As we circle out into Table Bay and back towards the mountain, the pilot welcomes us to Cape Town – and warns us about the burgeoning violence. For the first time, locals are talking about it too. ‘We all know people who have been raped and murdered,’ says one friend who delivers me to my guesthouse after a meal and watches until I am safely inside. She rings her security company and arranges for a guard to meet her at her door if she is coming home late. So do my other female friends.
I’m staying at Kalk Bay, a seaside village a little way outside the town centre, where you can buy freshly caught fish on the quayside and which has the shabby chic of parts of Notting Hill. It has the best bookshop in the city – chosen by Justin Cartwright for a recent book launch – and it has the guesthouse I’m staying in, which looks out over the harbour. I’ve never had an office with a better view.
It’s worth the drive, even though I discover that far from the area being free of all but the pettiest crime, a couple of men had recently tried to smash their way in through the guest house door to steal a television. And two pretty shop assistants in India Jane tell me there have been six armed robberies in neighbouring Fish Hoek in the past two weeks.
On my last night there is a disturbance outside my room in the early hours; someone is crashing about and shouting. Should I ring the police? Is he about to break into my room and rip my laptop from my arms? I decide instead to phone Florian, the young Swiss owner, who sensibly doesn’t live on the premises. He doesn’t sound best pleased. ‘It’s a British guest who is drunk,’ he says shortly. ‘It’s being dealt with. This is not a war zone.’
This is one of the unpalatable truths about South Africa – crime levels are high. But they are coming down. I know this because I am told in person by Helen Zille, mayor of Cape Town and leader of the Democratic Alliance, which swept to power in the Western Province in last week’s elections with more than 51 per cent of the vote. This will be the only province not led by the ANC – an astonishing achievement for a party that only a few years ago held just 1.7 per cent of the national vote; now it holds 16.7 per cent.
Zille is a force of nature. Fluent in Xhosa and Afrikaans, she has just been voted the world’s favourite mayor – a post she will now have to vacate when she becomes premier of the Cape. She invites me onto her campaign bus and we are off: she changes out of her Thatcher-style power suit into a blue tracksuit and spends two hours on top of the bus, singing her campaign song, glossy hair in place, and leaping out at each polling station with renewed gusto. She cheerfully shakes hands with volunteers at the ANC stall. They look taken aback.
Back on the bus, she tells me that as mayor she inherited a ‘totally bankrupt’ city but has nevertheless driven violent crime in central Cape Town down by 90 per cent by using partnerships with the private sector, and introducing pilot projects in settlements like Khayelitsha and Harare. ‘Cape Town was going the way of the rest of the inner cities in southern Africa. It was crime and grime, a flight of capital and a flight of business.’
It’s also clear that in her core constituencies, she is admired. People queuing to vote happily list what she has done – from call centre workers and housewives to the grizzled paper seller sitting quietly with his pile of papers in Parow North. Police inspector Johrine Nortje poses happily for a snap with Mina Davis, who is waiting to vote with her baby.
What did she do before, I ask Zille: she gives me a piercing look and says she was a journalist. I find out from her campaign manager what she clearly expected me to know: that she broke the story of the ANC activist Steve Biko’s murder in 1977, for which she was persecuted by the apartheid government; they had claimed he had hit his own head against the wall and thereby caused his own death.
Then she is gone, off to the airport and her other constituencies, and the bus takes us back to Rondebosch, where she voted and where I grew up.
I decide to visit my old school, Rustenburg, which was a highly regarded girls’ state school (a bit like a grammar school, I suppose, though if you wanted to get in to this one, you had to put your daughter’s name down at birth). I think it must be rather different these days. I remember looking at its website with a colleague. ‘Look, it’s mixed now,’ I said with satisfaction. ‘You mean girls AND boys?’ she asked.
I am waylaid by a phonecall and drop in on Martin Welz instead, a few streets over. Martin is the editor of Noseweek, South Africa’s only investigative magazine, the nearest thing it has to Private Eye. He runs it from a house in the road I grew up in – which is enough of a coincidence to delight a simple mind like mine. A former Sunday Times journalist, he made a valiant attempt to run a similar publication under apartheid, was sued and lost everything.
Noseweek, though, has been around since 1993 and is the only publication to have a tilt at just about every sacred cow in the new South Africa including the hapless Nelson Mandela (when he was roped into a scheme to sell art that he hadn’t produced, supposedly for charity), Finance Minister Trevor Manuel (when he had a dalliance with a work colleague who is now his wife) and perhaps most importantly, the allegations of corruption against involving the multi-billion rand arms deal for which Zuma eventually face the charges that were dropped ahead of the election. ‘No-one is safe,’ says Welz happily. Noseweek has no plans to change its views on Zuma just because he is the new President. Welz is of the opinion that South Africa needs expensive armaments like the Pope needs condoms and that money spent on a new navy that no-one seems trained to operate would be better spent on tackling the overwhelming poverty and unemployment that cripples the population.
One of the reasons for my visit is to reconnect with Zubeida Jaffer, journalist and ANC activist, who was a fellow-student at Rhodes University in the seventies. Our paths diverged: I emigrated to England and found myself covering flower shows and WI meetings, while she was plunged into a life of resistance, was brutally tortured and had to live on the run with her daughter. I am to interview her; I haven’t seen her for 30 years.
We meet at a book launch in Claremont. For someone who has had to struggle with post-traumatic stress, depression and divorce since the tumultuous eighties, Zubeida seems irrepressible. She has just produced a second book and is off to a writers’ retreat in Switzerland. ‘Look, I was lucky,’ she says. ‘I survived.’ I spend election night with her at the IEC results centre, and it seems that everybody knows her. This includes the new and extremely handsome Anglican Archbishop and the police commissioner, who reveals that Zubeida coached him at maths when he was 16 – his mother was her cleaning lady.
I manage to collar Alan Boesak of COPE, which despite the fact that (formed by disaffected ANC politicians) it is the newest political party at just 125 days old, has managed to scoop 7.4 per cent of the vote and to dislodge the Democratic Alliance as official opposition in the Eastern Cape. He is beaming – and it’s no wonder. The results for the ANC may be a few percentage points lower than expected, but that an entire province can be lost to the ruling party, and a new party can do this well, means this is a vibrant democracy.
And after a few days in Cape Town, this is what I come away with: signs of hope at the Cape. Everyone I speak to loves the place fiercely. At a pre-election dinner party thrown by a friend, I meet a Glaswegian w oman, here three decades, who does rape trauma counselling, and a young Coloured man who my archeologist hostess brought from the Richtersveld and helped to educate; he now works in development.
For me the quiet, unstuffy heroism of people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Trevor Huddlestone and anti-draft campaigner Dr Ivan Toms was what made the country great. Now I look at Zubeida, who decided not to prosecute her torturer, Frans Mostert, because she felt he had taken up enough of her life already. I meet the law-student daughter he threatened to kill in the womb, who has now voted for the first time. I meet a gay white man with a Coloured partner; they have adopted a black son and now a black teenager from the Limpopo, whose mother has just died of Aids. He recently swapped volunteer work for an Aids charity for an outfit that plucks bright kids from poor townships and places them in better schools. He educates both his adopted children privately. He’s not looking for any medals. He’s just living what he believes.
No-one can deny the massive problems that face South Africa: but the story, as another friend said to me, is not just about the poverty, the unemployment, the crime, the fears about the new President or even the world economy. Luckily South Africa is made up not just of statistics and politicians. It is also made up of people.