South Africa Journal: Light or Fire

After toasting the New Year at a farm in the starkly beautiful wine country near Cape Town, we arrived back in the city to see Table Mountain illuminated (finally!) from below–and a ring of fire on neighboring Devil’s Peak. The smell of smoke permeated the neighborhood below, and it was only by sheer luck that no wind was blowing, or else the situation could have become very serious. It seemed an apt metaphor for South Africa as a whole.

On the one hand, unparalleled beauty and amazing potential. On the other, constant danger and malfeasance. Luck, leadership and love have preserved South Africa so far, but they are not guaranteed. When the people of the country stop caring–or when its elite cares more about their own comforts than the success of the society as a whole–then it will take little more than a small crisis to prod South Africa toward the brink once more.

As I write this, I can hear the nagtroepe (night troupes) marching through the old District Six in the near distance, towards my former home in the Bo-Kaap, playing songs and goema drums to ring in the New Year. My favorites–and my daughter’s, too, after this trip–are the Nederlands songs, their wistful Eastern solos floating above Western chords, nostalgic and bittersweet, like a crisp southeaster on a warm midsummer night.

We leave behind, once again, family and friends–and an intimacy and intensity of living that are the things we miss most about South Africa. We are excited to be returning to the U.S. for a new year that seems full of great possibilities. For my part, what I hope to retain in the days ahead is a sensitivity to the complexity of politics and life–a consciousness that life in this richly, coarsely-textured country offers to those who look and listen.