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THE TRAIN from Johannesburg to Cape Town on South Africa’s scrappy Shosholoza Meyl rail line pulls out of the main terminal in Johannesburg’s central business district at an achingly slow pace, as if too exhausted to make the 800-mile, 25-hour journey across this country’s forbiddingly bleak outback.

Shosholoza trains are notorious for late departures, mechanical woes and unexpected stops. Surprisingly, this train leaves on time, and as it passes under the sleek Nelson Mandela Bridge on its way out of South Africa’s sprawling, most populous city, one is reminded of the social upheaval from which this country was reborn in 1994.

In the spring of that year, Mandela, the legendary anti-apartheid crusader who’d spent 27 years as a political prisoner, was elected as South Africa’s first black president.

Suddenly, a country that was 80 percent black but governed by its 10 percent white minority enjoyed majority rule.

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But Mandela and his black, mixed-race and Asian countrymen, who up until then had been cordoned off in poor, isolated townships such as the apartheid-protest hotbed of Soweto, didn’t stop there.

They drafted a new constitution with a bill of rights that was far more progressive than that of any other nation’s, even the country it was modeled on, the United States.

The new constitution even banned discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, making South Africa the first on this overwhelmingly homophobic continent — and one of the few in the world — to do so.

That wasn’t all. In 2006, South Africa’s High Court, one of whose members is an “out” gay man, ruled that same-sex marriage must be made legal in the country. The national government obliged.

I made this train trip across South Africa’s heartland during one of two recent visits to the country. That first visit culminated in the wedding of a friend from Seattle, Andy Lambert, now living in Cape Town and working with an organization focused on HIV and tuberculosis treatment. He was about to marry Abraham Olusegun Oni, a Nigerian who had immigrated to South Africa because of its relative safety for gays and lesbians.

The depressing fact is that in most of Africa, including Nigeria, homosexuality is either banned or so taboo that anyone who comes out of the closet risks ridicule and physical attack.

The second visit was funded by a grant from the International Center for Journalists to report on South Africa’s reputation as a “Rainbow Nation” because of its proud new tradition of multiculturalism and gay-friendliness.

Despite skyrocketing street crime and violence, visitors flock here to experience magnificent game parks teeming with elephants, lions, rhinos, zebras, antelopes and wildebeests, to sample the absurdly cheap but good wines of the Western Cape and take in the European-style hedonism of Cape Town.

The most intriguing thing about South Africa, however, is its aggressive social transformation.

Maybe because of the miserable legacy of racial apartheid and other forms of oppression (gays didn’t fare well under white, Afrikaner rule, either), South Africa is a determinedly forward-looking country when it comes to individual rights.

You can sense this zeal for self-improvement everywhere, in the form of political signs and graffiti.

Painted on a wall in Cape Town’s city center is an image of a blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice. The motto above the image reads, “All shall be free under the law.”

The spirit of activism and reconciliation embodied by former President Mandela, who died in Johannesburg last December at the age of 95, lives on.

But so do remnants of the past.

CROSSING THE vast badlands separating Johannesburg in the mineral-rich north and Cape Town, near the continent’s southernmost point, gives the solo traveler plenty of time to contemplate the topsy-turvy state of affairs in present-day South Africa.

In Johannesburg’s fashionable Melville district, the colonnaded sidewalks fill with barhopping, middle-class blacks and whites, both straight and gay. It is a curious cultural mash-up, where European style meets Afro-chic, where stern-looking white Afrikaners party across the street from black gay men and lesbians executing dance moves fierce enough to win Beyonce’s approval.

On weekends in the gentrified downtown industrial zone of Maboneng, where the weekly Neighborgoods Market and Arts on Main festivals take place, the new, racially integrated, middle-class South Africa again goes on parade. Stylish gays, whites and blacks, along with mixed-race and Asian South Africans, sip fine wine and craft beers as they browse the many food stalls, art booths and clothing kiosks — the Rainbow Nation at its hippest and happiest.

But on a visit to Alexandra, one of the largest and most violent black townships among many that ring Johannesburg proper, visitors will see another South Africa, one that seems stuck in time.

A short drive from the prosperous districts north of Johannesburg, the tightly packed shacks of Alexandra stretch in every direction over rolling grassland.

While a new black middle class has taken root in the country, income inequality is growing, not shrinking. Many in Alexandra remain locked in a relentless spin cycle of poverty.

Still, if you want to find a restaurant that serves good braai, which means barbecue in the Afrikaans language spoken by many here regardless of race, you have to visit townships like Alexandra.

The Sunday afternoon braai is a universal tradition in South Africa. It’s a time to relax and connect, maybe shake off that hangover from Saturday night.

At Imbizo, a sprawling braai joint with indoor-outdoor seating in Alexandra, you pick your meat from the adjoining butcher shop, then carry the platter to the grilling area, where cooks barbecue it for you. I went with a group of gay men from South Africa and neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe, as well as the United States.

Townships in South Africa are notoriously rough places, especially for LGBT people. The country has been gripped in recent years by a high-profile series of brutal, sometimes fatal rapes of township lesbians and the murders of a number of gay men.

Even so, South Africa remains a kind of safe haven for gays.

The Ugandan-born physician Paul Semugoma, who helped with the successful petition that led his native country’s high court to repeal a draconian new anti-gay law this summer, says he immigrated to South Africa for this very reason.

Semugoma now lives a middle-class life in Cape Town with his partner.

“I come from Uganda, so for me, it’s heaven,” he says. “But in the informal areas, especially poor townships, gays have to go back in the closet.”

As the Johannesburg-based, gay historian Gabriel Hoosain Khan explains it, “We have all of the rights we could ever want, but it’s not translating into reality” for everyone. “As a black woman in the townships, you can’t even access safety, let alone a civil union,” he says.

