On October 14-15, 2011, South Africa hosted the 5th India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Academic Forum at the Durban University of Technology in Durban, South Africa.
This year, I had the honor of representing India at the IBSA Academic forum as the only student delegate.
Following is a short account of my trip and a few observations I made while I was there.
On my Way to South Africa
I took an Emirates flight from Delhi to Dubai on Oct. 13, which was about three and a half hours long, and then from there I took a flight to Durban, which was about eight and a half hours long.
I reached Durban sometime late in the afternoon.
But before I talk more about South Africa, let me put forward some observations I made on the airports at Delhi and Dubai.
The newly built Terminal 3 at the International Indira Gandhi Airport is truly a world-class terminal. I’ve seen many international airports over the years, and there is no doubt, this one is certainly among the best in the world. We Indians really have something to be proud of.
Now, I don’t know if the Dubai international Airport is the largest airport in the world, but judging by the size of it and UAE’s urge to build the biggest of everything, I won’t be surprised if it is the largest airport in the world.
When the airplane landed on the runway in Dubai, the plane must have taxied on the tarmac for about 15 minutes before it came to a halt; after which we were escorted onto buses which then ferried us to the terminal. That again took like 15 minutes. So, the time it took us to reach the terminal is evidence enough.
And once you enter the terminal, you are greeted with an equally long concourse. Gate numbers start from 100 and run all the way to 200 or so. That’s about 100 gates at a single airport. The concourse must be a mile long. And I’m not making a wild estimate here because I walked almost all of it.
Then the other most noticeable feature of the airport is its look and feel. The entire airport looks and feels like a shopping mall. Most airports have duty-free shops, however, Dubai International Airport has duty-free shopping centers.
There is no doubt about it, Dubai International Airport is the most impressive airport I’ve seen yet. And as I said earlier, I’ve seen a few.
The Good People of South Africa
At the airport I was greeted by IBSA organizers, of whom, two require a special mention: Ms. Ronel Blom and Mr. Alan Roux, both from the ministry of Higher Education of South Africa (HESA).
What’s special about the two is that they both contradict the government employee stereotype which we here in India have resigned to accept and live with. They are two of the most helpful and considerate government officials I’ve ever met – anywhere.
I’ll cite an incident which will give you a good idea of why I speak so highly of them.
Since I don’t have a credit card, and my ATM card doesn’t work outside of India, I took cash along with me, and I thought I’d get them converted into Rand (South African currency) at the airport in Delhi.
I tried to get the rupees converted at the airport in Delhi, but unfortunately they had ran out of Rands, so they advised me to get it changed in Durban.
But when I reached Durban, I find out to my surprise, that banks in South Africa don’t accept Indian Rupees.
Luckily though, I had taken along with me my brother’s credit card for in-case-of-emergency situations. And boy was I right to do so.
And here is one of those instances where Alan Roux was really helpful. Alan had gone out of his way to help me with my foreign exchange problem. He tried to get it changed at several banks in Durban, but as the lady at the counter for foreign exchange had informed me at the airport earlier, no bank in Durban would accept Indian Rupees. So I was stuck with the rupees I had on me.
In relation to this, I feel I should also mention the good and helpful people at the Coastlands on the Ridge hotel where we were all accommodated for the duration of our stay. After Alan’s unsuccessful attempt, the concierge at the hotel also tried to help me with my foreign exchange problem. However, the result was the same.
Allegedly, this was not the case till very recently. And again, allegedly, the reason South African banks stopped taking Indian Rupees was because banks in South Africa had faced a serious problem of counterfeit Indian currency coming in. So they just stopped taking rupees.
Alan, however, was not aware that I had a credit card on me, so he was under the impression that all I had on me was cash. So he – out of the goodness of his I heart I suppose – offered to give me money to spend, knowing too well, that it would be next to impossible for me to return it. So he was practically giving away the money and not lending it to me. But I obviously declined the offer because I had made other arrangements. But I was really touched by the gesture. Something like this is impossible for me to even imagine happening here in India.
And the reason I cite this incident is because I found all South Africans to be very polite, kind and hospitable. I must have met several dozen South Africans during my stay in Durban, and yet I did not come across a single South African who behaved differently.
Another person who deserves to be mentioned in the same vein is Ahmed Bawa, the Vice-Chancellor of Durban University of Technology (DUT).
DUT is allegedly the MIT of South Africa. So to be the VC of such a university it must be a very prestigious position. But unless you were told, you could never guess Ahmed Bawa was the VC of DUT. The man is extremely humble and has no pretentious air about him. He came up to me and talked a couple of times during the conference. I found him to be an extremely amiable and humble man.
Similarly, the student delegates from South Africa were as courteous and kind as everybody else I had met in South Africa.
Luyolo, Nombulelo and Chantelle, students from the University of Witwatersrand, a.k.a Wits, in Johannesburg, did not for a minute make me feel like an outsider. They talked, they laughed and shared interesting personal stories with me. I am truly appreciative of how they treated me. I didn’t think it was possible, but I made new friends in a span of just two days. If it had not been for them, my time at the conference would not have been as interesting as it was.
Another interesting person I met at the conference was Fola. She was a PhD student from a university in Paris. Though she came from France, she was not French. Fola is from a country called Benin in West Africa. She was not attending the forum as a delegate but as an observer. Her PhD topic happens to be IBSA, and her attendance at the forum was field work for her research.
