The promise of South Africa

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

‘Earth has not anything to show more fair.’ One can admire the view from Westminster Bridge and feel near the epicentre of a great civilisation, but still believe that Wordsworth was exaggerating. His line came to mind when I was thinking about Christmases past, two of which I was fortunate enough to spend in the Cape. That scenery really is hard to rival.

In the 1980s, the Cape offered five of life’s greatest pleasures. Landscape, politics, shooting, wine — and about 120 miles from Cape Town, there is an enchanting village called Arniston, or Waenhuiskrans, not far from Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. Its inhabitants are Cape Coloured fishermen, living in charming white cottages and speaking only Afrikaans. My companion could translate. She told me that these simple and pious folk spoke in a biblical cadence: ‘From the sea, we have always got our bread.’

They were alarmed at the thought that they might be displaced by a missile range. In those days, there were rumours that the South Africans, the Israelis and the Taiwanese would collaborate to produce missiles; South Africa had thousands of miles of empty ocean as a testing ground. I also suggested that they should cooperate to produce a new warplane, perhaps called the pariah. As for the testing-ground for rocketry, South Africa was changing — fortunately — and Arniston was spared, which it might not have been ten years earlier.

Meanwhile, we could dine on a terrace, as darkness gradually enfolded a turquoise sea. Below the starlit heavens, little points of light appeared. The fishermen were catching tomorrow night’s meal. A flask of wine and thou: a pastoral enchantment.

On the way from Cape Town, there is a sleepy little coastal town called Hermanus, which is famous for two reasons. First, it is a wonderful place to watch whales, copulating, calving and generally disporting themselves. Second, it is popular with human whales, in the form of Afrikaner politicians. Over the years, official cars made lots of discreet appearances. A surprising amount of government business was resolved by senior figures in swimming trunks.

Nearer Cape Town itself, life became more complicated. I spent evening after evening in gardens near Stellenbosch discussing South Africa’s future. From the beginning, I had been drawn to the company of Afrikaner intellectuals, because they were real. In the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, one would come across English-speaking liberals who were horrified that a visiting Brit could have any sympathy for Afrikaner-dom, and whose conversation moved with serene shallowness from the evils of the hairybacks (their nickname for Afrikaners) to the difficulty of teaching servants how to clean a swimming pool.

My Afrikaner friends all believed that black South Africans should have a full ration of human dignity, immediately. Ditto, substantial rights in local government plus as expensive a programme of educational uplift as could be afforded. But state power? They did not want to become a second Belgian Congo, and who could blame them? Certainly not me.

The thoughtful younger Afrikaners wished that their elders had never indulged in the fantasy of apartheid. That silly idea, like many similar, was invented in the universities and is often misrepresented in the West where it is seen as synonymous with white rule. In theory, the opposite is true. Apartheid — apartness — would have meant dividing up the country between the various races and tribes. If done equitably, that would not have been immoral: merely lunatic.

The rising youngsters wished that their predecessors had dumped apartheid. Instead of planning to break up the country, they should have set out on the hard task of reforming it. The new generation had no illusions that this would be easy. Barend du Plessis, the then finance minister, once summoned an English journalist to his office. When the chap arrived, the minister said: ‘We’ll continue this meeting without officials.’

The visitor wondered what on earth was going on and quickly found out. His host gave a huge sigh and said: ‘How do we get out of this mess?’ The question remains unanswered. All the South Africans I know were urging on Cyril Ramaphosa. Alas, he seems to lack a quality which was the highest compliment any Afrikaner could pay to another one: kragdadig — power-wielding.

These evenings in Stellenbosch were always accompanied by excellent wine. As often, I wish I had kept a record. But the Cape produced excellent red wines and pleasant whites plus at least one world-class sweet wine, Vin de Constance. Among the reds, Kanonkop was reliable — it still is — and the same is true of Uitkyk. Nico Myburgh’s wines from Meerlust were and are outstanding. I discovered them in the British embassy, where Robin Renwick, a masterful diplomat, was kragdadig. It was all endlessly fascinating.

Amid the current difficulties, there is one consolation. Because of new investment, the quality of South African wines is steadily improving. In a previous generation, there was an aristocratic, courtly Afrikaner, Anton Rupert. He embodied all the finest aspects of Cape Dutch culture, including wine-growing. His son, Johann, who has lived in more embattled times, is an immensely successful international businessman as well as a broker for progress in his own country.

He also makes serious wines, in partnership with the Rothschilds. Anything that you come across under the Rupert & Rothschild label will be eminently drinkable and excellent value. You will benefit from the weak rand.

There is also an outstanding wine called the Last Elephant from the Franschhoek vinery, the name reminding us that South African winemaking owed so much to the Huguenots. The other day I tasted a 2017: too young, but full of promise. If only the same could be said about South Africa’s future.

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