Hugo Rifkind

South Africa’s rainbow nation promise lives on — in rich, caged enclaves

Once, every glance, every experience, gave you an aftertaste of guilt. In fairness, most still do

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

I went back to see my old house in Cape Town last week, and they’d put a cage around it. Otherwise it was unchanged; broad, plantationish and oddly ill-suited to the slim, cluttered suburban street on which it sat. Yet the whole thing, from the eaves where our little flat was to the porch where we all used to sit and smoke, had been wedged into a box of bars. As though it were about to go diving with sharks.

This was where I lived for the best part of a year, about a decade and a half ago, and not really for any good reason. Ostensibly I was following my girlfriend, now my wife, as she kick-started a travel journalism career by writing guidebooks. We were near the university, and our many, many housemates were either a multiracial mix of local arty young professionals or German medical students. The latter bunch were drawn to South African hospitals because they had plenty of knife and bullet wounds, just like Germany didn’t.

The rand was criminally low at the time, almost as low as now, and our lives cost nearly nothing. Two hundred pounds a month, maybe? I wrote a bit and read a lot, working my way through the nearby used bookshop, where any modern classic you could think of could be yours for the equivalent of about 30p. Mainly I smoked and played pool and walked on the mountain and went to the beach and fretted, when I remembered to, about what I would do when the money ran out and I had to go home.

People do drone on about the lure of Africa — the majesty of the veldt and all that Hemingway crap — but for me the emotional connection has always been more urban. My Polish maternal grandfather, who had lost a wife and a tiny daughter to typhus in a Russian internment camp and pretty much everybody else to the ghettos and the gas, saw the bright lights of Durban from a boat in the early 1940s. This land, he decided, would be his home, far away from the horrors of godforsaken Europe. My mother, born just after the war, was raised here, first in the endless metropolis of Johannesburg, and later in the admittedly more bijou suburbs of what was then called Salisbury.

What I love most about urban southern Africa is the crumbling 1950s Americana; the shopfronts and verandas you’ll occasionally find in a battered, perhaps quite dodgy street, which still look like they should be a backdrop for the Fonz and Richie Cunningham. They speak to me of the rainbow nation that never quite happened; a bohemian, progressive, intellectual place where life would have been one long civil-rights march and the girls would have worn headscarves and flares.

Instead, this country has become a whole bunch of other things. Sometimes it feels almost wholly African, with the odd European appendix just attached, tenuously, for now. Sometimes it feels like a playground of multinationals, where white wealth brazenly defends itself with guns and electrified fences and holds pool parties, and black politicians shout and thunder in public while quietly accepting fat envelopes to look the other way. Neither feels much like what was promised in 1994.

My short trip coincided this time with Jacob Zuma’s state-of-the-nation address. Security was high. Around the parliament, two very different groups mounted protests. First there were the liberals, relatively affluent and often white, horrified at the economic mismanagement that was making this one of the cheapest family holidays I have ever had. After them came Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, who wear red shirts and often berets, and look and sound a lot like fascists, probably because they are fascists.

The two groups loathe Zuma for diametrically opposite reasons, and both frankly have a point. Amid many scandals — most recently about the state funding of his retirement villa — Zuma has neither improved the lot of the poor nor safeguarded the lot of the rich. Yet amid all that, South Africa’s black middle class is not nearly as mythical as it once was. Making a fairly wild guess four years ago, the United Nations put its membership at about four million. They too put cages around their houses, and electrify the garden fence. Why would they not?

The temptation here is to wonder how it all ends. Only who is to say that it will? On my last night in Cape Town, I sat on a balcony overlooking one of the beaches at Clifton, where there was a music festival. Fifteen years ago I used to come here often, in our horrible crumbling Mazda, before the wheel fell off. Back then, a decade after the end of apartheid, the bodies on the sands were still as white as the sands themselves. As a Londoner, which I had already been for the few years before, you couldn’t not notice. Even if the money hadn’t run out, even if I’d had something to do, I don’t think I could have stayed here. Every glance, every experience, gave you an aftertaste of guilt. And in fairness, most still do.

