I recently travelled to South Africa to research a novel. This was a journey taken 225 years earlier by a European ancestor of mine who sailed via the Cape of Good Hope for the East Indies. This ancestor never returned from the East—in those days journeys of that nature, lasting several months, were undertaken once in a lifetime, and usually performed one-way only. Today, one-way was a 16 hour non-stop flight from New York.
The first thing that struck me was that this was a developed country, if development could be measured in materially progressive signs like transportation, commerce and communications infrastructure. But on closer inspection, the country’s social fabric, a mere 20 years after the dismantling of Apartheid, is still mired in dysfunction. “Townships” remain on the outskirts of residential suburbs, and are run-down shanties in the most appalling conditions, while the “white suburbs” are opulent, sprawling and gated. Coloured communities straddle the middle ground. The new South Africa, post Mandela and de Klerk, is not going to copy its neighbour Zimbabwe and steal from the rich to give the poor, I was told; there has to be a willing buyer and a willing seller when it comes to land transfers. But with buyers without the means to buy and sellers unwilling to part with hereditary land, the impasse of inequality continues.
Political awareness is high among the locals, and no conversation ends without some reference to race. I was quite surprised when terms like “black,” “white” and “coloured” were thrown about so casually. Street protests and demonstrations were rife, be it breakaway factions of the monolithic ANC or students protesting the raising of tuition fees.
And yet, when you leave the messy people issues behind, the land is ruggedly beautiful and ever contrasting. From the stunningly scenic Cape Town and its cloudy sentinel Table Mountain, where everything began (at least for the white colonists), to the Cape Flats and its crumbling townships, to the fertile wine country in Paarl and Stellenbosch, to Hugenot country in Franschoek, to the dry Karoo with its scrub vegetation, acacia and agave, and then down and across the Eastern Cape with its giant pine and imported gum trees, the land is ridged with progressive mountain ranges, creating micro-climates within their valleys. Finally, one comes across the tallest range, the Drakensburg, that straddles two other environments: the grassy high veldt and the dry low veldt, the latter being home to the country’s famed Big Five and a myriad of lesser quadrupeds—a must-see for the avid tourist.
The complexity of South Africa came home to me in Johannesburg, the City of Gold, built on abandoned mine shafts, with splotches of gold from abandoned mines still adorning its landscape. The city’s history is littered with the carcasses of those who died from poor mine conditions, arsenic poisoning being the main killer; it’s labour history bears many travesties, among them: how mine owners reduced migrant worker wages by 50% in 1902 and kept them frozen for 60 years! The city’s core is virtually abandoned to hordes of immigrants (mostly illegal) who have forcibly occupied areas like Hillbrow, while new business districts like Sandton spring up on the periphery of this sprawling metropolis of 10 million. And yet enclaves like Houghton, covered in a blanket of purple jacaranda flowers, are islands of opulence and calm. I felt at home in Soweto, Jo-burg’s own township, a city unto itself of 3million where shanties jostled with modern haciendas replete with BMWs in their garages. Life was on display in Soweto, from street performers to open air restaurants, to “buy your own shanty” sales, to the bullet-riddled house of Nelson and Winnie Mandela that opponents used to drive by and take pot-shots at while Winnie and the children were still indoors. And there were some overlooked marks of embarrassment too: forgotten street signs of a bygone era, reading “Whites Only,” or “Coloureds Only”.
As I left South Africa with a book full of notes, I realized that Apartheid was still alive, even if only as a socio-economic reality, blighting this otherwise energetic, rich and beautiful country. I also realized that it would take many generations before that legacy is finally eradicated, if ever. It certainly will not be in my lifetime.