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Accidental Cape Town

It's difficult to explain, but moving to Cape Town struck me as an admission of defeat. "This isn't really Africa, you know," Capetonians are always saying, and they're right, in a way. There are streets in downtown Cape Town that resemble New York or London, and in summer the city is overrun by camera crews shooting international TV commercials. The Atlantic seaboard is sometimes mistaken for the French Riviera. Out in the nearby Winelands, the oak groves and pastures are somehow European in their gentleness, and the arid west coast easily doubles for Spain. As for the better suburbs, frame your shot to exclude dramatic mountain backdrops and smoke from the shacks where poor blacks live, and you're in an upper-middle-class anywhere: Connecticut, Marin County, Surrey, or Neuilly.

Look at this, I told the contessa. It's totally unreal, a citadel of delusions, a generically Western whites-only moon base in Africa. No way, I said; my friends in Johannesburg will laugh at me. I wanted a log cabin in the wilderness near Cape Point, where we could live a simple life of spartan purity among trees tormented into strange shapes by howling gales, uncompromised by such bourgeois comforts as electricity and running water. You're nuts, she said, so we looked at Franschoek, in my childhood a lovely valley of whitewashed cottages with plots out back where one could keep dogs and grow vegetables. Three decades on, it was still lovely, but it had somehow become more Provençal than even Provence. African farms had mutated into wine estates with names like L'Ormarins and Haute Cabrière, and the main road was lined with restaurants serving pretentious French cuisine. The contessa was enchanted. This is even worse than the moon base, I sneered. Our marriage was apparently in deep trouble, but we were saved by St. James.

St. James is a suburb on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape Peninsula—the wrong side, in the estimation of real estate agents who kept trying to steer us to the Atlantic seaboard, where you pay millions for a water view. So what?Sea is sea, and on Cape Town's Atlantic side it's always freezing and thus of little use other than as a backdrop for parties on terraces. The sea at St. James was something else entirely, a giant horseshoe of sparkling blue, ringed by mountains, warm enough for swimming in summer and full of interesting sights besides. On the day we first came, the bay was full of whales. There were surfers on the reef at Danger Beach, swimmers in the breakers. There was a real fishing harbor nearby, with real fishermen, real fish stink, and real winos on the dilapidated boardwalk. There was even a slum, a once-grand holiday resort now running to seed and populated mostly by French-speaking Africans who had fled Zaire when the dictator Mobutu was toppled by rebels in 1997.

Intrigued, we returned the next day for a closer look, parking on the far side of Muizenberg, a mile north, and walking south along "millionaires' row." Here, capitalists with vast gold and diamond holdings once maintained stately summerhouses on a beach so huge and empty, you can still ride a horse for four hours in the direction of the sunrise and not come to the end of it. The great British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes established the vogue, buying a cottage here in 1899. He was followed by Williams and Rudd, his right-hand men. Then came Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, South Africa's richest man, soon to be joined by Sir Herbert Baker, a society architect whose houses of sandstone and Burma teak were all the rage among Johannesburg's smart set. Sir J. B. Robinson stayed with his daughter, Ida, the Countess Labia, who built a rococo palace next door to another mining magnate, Sir Abe Bailey. On a midsummer's day in the 1920's, the concentration of wealth in this mile of rock, sand, and mountainside would have rivaled anything outside the United States.

By the time we arrived, it had all vanished. The great capitalist dynasties had died out or moved their bases of operation to London. The grand houses along Beach Road had become sad Baptist seminaries and the like, and the waterfront hotels were slum tenements. Also lost to time and emigration was the Jewish community that once thrived in the warren of crooked alleys and old stone houses away from the seashore. Bernard Bendix's electrical shop had become a speakeasy. Alf Rohm's kosher dairy stood empty, and the store next door was a Congolese barbershop, gaily painted in the French national colors and surmounted by the inscrutable slogan THE MOLOKAI IS ONE. Beyond Rhodes's cottage we came to St. James, a place from the time before cars, where Edwardian houses stood on terraces cut into the mountainside, reachable only by steep lanes overhung by rioting bougainvillea. In its day, St. James was to WASPs what Muizenberg was to Jews, a very English, very colonial outpost populated by merchants and bankers who would trip down the lanes of a morning in pin-striped suits and take the steam train into Cape Town, a journey of about 40 minutes. Their wives cultivated English gardens and croquet lawns, and were at pains to stress that they did not live in Kalk Bay, the enclave adjoining, because Kalk Bay had Creole or "Cape colored" people in it, once considered very déclassé. Today, Kalk Bay is fashionable (at least among white bohemians) for much the same reason: it is one of the pitifully few racially mixed communities to have survived apartheid largely unscathed.

This was at least inadvertently the doing of a policeman named Tommy Carse, who came to Kalk Bay in 1940 to keep watch over the mostly Cape colored fishermen who lived there, working the bay in small wooden boats. Carse was white, but his heart was open. He started writing down old men's stories about disasters, miraculous rescues, whale hunts in open rowing boats, and the community's battle against storms and corporate trawlers. He eventually published a book that in turn became a state-sponsored documentary about a magical little village with cobblestoned alleys, where Cape colored fishermen lived simply but happily under the guardianship of their benevolent white superiors. It won awards at Cannes and Edinburgh and was seen by 80 million people worldwide.

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