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Golf in the Vineyards of Africa

With the new freedom of movement and the end of the quasi-military state has also come crime. Urban Americans will feel no particular sense of menace in Cape Town, though crime has increased radically. The situation is much worse in Johannesburg, a city of almost two million, which now averages three to four murders daily. Carjacking is the crime of the moment, and antihijacking devices (the stolen car goes a few miles, then the engine quits) have now become virtually standard equipment in South African cars.

Much of Cape Town's crime is gang related and internecine. The names will make one wonder yet again about the export of U.S. culture: One of the leading gangs is called simply the Young Americans. (Others: the Dixie Boys and the Hard Livings.) Many South Africans lay a great deal of blame on the police, who are unaccustomed to functioning in a free society. As one white liberal puts it, "They don't really know how to investigate crime. It's not something you have to learn when you can beat confessions out of people."

For an American, South Africa poses a moral obstacle course. Every day the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission disclose new horrors of the old regime, and these revelations, along with the persistence of segregation and the desperate poverty of the black underclass, can tempt you into easy judgment about the nature of this country. The thoughtful traveler, though, may reflect on the racial record of our own country, may contemplate the state of its black underclass, may consider how many black golfers are seen on the average day at Lake Forest's Onwentsia Club. At the level of daily life in South Africa there is in fact something eerily similar to daily life in much of American society, despite the vast differences in our histories. And for South Africans, you can say at least that none can avoid thinking about the problem of race.

To begin to understand the current attitudes that you encounter among white South Africans, I think you have to realize that most of them thought the world was truly going to end five years ago. They are millennialists in remission. They've awakened startled to discover themselves still alive, and a part of them is giddy with relief -- a relief that translates into optimism.

It is not of course that the new Mandela government enjoys unqualified support. In the members' bar at Fancourt Country Club one day, a golfer was speaking with wry disdain of the cabinet ministers: "Well, of course they're not competent managers. Why should we expect them to be?They weren't trained as managers. They were trained as terrorists."

You have to travel far in South Africa to find anyone, besides P. W. Botha, the defiant former president, who will ever admit to having supported apartheid, and this stirs skepticism. To listen to people talk of the benighted past, it seems a wonder that there ever was an apartheid or that it didn't just dry up and blow away years ago.

I spoke to a white lawyer who had been active in efforts at reform for much of his adult life, and he acknowledged that there was a slight quality of unreality in the air just now. "Unlike some other people you have met, let me say I am not without sin. Every white South African benefited from apartheid." At a certain moment the visitor is apt to think, unkindly, of the "good Germans." This idea had occurred to the reformer, too. "I recall when I was a little boy in the fifties, visiting Germany with my father. And I remember him saying, 'It is very strange. We have been here three weeks and met no one who was a Nazi.'"

Yet skepticism only takes you so far in understanding this society. South Africa has changed its public face and surely to some degree it has changed its heart as well. A conservative old white man makes friends with a black and gets a tour of his township -- unthinkable a short time ago. The man's more liberal daughter remarks, "Who would have thought my father would get to a township before me."


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