Thursday, July 18, 2013

Seeing South Africa: An Interview with Dan Forti

This is Part II of our conversation with Dan Forti.

Today is also the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa.  

We open with Dan's thoughts on Mr. Mandela and his life.

Here in the United States we hear and read a lot of news stories (often conflicting) that give dire reports of Nelson Mandela’s health.  How are the people of South Africa reacting to his illness? 
First, it is natural and appropriate that Mandela’s decline in health is a focus of the world’s attention. Mandela is a remarkable individual and was paramount as a lawyer, liberation leader, armed revolutionary, symbolic figurehead, reconciler, President, elder statesman, and mediator both within and outside of South Africa. I am trying to recall some quasi-scientific study conducted earlier this year or last year (if I remember correctly) that attempted to assess the world’s most influential individuals across the entire history of mankind: Mandela, ranked 18th or 19th, was the only living individual on a list that contained the likes of Jesus, Da Vinci, Gandhi, and Buddha, among other historic figures. So it is by no means a surprise that he remains a fixture of the world’s eyes.

Having said this, I think the media (both inside and outside of South Africa) fail to accurately capture the realities of the situation. First and foremost, Mandela is 94, and is an elder statesmen who has lived a long and challenging life. This fact alone contextualizes his decline in health – few individuals, under any circumstances, are able to live until 94. Mandela also suffered severe damage to his eyes and back during his 26+ years on Robben Island, and has been in and out of the hospital over the past few years. Mandela’s last public appearance in South Africa was during the 2010 World Cup, and has all but remained out of the spotlight since then. As a result, his decline in health cannot honestly be described as any sort of surprise or shock.
My personal opinion of the situation is that the majority of South Africans have already come to terms with his eventual passing. What the media seems to be perpetuating now, unfortunately, is an expropriation of his name for increased viewership. What they should be focusing on instead is an acceptance of the realities of his health and a much larger celebration of and reflection upon his legacy and values, which have undoubtedly transformed humankind for the better.

What is life like in South Africa right now?  What were the easiest and what were the hardest things about attempting to assimilate into the society?
Life in South Africa is quite similar to life everywhere else: there are positives and negatives, opportunities and challenges, and the complexities, hypocrisies, and inspirations that make this world so special. Durban, a beach city most similarly equated to San Diego, is obviously a world away from NYC. It's a much slower and more relaxed lifestyle, and although the country’s third largest city, is most certainly not metropolitan. What is similar to New York, however, is the infusion of cultures and peoples. Durban is located in the heart of the Kwazulu-Natal Province and is the heart of the traditional Zulu Kingdom (the Zulu’s are South Africa’s most populous ethnic group); Durban was also a key British harbor during the early colonial years, and thus retains many British aspects; perhaps most interestingly, Durban has one of the largest metropolitan population of Indians outside of the Indian subcontinent (millions of Indian immigrants were brought to Durban during the 19th century as indentured servants on the region’s sugar cane plantations, and was also the place where Mahatma Gandhi began practicing law). Mix all of these together, thrown in South Africa’s unique political/socio-economic history and the influences of today’s globalized society, and I personally believe it’s among the most fascinating places.

In terms of assimilation, I’m not convinced I’ll ever fully assimilate. I like to believe that I will always retain some blend of the USA in my life, even if that has obviously become secondary to my personality here in SA. The fact that English is the prevalent language throughout the country made the transition to life in Durban very straightforward. And given South Africa’s reality as perhaps the most developed country on the continent, I have not been forced to sacrifice too many of the trappings of home while living here.

Do you ever feel lonely, and if so, what do you do about it?
I’m lucky to have a great group of friends and colleagues here in Durban, so loneliness does not often factor into my day to day. However, there is no escaping the realities that I am very far from my family and friends back in the States, and this is an ever-present challenge of life here. I’m also lucky to have an incredible group of people in my life back in the US who remain supportive of me and are always there to remind me that home isn’t too far away (especially with Skype, Facetime, and Facebook). Most importantly, my parents keep me grounded and are always there for me, no matter what time of day or night.

I know that something like 11 different languages are spoken in South Africa, are you learning any of them?
True, South Africa does have 11 official languages, an acknowledgement of the plurality of communities that make up the country. Unfortunately I have not had any successes in learning any of the languages besides English. The dominant language outside of English in Durban is Zulu. I’ve taken a few Zulu lessons before and understand basic greetings, vocabulary, and sentence structure. However given that my working language is English and that the vast majority of individuals in the area speak English, there has not been the necessary language immersion to facilitate this process.   

Are you reading any good books right now?  What influences your choice of reading?
I have to admit that I am not reading as many books as I’d ideally like. Given that one of my primary responsibilities at work is to constantly monitor political situations throughout the world, I find myself reading something like 50+ news articles a day. As a result, my motivation for extracurricular reading isn’t too high. However, I have found my reading tastes gradually shift towards African literature. I’m incredibly thankful for my Kindle, which allows me to sift through Amazon’s massive collections instead of exclusively relying upon the surprisingly limited shelves of bookstores here in SA.  I do have a few great books lined up. I’m currently working my way through the professional autobiography of Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, which is turning out to be a fascinating but extrmely technical overview into national economic policymaking. The next two books on my list are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Teju Cole’s Open City

Bunny Chow
Photo from:

What are your favorite local food choices?

Thankfully Durban is a culinary hotspot. My absolute favorite local dish is called the bunny-chow. Born out of Indian-South Africans’ experiences as indentured servants in Durban, the bunny-chow is simply a meat or vegetable curry served inside of a hollowed-out loaf of bread. The bunny-chow is eaten without silverware, but instead, by using the bread bowl as utensils to dip, scoop, and eat the curry. The curries in Durban are unbelievable and the bunny chow is one of the experiences I can’t wait to bring home with me!

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