You can tell a lot about a country by watching local TV. South African early morning shows are a mix of sports, weather, chat, and a little news, pretty much like everywhere else—unless you’re on the Taliban telly. But the ads are different. On this Zulu channel, the breaks show much longer spots than in Europe, which means they’re a lot cheaper to buy.

But the thing I like is the content: two lengthy ads selling funeral insurance, practically, if you excuse the pun, back to back. It’s difficult to separate that from the highest murder rate in the world, thirty thousand a year, but of course the emphasis here is not on violent death, but on dire poverty.

The stats for murders per 100,000 people are currently over thirty times greater than the numbers for the U.K. or Portugal, and around five times the U.S. rate. All this is hammered home by my cab driver, as we wind up the hills of Cape Town. Table Mountain is closed off due to bad weather, and I’m headed for Camps Bay, near Constantia, the stomping ground of the likes of Mark Thatcher.

“All the people who threatened me are dead,” the driver says. ” I didn’t kill them, but if you live by the gun, you die by it.”

The cabbie, like every other one I’ve talked to this week, is Cape Flats born and bred. His stories are of fighting, shooting, and death. The white suburbs on the high hills back him up, impenetrable gates decorated with signs proclaiming Armed Response. The rand is tanking, partly because of the political chaos, but the western appetite for printing money doesn’t help.

I love this country, but I couldn’t live here. It’s not so much the danger, but the feeling that there’s no union, no shared vision. I just finished reading ‘The last train to Zona Verde’, an African travel book that begins in Cape Town, and I get the same sense from that. The story moves on to Namibia and Angola. Theroux is scathing about Portuguese Africa, with an emphasis on the colonial power.

Colonialism, and oppression in general, is never sweet, but I disagree with Theroux—Portugal was a neophyte compared to British or Dutch cruelty. Even the massacres carried out by Germans in Southwest Africa, during their short presence there, are  stunning.

Compared to Leopold’s Belgian Congo, or to South African apartheid, Portugal ranks way down the list of evildoers. The misdeeds of the civil war decades, tales of Cubans and mercenaries, surpass all imaginations of wickedness—the result is a nation of landmine victims, unemployment that makes Spain look appetizing, and kleptocratic oil billionaires who turned corruption into an art form.

The worldview one hundred and fifty years ago. The European labels of Africa are striking, but also the choice of countries displayed in Europe is curious. Austria was the center of an empire back then.

The world view one hundred and fifty years ago. The European labels of Africa are striking, but also the choice of countries displayed in Europe. Back then, Austria was the center of an empire.

Portugal never had the people to colonize an empire, and ever since the days of the Perfect Prince, it fell to convicts to sail the ships, and to populate newly discovered lands. With a population of 1.2 million in total when D. Joao II started the great road to the East, there was no other choice. The handful of Portuguese who went to Africa survived through the twin strategies of setting up trading outposts and mixed marriage.

Theroux forgets to mention that when the African colonies were granted independence and the wars escalated, Portugal took in about a million people, ten percent of its population, over a very few years. When I went to England in the 1970s it hadn’t happened, when I returned a couple of years later it had. Five star hotels were commandeered to house refugees, and today, scarcely one generation on, there’s no evidence anywhere of conflict or disintegration. If you don’ t think that’s amazing, take the London underground to Brixton, or stop off at Hounslow or Southall, just east of Heathrow.

The U.S. embassy in Maputo prefers to hire Brazilians rather than Portuguese, since the latter were the colonial power. They were astounded some years ago when the visiting Portuguese prime minister Socrates went out for a jog—running alongside him were Mozambicans of every age and color. Confusing as that may be to others, none of the former colonies show animosity to Portugal.

The Cape Flats slums, along with eastern neighbor Kayelitsha, symbolize the divide between the relaxed atmosphere of the Cape Town waterfront and the ‘informal housing’ of the ghettos. Show your cellphone in the street, and it could be your last ringtone. One nice thing about it is a lot less people jabbering on mobiles, probably a case of ‘use it and lose it.’

Don't stop at the robots. My favorite slang for traffic lights, beautifully illustrated in a pepper pack for sale in the local supermarket.

Don’t stop at the robots. My favorite slang for traffic lights, beautifully illustrated in a pepper pack for sale in the local supermarket.

“Have a good time, but keep your head down,” a friend wrote when I told him where I was. The heavy rain in the Cape seems to reflect the country’s mood. I don’t hear an optimistic word about politics, or Zuma, or the future.

And Mandela’s dying. Well, we all are, but Madiba is back in hospital today suffering from pneumonia. In the northern hemisphere, we look to November for old people to come down with a cold that never mends—the same one as last year, but this time it’s different. But over here, it’ll be mid-winter in a fortnight.

Graça Machel, the old man’s wife, is at his bedside. She’s the widow of the former leader of FRELIMO, the Mozambican independence movement. The South African government is parsimonious with news about the country’s patriarch, they know full well his death will reverberate across this nation like a sonic boom. Somehow, I just don’t have a good feeling about things to come.

Well, time to forget our woes and grab a bite. The markets may think the euro’s doomed, but at sixty cents for a Namibian oyster, the jury’s still out.

I’m headed to a place in the docks, so deep in the port of Cape Town you need to clear security. The trip is like a James Bond movie, full of dark potholed roads and hidden shadows. When I first went there ten years ago, there was a guy with a shotgun guarding the door. He’s not there these days, perhaps it’s a sign of hope.

On the way back, the driver is from Zim. “From Harare,” he says. “The capital city. At least it used to be.”

“How’s Mandela doing?”

“I don’t know. But I’m worried. Do you know there is xenophobia here?”

I wait.

“There have been persecutions. They say when Mandela dies there will be more violence. Against foreigners.”

I listen to tales of Zim. How blessed I am. And you too, reader.

“Southern Africa is so beautiful,” the man says softly. “Why must we suffer so much?”

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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