Friday, March 14, 2003

Some thoughts on South Africa, particularly Johannesburg and Cape Town

A good friend of mine, who is an academic at the University of Stellenbosch, just north of Cape Town in South Africa, got married in late December 2000. I flew in to South Africa a couple of days before Christmas, and spent the next couple of weeks touring the Western Cape with another South African friend of mine who was also their for the wedding. (We had all met at graduate school in Cambridge). I am a bit of an oenophile, so we went to a lot of local wineries, and tried the local product. (I had generally been disappointed with South African wine I had drank outside South Africa, but in the country I discovered that some of their product is quite good, but they don't seem to export the good stuff. At present South African wine lacks the consistency of Australian, New Zealand or Californian wine). We went up to the top of Table Mountain. We went to the Cape of Good Hope. We generally had a good time. And it was a very nice wedding.

There were many guests at the wedding from Europe (on both the bride and groom's side) who were in Cape Town for the event, and a trip was arranged for people to had time to travel along the Garden Route from Cape Town, to Knysna, Port Elizabeth and Addo Elephant National Park north of Port Elizabeth. The friend with who I did most of the touring around the Western Cape was unable to come, but instead had to go back to his job in Johannesburg. This friend is a serious cricket buff, but he did not check his calendar properly, and desipite the fact that I had mentioned that there was a test match starting in Cape Town on January 2, he had arranged to return home on the morning of that day, and was therefore unable to accompany me to the match. Everyone else was heading for Knysna that day, but I decided that even without my friend, I would go to the first day's play of the match between South Africa and Sri Lanka at the Newlands cricket ground in Cape Town.

I did this, and I had a very pleasant day at the cricket. (This was much cheaper than a day at a test match would be in Australia or, heaven forbid, England). The game was quite one sided. Sri Lanka were bowled out for 95. Two South Africans bowled superbly: captain Shaun Pollock, who took 6/30, and a black fast bowler who I had not previously heard of named Mfuneko Ngam, who bowled extremely fast, looked very effective, and took 3/26 off 13 overs. I was very impressed, and I thought I would see a lot more of him.

However, in the two years since, I have heard little more of him, besides the occasional mention that he is out injured. Which why I was interested in reading a story about him by Christopher Martin Jenkins in the Times this morning. (Due to my inability to link to The Times, I will quote at length

Mfuneko Ngam, one of the most natural fast bowlers anyone in South Africa has seen, made such an impact, when he took over from Allan Donald at the last moment in a Test match against New Zealand in December 2000, that he was expected to become a star.

Retained for two Tests against Sri Lanka, he took 11 wickets in his first three games at only 17 each, and it would have been more but for dropped slip catches. He bowled so fast against Sri Lanka at Cape Town that in the words of one experienced Test watcher: “Some of their batsmen didn’t want to know. He took the place by storm.”

Three years on “Chew” (’ngam) has yet to play another Test, frequent stress fractures to his bones preventing more than fleeting comebacks. Recently, a problem with his ligaments has been diagnosed but the essential problem was, it seems, malnutrition when he was a child. He comes originally from Middledrift, a township near King William’s Town, some 150 miles from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
The nutritionists and biomechanists have Ngam under their wing, advising on his diet and carefully building up his strength and cardiovascular stamina. Like a frail teenager, he is allowed to bowl only 18 balls a day but he remains part of both local and national plans and is being paid as a nationally-contracted player, although he still lives with his family in the township of Motherwell, just inland from Port Elizabeth.

Obviously I hope he comes back, and soon and successfully, but there is something extraordinarily sad about a potentially top notch player being unable to achieve his best due to malnutrition as a child. It is awful to see such a superb natural athlete unable to play due to something as avoidable as malnutrition in his past. And of course there is something far worse about people actually suffering from malnutrition as children in a country like South Africa, which while not the richest country in the world does have a reasonable amount of wealth.

If you go to Cape Town or any of the places near by, you see an interesting society with a colonial legacy. The towns are an interesting mix of Dutch, Portuguese, British, Hugenot and various other styles. It has a rather Mediterranean feel. And on the edge of every town is a "township", a shanty town where poor black people live. The poverty in these townships looks as bad as the poverty almost anywhere else in Africa. The division between white and black remains stark. Most white South Africans have never been into a township in their lives, and they will warn you not to go near them. (I actually went near or in a couple, and the people were without exception extremely friendly). And it is easy to believe that malnutrition of children is common.

South Africa is like no other place I have been in that the country is first world and third world on top of one another. It is easy to pretend you are somewhere in the Spain or Italy almost, and then you turn on the radio and listen to the news and there is a report about how there is an outbreak of cholera in Durban. And as you are driving down the road, you have the very African experience of having a small Toyota minibus with about 15 people in it overtake you in a highly questionable piece of driving. (The road toll in South Africa is horrific). And of course there is very African rate of HIV infection.

The case of Mfuneko Ngam seems in some ways sadly typical. Here is someone with great talent and potential, but much of this has gone to waste due to the poverty of his upbringing. And that is the problem for South Africa. You have lots of human capital: 40 million people or so. A great deal of this human capital is just wasted, through malnutrition, through a lack of decent education, and through the dysfunctional economy and mass unemployment that this all causes. If you could actually utilise the human capital of this many people effectively then you could actually achieve a lot.

And that, fundamentally is what was so abominable about apartheid. It was a system specifically designed to destroy two third's of the country's human capital. Black people were to be kept uneducated and in poverty so that white people could retain control of the country. Given that in the modern economy the utilisation of human capital is everything, and that the effect of black people getting a bit richer would be for white people to get richer too, this was completely insane. And yet, a country was run on this basis for most of a century. Sadly, the legacy of all this will take a long time to eliminate.

If apartheid had never existed, this wouldn't have meant that the black population of South Africa would be terribly rich, even today. (They would certainly be a lot better off than they are now, though). I think there would still be significant amounts of poverty. However, what you would not have is the stark separation of black and white that the country still has. You would have poor black people, and middle class black people, and a small number of rich black people. You would have a larger number of rich white people, and lots of middle class white people, and a small number of poor white people.

This separation of the economic roles of white and black was something about the country that, to be honest, I didn't like very much. Lots of people had told me how beautiful Cape Town was, and what a dangerous hellhole Johannesburg was. However, when I went there, I discovered that in fact I like Johannesburg rather more than I did Cape Town. For one thing, I like fast moving, living, changing cities, and from this perspective Johannesburg is something of a tour de force. Secondly, I felt the separation between black and white was much less than in the Cape. Soweto is the most famous of all South Africa's townships, but compared to those I saw further south (particularly those outside the Afrikaans town of George) living conditions looked fairly decent. The nicest parts of Soweto are quite simply nice places to live, township or not, although most of Soweto is not like that. Whereas I found that when I went into a nice restaurant in the south the customers were all white, in Johannesburg this was not necessarily so. In Johannesburg there is clearly a black middle class. It is not necessarily a large black middle class, but it definitely exists. Plus Johannesburg is a huge melting pot. It is full of people from further north in Africa who have come for the economic opportunities. You hear French and Portuguese spoken on the streets a lot. It feels alive, much more than does Cape Town. I rather liked it.

And boy, would I like to be there on March 23rd for the World Cup final.

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