Saturday, March 29, 2008


The end of South Africa's apartheid regime and the arrival of an African National Congress government seemed to promise undreamt-of opportunities for the country's black majority.
Yet on a recent visit to his native Cape Town, Martin Plaut found that some of the euphoria South Africans felt over the last decade has evaporated.

Skilled emigration is once more on the rise as talented young men and women look overseas rather than stake their futures on their own country
The wind whips across the city, sending shoppers to seek sanctuary in doorways and driving tourists from the beaches as the sand bites at their legs.
And over the top of Table Mountain comes the cloud known affectionately as the tablecloth. Spilling down from the flat granite face of the mountain that towers over the city, it comes like some giant waterfall.
Yet the cloud never actually arrives, evaporating and dispersing as it falls.
Cape Town is - just as I left it - mostly a carefree, happy-go-lucky sort of place.
It is as if there is some opiate in this wind, persuading all who breathe it that really tomorrow would be a much better day to get down to work, so why not relax and take it easy?
As they used to say when I was a boy, "You worry, you die. You don't worry, you die. So why worry?"
And with that usually went a slug of wine or a drop of brandy.

Some things are very different.
The streets now ring to the sounds of drummers and singers from across the continent, entertaining the visitors and earning a meagre living.
Cape Town now has much more of Africa about it and, extraordinarily, something lost for generations has returned in a modest way.
A winery has started up right in the centre of the town. With micro-vineyards scattered on plots around the city, it has begun making really first-rate wines, reviving a tradition going back to the earliest days of settlement when Jan van Riebeek brought his ships into the bay to found a refreshment station on the way to the East Indies back in 1652.
But the biggest change has been in my friends from the days when we fought the apartheid system.
While I left, they remained and joined the African National Congress - first underground and then, joyously, in the open.
Their mood now has turned to one of almost unrelieved gloom.

Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999.
The in-fighting within South Africa's ruling party has taken a terrible toll.
One friend - as loyal a supporter of President Thabo Mbeki as any leader could possibly wish for - was positively vitriolic about his former leader.
Over dinner he outlined in detail the machinations and dirty tricks unleashed by the presidency in order to hang on to power.
The anger in his words was hard to credit, a pent-up frustration at what he saw as the betrayal of so many hopes.
But perhaps the saddest experience was meeting two educationalists I have known for more than three decades. About to retire, they are in utter despair.
Their life's work, they told me, had been futile.

A tiny fraction of children qualifying for university have African names. State schools across the country are in a crisis so deep they can see no end in sight.
The picture they painted was one of teachers lured away from the profession by better salaries in business, of schools without discipline where pupils run riot, and of standards that have fallen through the floor.
My friend leaned across and told me of a visit to East London just up the coast.
The matriculation results had just come out. Of 10,000 pupils who took the exams, only 80 had got passes good enough to go into university. And of these, only five had African names.
That is five students out of 10,000.
"What do you think their parents say about what we have done for their kids," he asked, "when they've scraped a living for years, only to find their hopes left unfulfilled?"
Energy crisis
It is this anger and stories like these that led to Mr Mbeki's defeat at the hands of his own party in December. And this, in turn, led the ANC to elect Jacob Zuma, despite the allegations of corruption hanging over him.

As ANC leader, Jacob Zuma is well-placed to become president in 2009"He can't be worse than Mbeki," my friends said to me.
Well, we shall see. The president is accused by his party members of living in a bubble, of being out of touch and unwilling to heed warnings.
It has been the energy crisis that really brought home the problem.
As the lights went out in suburb after suburb and as bakeries had to discard half-baked loaves and when even the gold and platinum mines - South Africa's normally pulsating economic heart - shut down, the arguments were well and truly over.
Skilled emigration is once more on the rise, as talented young men and women look overseas rather than stake their futures on their own country.
Another friend said she went to a leaving party almost every weekend.
None of this suggests that South Africa is really on the skids, or that the situation is irretrievable. But the fear is there, and pessimism whispering in dark corners.
It is rather like the empty cement sack against the fence torn by Cape Town's South Easter wind - flap, flap, flapping in the wind.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 29 March, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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