Change Comes to Cape Town

By Brian Clewly Johnson

Last year during the drought in South Africa I had to fly to the oldest desert in the world, the Namib, to have a shower. This year my hometown, Cape Town, was reborn — green. Dams filled with unseasonable, welcome rains. This may have been tough on vacationers, but it was cause for celebration among the locals. In the shower we could kick the bucket placed there to catch every drop, at least for a minute, until guilt made us put it back.

Rain has changed the picture of a place the BBC once named “the world’s first city to run out of water.” Unlike in Britain, people here now talk about weather in joyful terms. Other pictures, however, have not changed. 

Twenty-nine years have passed since Nelson Mandela completed his “long walk to freedom.” But the long rash of shantytowns remains unhealed. That’s not changed.

Sure, you may have left those sad clusters of corrugated iron as you exited the airport and headed into one of the world’s loveliest cities. But did you drive to Hout Bay, where ChapmansPeak Hotel would have offered you the best calamari in the world? On the way, you would have passed Imizamo Yethu. “Imi” is a shanty­town (excuse me, “informal settlement”) where 35,000 souls eke out a living. That’s not changed. 

Or drive over a hill from suburban Glencairn to the tiny seaside dorp of Scarborough. As you crest the ascent, to your right you’ll see a fresh rash of shacks — perhaps 200 — that house the poor. Now some may tell you that the “previously underprivileged” prefer to live in shacks rather than bricks and mortar. Why? Because they don’t have to pay property taxes or any of the encumbrances of home ownership. Huh?

Twenty-nine years after seismic political change, black men are still building handsome homes for white men. That’s not changed. Construction workers are always black people, always men; their average wage is 20 rands ($1.40) per hour. The crews I saw were supervised by people of mixed-race origin — some of them women — many of them holding clipboards. While it’s odd to see black men in overalls scrolling their cellphones as they clomp about in work boots, you can be sure they’re not making a booking on OpenTable; you will never see them chowing down a T-bone steak at 200 rands ($14). That’s not changed.

Strangers come to your door begging for money or food. At almost every traffic light, three or four beggars — even a sprinkling of whites — will ask you for coins. That’s not changed, but it has increased.

“Jo’burg is different,” I’m told by people who live there. “Hell, boet, there’s a ton of social change in Joeys.”

Why doesn’t that surprise me? Because politicians and their hangers-on, like tick birds pecking a rhino, cluster around the watering holes of Egoli, the “city of gold.” That’s where the pols, if they’re not already in prison or facing indictment by a lazy Prosecuting Authority (itself under suspicion of corruption), will be found jolling around in their Mercs and BMWs — in Johannesburg and its satellite city, Pretoria (the legislative capital). 

Here there are rich pickings for politicians. Any time the words “tender” or “procurement” or “contract” are in play, these men and women, like the mafia, are eager to dip their beaks or collect the vig. And afterward, they’ll dine on T-bones and the best red wine. That’s not changed.

After my two months in the exquisite Cape of Good Hope, here’s what has changed: People of all colors are at ease with one another. At a concert at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a visitor from England told me, the vibe of friendship in an audience that was 80 percent black and 20 percent white was potent. In stores and cafes, loose service is always rescued by apologetic, unflagging smiles. 

My own behavior changed earlier this month when I did something I never would have done before. I gave a lift to a large black guy. He told me he was from Johannesburg and had come south in search of work; so far, nothing had come up. 

“Where do you live?” I asked. 

“Clifton, sir.”

I was impressed, as Clifton is one fancy suburb. Then he added, “In a cave.”

The guy had a broken foot, was on crutches, and lived in a cave about half a mile from my apartment. I gave him something, knowing that anything I could do for the guy would be inadequate. 

Point is, if I hadn’t felt the new spirit of this city, this rainbow nation, I would have driven by. That has changed. (I know, “Big deal,” you may be thinking. Hey, it’s a start.)

Optimism is, literally, made concrete by buildings that are being hammered out all over the city and its sprawling suburbs. Traffic is horrendous. I used to call Cape Town “the 10-minute town” when I was a teenager here, learning to drive. No more. A commute from a fancy suburb either south or west of the city bowl can take 90 minutes each way. That has changed.

For the half million whites in this city of nearly four million, much is the same. The sun sets as gloriously as ever across the stoeps of the $2 million homes at Clifton. The food at five-star restaurants can’t be bettered in any world capital, and yet is relished here at a fraction of the price. (Last week I tried to make a reservation at a top restaurant, Chefs Warehouse, and they are booked solid through the end of March.) 

Are more changes afoot? Many whites worry that younger blacks, frustrated at the pace of social change and the corruption of politicians by businesspeople, will force dramatic change on the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa. The man himself has spoken of “land expropriation without compensation.” Chilling to hear if you own a thousand-acre wine farm.

Meanwhile, the government has accelerated “white flight,” particularly by young professionals, via a policy of appointing blacks to critical positions, at times regardless of qualifications. 

Some say that “reverse discrimination” in South Africa is “when karma comes and bites you in the ass.” But be it black or white ass, 29 years on, karma doesn’t discriminate.


Brian Clewly Johnson is the author of “A Cape Town Boy: A Memoir of Growing Up, 1940 to 1959.” He lives in Amagansett.