A Witness To History

One of the joys of a working vacation, as described in Getting From Point A to Point B In Style, is the ability to add one or more interesting stops on the way to or from the host country.  After you have agreed to a contract simply ask your hosts for permission to purchase an air ticket that includes a layover in some interesting intermediate city.  Given the amount of money being committed to your visit–transportation, housing, salary–they will often be willing to absorb the insignificant $100 or so that this stop might add to their bottom line.  (This is exactly what happened on my upcoming trip to Kuala Lumpur.  My Malaysian hosts were generous enough to cover the $150 surcharge for adding a three-week stop in Japan on the return trip.)  Even if they do bill you for the layover, the cost will still be far less than purchasing an air ticket from your home to the same destination–just try flying from Minneapolis to Tokyo for $150!

After accepting a three-month teaching offer from the University of Zimbabwe and receiving authorization to purchase my ticket, I booked a flight on TAP, Air Portugal, because I could later rebook at no cost and convert our flight to Zimbabwe into not just a “two-fer,” as I had done on our earlier trip to Istanbul, but a “three-fer” with a three-day layover in Lisbon followed by a six-day stop in Cape Town, South Africa before continuing on to Harare.

We arrived in Cape Town in the late morning after an exhausting eleven-hour flight from Lisbon. Forcing ourselves to stay awake and adjust to local time, we took a leisurely walk around the city ending up at the classic Greek-columned South African Parliament building in Company’s Garden Park, totally unaware that we were about to witness a momentous historical event.

South African Parliament Building in Company's Garden Park, Cape Town

The information booth in the park informed us that the South African Parliament was being called into session in just a few minutes. Thinking this an interesting way to pass some time and stay awake we secured our entry passes and went upstairs to the visitor’s gallery unexpectedly packed with reporters, photographers, and observers. Every seat was taken and there were numerous standees, ourselves included. Was something special happening or do South Africans simply have a greater interest than Americans in the proceedings of their federal legislature? My wife and I once visited the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington DC when it was in session. There were maybe two dozen visitors in the gallery and even fewer legislators seated on the floor.

The audience hushed as President F. W. de Klerk entered the assembly, stepped to the lectern, and began addressing Members of Parliament (MPs) but, unfortunately, in Afrikaans. I thought to myself how sad I would not be able to understand a word he said, but after five minutes he smoothly, and without warning, switched to impeccable Oxfordian English. To our utter amazement, now that we could understand, he announced to everyone seated on the floor and in the visitor’s gallery that his government would, effective immediately, rescind every remaining racial segregation law still in force–he had eliminated some, but not all, apartheid statutes in a speech to the legislature two years earlier.  At that point, the conservative Afrikaner MPs stood up, turned their backs to him, and stormed from the hall as the gallery erupted in cheers and photographers sprang to their feet to snap photos.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk Receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo in December, 1993

What had begun as simply an afternoon stroll to stay awake had ended with our witnessing one of the most significant moments in African history—the official end of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. Eighteen months after listening to that speech, F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize at a formal ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

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