Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Where to Begin

The problems of the world are writ large in South Africa.

Now, some of our very favorite people are South Africans of the diaspora whom we've met elsewhere in this delightful Southern Hemisphere.  And of course we've met quite a flood of wonderful South Africans in the month that we've been in the country.

As an American who travels widely I am very attuned to how tiresome it can be to hear your country criticized.  Even if you share the criticism, outsiders are rarely informed enough for the tenor of their arguments to be very inspiring.  So I should stress that I am not keen to come here and complain about the place.  The locals can do that without my help, I'm sure.

Razor wire on the waterfront

But the troubles of South Africa take some effort to ignore.

Most obviously, there is the number of desperate people about.  A lot of people are struggling to meet their basic needs.  Even in the most protected and privileged enclave in the country, where we have been spending our time, you come across desperation every day.

Then, there is a tremendous concentration of wealth in a few hands.  Some few people are living in quite rarified luxury here.

The signs you see everywhere
And then, there is race.  Everything, for white people at least, is first about race, and then about something else.  And of course there is the history of the country to consider.  Thanks to friends' recommendation I am reading A Dry White Season, by André Brink, which is a reminder of that past.

And, if that isn't enough, there is the failed political system and a weak state.  President Zuma is (from what I can gather) a complete failure.  The state cannot meet its basic obligations, like, for instance, enforcing law and maintaining a monopoly on the use of force.

Simon's Town, where we are now
The upshot of all the above is that we are living like rich South Africans - behind razor wire, in the gated community of a marina.  We are living in the safest area in the whole country, from what I can gather.  But after the places we've just been - South Georgia, the Falklands, southern Chile - the attention to security even in this safe enclave feels quite smothering.

There are some great hiking trails just above Simon's Town, where we are now.  But right after we discovered them, we heard some very strongly cautionary advice about venturing onto them.  And that made the town feel like a cage.  If we couldn't go walking in the hills, and had to spend our days within the marina gates, or walking the short walk down the coast to see the local penguins, then we'd just as soon sail away, thanks much.

We did what travelers do, of course.  We asked questions.  We asked every local we could about whether it was safe to go on the trails.  And we got the widest variety of answers you could imagine.  From "absolutely safe" to "unthinkably risky".

Meanwhile, I've been venturing onto the trails, mostly by myself (i.e., without the family).  And I finally met some local hikers, who were much more authoritative than the other locals we've spoken to, who don't actually go walking.  And the local hikers said there was nothing at all to worry about.  So we've at least got some good family walking to look forward to.

I'll close by noting that it appears we have every chance of going our entire time in the country without having a social interaction with a black person.  It reminds me very much of my time in New Orleans in the early 90s - my personal reference for a segregated situation.  There was a vast swath of the social and artistic and cultural life of that city that was almost completely invisible to most white residents.  And so it feels here - so much of South African life is a no-go zone for us, not least because we have no local knowledge about what is safe and what isn't, and are being very conservative as a result.  But that seclusion from what might be vibrant and exciting in South Africa - that feels like the real loss from a traveler's point of view.

Next post - some of the good stuff!


  1. My beautiful country with great contrast.This may sound strange but you will probably find that the black people will be more open to you as an American than to the local white people.this i suppose stems from the country,s history and does not help with the new laws that prohibits our white children from jobs because of their race.Just use common sense and you will find that not all the places are that bad and that the average white and black working south african are very friendly and just want to get along.

    1. Hi Dawie - Yes, I think that you're right that people may be more open to us as foreigners. And I should stress that we have had, literally, nothing but positive experiences with everyone we've met. (Though one or two owners of marine businesses, sensing the possibility of wealthy/ignorant foreign boat owners, may have pushed the boundaries!) We'll never be able to unravel all the whys and wheretofors, of course. We're just getting our own very personal, limited experience of the place.