The Ballards - South Africa



Cloud-capped Swarzberg mountains


Just the name of the continent inspires so many clichés: from Jim Kerr and Simple Minds singing "when you cry, it rains... Africa" on the Real LIfe album to the extravagances of White Mischief white Kenyans....
From "I had a farm in Africa...." to Ranulph Fiennes' stiff upper lip in "The English Patient".....
From endless news footage of starving tribespeople in deserts to the white mercenary plots of The Wild Geese and their real-life counterparts Mark Thatcher and his cohorts....
From Wilbur Smith's romanticised historical tales of Rhodes and Isandhlwana.....
From Michael Caine in "Zulu" to my old 1950s geography books' black and white plates (never "pictures", always "plates") of the Kimberley diamond mines......

And especially South Africa: so recently the home of the great social experiment of Apartheid, or "Apart Life"; the rallying point of so many 1980s UK student protests, of Soweto and Steve Biko and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and of course the infamous "Freeeeee Nelson Mandela (with every 5 Litres of motor oil.....)".

What would South Africa be like in the 21st Century? A land now ruled by its black majority but still driven economically by its white minority, where white supremacists like Eugene Terreblanche had until so recently held sway. Where tales of urban violence and carjacking are rife.

Over Easter 2006 we found out...

Knysna Beach river
Knsyna Beach - sunny and deserted at 11am. Eat your heart out, Daymer Bay!
Knysna Beach castles

A surprisingly comfortable 10hr Virgin overnight flight and 1 hour's adjustment of the watch found us letting down in to an overcast Johannesburg, where the runway is a steep hill (but shouldn't we be landing up it?) and is surrounded by an aviation graveyard: 747s with no engines, a couple of BAC 1-11s and an Antonov in various stages of disrepair.
As expected, thus far...

Every single passport officer is visibly, forcefully black, offset against a starched white uniform and desk. But all the passengers are white, even the domestic passengers. And not just white, but blonde, tall, pale-skinned. Like.... well, like Dutchmen, of course, which is what they are all descended from.
Out through an empty Customs, and our first encounter with the African method of job-creation. Every other person wants to carry our bags/direct us/help us/rob us? We don't know.
But they all want tipping.
There are butterflies flapping around in the terminal and the smell of the tropics wafts in through the doors. Ah, Trinidad....

On the mobile phone our friend warns us in a slightly panicked voice not to talk to anyone, not to put our bags down, not to smile at anyone, just to be invisible whilst she negotiates the traffic.
And of course being ex-pat British she turns up in an immaculate brand new V8 Land Rover Discovery, is treated like royalty by the ramp guards and within a few seconds we are whisked away.
It is as if someone had opened a door marked REAL AFRICA, then slammed it shut again.
Now we would watch Africa go past once more framed by windows, by camera lenses, by TV screens...

The rich (some black, most white) live in fortresses behind guards, electric fences, dogs, armed security patrols and walkie-talkies.
Security is really big business here: everyone has stories of friends who have been mugged/shot/beaten/raped/hijacked; we are warned not to stop at the lights at night, not to break down on the motorway, to watch the hawkers who are at every traffic light in case they smash the windows and steal handbags or anything else they can reach.
These are gilded cages, but nonetheless cages. All the expats I chatted to missed the ability to just walk or cycle out and see the real country.

Violent crime exists all over the world; the difference in South Africa is that the Apartheid era struggles resulted in the country being flooded with East European arms. A bag snatching typical of London would, in Johannesburg, escalate to murder by shooting.
And the inexorable rise of the bling bling gangster n' drugs culture isn't helping at all.

But it's rich against poor: South Africa is, despite its history, not essentially racist, unlike the US.
This may sound like a strange comment, but it's true: many of the whites are racist in a muted way, but I hear the same comments in the UK and it's just noise and hot air.
The black middle class is expanding and becoming integrated and empowered. Black empowerment programs are driving this, and despite many of the whites seeing this as just an extra tax, it's starting to work.

You gain the impression of an economy still in white hands and run for the benefit mainly of whites, but increasingly by and for blacks.
And it is easy to forget that it is still the only country in Africa where whites and blacks share a democratic government.

The South African press, both TV and printed media, is startlingly frank about the problems the country faces 10 years after the end of apartheid.
Watching vox pop black youth speak frankly to the camera about public drunkenness is elucidating.

The government has a balancing act to perform: to keep the economy (still largely driven by the whites) going whilst pushing black Africans in to positions where they will gain an economic stake in society and demand better education for their children, who will then perceive themselves to be the equals of the whites.

It will take a generation or more for things to right themselves. A by-product is the export of white talent, especially to Europe, where many Afrikaners are seeking a better life free from crime and black empowerment.

Land redistribution is a big issue in parts of South Africa: the Government have committed to a "Willing seller/Willing buyer" model as opposed to a Zimbabwe-style land-grab. This has had disappointing results in recent years due to (depending on your point of view):

The unwillingness of rich indolent white farmers to release the land stolen from the black tribes to their former workers by setting unrealistically high sale prices on the land to prevent blacks from buying the land, whilst at the same time paying lip service to the Government's policy


Honest hard working white farmers who have invested generations of Capital and labour in wresting the agricultural capability of the land from its former fallow status (and, by the way, feeding the nation and Zimbabwe to boot) setting prices according to market forces but not finding any blacks willing buy at these prices: indolent blacks taking the attitude "if we wait long enough the Government will give us the land anyway; why should we buy it?"

The situation is exacerbated by insufficient Government training and support for new black farmers plus inexperience on the part of many potential black farmers in dealing with financial institiutions and Capital-intensive equpment suppliers.

