Sizing Up South Africa



When I arrived in South Africa, I was waiting in the Johannesburg airport for a connecting flight when suddenly, surrounded by police, Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, marched into the bright atrium. He was there to commemorate the opening of the new international terminal. Although I had never stepped foot on the continent, I was expecting big things, and already Africa was serving it up. If I were a smidge more narcissistic than I already am, I might have thought Zuma was there to welcome me.

Actually, for once in my life I was too busy to think about myself. It’s a gorgeous country but not easily consumed. Beauty and conflict are intertwined here, and there’s no way to make reductive assumptions because everything has been complicated with political implications, racial contradictions, and the entire country’s chaotic past. I walked around bubbling over with questions, and then would go back to my room at night and Wikipedia everything.

In Knysna, I stayed at the swank Pezula Resort, located in the hills above the bayside town. About 400 miles east of Cape Town, this city of about 75,000 people was once a hippie outpost but has gradually evolved into a weekend destination for wealthy Capetonians. It has a similar feel to a Northern California town—but with the 1970s grooviness intermingled with boutiques and clean renovation jobs.

But like the rest of South Africa, Knys­na isn’t that easy to pin down. Pezula’s attentive staff arranged an excursion with Emzini Tours to take me through a township—where South Africans below the poverty line have converged to create shantytowns that, over the years of racial oppression, apartheid, and recovery, have become distinct communities. Knysna’s township was also in the hills above the bayside town, barely a mile or two away from the hotel.

Ella, a resident of the township, and Penny, originally from Zimbabwe—the founders and guides of Emzini Tours—drove me through the dirt roads crammed with houses made of nailed-together scraps of corrugated metal and wood. They introduced me to friendly residents; showed me the new, sturdier government-funded homes that were being built; and took me to the preschool, where kids sang the national anthem for me while my heart ached. After a couple of hours they drove me back to Pezula, where I was given a complimentary massage, perhaps for the cultural whiplash I’d just experienced.

It was late April, two months before the World Cup, and when I arrived in Cape Town there was a lot of construction as the city prepared for the crowds. Everywhere I looked there were workers banging things into place, like a scene in The Truman Show: new terminals, widened roads, sudden stadiums. The Grand Parade in city center had been paved and upgraded to become a “fan park,” where crowds of up to 28,000 people could soon watch all 64 World Cup matches on large screens. Across from the refurbished fan plaza was City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his famous speech after being released from prison just 20 years earlier.

Tags: Travel