The 6 of us gather for drinks before dinner in the lounge, and Freddie arrives to escort us into the ‘den’. It’s been reset as a dining room for the occasion, fireplace lit, candles on the table, lovely place settings.
We decide to seat women closer to the fire with me in the middle seat, and the men opposite – Victor facing me across the table. To my right are a former Policeman and his wife, to my left a Lawyer and his wife. I’m identifying their jobs because later on in the evening, our conversation will get very interesting – their jobs have given them very different perspectives on the issues facing South Africa.
But dinner begins politely enough with a menu of options to choose from, including a soup or goat cheese salad, a choice of main course, and a choice of dessert. I opt for the soup, a stuffed chicken dish, and a sweet cake for dessert. I’ve discovered that folks here love their sweet cakes – and I’m quite the fan of their work.
Over the course of dinner, and following several bottles of wine, conversation turns to the current state of affairs in South Africa. Since our dinner companions are all from Port Elizabeth, although from quite different walks of life, their opinions are very intriguing.
They agree that the current government is completely corrupt – an opinion I’ve heard over and over again from the folks who will talk politics with me. I’m not sure that this is a majority opinion however, since none of the folks who are of a darker skin color seem as willing to admit that there is a problem. After all – the party in power is the ANC – Mandela’s group – so calling them corrupt is perhaps not acceptable. I’m not sure.
One thing I am sure about however is that calling the government corrupt seems a somewhat universal theme – folks in the US call parts of their government corrupt, we in Quebec are certain that there is corruption at the higher levels, although pinning it on a specific individual is a challenge. So South Africans are not unique in feeling this way – it does seem however that in some cases the accusation is accompanied by accounts of house buying, major home renovations and trip taking on the government dime.
There is agreement as well on some of the statistics – 20% of folks unemployed, apx 37% living below the poverty line (related stats I’m sure), a frightening amount of crime, along with a looming water crisis in the ‘food basket’ areas of the Eastern and Western Cape. In the 25 days that we have been here there have been reports of several mass murders, including one where gang members gunned down 18 members of the ‘unofficial’ community protection group in one of the informal settlements (Philippi) near Cape Town. And there are some interesting laws that have been enacted – I’m told that farms are forbidden from using machinery to do most jobs – instead they must hire manual labor – a way to keep folks employed. And I’ve personally seen numerous restaurants where the number of staff clearly out-number the clients. This is redundancy mascaraing as employment, but I’m not sure that anyone is fooled.
I ask my dinner companions how they feel about the towering electric or barb wire/razor wire fences that surround almost everything, everywhere in South Africa – and they confess that they are fenced in as well as fenced out. The folks to my right loudly state that the fences are essential – and cite recent incidences of violent crime against older folks living in gated compounds that still aren’t gated enough. The folks to my left on the other hand mourn the lack of open access that they remember from their youth – when kids could play in the streets safely.
Today they explain life in the middle and upper classes is lived inside enclosures. You get in your car inside your compound, and only open the gate long enough to allow the car to drive out – and that after checking the cameras to be sure no one is lurking nearby. You drive to your destination, another gate is opened (after making sure of your identity), and only after the gate is secure behind you do you get out of the car. Play dates have 6 members – 2 Moms, 2 Kids, 2 Body Guards.
If you work in an office building or hotel or factory, the process is the similar – enter your car, open the gate, drive to the ‘office’, open that gate, close the gate – get out of the car. No one light skinned wanders the streets, walks to work, lives without gates and guards and security.
There are of course exceptions – in the townships and informal settlements – life is very different. There are fences – but they surround the township, and as a legacy of Apartheid have few entrances so that the police can close off the township quickly if need be. Within the township, as we witnessed when we were traveling with Mr. Podbrey, there are few fences. But still even these buildings have wrought iron gates at the doors that can be locked closed for the security of those within. No matter our status – we all apparently have things we must protect.
The former policeman and his wife to my right seem to feel that all this security is beyond necessary, it is essential. There is too much crime for the police to deal with, and taking security into your own hands – or the hands of your community is just, proper and expected. (Later I will chat with a lady who lives in Jo-burg. She tells me that the cost of this security in her neighbourhood is 2,500 Rand a month – a huge amount to folks who consider paying 20,000 Rand a month for food for a family of 5 outrageous).
