The Conversation

South Africa Journal: Have Fun! Try Not to Die.

We arrived in South Africa yesterday morning on a beautiful, and typical, Cape Town summer's day: clear blue skies, a cloud gently brushing Table Mountain and a stiff southeast breeze ripping through everything except the harbor. (It blew away the rental agreement for my car as I was loading the bags, and I had to return for another.) Also typical was the front page headline in the Cape Times: "Australian Tourist Stabbed."

There were actually two attacks on tourists: one mugging on the popular hiking trail up Lion's Head peak--a favorite local pastime on full moon evenings, as the shimmering white orb rises over the Hottentots-Holland Mountains to the east; the other mugging at Sandy Bay, which is Cape Town's gay-friendly nude beach. You've got to be pretty cracked to try to rob people who clearly have nothing in their pockets to give you anyway!

Above the headline was an enormous photograph of a new Nelson Mandela unveiled in Pretoria. Welcoming, smiling, hopeful, the icon of Mandela struck a tragic and ironic contrast with the newspaper's lead story--and with certain aspects of life in South Africa today. Crime is one of South Africa's most serious problems, and if it can be said to have stabilized since South Africa's transition from apartheid, it has done so at a very high level.

Though unemployment is a more prominent problem, politically speaking, crime does more to keep the country from growing its economy than any other problem. It drives skilled professionals overseas and keeps foreign investors away. (That newspaper greeted visitors in every hotel and tourist office in the city.) It cuts down those who manage to succeed--like my friend Vicky Ntozini, a local township entrepreneur murdered last year.

The opposition has taken the fight against crime more seriously than the ruling party, in the areas where it has governed. (The ruling party treated the issue as something of a "white" concern for a long time, even though black people were the victims who suffered most.) Yet to the extent the problem is economic or cultural rather than administrative, it will take far longer to fix. It remains the flipside to South Africa's breathtaking beauty.


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