“Don’t take your valuables with you when you are out of the hotel,” our Chinese host in Johannesburg advised. “But also don’t leave your valuables in the hotel room either.”
“You need to stop if a police asks you to stop,” our host continues. “However, many of them are pretending to be police so try not to stop either.”
The more we hear, the more confused we were.
It was our first day in South Africa and our kind Chinese host treated us to an authentic Sichuan Chinese restaurant which we were craving. During the meal, he shared his horror stories and advised us how to avoid being robbed in Johannesburg, one of the world’s most dangerous cities in the world.
“Here, people don’t ask if you have been robbed before. They ask how many times you have been robbed. When the Black see Chinese, it is as if they see the letters “ATM” written on your forehead. So carry some cash but don’t put all your cash in one pocket. Put some cash in each pocket so when the Blacks pull their gun and ask for money, just show them the money in one pocket. “
The more we heard, the more afraid we became. I was especially surprised to see every single house in even nice suburban areas have high electric fences and barred windows. In Los Angeles, I only see this in the worse crime area in the city center.
Another incident made us fearful as well.
On our way to Drakensburg, we stopped at a picnic rest stop along the highway in a rural area. Only a few minutes into eating our sandwiches, a van pulled up next us.
“You shouldn’t be eating here. It is dangerous. Get into your car right now,” a Chinese driver spoke firmly to us as he rolled down his car window. “You will be robbed here, especially now it is near Christmas. I drove past you, but I turned around at the next exit so that I can warn you. I was just held at gunpoint a few days ago at the nearby town Ladysmith. “
We were a bit shocked that a Chinese came back such long-distance so without asking any question, we quickly gathered all our lunch and went inside our car to eat — half scared and half not sure if we were really in danger.
Paranoia began to creep in. I started to doubt whether coming to South Africa was such a good idea.
Johannesburg — the Most Dangerous City in the World
It was with such fear and paranoia as we ventured into Johannesburg driving in our newly rented car.
We didn’t dare to go into the downtown area, although we very much wanted to visit “The Top of Africa”, a 50-story building where one can see a panoramic view of Johannesburg. That is why we had no photo of Johannesburg city. Instead, we drove to the north and western suburbs of Johannesburg, visiting “safe” places, such as the Zoo Lake Park and the Botanical Garden.
We were ready to be robbed at any time so we kept our car window rolled up and carry only photocopies of our passport. I gave each person some cash to “offer” to potential robbers. As we walked in the parks, I kept looking around for potential danger. However, the only “incident” we had was someone saying a very friendly “Hello” to us, then the person asked for some money for food.
Not sure where else we can go that is “safe”, we decided to revisit the biggest Chinatown in Africa! It is only one street, 2 blocks long but it is impressive. We found a hugh Chinese supermarket that sells everything we like from China so we stocked up on noodles and spices for our road trip. We also had two drinks at a Boba Tea shop.
We were thankful nothing happened to us in this most dangerous city in the world. Johannesburg is probably one of the greenest cities I have visited, with large trees lining every street. It also made me realized that I need to know South Africans as “individuals” instead of knowing them as a “stereotype” from negative reports, whether from the news or from others. Just as we wanted to understand the Muslims by traveling on the Silk Road in 2015, we needed to come and see South Africa ourselves before judging it.
Beautiful Cape Town
Having driven through the dangers of Johannesburg, the dirt roads of Kruger, and the potholes of Transkei, I was looking forward to driving towards the best region of South Africa — Cape Town.
“As you drive closer and closer to Cape Town,” said almost everyone we spoke to, “everywhere becomes prettier and more developed.”
Indeed, the last 150 kilometers, we drove through endless rows of green, luscious vineyards. For the last 50 kilometers, we admired the grandeur, intriguing flatness, and natural beauty of the Table Mountains nestled in the middle of this second largest city in South Africa.
After 11 hours, we arrived at our “home” for the next 2 weeks located in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. It is called “His House”, because as the owner Ed wrote, “God found this house; God provided the resources to buy this house; and God made this house as nearly perfect for its intended use as it could possibly be. In the end, all I did was show up.” It is a home for missionaries and such who might need a place to stay for a few days or a week or two.
