The Many Faces of South Africa


Quite a lot’s been said about South Africa and the state of crime, poverty and inequality over the years. I don’t intend to make a critique of this issue in this blog post since there are many wonderful things to celebrate and highlight in South Africa but it would be unfair of me not to at touch on the current state of affairs before I go on with my little tour.

A selection of popular Afircan dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku.

A selection of popular African dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku. Cape Town CBD.

Certainly the Rand has weakened considerably over the last decade against the dollar and sterling. When I arrived a month ago the mid-market rate was about 17.5 to the pound. Today it’s 18.5.

That obviously works in my favour as a sterling account holder. So when a beer at a local bar costs me R25 I score; when a meal costs R40, I score; when an Uber taxi costs as little as R25, I score. It’s also revealing that most of the Zimbabwean contingent I talked to at my brother’s wedding repeatedly remarked on how ‘cheap’ everything was.

The problem for working class South Africa is touched upon in an article I found on the site News24 from August last year (referenced at end of post) and is presumably still reasonably accurate. It alleges that South Africa is …

“… a country without an adequate social security net and where at least half of the national workforce earns less than R3 100 a month. Perhaps as many as a third of men and women in work earn less than R2 000 a month.

Yet most trade unions and human rights groups estimate that a bare living wage in 2014 would be between R4 000 and R5 000 a month.”

Even considering the relative affordability of food and services for me I find it hard to imagine surviving on less than 150 quid, and perhaps even as little as 100 for many. Considering that RSA is one of the continent’s more affluent nations it’s saying a lot. It is worth scrolling down to the comments section where some other facts and figures give further food for thought.

#Utopian Indignant, claims:

Actually not. Just like government, Terry Bell uses the incorrect exchange conversion rate to compare wages with overseas. The correct rate is the Purchase Parity Conversion Rate – youa re using the speculative moneymarket rate, which is only for buying and selling money on international markets. Terry and government arrive at incorrect costs calculations on contracts and wage negotiations because of this technical error. Using the correct rate, our pay compares reasonably per skill level with overseas, but our Public Sector is significantly overpaid.

Another quotes official stats to support his claim that the black population has grown by 47% in the last 20 years whilst the white population has only seen a net increase of less than 5%.

Whatever the situation, I’ve seen a fair deal of poverty on my trip out here. It’s hard to say whether or not there are more beggars and homeless individuals than previously. Although the sight of destitute whites still shocks some I think it’s important to look beyond colour and rather at communities.

I’m aware that sectors of the scattered Afrikaans communities look out for their aged members who have fallen through the safety net. Black African communities tend to have stronger familial relationships than their European counterparts. Are they strong enough to weather the hard times notwithstanding the question of the foreign workforce and the forces of xenophobia which seem to simmer in the background?

I don’t have the answers, but like my friend Carol I agree that anyone who chooses to bury their head in the sand and ignore these issues does it to their potential detriment. Where is the charity of society when all I hear are cynical assertions that vagrants and beggars have probably ‘brought it upon themselves’, ‘are most likely criminals’ or that they make ‘obscene amounts of money begging at traffic lights.’

I don’t believe it frankly. Most of the people I’ve given a few Rand coins to or, on occasion, bought a loaf of bread or packet of crisps for, have been pretty desperate people. If this isn’t manifest in their appearance or demeanour it’s in their eyes. I’ve no doubt some of them will spend this money on alcohol or some other substance but at least a quarter of people who’ve approached me have asked for food and been grateful for it.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt. Near Parliament Gardens, Cape Town.

It doesn’t cost me anything substantial because of the nature of the exchange rate. The scriptural homily about giving in proportion to one’s means actually leaves me slightly uncomfortable in times like these. Am I giving generously enough?

At times it seems better to give nothing rather than give inadequately but one has to put one’s pride aside in such situations. There will always be beggars who will push their luck. I do try make a point of giving more generously to those who seek to help themselves. I have a soft spot for buskers and street artists.

