South Africa – lots of questions – few answers

The last week was my first ever visit to South Africa.

I had never wanted to visit through the apartheid years. I was upset when my parents went there for a visit and never really forgave them for that.

But apartheid is past; reconciliation has been led by many who were oppressed.

It is a fascinating country to visit – but the problems are clear to see.

The first problem is simply image. I received countless messages telling me to stay safe, be careful etc.

Yet, everyone we met was unfailingly friendly and welcoming; from the car watchers to the business owners.

But did I feel truly safe? That is a hard question when everywhere that you visit or stay has such obvious security. Homes are like fortresses; protected by walls, electric fences, electronic access gates, cctv and alarms threatening armed response. There are security guards everywhere you go in Cape Town. And of course there are the guys who will watch your car for a small tip.

Yet we walked around most towns without any difficulty or intimidation. That said, we were on the tourist trail and there are some places where it would clearly have been less than wise to stop and explore. We did most of our exploring by day rather than by night.

This was out itinerary for the week – we flew into Johannesberg and connected on a domestic British Airways/Comair flight down to Port Elizabeth. Picking up a car in Port Elizabeth we drove for one night in each of Jeffreys Bay, Knysna, Swellendam, Hermanus and Franschhoek before spending two nights in Cape Town and then back to Dubai.

Total driving distance was 1,100kms.

But that does not do the trip justice so some more details are needed.

Overnight flight before we landed in JNB – easy through immigration and a longer walk to the domestic terminal. Checked in. No queue at security – it was early on a Sunday morning – and then rested for an hour in the Bidvest lounge. The lounge was excellent. Great collection of food and drink and lots of places to rest.

Comair is a British Airways franchisee and it is strange to fly domestic in South Africa on a BA airplane – a nice 737-800. Not very busy.

Port Elizabeth is a very small, quiet airfield. A bit like flying into Phitsanulok in Thailand. It really was that quiet.

Picked up the car and drove to down to Jeffreys Bay. Checked in to our Stone Olive guest house. Next to the golf course. Nice room. Ocean View. Quiet.

Then out to a late lunch. One of the best meals of the week. Kitchen Windows beach restaurant. Great service. Friendly people. Excellent fresh seafood. Bottle of decent chardonnay.

We were asleep by 8pm!

Monday morning we set off for Knysna. Basically a drive down the N2. We had booked a trip around the Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve. Lovely sunny day. Animals out in the wild. Hippo. Rhino. Giraffe. Cheetah. Lion. Crocodile. Wildebeest. Zebra. All sorts of deer.

An open truck – 8 passengers including four Saudis who were trying to ruin the trip for everyone. No respect for the tour guide. Noisy. Rude. The guide got angry with them and they behaved a little better.

At Knysna we stayed in the quirky Turbine Hotel – a conversion of an old power plant on Thesen Island. Lots of clever touches in the hotel. Rooms are small but very comfortable.

Dinner at nearby Sirocco was disappointing. The restaurant has a good view of the lagoon and is alleged to be the fanciest restaurant on Thesen Island. It was cold. The food was dull. And the restaurant near empty. OK; it was a Monday in the quiet season but that is no reason to give up on quality.

A long drive on Tuesday from Knysna to Swellendam via Wilderness and a lunch stop in George so that Tai could go to Ocean Basket. We had our only rain of the week in George and it was cold and windy there.

Again the driving was easy and some of the scenery spectacular.

Swellendam is inland. About half way from Cape Town to George and is the third oldest town in South Africa. Our guest house – Schoone Oordt Country House – was fabulous. We were greeted with drinks and home made cake. The room was large. The pets were friendly. Breakfast was classy. And our car was cleaned and waxed in the morning. It was a rental – it had never been treated that well! Thrifty should be grateful.

Lovely people – nice place to stay. We ate out on Tuesday night at the recommended Drostdy restaurant. Modern South African cooking. Tai ate Springbok and Ostrich. Warm restaurant in a traditional, old building.

Wednesday was sunny again – and it was time for a quick nine holes of gold on the course overlooking Swellendam and beneath the mountains. We almost had the course to ourselves. The scenery was stunning. The golf less so. Rental clubs! Loved the walk and the fresh air.

Then a shorter drive back to the Whale Coast at Hermanus. La Fontaine Guest House. Huge room. Right on the sea front drive. Short walk to town and teh restaurants. Dinner at the Fisherman’s Cottage restaurant. The folks at the next table were from Gstaad and knew all about Le Rosey and I suspect know many of the staff and parents. Dinner was good.

A really scenic Thursday morning drive back inland to Franschhoek; the smalles and prettiest of the wine district towns. We were able to check in early to Maison Chablis – the French influence is everywhere in the village. James made us very welcome.

A very short walk into the village to catch the 11.15 wine tram – one of four wine tram routes that tour around the large and small vineyards around the town. Tasting rooms in each vineyard and many of them have attached restaurants although many were closed midweek in the winter season. It was a lovely sunny, blue – sky day. Some wine, some sunshine. Tai was asleep by 7pm. No dinner for me. But it was a fun day.

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And on Friday we were out early to drive to CapeTown. But we avoided the fast route and instead took the coastal road. And it was a really fun drive.

We drove through Stellenbosch, and joined the coast near the township of Khayelitsha. Past Muizenberg and down the Indian Coast of the peninsular south of Cape Town through Kalk Bay and SimonsTown down to Boulders Beach – where we stopped to see the penguin colony gathered there.

ABC_3466 ABC_3464 ABC_3440Then we crossed over to the Atlantic side and drove the spectacular Chapmans Peak Road through Hout Bay to finish at 2pm when we checked into the Vetho Villa on Camps Bay. We had the Honeymoon Suite. Huge. Nice balcony. Ocean and 12 Apostles view.


