Rian Malan

South Africa Notebook

This country has a miraculous knack for escaping from tight spots just in time

In recent years, living in South Africa has been a bit like having cancer. The malaise eating us from within was corruption and there seemed to be no cure, which is why there was no dancing in the streets when our dreadful president, Jacob Zuma, was finally eased out of office on Valentine’s Day. For me, it felt as if the entire nation was hobbling out of hospital after a long and painful stay, almost too weak to walk, but very surprised and grateful to discover that it had somehow survived. So I didn’t dance in the streets. But I did spot a local ANC leader standing in the sun outside the general store. I hobbled over and shook his hand. ‘Comrade,’ I declared. ‘Well done!’ We talked for a while about the way forward and for once, found ourselves in agreement about almost everything. The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a good chap. With any luck, he might just manage to muck out the giant pile of ordure left behind by his predecessor. Also, he’s so rich already that he has no need to steal, meaning that government budgets might at last be spent as intended, on the poor.

There are quite a lot of those here in Van Wyksdorp, an obscure village perched on the edge of a vast, brutal aridity at the eastern end of the Little Karoo, population 833. It hasn’t rained properly here in years. The grass around farm dams rustles with thirsty snakes, and baboons are gathering on the outskirts of town, looking for fields or orchards to raid. Farmers are struggling too, but the spring on the mountain keeps giving water, so for the moment we’re OK. So what prompted me to move to a village hardly anyone has heard of? Well, it was Zuma’s fault really.

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