Franschoek, South Africa: This is an achingly beautiful land. The hills are low by Nepali standards but they soar above broad valleys full of vineyards, orchards and prim white cottages built by religious refugees from northern Europe three hundred years ago. Weather sculpted rock tops each height, tempting the hiker, tracing convoluted lines against an impossibly blue sky. By night, stars blaze in a celestial fireworks display, the constella-tions subtly different. This is the southern hemisphere.
It's early autumn south of the equator. The vines droop with bunches of purple and green grapes. The apples are ripening and groups of migrant labourers are starting to turn up in the central square, getting ready for the harvest. Overwhelmingly though, this is tourist country. The little villages are full of small, nearly perfect guesthouses and restaurants, dozens of vineyards promise a chance to taste far too many wines. The relics of a poor, rural past provide the backdrop for urban stress-relief-a wooden plough in the window of an antique shop is borne off to a stockbroker's sea-front flat, the sweat from the ploughman's grip still etched on handles of twisted cypress.
And yet, as one always doomed to look for the worm in the pudding, I can't help but see that things are not as they seem, that there are swirling sinister undercurrents. Immediately, you see the signs on literally every house that read "Armed Response". A burglar alarm is not enough. Crime is so high that the only deterrent is the threat of a private SWAT team, just a phone call away. At the airport, people check in for their flight, then go to a special counter to deposit their guns for secure storage on the plane. You pick up your pistol at your destination. Everyone has a tale of robbery or violence and they get passed on at cocktail parties in the same tone of voice as we in Nepal discuss the Lauda Air scam, or our next trek.
We once abhorred South Africa for its dreadful apartheid system. Now we admire a multiracial democracy committed to social justice and free markets. Nelson Mandela's generosity of spirit, his emphasis on reconciliation, meant that all but the most vicious excesses of that evil system are ostensibly forgiven, if not forgotten. Everyone votes, anyone can marry anyone else, no more are people officially classified by race and ethnicity so their privileges can be qualified and restricted. Yet, I'm still looking for the South African dream. So far, it seems confined to those to whom apartheid was most kind-prosperous white people. In this part of the country, black Africans still do the menial jobs, waiting on tables, harvesting crops, buying tatty clothing sold from the back of a car in front of an exclusive, white-run boutique. I accept that it's wrong, very
wrong, to celebrate the end of apartheid and then use a racial lens to view the successes and failures of the aftermath of such a stunning social change. But it's almost impossible not to.
Flying over the cities of this land is a troubling experience. There are vast tracts of green suburbia, detached, luxurious homes with blue swimming pools a vivid pattern among the trees and fences. Then across a busy motorway, what used to be a called a "township", a cluster of huts and dusty lanes, a densely packed warren of lives given to labour and probably more than a little crime. These are the black South Africans-free to vote and travel where they please, still living in squalor with aspirations unmet. Apparently, a black middle class is growing rapidly and buying homes with swimming pools in areas once reserved for whites. And that's not just socially acceptable; it's essential for harmonious development. Economics, and not just racism, now divides this society, as many others.
But I keep thinking about those signs promising armed retribution for burglars daring enough to break-in. One house in this seemingly idyllic village of vineyards and caf?s sported a placard asking "Is there life after death?" and then went on to answer, "Come inside and see for yourself." An illustration of a prone human body underlined the point.
It was easy to hate apartheid. It's much more difficult to develop the new South Africa.