The heat and humidity hits me as soon as I deplane in the tropical Africa. Standing in front of me in the immigration line is a young black family of four. The husband shuffling all their passports clamped in his right hand. I could feel, or I was just imagining a certain nervousness on the faces of the couple as they moved up in the line. Kids, the daughter of about five and the son a few years older were just being kids, jumping and holding onto their parents’ fingers. The passport officers are all whites, dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, like in Australia and New Zealand.  I watch the officer check all their passports and ask the man, how long were they gone? I could only hear “years” and then “England.”  The officer handing him back their passports and flashing a big smile, saying: welcome back home. Both the husband and the wife said in unison,  Thank you very much, and I see expressions on their faces relaxing and then their faces contorting as if about to break down and cry.  When the officer yelled out “next” I could see sudden smiles appearing on their faces. I too had my misgivings up until then, knowing that I too fell in the category of coloured in the country I was entering for the first time. But having witnessed the graceful reception of the black family relaxed me too as I stood in front of the immigration officer.

‘First time in our country?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hope you have a great stay.’

I am met by Greg Psilos,  an aspiring independent publisher who had shown interest in publishing Playboy in South Africa. I check into Carlton Hotel in downtown Johannesburg, walk around the Saturday morning shopping hoards. I don’t see a single non-black soul all through my hour and a half of walk, not even a brown skin one like myself. It feels strange, but hey, I am in their country. I would soon find out that not many white South Africans would dare come into the city center over the weekends. The weekdays were a different story, but that too, after work every evening, they would fly away like migrant birds and into their gated secure homes in suburbs. In fact, I was warned against walking around outside my hotel after hours. But that wasn’t enough to deter me from doing just that. How else does one get to know a new place?

On Sunday, along with a small group of other hotel guests, I take a minibus tour of the notorious segregated Johannesburg slum of Soweto, guided by Opa James. James is your weathered young-old  man – probably in his early to mid-forties – who has now taken upon himself to show the visitors the soft side of Johannesburg’s riotous township. We visit a typical Soweto family and have a beer with them. The idea is to make us feel that they are like any other regular family.

So far so good. I spend three days in Johannesburg before boarding my first domestic South African Airways flight bound for Durban. If not exactly nervous, as I approach the business class cabin of the plane, I can’t help but think of  that image of the movie Gandhi, in which he is kicked out of his rightful place in the first class compartment of the train on which he was traveling  from Durban to Pretoria.

But my fear is immediately expelled by the stewardess who takes my boarding pass and flashes a big smile at me with Welcome aboard Mr. Shah. It’s just a short flight from Johannesburg to Durban and the service provided onboard is as good as that on any other airlines in the world.

I knew that Durban is where Gandhi had first arrived at the invitation of Indian Muslim businessmen to provide legal services. And I am also faintly aware of the fact that Durban has the largest population of the people of Indian origin anywhere outside India. So much so that had I been brought there blind folded, I would certainly not believe that I was anywhere else but in an Indian city. The publishers I was meeting in Durban and elsewhere in the country were all white South Africans. That is: with exception of Anant Singh, of Video Vision, priding in calling himself  the first black movie maker from South Africa.  That meant, despite my pleasant reception in the country, the separation or apartheid  as it is called in Afrikaans had to be real, still.  I didn’t have to wait too long to find out myself.

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