The house was perfect for a time of rest from traveling for 170 days and to celebrate Christmas and New Year. It has 4 rooms, 3 bathroom, a full kitchen, dining room, and two living rooms, plus a swimming pool. It even have a Christmas tree all set up! The children were so excited to each have their own room for the first time in our 6 months of travel. Nick, who manages the house, was very welcoming and patiently showed us everything we need to know.
We’ve seen beautiful panoramic photos of Cape Town before. But what we didn’t expect was how close we were able to hang out with the penguins & fur seals and to swim in tidal pools next to the pounding ocean waves.
For the first 3 days, while we still have our rental car, we sunbathed and swam with the penguins, we hiked 6 hours up and down Table Mountain, and we did a sunset drive along both sides of the coasts. It was so amazing, I will just let the photos speak for themselves.
God Sent Angels
Theo, our workaway host, told us, “If you truly want to have a full experience of South Africa, you need to take public transportations and shop at stores where the blacks go.
So after 25 days of using a rental car, we decided to return it and dive into the “local” side of Cape Town. Luckily, Jireh, our first angel who went to the same school as our children in China, happens to be here in Cape Town as a staff with YWAM. He became our local guide during our time here.
“The taxi here is actually a 14-seater van with fixed routes. You just need to know where to catch them then you can go from hub to hub.” Jireh taught us. “A taxi is like a community. Every passenger helps to collect the money, count the money, pass the money to the driver, and pass the money back to other passengers.”
“Don’t take the metro rail here. It is unreliable and potentially dangerous,” continued Jireh. “But if you must, go on the 3rd class where there are more people. 1st class is where you get robbed.”
“You got to try the ‘Great Gatsby’ sandwich here. It is huge. One sandwich can feed your whole family,” Jireh said excitedly. “The lamb shawarma at Eastern Food Bazar is big too. They just keep piling more and more side dishes onto the plate. “
Two days after I returned the rental car, we decided to go to Cape Town downtown (40 km away) using public transportation to find a Chinese supermarket and to join a free walking tour. My plan was to take a taxi to Fish Hoek, then take a train to downtown, then take a uber to the Chinese supermarket.
We didn’t get very far.
We waited 20 minutes for a taxi on the side of the road and still were not able to waive down one taxi. Uber didn’t work either. No driver was willing to take us. As we became more and more desperate, Olivia noticed a smiling colored guy parked on the side of the road. She ran to the car and asked if we can hitchhike to our first stop, Fish Hoek. We were so happy when he said yes; he didn’t ask for money either! He was our second angel.
When he found out that we ultimately wanted to get to Cape Town by Metrorail, he told us that we might have to wait an hour or two before we can catch one. Surprisingly, he offered to take us to Cape Town without asking for any money even though it was very much out of his way.
“Are you a Christian?” I asked Raymond, after he started to play Christian music.
“No,” Raymond replied.
“Why do you listen to Christian music?” I continued.
“I like gospel music,” Raymond replied. “I pray when I wake up, I pray when I leave my house. I pray before I sleep. I also go to church every week. Who do you think wakes you up every morning?”
“You are not a Christian but you go to church every week. I don’t understand,” I asked puzzedly.
“I believe in Jesus, but I don’t call myself a Christian because a Christian does everything right. I fail sometimes,” Raymond shared with a smile.
The more we talked, the more I was amazed at his story. He was a fire fighter for 30 years, but he was also a drug addict. One day, an evangelist came to his home to pray for him and ever since, he hasn’t smoke, drink, or taken drug.
We all knew then that God sent him to rescued us. He was literally an “angel.” He even took us beyond Cape Town downtown to Sea Point to shop at a Chinese supermarket. Praise God.
Our guide for the free walking tour in Cape Town was Beyon. He was such a passionate and animated guide. We had such a great time reliving and understanding the past histories of apartheid, even hundreds of years before 1948. He was a great story teller!
Getting back from Cape Town to our home was another adventure. I decided to give Metrorail a try, since it was cheap and it was direct, despite all the negative feedback. We sat in 3rd class with around 10 other passengers in a cart that can easily fit 40 persons. The train moved very slowly and stopped frequently and arbitrarily in the middle of nowhere. After 45 minutes, we were only halfway home. Suddenly, we saw everyone getting off the train. Someone shouted, “You have to switch train here.” So we followed everyone out of the train, up the stairs to an overpass, down the stairs, exited the train station, then re-entered the train station. By the time we got to the connecting train, it had already left. Luckily, we got another Metrorail 30 minutes later so we continued our journey back.
