South Africa Journal: 'The Fundamentals Are Strong'

On Friday evening, I visited a cousin whose home was a regular refuge for me during my seven years here in Cape Town. He and his family live in a delightful house that they built themselves in the windy neighborhood of Vredehoek, which huddles on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, overlooking the city and the harbor beyond. They are living the South African dream–enjoying the best of the country’s lifestyle and avoiding the worst of its politics.

My cousin spent a great deal of his youth in “the struggle.” He was jailed several times: his wife recently found footage online of one of those arrests, which was secretly filmed at the time and used in a clandestine protest video. After the African National Congress took power, he was disillusioned by its rule, but nowadays he ignores the political drama. The edge has worn off his frustration, and he is optimistic about the country’s future.

“The fundamentals are strong,” he says, noting the solid performance of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. He is also bullish about the future of the American economy, expecting that tide to lift emerging-market boats, including South Africa. Yes, there are things to worry about, he acknowledges, but it’s like living in Israel, he reasons. There are risks and dangers that you simply get used to, and meanwhile you get on with enjoying life. 

There is certainly a great deal to enjoy: the striking beauty and fecundity of the place, the peculiar intimacy of friendship, even the challenge of making freedom work for the poor. But there is also a great deal to lose. The next evening, we take our valuables with us when we leave for dinner: a precaution against rampant burglary. If the fundamentals are strong, so are the hazards. Life is fragile, one stroke of bad luck away from total disaster.