pharmaceutical companies in trying to get prices down.

Nathan Geffen one of the founders of TAC, tells the story of the organisation from 1998 to 2010. He covers the period of denialism, the deadly fights with the Government to push for antiretroviral therapy and get HIV literacy across the country. He describes the many “quacks” who operate, virtually unhindered, in South Africa. The back of the book says “the story of the TAC’s campaign is one of the triumphs of citizen activism for social justice and human rights”. I bought this book with enthusiasm. There are many books on HIV/AIDS in South Africa which look at the epidemic from various perspectives. The story of the Treatment Action Campaign has not been told. The second chapter “What we know about AIDS” was disappointing, written in over-simplistic language and covering old ground. I’m glad I pressed on; the rest of the book is excellent. It is written with passion and a sense of outrage but is also literate and an enjoyable read. Geffen has done us a great service by taking time to write this book and offer his reflections on what the TAC was, is, and will be. I strongly commend it to all scholars of HIV/AIDS with an interest in events in Southern Africa. Literacy 8/10, content 9/10.