Then our third angel appeared.
A black man walked into the cart, took out a Bible, then started to give his testimony as he paced back and forth inside the train cart. He spoke to us, “captived” audiences, fearlessly but with a gentle demeanor. As I listened, I wanted to shout “Hallelujah”. Here is a person whom I want to become, passionate and fearless for God. He is not worrying about what others think of him; he is just focusing on sharing the good news with whoever is willing to listen. Seeing him using God’s Words as the double-edge sword in our 3rd class cart made me feel safe riding the train because God’s Spirit is so overwhelming inside our cart.
The Other Side of Cape Town
A unique phenomenon of South Africa is the existence of “townships” – communities of black or colored people who were forcefully relocated there during Apartheid as they no longer could live in the same communities as the whites. Now anyone can live there, including immigrants, but townships are generally poor areas and crimes are common. The land belongs to no one. Renting a small shack made of aluminum shingles costs around US$15/month and one can build one for around US$1000. We saw many townships during our time in South Africa and surprisingly often right next to very wealthy areas. Even Cape Town is no exception. But we were warned not to go there for safety reasons.
As praying travelers, we felt a heart desire to walk through the townships and to pray for peace and hope. Luckily, our local angel Jireh knows an ex-YWAM staff Stanley who goes to the township Masiphumelele (Mosi) regularly to serve at the soup kitchen. We were very excited that Stanley is able to take us there.
We were surprised this township is less than 1 kilometer away from our nice neighborhood but looked and felt worlds apart. This township recently had a fire few days before Christmas which we witnessed from our house. More than 1000 shacks were burnt down. Luckily it happened during daytime so no one was killed but they lost all their possessions, the little that they had. When we walked to that area, it looked like 3 soccer fields of bare dirt ground. The government came in quickly and cleared all the burnt shacks with bulldozers. It almost felt as if nothing had happened.
As we walked, we saw chaotic masses of people, young and old living in all types of shelters, from shanty shacks with muddy grounds to newly built condos on concrete floors. My natural instinct was to be afraid of meeting street gangs. Stanley assured us that this is one of the safest townships in Cape Town because “community” is very strong here. He said that five years ago a girl was raped so the leaders of the township came together to hunt down the criminal and executed its own “street “justice before handing over the person to the police. Another time, someone stabbed someone and the community collected money to bail the person out of jail so that they can beat up that person. So since then, no one dared to do crime in that township.
A Diverse but Separated Country
Before coming, I knew South Africa had both white and black races and that apartheid existed before. I was surprised, however, to observe first hand and through the free walking tour that the situation was and still is much more complicated.
I would drive on the highway in remote rural areas, then a large cluster of several hundred small shacks in neat rows and people looking to hitchhike would appear and disappeared suddenly, with no apparent urban infrastructures. Similarly, we would be driving through a very nice neighborhood, then one street over, an entire area of run-down shacks.
Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for “apart-ness”, a system designed to keep different races apart. Citizens were classified into different racial groups such as White, Black, Colored (mixed race), and Indian/Asian. People of different classifications were forbidden to enter the same shop, go to the same school, get married, or live under the same roof.
Our walking guide led us to a building that would determine which of the four classifications you belong to, based on your physical features, friends you hang out with, how you talk, and even whether a pencil stays or not stay in your hair when you jump up and down! There was even an “honorary white” classification – rich Japanese businessmen who traveled here for business. This system of “apart-ness” stands in such contrast to God’s plan to unite all things, and to have one Body, one Spirt, one Hope,
South Africa is very “diverse”. In our visit, we saw South Africans whose roots were either British, Dutch, German, Black (tribes that came from Central Africa), Yellow (indigenous tribes of South Africa), Indians, Malay, Chinese, or everything in between.
But South Africa is also very “separated”. Each racial group keeps to themselves both physically and socially. Even our white South African friends admit that they have few friends who are black or colored. The Chinese community very much keep to themselves as well, leaving their children in China and staying here just to earn money to send home.