During the Apartheid years, when many countries (not, may I say, including Mrs Thatcher's Government) pariahed South Africa, the Afrikaans self-sufficiency, entrepreneurial spirit and natural athleticism generated huge levels of home grown industry and self-investment; although a little of this has leaked away now SA is "back in the world" it is still evident.
This gave the Afrikaaners a wall to back up against: the South African whites had nowhere else to go so they had to survive on their own wits. It has made them a resilient race.

There is huge fear amongst the white population of the black majority Government becoming just another black crazy racist kleptocratic dictatorship, but then again these were the people who feared black majority rule.
Now the worst fears of the whites have not been realised (they have not been massacred in their beds, South Africa has survived 10 years of black majority rule, Nelson Mandela has been quietly succeeded by Thabo Mbeki and the economy is still going) they worry about the Mugabe model: the long, slow slide in to racism, lawlessnes, violent land redistribution, tribal violence, economic collapse and famine.

From the Swarzberg Pass

North from Swarzberg Pass Rocks, Prince Albert Weg

Thabo Mbeki and the other ANC leaders cannot condemn Mugabe; they owe him Big Time. He helped their struggle during the Apartheid years, now he is reaping the harvest. South African oil and power is all that is keeping Zimbabwe from total collapse at present.

Quite where this goes is anyone's guess; once Mugabe dies or is shot a SA peacekeeping force in the country restoring law and order within 48 hours, followed by a commitment to a multicoloured government and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, would be very welcome indeed to ordinary Zimbabweans.

They all know the typical African decline starts with corruption and leaders not releasing power, so a great deal of attention is paid to be seen to be rooting out corruption at the highest levels of government, and there is a great deal of navel gazing to facilitate this.
Jacob Zuma
(ex-head of the National AIDS Council) has been the latest politician to fall foul of this, and despite his obvious stupidity in his recent AIDS rape case (he had unprotected sex with a woman he knew was HIV positive then "had a shower" to stop him from catching AIDS), it remains to be seen whether he can escape conviction on corruption charges.
What doesn't help is a fairly common attitude that everything is OK with the country provided a black man, any black man, is in charge.

However, even with this going on there is the perception that all that has really changed since 1992 is that a small number of blacks have enriched themselves at the expense of the majority of the black population.
And the old adage that "the only people that treat blacks worse than whites are other blacks" is at the back of everyones' minds.

Without a baseline it's hard to pin down individual examples of how things have got better or worse since the end of Apartheid: the slow replacement of white managerial staff in key planning posts via black empowerment may or may not have been responsible for the chaotic organisation of the passenger transfer buses at Johannesburg airport, where a moment's forethought would have provided a service where full buses don't need to back out in to the main service road running across the front of the terminal, causing chaos.
Many of the whites think things have got worse but that could easily just be bad eggs.

Mont Rochelle Vineyard, Franzhoek I'm sorry, I'm white, will you guys teach me to dance?
Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background

AIDS has created a seismic shift in the population balance: of the total population of 46.9m, 30% have AIDS, so that is 14m AIDS cases.
Scary; and in the long term, capable of shifting the black/white boundaries.

Wherever you go, and you may be 20 miles from the nearest house, there will be black South Africans walking down the side of the road. Often with no shoes, the men usually alone and morose, the women in groups and brightly-coloured, with precariously balanced loads on their heads. They must walk miles and miles.

South African roads are interesting: nearly all (including, confusingly, those marked as motorways on the maps) are two lane, but all major roads have solid yellow lines on the left hand edge of the normal road with half a lane's tarmac to the left of that.
When slower moving traffic is travelling in front of faster moving traffic, the slower moving traffic moves over half a lane into the left hand section facilitating overtaking by the faster traffic.
It is customary for the faster traffic to thank the slower traffic using their hazard flashers following the overtaking manoeuvre.
It's a simple and cheap system and works very well, but wouldn't work in the UK because everyone, including the oldest pensioner in the oldest Lada, thinks they are going quite fast enough, why would anyone possibly want to overtake them?
The nanny state colludes in this by refusing to teach young drivers how to overtake safely and penalising safe overtakers by putting speed cameras on all the fast bits!

In fact, South African drivers are courteous and, on the whole, very good drivers.
Around Johannesburg they drive too fast and too close together, but then that's par for large cities anywhere (no one beats the Italians around Milan for suicide driving, though......).

South Africa is a big and beautiful country: we travelled extensively within its borders, from Johannesburg to the Garden Route in the South to the Little Karoo to the Karoo to Cape Town to Cape Point to the Wine District to the Botswana border on safari.
The weather ranged from iffy to fantastic: the scenery from interesting to gobsmacking.
Our visit was rushed and we missed loads of things. We'll definitely go back to see Cape Town, the Northern Cape, Eastern Gauteng and Natal Province, pus the East Coast beaches.

South Africa is not what I expected when I imagined Africa: it has a proper, European infrastructure.
The electricity, the telephones, the roads all work (the benefit of 50 years of white investment during the Apartheid era, an Afrikaaner told me sniffily).
I could detect no obvious running down of the infrastructure dating from 1992: some new roads were being built and the country is experiencing a housing boom at present, although no one can quite explain what's driving it.
The new housing is of consistently good quality and based around the US system of subdivisions, whereby a developer will buy a very large piece of land, put in the roads, services and amenities, then build on some of the plots and sell off the others.
The houses ape new England fashions: lots of painted timber and zinc roofs. Generous plots and pre-planted trees makes for an instant community.
Just occasionally, though, the well-oiled system descends into farce. On the way to the Botswana border we passed through Zeebug, where the (fast, well-metalled) main road suddenly and without warning becomes a mud track for the entire length of Zeebug. There are roadworks, true, but this alone cannot explain the run-down, unkempt, mud-splattered mess we drove into.

Perhaps it was REAL AFRICA after all?

Zebra, Maidkwe