But now, on the beach, the groups are mixed. Even couples are. Nobody could call this representative without sounding wholly deranged; what I am looking at is the richest corner of the richest suburb of the richest city in the richest part of a country which remains for the most part desperately poor. Still, in this small corner you get a glimpse of the rainbow nation the liberals used to talk about. It’s easy to notice the cages, I suppose. Harder to know what’s going on inside.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Rik

    Give it another 10/20 years Hugo,you’ll be lucky if all you get is Zimbabwe lite.

  • Davebee

    I trust our guilt stricken Hugo will feel better today (18-2-2016) knowing that the war memorial at the University of Cape Town is now daubed with obscenities proclaiming vicious anti white hatred. (which of course will go unpunished)Oh, and scores of ‘white’ paintings and statues have been similarly vandalized and for good measure a vehicle burnt out!
    All by the people who’s cause he’s batting for in this post.

    • Rupert

      pretty sure he isn’t writing for poor blacks.

  • Pioneer

    “The latter bunch were drawn to South African hospitals because they had
    plenty of knife and bullet wounds, just like Germany didn’t.”

    There will be plenty of work for them in Germany soon – and everywhere else in Western Europe.

    • Hippograd

      Nonsense. If we progressives can keep the borders open long enough, Europe will be rescued from white savagery by the nano-tecnologists and LGBT activists of Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq etc.

    • Child_of_Thatcher

      You beat me to it, that was my thought too

  • gram64

    Whether the old apartheid regime was unjust or not, South Africa was doomed from the moment that regime ended.

    South Africa isn’t a total basket case like Zimbabwe yet, but it will end up the same way. It has the same type of actors running the show, and that will always be the case. Thus precipitous decline and fall into pre-white rule savagery is absolutely inevitable. The only thing that slows it down is interference in one way or another by, effectively, white benevolence, whether that comes in the form of financial investment or competent management, and at whatever level.

  • Rupert

    Pretty sure Cape Town hasnt changed one bit in 10 years. Except of course its cheaper for us brits and a bit safer.

  • Hippograd

    Such a shame already, after Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Denis Goldberg, Albie Sachs and other members of the Community worked so hard to liberate Blacks from oppression by whitey. But now South Africa’s is sliding to join Zimbabwe as a failed state. Ach, if only those white racists had followed the example of Israel and allowed Blacks to rise to their true intellectual and civilizational level. But I suspect this terrible man is a crypto-Afrikaner:

    Israel needs to erect a fence around the entire country to protect itself from “beasts” in the neighborhood, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday on a tour near Eilat of a segment of fence being erected along the Jordanian border.

    “We are preparing a multiyear project to encircle Israel with a security fence, to defend ourselves in the Middle East as it is now, and as it is expected to be,” he said. “They will say to me, what do you want to do, protect the mansion? And the answer is, ‘Yes.’ What, we will encircle the whole country with a fence and obstacles? The answer is an unequivocal, ‘Yes,’” he said.

    “In the neighborhood in which we live we need to protect ourselves against beasts,” Netanyahu added.

  • Mow_the_Grass

    RSA – slow burn Zimbabwe.
    Economy has tanked – combination of govt corruption/incompetence and credit downgrade to junk almost inevitable.
    Once great learning institutions such as Wits/UCT/Pta which produced some great professionals more especially in the fields of medicine – are now hotbeds of radical activism with resultant lowering of standards,
    Cry the beloved country.

  • sarahsmith232

    You just described Tower Hamlets, only minus the mixing

  • David Preston

    South African Jews always were in a relatively privileged position in that they knew that when bmr finally arrived they could always escape…To Europe, to North America to Australia or perhaps to Israel. Most of them I believe have now departed. It would be VERY nice indeed to see Hugo write an article discussing the plight of those whites in SA who did not and do not have the luxury of an escape route, who are stuck with whatever fate the blacks ultimately choose to bestow upon them. If you read this Hugo would you consider writing such an article? I’m quite serious.

    IMO a precondition of giving the blacks majority rule would have been the prior evacuation, under military protection, of all those whites who didn’t want to stick around. Personally I think it is immoral to expect White Europeans to live under the rule of African blacks unless they have specifically made that choice.