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A New South Africa

The shebeen is packed. People are dancing, music is playing, everyone has a bottle of beer, and it’s not even noon. The atmosphere in this neighborhood bar is warm and festive, in defiance of the cold drizzle outside. Nyanga, one of Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest townships, is filled with bars like this, offering shelter from the realities of life for most black South Africans. shebeen scene I’m with Peter and Anthony, two white South Africans. Peter is a former soldier, now a social worker and tour guide, and Anthony is his apprentice. We’re the only whites in the shebeen, maybe the only whites in Nyanga right now. Who knows? Even for their black residents, the townships aren’t safe, and few whites visit. This is the new South Africa, the “rainbow nation” of eleven official languages, a collision of races and cultures that are all equal now under the law. Opinions differ, though, on whether this new country is really much better than the old one. Six years and two elections have passed since democracy came to the last white-ruled country in Africa, and the glow has faded. A lot of people, both black and white, are angry and worried.

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Cape Town deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Curled up against the bulk of Table Mountain, the city’s Victorian homes and stately colonial buildings look down the hills towards the Atlantic Ocean and the southern tip of Africa. Palm trees, cafes, and statues of Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria line the streets. cape terrace It’s easy to understand why so many have fought for Cape Town’s ownership: Khoikhoi, San, Dutch, English, Afrikaans . . . the list is long. Nyanga tells a different story. One of the many black townships encircling Cape Town’s mostly white center, Nyanga is typical: grim, poor, and black (under apartheid, blacks, coloureds, and Indians were forced into racially separate enclaves, usually overcrowded and with inferior or nonexistent facilities. With majority rule, the townships have been accorded suburb status, but most people still call them by the old name). Together with Langa, Mitchell’s Plain, Athlone, and others, these areas are still home to the vast majority of non-white Capetonians.

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Though black South Africans gained political freedom almost six years ago, the projected benefits of that independence have been slow in coming. Despite the ruling ANC (African National Congress)’s promises, there has been little money available for desperately-needed housing, schools, and social programs. Nelson Mandela was almost universally revered, but he has stepped down, leaving the country to former deputy Thabo Mbeki. Despite the ANC’s landslide victory last year, many wonder if Mbeki can hold this fractious, racially polarized country together. And lately, the ANC has begun to look as corrupt and incompetent as many other African governments, with scandals too numerous to mention while much of the population struggles. Add to that an explosion in crime and a crushingly high unemployment rate (in Nyanga it hovers at sixty percent), and many blacks are wondering how long they will have to wait. As Godfrey, an unemployed laborer and one of the shebeen’s regulars, puts it, “We have our freedom now, yes, and that is good. But we do not have jobs, or a decent place to live.” Whites, for their part, are worried, too. Many are leaving, convinced the country is going “the way of Zimbabwe.” (Due primarily to corruption and bad management, the former Rhodesia has slid steadily downhill since independence.) Many of those that remain are fleeing the cities to exclusive, all-white suburbs, with guard dogs, private security companies and fortresslike walls around their houses. While whites still control most of the economy (a fact much resented by blacks), many fear the gradual erosion of their rights, a story repeated across the continent as the colonial era came to an end. Piet, a Cape Town Afrikaner, sums it up: “These fellows in the ANC, they get in power and they give all their friends jobs, they let the criminals run free . . . this country’s going to hell.”

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At the shebeen, an impromptu band has begun to play, filling the small room with its sound. The Band Sidney, a former schoolteacher in a green baseball cap and well-worn ski jacket, plays acoustic guitar and sings. Another man plays saxophone, another a trumpet. A few regulars, crowded in on old couches in the back, play hand drums and clap in between sips of beer. The music is called “township folk,” or “African folk,” depending on whom you talk to. Though not as well-known as township jazz (a particularly South African form of jazz, modeled on 1940s bebop and made famous by the likes of Dollar Brand and Hugh Masekela), this township folk is much older, rooted in ancient tribal songs and melodies, and everyone seems to know the words. The brass weaves in and out of each song, winding its way around the backbone supplied by Sidney’s guitar, and the sound has a bit of New Orleans swing and shuffle to it. Sidney leans in close with the trumpeter as he sings, his hoarse voice haunting and expressive. It’s dark in the shebeen, and the two men are framed in the half light of the open door. The songs are about many things: traditional tribal life, songs of love, and songs of revenge. One is called “I See You”: I see you Walking with someone else’s woman Yes, I see you. Why are you with another woman? Yes, I see you. A man sitting next to me translates from Xhosa (one of the dominant tribal groups in the Western Cape). Even the saddest, most chilling songs are leavened somewhat by the shebeen’s warmth, by people clapping, singing, whistling. Anthony, the apprentice guide, has been studying Xhosa, and now he moves to the front of the room, joining Sidney for a song. He stumbles over the words a few times, but everyone cheers him on; a white singing and enjoying himself in a room full of black men is still a rare sight. Like most bars in the developing world, the shebeen is primarily a male affair; someone’s daughter is in back, but she’s shy and won’t come out to meet the visitors. She restocks the scarred refrigerator with Castle lagers and hurries back out of the room. I had been feeling self-conscious, like an intruder, but the reception Anthony’s singing gets makes me feel more comfortable. As a visitor, especially a white-skinned one, it can be difficult to separate the myth of the townships from the reality. These can be scary places, yes, but people live in them. As the music plays on, Peter introduces me to Joseph, a stocky man wearing a Kaizer Chiefs rugby shirt (The Chiefs are one of the country’s most popular black soccer teams). We shake hands using the Xhosa handshake, which ends with a rapid-fire snapping of fingers. Peter says, “Ten years ago, we were fighting against each other up in Angola and Namibia.” “Yes,” Joseph agrees, “I was with Umkonto We Sizwe [the A.N.C.’s armed wing- literally, “Spear of the Nation”]. I trained in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, then fought in the bush war against the apartheid government.” With a slow smile, ” I fought against Mr. Peter.” “Different sides, yes,” continues Peter. “Everyone, all of us whites, had to serve in the military.” Then, matter-of-factly, “But that’s in the past.” “Now we work together, sitting here together,” Joseph says. He pauses for a moment, then adds, “In the new South Africa.” Though Sidney and the band are starting to wrap it up, they decide to do one last song: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “God Bless Africa.” A beautiful hymn that became a freedom fighters’ song, “God Bless Africa” was banned during the apartheid years. Now it’s the country’s national anthem, and everyone, Anthony and Peter included, joins in the singing with hands over hearts: Lord bless our nation And end all conflicts, O bless our nation.


A light rain is falling outside. The sun had seemed on the verge of appearing, but it’s covered again by dirty gray clouds, and Nyanga looks gloomy. I’m talking to Peter on the way back to Cape Town. We pass miles of factories as we drive, their sooty smokestacks rising from the scrub of the Cape Flats and the townships that cover them. Table Mountain and the Bay are still off in the distance, obscured by clouds. “Most whites,” Peter says, “are so negative. They’re always pissing and moaning about the way things are now . . . we had it so good for so long here, it’s hard for a lot of people to accept. And there’s so little understanding between the races. Most whites have never even seen a township except from the freeway.” “I sometimes think people like me, people who work in the townships, we’re the only ones that have any hope for this country,” Peter continues. “We’re the only ones that see the possibilities for reconciliation.” He’s quiet for a minute. “Besides,” he adds, “this is my home. I was born here. Regardless of what anyone else says, we’re Africans, not Europeans. Where else would we go?”

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