How could I absorb a country in a week? Especially one as complex and contradictory as this?
I couldn't. Dashing frantically from sensation to exotic sensation, at the peak of endurance every 18-hour day, I experienced the trip as a blur.
Looking back, my view is one not of deep understanding, but of a series of images -- intense, vivid, not always entirely in focus.
Call this, then, Snapshots of South Africa.
My deepest impression is of this country's beauty. Much of it is lush and green, its soil that deep African red, its ubiquitous stubby cupcake mountains hazy purple -- always set off by a dark, blue sky and discrete dollops of ice-cream clouds.
The other intense impression is of contrast -- of a country at once amazingly familiar and utterly alien. Eight thousand miles from Miami I could walk into a Woolworth's store, or a Hooters restaurant and wonder if I had really left home. A mile or two from that flower-scented suburb I could take a mini-van through a black squatter's camp, amid conditions that made me purely ashamed for being white.
One other impression: The South African people I met in my brief stay recognize profoundly both the beauty and squalor of their country; they are passionately intent on keeping the one and ending the other.
And even though my trip was maddeningly short, what a thrill it was! South Africa had fascinated me for 30 years, ever since I read Cry, The Beloved Country, the wrenching account of that country's history by one of its most famous authors, Alan Paton. That fascination increased 15 years ago, when I toured Kenya with two University of Miami geography professors. One of them, born in South Africa, kept telling me: "If you think this is beautiful, you should see South Africa."
But that's just what I couldn't do -- not while brutal apartheid continued. Even before the United States belatedly joined the worldwide boycott in 1985, I couldn't justify spending money with a government that denied decent job opportunities, adequate schooling, even the precious right to vote to 80 percent of its own people. That forced its blacks to live in squalid segregated settlements outside major cities to provide cheap labor for white residents. That created the arbitrary, demeaning, irrational category of "colored" for the children of blacks and whites who had married and forced them to live in segregated settlements, too.
So I only watched from afar and hoped for change.
That time finally came in late 1993. President F.W. de Klerk had fixed a firm date -- April 26, 1994 -- for the country's first free, multiracial national election. Apartheid would officially end on that date.
Nelson Mandela spoke triumphantly before the United Nations that fall. "The time has come when the international community should lift all economic sanctions against South Africa." He urged people to come, to spend the money that would be needed by his country's new government.
South Africa has far to go; it attracts only 0.6 percent of the world's tourists, behind even Bulgaria. But the country's political change is starting to pay off.
Mandela's release from prison in 1990 prompted 24 airlines to establish or re-establish direct flights to South Africa. With new, long-range 747s, nonstop flights were inaugurated to and from the United States.
And just before Mandela's election in April, South African Airways added a second weekly nonstop flight to the Miami-Cape Town run it had established in 1992 after President Bush ended most sanctions against the country. SAA flights leave Miami at 6:05 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, with the cheapest fare $1,829 for a stay of 13 to 30 days and a 15-day advance purchase. Flights from New York's JFK Airport to Johannesburg depart at 6:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with the same fare and restrictions.