Despite my luggage trailing me by twelve hours, the Johannesburg
leg of the trip got off to a good start. My hotel was adjacent to a casino,
and where there's a casino there's usually a men's clothing store amidst
other shopping adventures. Sure enough, I arrived at the door of
a popular South African menswear store two minutes after closing time.
But the store staff let me in, I bought the only thing that fit me (a cotton
sweater), and was set for Day Three of the trip.
Friday morning was spent with customers, Friday afternoon with Sun
employees in a Town Hall format. It was another great set of
discussions with employees about team work and customer focus.
While it's impossible to understand the culture, politics, and people
of any country in just a few days, I left with a few strong impressions.
Johannesburg has no natural barriers. Many cities are built nestled
against a mountain range, on the banks of a river, or around
a natural ocean harbor, springing up with defense or low-cost
transportation in mind. Johannesburg arose up on top of the
gold mines, and driving around the city you'll see small mountains
of mine excavations and the constructs of mine heads.
Sports are an international language; rivalry is an international
Cricket, rugby, field hockey, and soccer are a big deal. Hotel staff
wore jerseys from their favorite soccer teams on Friday, extending
the notion of what constitutes a "uniform" and providing grounds
for a lot of discussion and good-natured kidding. Preparations
for the 2010 FIFA World Cup are well underway (that's the pixelated
style stadium under construction), and the road construction has a
pronounced impact on weekday traffic in and around the "business
area" of Johannesburg. The Indian Premier Cricket League began
play on Saturday in Johannesburg, mixing a bit of American-style
cheerleading and in-stadium "production" (read: theme music)
with international cricket. Saw a field hockey team in the airport and
felt a bit sheepish wearing an ice hockey t-shirt. In the
airport, I picked up a VodaCom Cheetahs rugby hat, and was asked
"Do you support them?" I only answered that I liked the hat, out
of concern for stepping into the local equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees
With the national election coming up next week, political posters
abound in a truly multi-party system. It was equally interesting
(to me) to see the surfeit of attention given to Barack Obama,
from Shep Fairey-style
portraits of ANC candidates mimicking the
"Hope" poster to t-shirts of Obama for sale in a local mall. In the
airport, Obama's books line the top shelf of the news stand
side by side with those of South African writers
and political figures.
Saturday afternoon had me in an open-air market,
haggling over the price
of a beaded zebra figure. The "hawker"
showed me his "cash register" - a combination of his Mozambique
passport, his South African visa and neatly folded bills. He brings
his handcrafts over the border at regular intervals, sleeping in
or near the market for weeks at a time, repeating the process in
a commute that includes an international boundary described in at least
half a dozen languages. I was immediately reminded of
Kiva, the micro loan, crowd-sourced company that helps micro-scale businesses
grow by infusing them with capital in reasonable sizes and terms.
When the zebra joins the menagerie of other figures I've purchased
on various long-haul trips, it will remind me of boundaries, and
how we have a technology opportunity (and imperative) to help