The lawyer and his wife disagree – they think that all this excess security only builds up the need for more and more security. It’s a self-fulling prophesy. You expect the worst, and that’s what you will get. I must agree with them when I think of Canada, the US, Britian, Europe, Thailand, South Korea – most of the other places where I’ve spent time. In all these places, fences are mental, not physical. My stuff is this side of a line, yours is the other side – and we’ve both agreed that this is the case. No fence is needed. And surely not 6’ high stone fences topped with razor wire and huge mechanized wrought iron gates. How have all these places managed to convince folks that you should respect what is mine – not feel you can/should just take it? Where and when did South Africa go this other route? Folks who have never left South Africa (Africa?) are unlikely to appreciate the huge difference in mental state that exists
The lawyer’s wife argues that supporting all the various charities and foundations that are working to make things better is a valid road to improvement. The couple to our right thinks these things are a waste of money. Putting the money into more and better police is the way to improve safety in South Africa.
On the other hand, I think back to our conversations with the young folks in the Khayelitsha Township outside of Cape Town. They were much more positive about the future – planning on getting an eduction and perhaps working in IT if Soccer doesn’t pan out as a career. Meanwhile our dinner companions tonight are thinking of sending their kids – and grand kids – abroad to ensure their future.
We are physically and mentally stuck in the middle. We come from a place where there are few if any fences, and if they exist, they exist to keep pets from roaming the neighbourhood, or to keep young kids out of swimming pools, not to create compounds. In fact, in my community, building a fence completely around my yard would be against the law. I’m not allowed to do this – but then neither is anyone else in my neighbourhood. I’m wondering if one would have to start by tearing down all the fences. You certainly can’t tear down a few – it would make those few a target.
Here’s another frightening fact about South Africa – this one gleamed from local newspapers. In Cape Town, only 12 of the 35 public pools will be open this summer because of the water crisis. But while this seems reasonable, it is worrisome. How will black and coloured city dwellers cool off during the hot hot summer months ahead. Granted public pools are only one way – but they are an accepted place for young people to play, to exercise, to be. Close them and you rob young folks of an acceptable option, and kids are not going to sit at home. That’s not going to happen. My expectation – there will be a dramatic increase in crime by young folks in Cape Town during the summer – from frustration and boredom, not from malicious intent. I’m sure there is a water shortage – but I’m also sure that there are other ways of dealing with it that will not just make a bad situation worse.
In a breakdown report of unemployment stats in the same newspaper (quoting a report just released but with data from 2015) it was stated that 30% of Africans (blacks?) are unemployed, compared to 19.6% of coloured and 6.4% of whites. And women outnumber men of course. To have a basis for comparison, I looked up unemployment records during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930’s. The highest rate of unemployment then was 17%. So we are talking about almost double the amount of unemployment among the largest groups in South Africa.
In the Western Cape alone there are 628,000 unemployed individuals in the second quarter of 2017. This in an area filled with wineries, farms, lots of tourism, and several huge employers. Again to put things into perspective – that’s 1/3rd of the population of Montreal, and more than the entire population of Vermont.
In the end, we all agree to agree that there are huge problems in South Africa, problems that aren’t helped by a government seen by many as hopelessly corrupt, and made worse by unequal applications of primary facilities – large police presence in upper class areas, single police cars patrolling the huge and unruly informal settlements.
And we can all agree that all groups are being forced into paying for protection that the government can’t or won’t provide. The fees that folks in the enclaves pay monthly for ‘protection’ are by their standards out of line – perhaps 1/4 of their food bill to use something meaningful as a source of comparison. In the informal settlements – the cost is even higher. It might cost a mother her son in Philippi, a price no one should have to pay.
The serving of dessert changes the tone of the conversation, and we all focus on what will happen tomorrow. The first game drive starts at 6:30 AM – so it’s time to head off to bed.
We can’t solve South Africa’s problems over coffee.
Signing off – The Soup Lady.