From Where I Sit

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

From Where I Sit


Jagged edges slow progress

Western Cape, South Africa. They say that the climate and the terrain is Mediterranean, but to me it is more like a relentlessly sunny California, buffeted by cooling ocean breezes. Stellenbosch, where I am staying, at the heart of the Cape's wine country, is a picturesque university town, which is like nothing so much as Santa Barbara. The city of Cape Town in some respects resembles San Francisco, with its hills and flamboyant local culture, in others San Diego, with its beaches and low-flung houses.

But there the comparison ends. You would be hard-pressed to find in California, as you often do here, a modest home surrounded by a 3m tall brick wall, topped by another metre of spiralling razor wire. You would not find any shanty towns. Just a 25-minute drive from prosperous Stellenbosch lies the far end of a crowded township, Khayelitsha, where maybe half a million people live in makeshift shacks pitched on sand. Half the adults there are unemployed. In almost every part of the Cape, people are advised not to go out at night unless they are driving and know where they are going: the murder rate in South Africa is 30 times higher than in the UK.

The buzz in the Western media has South Africa as an "it" place to go, and tourism is booming. I expected to come to a nation full of the energy of hope and good feeling. Democracy and tolerance have arrived. With all its resources, natural and human, including good universities and a social welfare state, South Africa would seem to have a promising future. But what I have found instead is an energy built on frustration, anger and fear, mixed with cheerful fatalism.

I have had the opportunity to hear some of the country's leading writers and scholars speak on the subject of South Africa today, and I have been astonished. …

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