Enter a New South African Chapter

by on December 1, 2008 at 2:02 am

This past week, I touched down in dazzling South Africa, the beloved country I last set foot in 14 years ago and before that 24 years ago, both times living in various suburbs of Johannesburg.

Before embarking on two long Virgin Atlantic legs, I found it difficult to remember my first impressions as a young teenager and so I dug up old journals from the time and read as many pages as I could sift through over the course of 36 hours.

Both times I lived here the country was obviously under white rule – Botha and then later De Klerk, the latter who paved the way to a free South Africa, one which would embrace one-man one-vote and change party politics.

Before the intense blogging expedition which would begin later in the week, I found it necessary to walk the streets of Cape Town, to try to make sense of what was and what now is. The markets, art galleries, jazz bars, portside restaurants, gift shops, alley ways, office buildings, architecture, the people on the streets and behind café windows.

There it all was to smell, taste, hear, view and take it all in as if yesterday still was. But I was no longer a teenager and Cape Town wasn’t a 1984 or a 1992 Cape Town, yet would it still feel, smell, taste, sound and look the same?

There’s something very primal about a year abroad as a student. Ask anyone who has done one. You somehow adopt your exchange country in a way you would a daughter or son. It becomes part of you and you it. You can’t forget it; its voices, shapes, sounds and smells are integrated into your DNA. It’s a primal kind of relationship and so returning years later becomes a primal kind of experience.

There’s something about the African sky, the air and the sounds at night outside your window that are distinct even if the skyline or a distant tree might remind you of somewhere else. This is true whether you’re in a suburb, a rural farm or an urban townhouse. While construction was in full force outside my guest bedroom window in a Cape Town neighborhood, it was ‘soft’ construction, African style.

You could hear the tinkering of tools with a deadening silence in between, the kind you can imagine hearing on a small-town American street in the 1940s. No large boisterous drills like the ones outside my San Francisco flat, the kind of noise that leave no room for anything other than ‘it,’ a reminder that change is happening outside you can’t control.

What a treat my necessary Cape walk was…….diving into any and every art gallery along Shortmarket, Long, Waterkant, and Loop reminded me of the creative talent and tasteful sense of design South Africa introduced me to in the 80s and 90s. It was still here, but perhaps less packaged in a neat bow in a gallery like in Sandton’s shopping center. I quickly learn that there’s a ton of interest in South African’s art and design in Dubai, whose elite even place custom orders they’re willing to wait on for months.

The new South Africa. Eager and energized to see what it has become, I meandered through alleyways, with wide child-like eyes looking for visible changes. “It’s hard to remember how it was before,” says my old friend Matthew, who worked with me in London selling art so many moons ago. Of course there’s the infusion of hamburger and retail chains. Starbucks has thankfully not yet made its way into its borders.

The then dark haired Matthew now has gray hair and is the CEO of a technology start-up in Cape Town’s city center. Together with his wife who moved here from Columbia sixteen years ago, we took in seafood and Stellenbosch wine. No doubt they witnessed someone returning back in time to a place he knew from childhood, far back into a distant past, one which had relics of Colonial Africa, segregated neighborhoods with high walls, all white schools with formal smartly ironed uniforms, and windsurfing along the Vaal River.

A time when Zimbabwe and the Transkei were popular weekend destination points for families. A time when the topic of discussion was primarily cricket and soccer. A time when we’d go on frequent hikes in the Drakensberg and attend afternoon braais on suburbia lawns, rich and gated suburbia lawns a mere mile from the Soweto township, where we’d often see smoke in the air and hear guns off in the distance.

In the early nineties, we sipped champagne and ate strawberries and cream and talked about the coming elections and what it would mean for commerce, for tourism, for sports, for the next generation, for peace of mind at last. Those who prayed for change, marched for change, put their lives at risk for change – white and black – would now have peace of mind at last.

While violence has risen in recent years, scams have become a part of life and HIV/AIDS in the country is now an epidemic, one which the entire world knows about and mourns over, South Africa remains a dazzling place. This beloved land where the white European and black African met in the 17th century and are now learning to live together equally and peacefully four centuries later.

Harmony must prevail if people wish to stay and stay they must for South Africa to continue to thrive economically and socially. If they lose their best talent to Australia, Canada, the states and the UK, the country will have to turn back the hands of time.

While I hear about white flight on one side and refugees flooding into Johannesburg’s Hillbrow on the other, I also hear about people’s love for a beautiful and yet tragic land they cannot leave and so they stay and figure out a way to make it work.

And within my first week here, I witness this commitment to making things work internally rather than a loss of hope. I meet inspired and happy white and black South Africans who love this country in a way I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere in the world.

A drive down the coast or a week in the bush will tell you the answer why among numerous other things. It’s one of the most beautiful, passionate, diverse and intense countries I’ve ever visited. Forward wind the clock to 2008. Let a new South African chapter begin.

One Response to “Enter a New South African Chapter”

  1. David

    Dec 1st, 2008

    I am soooo envious. Have an awesome time. We’ll be reading about it.

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