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Accidental Cape Town

In the final analysis it was all the contessa's fault, she being my wife, a chic and glamorous Latina who grew up in Coral Gables, studied at Brandeis, left the U.S.A. in disgust during the Reagan era, and lived for many years in Paris only to wind up in Johannesburg, a vulgar city of new money, low culture, and rising crime. She learned Zulu and tolerated the city for a year or two but never quite saw the point of all the guns, guard dogs, and paranoia, the ugliness of the city in winter, the harshness of the light, the veld burned gray by frost and cold, and the houses on our street grimly disfigured by steel burglar bars and electric fences. When our neighbor was carjacked in his own driveway, she put her foot down. "I hate it here," she said. "It's this country or me."

She wanted to get out of Africa, but for me, leaving was unthinkable; my interests and obsessions are entirely African, and my roots in this country are more than three centuries deep. I love Africa, even love Johannesburg, in spite of its problems. On the other hand, I love my wife, too, so we drove down to Cape Town in search of a compromise.

And here I must confess that I was ashamed to tell friends I was even contemplating such a move. Cape Town may be the most beautiful city on the planet, but we Jo'burg dudes see it as something of a fool's paradise, a last refuge for white colonials driven out of black Africa by the winds of change. The first such settlers were rich Belgians displaced from their coffee estates in the Congo by the troubles of 1961. In their wake, as empires toppled, came white hunters from Tanganyika, tobacco barons from Southern Rhodesia, tea moguls from Nyasaland, and a band of aristocratic white Kenyans led by the Honorable Mrs. Patricia Cavendish O'Neill, daughter of the Countess of Kenmare, who set her beloved lions free on the Serengeti and retreated to an estate near Cape Town in the early seventies.

The trickle became a flood in 1980, when Robert Mugabe rose to power in neighboring Zimbabwe. The flood doubled after 1984, when Johannesburg and its surrounds were convulsed by a bloody anti-apartheid struggle, and doubled again in the early 1990's, when South Africa seemed to be sliding into a race war. We were spared that fate by Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, but their triumph precipitated a new influx of paradise hunters, lured this time by the perplexing (to outsiders) victory in our epochal 1994 elections of the conservative and mostly white-led National Party, which regained leadership in Cape Town and the Western Cape province.

For apprehensive whites, this was an amazing development: history seemed to be allowing whites to eat their cake and still have it, offering them the chance to practice democracy in Africa while continuing to livein a society where power was in the reassuring hands of "people like us." Thousands pulled up stakes in the hinterland and flocked to the Mother City. Immigrants arrived. Investments poured in. The economy boomed. Cape Town mutated almost overnight into one of the most stylish tourist destinations on the planet, thronged by aristocrats, film stars, and Eurotrash. Michael Jackson came shopping for real estate. Margaret Thatcher's son Mark settled here, as did Earl Spencer, brother of Princess Diana. By 2001 Cape Town had become, for me, a place where fools sat on sea-view terraces, sipping white wine and congratulating one another for finding a corner of Africa that was somehow immune to the chaos engulfing the rest of the continent. The contessa wanted to join them. I had reservations.


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