There is much to admire in those who go out on the streets in all-weather with an old guitar, hand-drum or accordion to earn their living. Perhaps all that they have is their voice. Some of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs I’ve been privy to were played or sung from a street corner or pavement.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man's trumpet was in a poor state of repair. My heart went out to him.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man’s trumpet was in a poor state of repair. Cape Town.

I chanced upon a young man in the middle of Cape Town on the edge of a market square, dressed in a glittering red and gold costume as if he had stepped out of a carnival procession that had moved off without him.

I stood back and watched as he tried with growing frustration to get his trumpet in tune. It was nothing more than a collection of parts held together by an assortment of folded, paper wedges, cigarette filter ends and goodness knows what. It looked as though most of the keys had been brazed onto the body at one point or another; many of the joins were broken. It was pretty hopeless.

I went across out of curiosity and he explained how he had been given the instrument a few years before. It really needed professional attention but of course he couldn’t afford it. I gave him R20 and took his name and phone number with the intention of making some enquiries on his behalf. I’m ashamed to say that I lost the slip with his details on it. I really should have done better.

Immortalising the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from township to work the city streets as traders, taxi-drivers and labourers.

immortalizing the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from the township to work the city streets as a traders, taxi-driver or labourer.

I’ve walked many of these city streets as a curious spectator, both of people and architecture. After spending many years ensconced in my own little world I’ve done my best to travel and make amends.

We live on a populated planet after all and cities are where we congregate and create things of beauty as well as the mundane and functional. Ever since visiting Algiers, indeed Algeria, I’ve had a particular interest in the legacy of European urban architecture in African towns and cities.

Urban Cape Town has some great architecture against the ever-present backdrop of ‘the mountain’. I caught a commuter taxi from my backpacker residence in Observatory (Obs) to town one morning and was surprised to see a number of Europeans commuting for work or studies.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

The city is probably more cosmopolitan than even Jozi (Jo’burg) far to the north. When I moved further out to Muizenburg I discovered that the Metro trains, the main urban rail provider, moved people of all hues to and from the city. Both means of transport were wonderfully cheap – between R6 and R12 per trip depending on the distance.

What concerned me on the Metro commute wasn’t so much the graffiti which adorned the carriages both within and without as the number of black and white advertisements pasted on the inside of the compartments. Many advertised ‘affordable’ abortions alongside a mobile number but no information as to the provider of the service.

Others were less controversial and even a little amusing: penis enlarging and hip-widening creams and treatments, dubious ‘doctors’ who could revive fortunes, eleviate debts and cast love charms. It reminded me that superstitions lurked barely beneath the surface of this erstwhile modern city. It was the same elsewhere in Durban, Jozi and Pretoria.

It’s tempting to call it African superstition but I can’t be sure who the practitioners and clients of these myriad treatments and charms really are. South Africa does, after all, play host to dozens of foreign nationals from all corners of the continent. The fraudsters and confidence tricksters aside it was the advertisement of illegal abortions which saddened me most. How could these people advertise their services with impunity?

Women in townships are all too often the subject of abuse. Those who worked at the hostel and who I spoke to either avoided the township altogether or told me it was unsafe to move around after dark. I took a township tour with Henry, a deadlocked, affable Malawian who had lived in that particular one, Masi, for several years. It wasn’t the first time I had been in a township but they are never dull places. Unfortunately those photos are still on an SD card so they are not included here.

A few days earlier I decided to take a tour of Robben Island with one of my fellow hostel travelers, a young Norwegian man called Pal (the a having a little circular character above it, not available on my mini-keyboard). Never mind that it is a highly subscribed tour which departs several times a day from Cape Town harbour, it was still worthwhile.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

On the trip out we were lucky enough to see a Southern Right Whale surface a hundred yards astern of the small vessel we were on. I thought it a large seal until it surfaced properly with barnacles encrusting the exposed part of its head. As we arrived at Robben Island harbour a streak of white beneath the surface betrayed the path of a penguin, the one and only one I remember seeing on that trip.

