Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

I have been back to South Africa as a journalist 12 times over the last ten years; but this is the first time that I've visited with my family - an interesting opportunity to look at it with the fresh eyes of a tourist. The trip to Robben Island is the most vivid reminder of the transformation. It's now a favourite expedition for international tourists, only half an hour by high-speed boat from Cape Town. Ex-prisoners lead them through the grim prison cells and the beautiful nature reserve, and explain how the prison experience helped to educate and unify them, providing a kind of model for the New South Africa. The organisers of the tours say that American visitors are the most obviously responsive. Chelsea Clinton had read everything about it; the American defence secretary, William Cohen, has just visited a second time. But more interesting are the ex-prisoners who return as pilgrims to try to recapture their peace of mind. 'Terror' Lekota, once a militant inmate, now a burly minister, told me that he went back there once a year to regain his strength and his roots. Their children do not necessarily share their emotions. One black ex-prisoner described to me how his 17-year-old daughter - who goes to a multiracial school where most of her friends are white or Indian - resisted visiting Robben Island with her parents. 'Don't you want to see your father's cell where he spent six years?' 'Why don't you just give me the money instead,' she answered, 'to buy some trainers?' It is an ironic outcome for the freedom fighters; their years of sacrifice and idealism have enabled middle-class blacks to become as materialistic and money-minded as everyone else. But most of them are proud of the multiracialism of the young. One black writer told me how his nephew had thrived in his multiracial school: he had been teasing an overweight white schoolboy called 'Fatty' who suddenly retaliated by calling him 'you bloody Kaffir'. He wasn't at all put out; he only asked: 'What does Kaffir mean?"

The play The Island which has just been successfully revived at the National Theatre in London, depicts two black prisoners performing Antigone in prison as if it were an improbable idea. The programme notes do not mention that Antigone was performed on Robben Island, with Mandela playing the part of Creon. He was enthralled by it, and saw Antigone herself in the role of freedom fighter determined to honour a dead hero. The Island gave many prisoners a sense of sharing the universal culture of Sophocles or Shakespeare, which made them feel part of a larger world.

The confusion between myth and reality is always a problem in South Africa - a country which has always been caricatured - and it is especially hard to demythologise Johannesburg, now proclaimed everywhere as the Capital of Crime. It has always been a violent city for blacks: the first article I ever wrote about it - in 1951, for the magazine Drum which I was then editing - was a long expose of crime which showed that black Johannesburg had one of the highest murder rates in the world. It remains a dangerous place for blacks, particularly for black women who are threatened by an alarming wave of rapes. But the huge publicity given to crime dates from the early Nineties when murders, car-jacks and rapes extended to white Johannesburgers whose tempting mansions, big gardens and luxury cars were no longer protected by a police state. Parts of the Johannesburg city-centre at night are certainly alarming to tourists, with decaying buildings surrounded by unemployed black youths, like a scene from Blade Runner or Mad Max - an image encouraged by hoardings advertising a car-spares company actually called Mad Max. …

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