For starters, our hosts on this trip proved to be most interesting.  Ray McCauley is probably the third most recognizable face in S. Africa.  He was second runner-up—to Arnold Schwarzenegger!—in the Mr. Universe contest, and became a huge televangelist more well-known in S. Africa than Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, or any in the US.  He’s on all four network TV stations on Sunday, and has a church with 32,000 members.  Four years ago his wife divorced him and he married a woman who had been a model in London and dated rock stars. [Note: this marriage also ended, sadly, in 2010.] The stories filled the scandal sheets for quite some time.  Of course, I had no idea of this when accepting the invitation; I learned it all after arriving!

The amazing thing is, Ray has grown by leaps and bounds intellectually.  He started as a typical South African racist and then got affected by Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela and became probably the most influential white leader in the changeover of the government in 1994.  He has unbelievable stories of Tutu turning back crowds of angry marchers with the power of his words.  Obviously, the activists were using Ray in order to reach blue-collar whites, but he responded.  Now his church is 80% black, and he’s repudiated much of the unhealthy televangelist baggage (he came from the Kenneth Hagin “name it and claim it” tradition) and is quite a fascinating man.  He weighs well over 200 pounds, has slicked-back hair, and is the hero of all his stories.  Yet when we pulled into a gas station, the black workers crowded around him and begged for his “blessing”—he’s like a pope for Pentecostal Africans.  Ray’s a big spender too, hosting us in the most luxurious game reserve in Kruger Park.  His wife wears glitzy clothes, never the same outfit twice, designed for women half her age.  Who knows how they’ll turn up in my future books.

The wild animal experience was fantastic.  We went out in a ten-seat open Land Rover with a skilled guide who had degrees in zoology, accompanied by an African spotter who literally smells the presence of elephants, rhinos, and other animals.  One huge bull elephant fake-charged our Land Rover a few times until the guide beat on the side and stopped him.  We saw a few lions, but only at night (they use 800,000 candle-power lights to pick up their eyes).  We saw rhinos and their babies, giraffes and babies, a herd of 35 elephants, water buffalo, probably ten species of antelope, and a bunch of hippos in a water pool (they kill more Africans than any other animal).  We learned a lot about animal behavior, much of which is very weird.  For example, male hippos won’t mate unless they first beat up a weaker male hippo, so if you import just a couple into your game park, you’ll have no progeny—you need a sacrificial male too.  And male rhinos dig a hole in which they use the toilet, then roll around in it for hours and spread their scent over their range. I contemplate with Job-like mystery a God who designed the rhinoceros and hippopotamus and porcupine, as well as the fierce leopard and the cheetah who eats only the stomach of an antelope—one per day—and leaves the rest for hyenas and other scavengers, making this gorgeous animal a rarity in the budget-conscious private game reserves.

South Africa is a changed place, and everyone talks about the “miracle” here.  It seems true.  We saw life and vitality even in the shantytowns of South Africa, and hope rises in a continent characterized in the media as full of despair.  When you hear the stories of how brutally Africans were treated under white rule, you’re amazed at their capacity for forgiveness; when you realize Apartheid was at its core a theological doctrine, you’re amazed that any of them embrace Christianity.  Yet they do: more than 70 percent attend church on a Sunday.

We were there for World AIDS day, and that’s huge, of course: researchers predict half of all South Africans under 15 will be dead in 10 years; 38% of young adults have the virus.  One township that used to see two funerals a week now sees 75 per week.  A Christian group that teaches computer skills to young people has found their best profit in designing funeral programs.  The scope of the illness and its ramifications for the future are unimaginable.

We spent one day visiting the sprawling township of Soweto (Mandela and Tutu lived on the same street, the only one in the world with two Nobel Peace Prize winners!).  We also went to an AIDS hospice full of little kids about to die.  Very sad.  Organizations like World Vision have a difficult time raising money in the U.S. because of the attitude that AIDS sufferers must deserve the disease.  In Africa, the church is finally waking up and trying its best to dispense grace.  Then something like the war in Iraq comes along, and precious foreign aid money gets diverted from Africa…

I read Mandela’s memoir, Long Walk to Freedom at night, a very poignant counterpoint to the trip.   The tours of his prison on Robben Island are led by former prisoners, and they have harrowing memories, such as guards burying them up to their necks and urinating in their faces.

We spent much time with Africans of all stripes and colors.  A Coloured woman who singlehandedly reduced the violence in Cape Town’s worst prison from 279 incidents to two.  The head of the Dutch Reformed Church, originators of the Apartheid doctrine, who now leads the church in humble repentance.  Whites were shocked senseless by the atrocities that came out during the nationally-televised Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings; black Africans knew about them all along, of course.  Whites used to represent 20 percent of the population; now they’re around 10 percent, due to a lower birth rate and emigration.  Typical post-Apartheid whites who claim not to be racist but talk about Africans as “lazy” and “unmotivated”—the same kind of talk you hear in the American South.

All in all, we had a most stimulating and eventful trip.  It was my favorite kind of trip, full of new experiences, conflicting insights to mull over, the beauties of nature, good food, diversity of people and cultures.  I spoke six times in three days in Johannesburg, and after that was wrung out, so Janet heroically took the lead in most of our social interaction.  She has an amazing ability to relate to taxi drivers, porters, beggars on the street, Pentecostal superstars, and members of Parliament—always with the same curiosity and social confidence.  I came away amazed that my books have found their way into all sorts of corners of the world I’ve never before visited.  The entire country of South Africa is an experiment in grace and reconciliation.  And Janet had better feel good about her contributions, because they were large indeed.

Some sad news.  The morning before leaving, I checked email and learned that my aunt shot herself in the right temple while standing in the shower, dying instantly.  She’s battled alcoholism for years, as has her husband.  Pain abounds in different forms wherever you look, in countries rich and poor.

Copyright © 2004 by Philip Yancey