Cape Town, like all of South Africa, is in the throes of preparing for the World Cup in June. Everything is much more spruced up than before. Less homeless people in public places, better roads, cleaner parks, lots of new building going on, increased gentrification, a new football stadium between the sea and the mountain that looks impressive but blocks the view of both like a Trump building in NYC. Things look superficially pretty good here in the regions I have inhabited the past four days, though people still warn you about crime.
I went for a run in my old haunts along the Sea Point beachfront and passed the SABC, the headquarters of the broadcasting corporation, still located where it was decades ago. But now it has an extra sign on the building saying “Vuka Sizwe”. I pondered this for a while and then remembered that one of the anti-apartheid underground revolutionary groups when I was at university, I think, was called Umkonto We Sizwe, and it meant Spear of the Nation,a good name for a national liberation fighting group, and I decided that Vuka Sizwe must mean Voice of the Nation.
I bought fish and chips at Texie’s in Sea Point — they still make chips the good way, not crisp and browned like McDonalds, but rather firm yet not crisp, yellow golden rather than brown on the outside, and cooked all the way through without a crust, able to soak up vinegar and salt like an edible sponge, what they call ‘slap’ chips, pronounced ‘slup’ in Afrikaans meaning kind of casual or disheveled or untidy. A man there in the line with me picked up my accent and realized I didn’t live here anymore, and started talking to me. “South Africa,” he told me, “is two nations. The first, about 8 million, all colors, does pretty well and has money. The second is 42 million people, more or less invisible, living in abject poverty.” I’ve seen glimpses of them only, between the airport and the city. The population seems to have doubled in thirty or forty years.
At Clifton the beautiful beaches and surprisingly cold water are still there — your calves actually hurt from the cold at first immersion, and most of the people are white, though the people roaming up and down the beach selling drinks and ice cream are still black. There you almost can’t tell that there’s been a political correction. But everywhere else you can, and it’s good. The neighborhood I’m staying in is full of multiracial couples, more than in New York by far. I would guess that the white male part of the couples are more often Afrikaners than English, from the little I can overhear, which is surprising since the Afrikaners were the major protagonists of apartheid and seemed to think, in the past, that they had the most to lose from apartheid disappearing. Maybe this is a case of people being most threatened by what is really closest to them rather than most distant from them. Maybe that’s why McCarthy hated the Communists so much.
The newspapers are full of stories about the Minister of Corrections, a woman who, as part of her office, got a government sponsored Porsche Cayenne, worth close to R1million, maybe $125,000. Nice work if you can get it. This must be the visible part of the iceberg, strange for an ANC government to go from rags to riches. The line between public and private wealth is dissolved by corruption.
But, I wonder, trying to be open minded and thinking about what I’ve seen in America the past few years: how do you weigh that up against people spending their own $40 million to get elected, against lobbyists, against bailouts for the people who need it least, against government money spent to preserve riche? The line between public and private wealth has sort of dissolved for us too, so I don’t feel I can rightfully complain too much.