Most Whites and Chinese I spoke to say that the country is getting worse after the end of apartheid because the country is run by those who are not competent. One friend admitted that since blacks were only educated up to grade 5 under apartheid, now it is biting them. Because those who were under-educated are now running the country!
Happy Birthday, Jesus!
We were excited that we get to celebrate “summer” Christmas and New Year’s Eve in South Africa. We were also glad that we can celebrate it with our children’s classmate, Jireh, from China’s Kunming International Academy who is current living in Cape Town. The kids took a lot of initiative to prepare gifts for each other, buy roast ham (Gammon) and ox tongue for the centerpiece of our meal, and bake brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
During the meal, we shared stories of hope, joy, peace, and love, which were the topics we all did together in December for devotional. For hope, Olivia shared that her non-Christian friend whom she hasn’t talked to for a long time suddenly reached out to her in Hong Kong, Jireh shared how his family reconnected to each other through sharing about the enneagram, and Nathan shared that without him asking, his Chinese friends ask him about God. For peace, I shared that the peaceful actions of Mandela are such a contrast with the divisive actions of Trump. For love, Joani shared that she felt God’s love because God always provided her with mentors who cared for her each year of her her junior and senior high years.
We watched the Christmas special short film, the Shepherd, by the producer of the Chosen and we played charade with the theme of South Africa + Christmas, such as “Braaiing with Jesus” or “Jesus riding ostrich”! The highlight of the evening was when Jireh led a beautiful time of worship.
Midnight came quickly which meant time for us to give gifts to each other. When we give gifts to each other, the person receiving the gift would say a word of appreciate to the person giving the gift. So with 6 persons, it took us until 2am before we finished this joyous activity. I gave Nathan a second-hand keyboard so that he can enjoy creating music, Olivia three eBooks as she enjoys reading, Joani the Bible Project book which had impacted greatly, and Annie wine and cheese for us all to enjoy!
For New Year’s Eve, our last night in South Africa, we had a fish hot pot with Sichuan peppercorn ( 水煮鱼片) which is to die for. We played apples to apples and then shared our reflections for 2020. Some of the saddest moments for us were losing Paz and Michi (our dog and cat), losing a best friend in Christ, and feeling alone living on campus. Some of the words that represented 2020 for Nathan were Grief, Grapple, and Growth; for Annie were Restful, Restoration, Recreation; for Joani were Disappointment, Miracles, Unique.
We ended with praying and watching each other’s photo slideshows of our past year, automatically generated from our iPhones! At the stroke of midnight, we went outside and threw firecrackers over the electric fence into the street (we don’t dare to go outside at night). For every throw, we each yelled out our hope for 2021: “no more online school”, “no more covid tests”, etc.
From Cape “Storm” to Cape “Hope”
The Peninsula south of Cape Town used to be called Cape of Storms by the sailor because that is where the Indian Ocean meets Atlantic Ocean which recorded numerous shipwrecks throughout history. Later, it was changed to Cape of Hope due to the hope to discover a trade route to the East.
It is also my hope that with the upcoming new generation of black and white Africans, they will be taught to love one other with the love of Christ. That is the only way to have true hope for South Africa. In my devotion on Hope, I realized that Hope comes before Peace, and not first have Peace then Hope. God is the “guardian” or “giver” of hope. He is the source and provider of hope. The result of having hope is “joy” and “peace”. Peace in the Bible doesn’t just mean an absence of violence but a restoration of relationships, which is what South Africa really needs.
When Mandela was freed from prison after 20+ years, he shared, “I had to leave all his hatred and negative thoughts behind him on Robbins Island in order for me to have a new start. Human beings weren’t born to hate one another. They were taught to hate one another.”
While climbing the Table Mountain, my children and I planted a symbolic “mustard seed” on the Table Mountain as we prayed together for peace and hope for South Africa. We prayed that God’s Kingdom will reign in South Africa as it is in Heaven.
While doing my devotion in Transkei, one of the poorest areas of South Africa, I read In Numbers 6:22-27. I felt God said to me that, just as I bless the Israelites, this will be my blessing to South Africa as well. If South Africans put God’s name on themselves, God will bless them and give them true “Peace”. You are to sing this song to the children of South Africa:
The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
to shine upon you and be gracious and be gracious unto you.
The Lord turn His face towards you,
And give you Peace. Amen.