It is spring in southern Africa. The swallows are back, sweeping around the buildings at the university and across the freeways. That last comment may seem a little strange but bridges across these roads provide good nesting sites for swallows. I well remember, over 30 years ago, driving across the Highveld on my way to Swaziland. Two swallows flew suicidally in front of the car. The sadness I felt on seeing, in the rear view mirror, their bodies tossing and turning behind me is something that still resonates. I really felt terrible. It may of course be Darwinian! The surviving swallows and their offspring do not take these risks and there were none darting across the road this trip.
I feel very fortunate as I recently had reason to drive up to Swaziland and then on to Johannesburg. The occasion was the visit of Kim Duncan and Marina Galanti of the Rush Foundation. Their goal is to fund disruptive ideas around HIV prevention. I first met them at a meeting in Washington in September 2011, and then worked with them on a symposium in London held in June of this year. They have many good ideas – see www.rushfoundation.org. I suggested they visit HEARD and I would take them up to Swaziland and introduce them to the folk at The National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA).
Kim and Marina arrived in Durban on Tuesday 2 October and spent the day at HEARD. In the evening we hosted a dinner with some of Durban’s key people in the HIV world. On Wednesday, I picked them up and we set off for Mbabane. The roads were clear, partially because of the Road Freight Association truck drivers’ strike which meant there were few heavy vehicles on the road.
It was a sunny and bright day and as a consequence we had a most enjoyable drive, although it did take rather longer than I had hoped. We stopped for coffee at Mtunzini, lunch in Mkuze at the Ghost Mountain Inn, and got to the Mountain Inn just before dark. We then had just a few minutes to change before going to Malkerns to Marandela’s Resturant for dinner with colleagues from NERCHA. This is also the location of House on Fire, where every year there is a major festival.
On Thursday morning I dropped Kim and Marina off at the NERCHA offices and drove to Johannesburg to catch the flight back to Durban. It took me four hours to get from Mbabane to the airport and eight from Durban to Mbabane so it probably made more sense to go that route. As always it is a chance to reconnect with some very beautiful parts of both countries. The drive through Swaziland from the border to Mbabane is always a pleasure. The contrast between the flat Lowveld with the Lebombo Mountains on the right hand side; the rolling Middleveld; and then the jagged hills of the Highveld makes the journey interesting and scenic.
It was great to have interesting company for the first stage of the journey. On the second day I played CDs and for the first time really listened to a country music song called Letter to Heaven. What a desperately miserable song. The brief synopsis is: little girl asks her grandfather to write a letter to her dead mother; included in the letter are the lines: ‘Tell mommy I miss her since she went away
I coming to see her real soon I hope’; the girl goes out to the post box; gets knocked down and killed while crossing the road; the postman sees this happen and remarks on the puissance of her words; and the letter gets delivered! Oh dear it is terrible – almost as bad as the one about the two orphaned children who freeze to death on the porch of the church. It shows I do not listen properly to the lyrics.
I was delighted by the greenness of the countryside all the way from Durban to Johannesburg, an indication there have been good spring rains across the region. The area from Lavumisa to Big Bend in Swaziland seems to fall in a rain shadow area, but this year it is looking good. We passed one field where the farmer had harnessed his donkeys and was plowing the rich black earth. This is also the part of the journey where the Lilac Breasted Rollers perch on the telephone wires. They are stunning birds. Back in Durban the Pied Manikins, very attractive but tiny little birds, are furiously nest building outside my office window.
Spring is a great time of year. It does have two downsides as far as I am concerned. The first is mosquitoes. They are back. Folklore has it is they do not fly very high and in theory my flat on the third floor should be a mosquito-free area. Unfortunately it is not and there are currently four patches of mashed mosquito on the wall of my bedroom. Scarlet blood and black body parts. The second is that the birds begin the dawn chorus a little earlier every day. By 4.30 am they have cleared their throats and are singing. After many years of waking in the very early mornings I now have taken to using ear plugs. This means I can sleep for a little longer. I fear that not even industrial ear plugs would keep the noise of the Hadedas out. Raucous and very loud. They roost in the trees around the flat and if a noisy vehicle, or ambulance with its siren blaring goes past they wake up and announce to the world that their rest has been disturbed. No consideration from those birds.
Is it the problem or the advantage of being an academic that one’s work is never done? There is always something new and interesting to read. At the moment I am on a number of news lists and fortunately they summarize the main articles that they believe would be of interest but there is still far too much to read. And then, of course, one of our main functions in our job descriptions is to add to the corpus of knowledge. I will have marked two PhDs in the last month. One was on gender-based violence and its links to HIV; the second a history of the epidemic and response to it in South Africa from 1980 to 1995. This is a really good way of getting a literature review and current thinking but it is daunting to be presented with a 300+ page document.
South Africa is going through a difficult period, with a great deal of labour unrest. We were appalled by the recent police shooting of 34 miners in Marikane in the North West province. At issue here is more than money; it is about how our society will be structured. If all these pay rises are awarded then we will create a labour aristocracy. Those who are not in employment will be increasingly desperate and dispossessed. There will not be enough jobs to go round. However given the huge amounts of money being earned by some people and the perception that there is wide spread corruption, who can blame those with low salaries from wanting more? The tragedy of the commons is that there are finite resources. The solutions in my view are: tax the rich and don’t flaunt wealth. I wonder why the Reconstruction and Development tax imposed in 1994 was not kept. It was not much and I did not know people who resented paying it. There is an excellent commentary by the Jonathan Jansen looking at what is going on here. Please do read it – far more insightful than I can ever be.
Finally, I have been running at the weekends. The first run was 6.1 kilometers – and yes the way I do it is to run round the neighbourhood, then get in my car and measure the distance. My goal is eight kilometers – five miles. So the last run was longer and I was sure I had cracked it. No! The drive round afterwards showed I had covered just 7.2 kilometers, and at a very slow pace. My excuse for the speed is that I do like running up and down the hills in Glenwood and some are exceptionally steep. Perhaps the key is to simply keep going at this. With less weight (the goal and reason for running in the first place) and stronger legs I will make the target and manage something faster than the current snail’s pace of only nine kilometers per hour.