My group dines in relative comfort at the predominantly straight Imbizo, though. Maybe we’re lucky.

When I tell a white tour operator about my visit, I’m thrown by his reaction. He gasps in horror — but for an entirely different reason.

“If I’d done that, I would’ve been lynched,” he says, the implication being that the only reason I survived Alexandra is that I could blend in as an African American. For whites, he says, it’s a no-go zone.

Race- and class-based fear and mistrust arise again and again as topics of conversation in South Africa. Many here are beset by deep suspicion and ambivalence toward “the other.” For them, their country’s much-promoted spirit of openness has resulted in a bitter malaise.

A white American expat working in Johannesburg told me with visible disgust that among her white, South African counterparts, racist remarks and jokes regarding blacks are commonplace.

A black taxi driver in Johannesburg recounts some of the hardships and petty indignities he suffered as a youth under apartheid. He remembers being randomly stopped by a white police officer and questioned about how a young black man like him could have the car he was driving — unless he’d stolen it.

The memory stings even today.

“SHOSHOLOZA” IS a popular Zimbabwean folk song once sung by migrant laborers who traveled by steam train to work in South Africa’s mines. The word itself means “go forward” or “make way for the next man.” The song, now a kind of civil-rights anthem in the new South Africa, expresses unity in struggle.

As the Shosholoza Meyl train courses through the dusty outback of the Karoo desert, white-Afrikaner farm towns dotted by windmills and separate black villages made up of boxy, candy-colored homes go by in a blur. It’s enough to dampen any illusions about South Africa as an entirely unified nation. “Apartheid” may be dead, but one senses that South Africans continue to live close to yet apart from one another.

The next day near the end of the train trip, we roll out of the lush wine country of the Western Cape region, with its prim, white, Dutch-colonial farmhouses, and slice through miles of shantytowns with dirt roads on the way into glitzy Cape Town, set romantically at the foot of flat-topped Table Mountain and pounded by the chilly Atlantic. The quick succession of settings is jarring, constantly forcing me to reassess my ideas about this bewitching country.

Walled off from South Africa’s troubles by a veneer of libertinism and cut off from the rest of Africa by its monolithic, 3,558-foot mountain landmark, Cape Town feels like the last frontier. Freewheeling and sophisticated, lined with frilly colonial cottages and decidedly gay-friendly, it is San Francisco’s soul-sister city.

My friends Andy and Abraham, who goes by the nickname Shaggy, introduce me to the city in campy style, with a cabaret show by the black drag-performer Odidiva in a wonderfully unlikely venue, a sailor-themed tavern in the working-class, seaside village of Muizenberg.

There, Odidiva, real name Odidi Mfenyana, powers through a show filled with songs about black and gay empowerment with the gusto of Frank Sinatra in Vegas — only with high kicks and table dancing.

The cluster of older, white South Africans closest to the front looks mortified. They just sit there and stare at Odidi, who’s hooded, sequined jumpsuit and pompadour make him a dead-ringer for the 1980s Jamaican club icon Grace Jones.

But in a did-that-just-happen twist, the white patrons are smiling and clapping along like devoted fans by the end.

That’s South Africa in a nutshell — surprising turns and strange bedfellows.

On my second visit to South Africa, Odidiva sings some of the same songs in front of a hip audience in Cape Town’s “gay village” of De Waterkant.

“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! You got to give what you take!”

He belts out the lyrics of the George Michael classic with the conviction of a man who knows what it feels like to win freedom — and why it’s important to pass that zeal for activism to the next generation.

Mfenyana came of age nearby in the black township of Nyanga at the height of the civil unrest that preceded the fall of apartheid in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Back then, his father was an Anglican preacher at a local church whose boss was Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-apartheid activist. He remembers Tutu, an early gay-rights supporter, visiting his family’s parish house and helping him with a school paper on homophobia in Zimbabwe.

Tutu is South Africa’s greatest proponent of the traditional African belief in a common humanity known as “ubuntu,” which translates as “I am, because you are.”

Odidi is a benefactor of that ideal. Even with his most outrageous songs and monologues — about being part of the emerging black middle class, about going to integrated private schools, about being the “only black raver kid in Cape Town,” he’s paying Tutu’s generation a debt of gratitude.

South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, former anti-apartheid activist Ebrahim Rasool, explains his generation’s commitment to human rights, and justice for the LGBT population in particular, as a way of paying it forward on an epic scale, even if not everyone in what he calls the “caldron of South Africa” is ready to go along.

“We understood very clearly that if you want equality between black and white, you can’t deny it between men and women, you can’t compromise it between Christian and Muslim and you therefore have to provide it for people with other sexual orientations,” Rasool says. “The vow we made was that no one would ever be deprived of the things that we were deprived of.”

The challenge today, he says, is to make sure South Africans keep the legal promises they’ve made to each other.

On Andy and Shaggy’s wedding day, hope is in the air at Camp’s Bay, a spectacular stretch of coastline watched over by a row of jagged peaks known as the Twelve Apostles.

For both Andy and Shaggy, this moment is not only touching because they found each other in South Africa — they also discovered themselves as gay men.

Shaggy grew up in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, where gays and lesbians are forced into a parallel universe of underground clubs and hushed encounters. Andy grew up in a traditional family outside liberal Seattle but blossomed only after settling in Cape Town.

South Africa made a way for them.

During the wedding ceremony, a ribbon is threaded among the guests. The ring bearer then slides one end of the ribbon through the bands and motions for each guest to pass the rings down the line until they make the entire loop, where they are removed and given to the grooms to place on each other’s fingers.

The vows exchanged afterward may be between these two unlikely partners, but for a moment, at least, we are all bound.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach him at tbeason@seattletimes.