We had to be at the V&A Waterfront by 4pm as Tai had booked us onto CapeTown Helicopters for their 24 minute two oceans flight. Way too much fun.

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Pictures from Cape Town Helicopters

We took off and flew down the Atlantic Coast – and crossed the peninsular to fly up the Indian Ocean coast and back into the City. Views that you could never be bored with.

And I got to sit up front with our pilot – Stephen. Flying helicopters is fun! My next hobby!

It was my birthday and Tai had booked dinner in Camps Bay – on the beachfront a short walk from our hotel. The food at ZenZero was a bit uninspiring. But it was a nice evening. Though why leave the restaurant doors open when it is falling to 12C outside.

Saturday was explore Cape Town day. The city centre on Long Street, the cable car to Table Mountain and back downtown through Camps Bay to the V&A.

Dinner was poor Italian at the end of our street. Col’Cacchio Pizzeria – honestly I have seen better looking staff canteens.

And so back to Dubai on Sunday. Cape Town airport is not busy and is very user friendly. Long flight back to Dubai.

So it sounds ideal. However the “but” is big. South Africa has so much potential. But all is not growth and harmony.

The following comments are going to be simplistic; it takes more than a few paragraphs to address the issues faced by this nation. So forgive the simplicity —  this is really just meant as an overview and some observations.

It is only 22 years since the first post apartheid government was formed in 1994.

Wikipedia simply states that South Africa today is a developed country and a newly industrialized country.Its economy is the second-largest in Africa (Nigeria is first – oil), and the 34th-largest in the world. In terms of purchasing power parity, South Africa has the seventh-highest per capita income in Africa.
Poverty and inequality remain widespread, with about a quarter of the population unemployed and living on less than US$1.25 a day.

And the disparity between those who have and those who have not is very obvious and visible. Simplistically, it was not until we reached Cape Town that we saw black people eating in the same restaurant as us.

It also became quickly clear that anyone who might regard themselves as a home or business owner is taking remarkable measures to ensure their security. Homes and business are in gated, secure communities or behind walls and fences; often electrified and always with an alarm system. The private security industry in South Africa is the largest in the world, with nearly 9,000 registered companies and 400,000 registered active private security guards, more than the South African police and army combined.

Nearly 50 murders are committed each day in South Africa. In the year ended March 2014 there were 17,068 murders and the murder rate was 32.2 per 100,000 – about five times higher than the global average.

Violence is less obvious in the tourist areas with serious crime more likely in the townships. But caution is necessary.

Many emigrants from South Africa also state that crime was a big motivator for them to leave; a quick poll of the many South Africans working in Dubai would confirm this.

The Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver has some data on South Africa that is alarming. The good news is that over the next thirty years there will be significant progress and that feels right – the potential is huge:

Infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births – Deaths per Thousand Infants
2016: 51.64
2030: 41.03
2060: 16.07
Life expectancy – Total – Years
2016: 51.45
2030: 57.23
2060: 71.86
HIV infection, rate, percentage of adult population – Percent
2016: 10.78
2030: 8.787
2060: 2.877
Population, aged more than 65 years – Million People (an ageing population will put pressure on health care systems)
2016: 3.141
2030: 4.322
2060: 8.501
Population in urban areas – Million People
2016: 35.01
2030: 43.23
2060: 53.28
Population with income less than $1.25 per day, log normal computation (using 2005 ICP based survey data) – Million People
2016: 5.354
2030: 4.332
2060: 2.234
Population with income less than $2 per day, log normal computation (using 2005 ICP based survey data) – Million People
2016: 13.87
2030: 11.82
2060: 6.812
Of a total population of: Million People
2016: 52.82
2030: 55.26
2060: 60.86

South Africa needs time. After decades of discrimination and apartheid economic and social growth needs to educate and employ the majority black population. It needs to visibly make them richer and safer. But growth has not been fast enough and the wealth has not spread widely enough. And that is all too visible – townships; people sitting around town with nothing to do and no where to go.

The 2008 recession hit South Africa hard. More jobs were lost. But the problems lie deeper than simply racial redistribution. The education system needs to produce more skilled people. The country has instead been importing skilled labour from other African nations. In 2007 four of every five maths teachers in South Africa were from Zimbabwe (source: Africa- Richard Dowden).

AIDS has also taken its toll on the young population. 11% of the adult population are infected with HIV. The low life expectancy is driven by this figure and those that are sick cannot (mostly) afford the retroviral drugs necessary for life.

South Africa is caught in a race between expectation and economic growth. To date economic growth has been too slow; further measures are needed to improve infrastructure, strengthen the business environment, improve labour markets and ensure future spending needs can be financed.

Opening up state monopolies to competition is a starting point to secure additional electricity generation capacity and investment in all forms of transport.

How to finance public spending is an issue. Tax reforms that solidify public finances and make the tax system fairer are required. Encouraging private and foreign investment; creating an SME friendly entrepreneurial environment.

South Africa is in many ways remarkable. A stunning looking country. Rich in resources. Rich in history and culture. Vibrant. Possibly a genuine rainbow nation.

Its transition from apartheid to a modern, liberal constitutional democracy was remarkable; conducted face to face by brave men with a vision and with compassion. Mandela built bridges between peoples. He became the guiding spirit for his nation and the continent.

The current government has lost that vision behind their own individual ambitions and greed. It needs to revisit the 1994 constitution that governs the nation and promotes “the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism.”

With so much at stake it would be a tragedy to lose Mandela’s vision and faith.

I am happy that I last I have visited this remarkable country; but I am happy I left it until now.





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