After disembarking we hopped on one of several buses taking tourists around the small island. We weren’t allowed to disembark until we got to the old prison buildings, where we were given a tour by a former inmate, Ntabo Mbatha. He was a humble man who had made the island, his former prison, his home. He looked not unlike the current president, Jacob Zuma. His voice was rich and sonorous, a confident orator.

What amazed me, as it evidently did an English travel blogger for the Daily Mail several years before (see reference below) was his lack of acrimony. Like Mandela before him he embraced the idea of reconciliation. He really was to be admired. I have uploaded half of the footage I took of his presentation below:

Back at the V&A Waterfront the crowds had swelled. The V&A is a real hive of activity – tourist central. A guide from a city walking tour alleged that the shopping mall and restaurants were the second-most visited ‘attraction’ on the continent ahead of Table Mountain which made him sad. I guess it has to be taken in context.

The Waterfont area has a bit of everything – musicians, good food, boat trips, museums, art galleries and pubs. One just hopes the wealth filters into the local economy. I’m told rents are exorbitant and heard from a reliable source that only 3 in 10 restaurants survive their first year in the city.

I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. I certainly met a broad spectrum of people both local and foreign; white, black and mixed-race; gay and straight. I’ve come way with some priceless anecdotes and good memories. My journeys to the other metropolitan areas mentioned have been shorter affairs but worth mentioning too.

For the first time in my life I visited central Durban where I perused the natural history museum (excellently curated) and the city Art Gallery above (not quite as good but also worth a visit). Nearby stands the City Hall, an impressive neoclassical structure with a variety of statues and impressive memorial to the Great War in close attendance.

The memorials appeared well maintained but, like all South Africa towns, the informal sector flourished on the margins. A few white vagrants were sleeping rough near one of the statues, a former governor of Natal, while young people perched at the bases chatting amicably to one another.

I walked to the Victoria Embankment which flanks the harbour. The wharfs here harboured an amassed wealth of yachts and catamarans under the auspices of the Royal Natal Yacht Club. I continued on to the end of the harbour pier beyond the boats and restaurant-cafe (closed till further notice). Right at the end was a chunky fisherman of a mixed-race ethnicity. A little further back were a group of Indian fishermen with deck chairs and a cooler box.

I asked the former how the fishing was. He shrugged and cast a critical eye across to his Indian compatriots. “If it wasn’t for them taking out every single fish they hook there might be some decent fish. Man, you have to throw back the undersized fish and let them grow. They take everything just to make bloody fish cakes and sh*t.”

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The real problem it seemed lay in the fact that fishing permits were not being actively enforced as neither were bait catchers. As with Cape Town the most sort-after bait were the sand prawns caught during low tide when they could be sucked out of their holes with simple hand pumps. My new acquaintance was adamant that they too were being over-harvested.

From there I walked back across town and hence to the Point area. My curiosity saw me enter one of the new ‘China Malls’ which I had previously seen on the outskirts of Pretoria. I am anecdotally informed that Chinese business has been flourishing in South Africa in recent years.

To be fair most of the shops therein were not Chinese but on the second from last floor above there was a large department store, the China star, selling all and sundry. However, the very top floor of the building spoke of different era. A derelict Art Deco styled room recalled a time when white Durbanites probably came here to socialise and be entertained. I would love to know more about the history of the place.

From Durban I headed back up to the Highveld – Jozi and Pretoria. Based in the former I took the new intra/inter-city Gautrain to the latter last week. It is a modern fast-rail service, essentially a modern mass-transit system significantly faster than the Metro Rail. It runs between Jozi and Pretoria at regular intervals, more frequently during rush hour, and provides a useful alternative to the busy, congested inter-city freeway (motorway).

I have long been fascinated by the Afrikaans language and it’s people. I did a year in Pretoria to round off my bachelors degree in 2003. It was a difficult time for me personally but I long regretted not pushing up against whatever social and self-perceived barriers might have presented themselves at the time and tried to see more of the city.

I guess it’s a case of ‘better late than never’. Please take a look at the accompanying gallery and attendant captions to get an idea of the rich history of the former capital of the Transvaal Republic, the Union of South Africa, the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa and indeed the present capital of the nation.

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