Incidentally, she had also lived in Delhi for a few months in 2010, and had also visited Brazil, on account of her research; all, by the way, paid-for by her university. This makes me wonder if there is any university in India that would spend so much money on a single PhD scholar. I seem to think not.
There were several other people I met who were equally fascinating, but if I were to speak about every single one of them, it would simply make this article too long, so I’ll just mention their names.
Francisco, from UNDP in Brazil; Mathew the president of the national students union of Brazil; Sandile, the president of the national students union of South Africa; Nishi Mitra, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; Sachin Chaturvedi, senior fellow at Research and Information Systems in Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi.
Everyone one of them made my experience of South Africa, rich and a memorable one.
The Beautiful City of Durban
Durban is one very beautiful city. It’s a city on the coast with green hills, and the look of a beautiful, and might I add a very clean, European city. You can see English cottage styled houses in the suburbs and colonial styled buildings in the city.
Judging by the looks, it is hard to believe that South Africa is a developing country in the continent of Africa. It feels more like a city you would find in Western Europe.
Another feature of the city is how sparsely populated it is. I did not see any traffic jams or a crowd of people on the streets while I was there.
Though they say the climate in South Africa is very hot, I found it to be really pleasant. But that could just be during the time I was there.
Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement
Many people don’t know this but Gandhi had built an ashram in South Africa before he built one in India. If you’ve seen the movie “Gandhi” you’ll probably remember the part where you see Gandhi living in this farm like place with his wife and others in South Africa. I don’t recall if they name the place in the movie, but it’s called the Phoenix Settlement, which Gandhi built in 1904.
I did not know this, till I was informed in Durban, but Gandhi’s Phoenix settlement is just outside Durban. And thanks to the kind people of DUT, I got to see it. They made arrangements for us to visit the place.
The place, for obvious reasons, is a tourist site. The place comes equipped with everything a tourist would need: a tour guide and an over-priced souvenir shop.
The guided tour was helpful though. I got to learn a few facts about Gandhi which I wasn’t aware of before.
For instance, I did not know Gandhi had lived in South Africa for 21 years before he emigrated to India in 1914. And it is also said that it was here that Gandhi developed his philosophy of non-violent resistance, more popularly known as Satyagrah.
And what was most startling to learn (about the settlement and not Gandhi) that the settlement had been burned to the ground sometime in the 80s by the Afrikaan-led apartheid government. And it was rebuilt only a few years ago. Which explained why everything looked so new. And I suppose it was this newness about the place that gave it an artificial feel to it. It did not feel like it was an old heritage site.
Although nobody lives at the ashram anymore, I was told by our guide that the place is still used in the service of the local community. Apparently, there is a clinic, a school and a community hall. Also, I was told that till very recently, Gandhi’s grand-daughter, Ela Gandhi, used to live there. Her house, however, was not open for public viewing.
On a side note; it seemed a bit ironic for me as an Indian, to be lectured about Gandhi by a black-South African lady.
Observations on the Society of South Africa
What I found really strange during my very short stay in Durban was how segregated the South African society seemed to be. The South African nation seems to comprise of three communities, or to be more accurate, of three races of people; namely, the whites, the blacks and the browns, who are mainly of Indian origin.
While at DUT, whenever I noticed a group of students walking by on campus, these groups of students rarely had a mix of the three communities. Every group of students I saw, either had all Indian-South Africans or all Black-South Africans (I’m not sure if there is another term for the blacks in South Africa). And oddly enough, I hardly remember seeing a group of white-South African students. Though I did see some white students, but not in a group.
Then later while touring the city, our driver kept showing us where the Indians lived, where the whites lived and where the blacks lived. It was like the residential areas in the city were divided on racial lines.
This reality, by the way, has some historical basis to it. According to one of our drivers, under the apartheid system in South Africa, it was official policy to keep the three communities segregated. Though that rule was abolished at the end of apartheid in 1994, it seems the intermixing of the three communities has been slow to take effect.
On a related note, I heard an astonishing sentiment being expressed by our Indian and black South African drivers. In our conversations they revealed to me that they believed things were better during the days of apartheid.
I could maybe understand if the Indian-South Africans feel that way, but to hear a black-South African say he missed the good old days of apartheid was nothing less than a shock to the system.
What they lamented about was how the present black-dominated African National Congress (ANC) government was incapable of running the country. They cited an increase in crime and inflation in food prices as evidence of their government’s incompetency.
Although the whites-led government discriminated on the basis of race, they said, we felt safe and taken care of. They knew, one of them said, how to run a country, while the ANC government does not.
By Way of Conclusion
My experience of South Africa is one of the best experiences of my life. What I learned in a span of just two days is something that would have taken me months to learn – if at all.
I learned how international forums work; what it means to build international relations; why collaborations between countries are so important; and last but not least, I learned a lot about South Africa.
And for this unforgettable experience, I would like to express my gratitude for the folks at HESA and DUT, who organized the event. Also, all the delegates from all three countries whose participation made the IBSA Academic Forum possible; and above all, my university, Jamia Millia Islamia, for giving me the opportunity to be a part of such a momentous event.
I am truly grateful to all.
[Also read a report on the IBSA conference here: “The 5th IBSA Academic Forum 2011, South Africa: A Report “]