South Africa, Ten Years After

picture1001“Apartheid made me stronger. It made me what I am today,” Naomi tells me, as we gaze off her balcony onto the choppy waters of Knysna Lagoon and the sweep of green hills that frame it.

My eyes snap away from the view to study her face. Most of us would consider Naomi a victim of apartheid, the brutal set of race laws the South African government enforced until just over 10 years ago, when Nelson Mandela led a peaceful transition to democracy. Naomi prefers not to see it that way.

“We knew we had to work for every little thing we got. I feel like it gave me the strength to make my dreams a reality,” she explains.

No kidding. Naomi has run a bed-and-breakfast out of her home since 1999, and now her sights are set on opening a “real” hotel.

A decade ago, it would have been nearly impossible for a traveler to encounter somebody like Naomi Fick. Under apartheid, people of color had little opportunity to participate in the tourism business — or, what there was of it. Back in 1993, with the country emerging from international sanctions, there were only 618,508 overseas visitors; by last year, that number had jumped to 1.88 million, making tourism the country’s fourth-largest industry. And according to the government, a development program has created more than 600 black-owned tourism businesses, along with 10,000 jobs.

South Africa has exotic animals, wine valleys, spectacular beaches and stunning scenery, not to mention a Southern Hemisphere location that lets its top overseas visitors — Europeans and Americans — swap winter for summer. My husband, Paul, and I wanted to visit for all of the above. We also hoped to get a feel for South Africa’s people, and how they are faring in this reinvented country. On our weeklong road trip east from Cape Town to the country’s famed Garden Route, we made a pact to seek out both views and points of view.

Cape Town Sampler

Cape Town is South Africa’s No. 1 destination for international visitors, and we have one day to sample a dizzying number of offerings. To cope, we’ve quashed our independent streak and hired guide Ezzat Davids, 27, who scoops us up in a minivan. Ezzat tells us he’s Cape Malay, a deceptive term for people who generally aren’t Malaysian but descendants of Indonesian slaves shipped over by the Dutch.

Under apartheid, Cape Malays were classed as “colored,” a catchall for some 8 percent of South Africans who were neither pure black nor lily-white. “They used to do the ‘pencil test,’ ” Ezzat says. “They’d push a pencil into your hair and if it fell out, you could be classified as colored. They measured the widths of noses, too.” For a moment I think, I don’t want to know about this; it’s in the past. But then I realize I can only understand where South Africa is today if I can grasp where it’s been.

Ezzat drives us to the Cape Flats townships — “township” being the euphemism for settlements where non-whites were confined. It’s astonishing to think that whites, a mere 10 percent of the population, managed to wield this kind of power for so long.

Khayelitsha, a black township, is home to nearly a million souls, a vast expanse of tiny shacks cobbled together with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting. We roll down narrow streets, dodging scrawny dogs and barefoot kids who dance alongside the van. On a corner, oil drums slashed in half have become barbecues and women flip chunks of meat while customers wait.

“Can we get out?” I ask. “It’s safe,” Ezzat says, anticipating a question I hadn’t posed. As we hop down, music spills from a small cinderblock building, a church with no pews. Through the open door, I see women standing in a circle, singing, swaying, clapping.

We walk down the street to the Philani Nutrition Project, a community-based program where children are nurtured while their mothers weave rugs or learn silk-screening. A small shop sells their work, an example of how tourism mingles with the new economy.

In the old days, few whites would dare enter a township. Now here I am, buying a T-shirt that proclaims “Pleasure Joy Ecstasy.”

In another township with small, blocky, government-built houses, children run up when we stop to snap a photo. They’re entranced by the display on our digital camera, hoisting brothers and sisters to watch them appear in the magical screen. Ezzat tells us that during apartheid, black children weren’t allowed to learn math or physical sciences. “What the former government achieved was total annihilation of pride,” he says.

The past 10 years have brought electricity and paved roads to many of the Cape Flats townships. Gugulethu now has a College of Cape Town campus. Yet refugees flood from impoverished rural areas, swelling township populations; it’s clear freedom isn’t the magic fix some had dreamed.

Tea, Tilly and Prison

“I call it ‘Mother’s home-cooking from the heart,’ ” Shireen Salie tells us as she serves up a feast in her suburban back yard. A chalkboard announces that we are in Boeta Ebrihima’s Cape Malay Restaurant. Swaths of blue fabric tent the dining area; it feels like we’ve tumbled into “The Arabian Nights.” Shireen plies us with triangular meat pies, samosas, masala chicken, mutton curry and sweet almond rice, while her husband, Ebrahim, sporting a jaunty crimson fez, spins tales of the Cape Malays.

In their Muslim household, Ebrahim rules the table and Shireen rules the kitchen, appearing only to deliver more food. “This country has been so good to me!” she exclaims, telling us that her mother took in laundry to make ends meet. We sip rooibos tea and samplekoeksisters, little deep-fried clouds of dough steeped in exotic spices. Shireen beams as we praise these bits of heaven, then rushes off to pack take-away boxes of nearly everything we’ve sampled. “That restaurant food isn’t so good,” she frets, reminding Ezzat to drive safely as she hugs us goodbye.

We’re on our way to one of Cape Town’s star attractions, Robben Island: leprosy colony, World War II defense station, UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mandela’s prison for 18 years. Like another famous island prison, Alcatraz, it has dazzling views of a city just out of reach — unless your eyesight was ruined in the glaring white limestone quarry, where many political prisoners were forced to work.

At the cellblock, we’re met by former prisoner Modise Phekonyane, who, at age 19, was jailed here for five years. He describes life in prison — how different races received different rations, how contraband books were smuggled between prisoners, how he read the dictionary from cover to cover twice — then leads us to Mandela’s cell. I ask how he could possibly return to this place. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says, telling us that former prisoners now share profits from Robben Island tourism.

Later on, 35 miles outside Cape Town near the Stellenbosch winelands, we show up tardy at our B&B, Tilly’s Homestay. “I was worried about you!” Tilly Van Zitters fusses. It’s a comfy kind of fussy, though, and the place is immaculate. Between her and Shireen, I’m starting to think South Africa should just put mothers in charge of running the country.

In choosing our lodging, we skipped the posh guesthouses on the main street of Paarl and crossed the river, once the end of white territory and the beginning of apartheid land. In this neighborhood of small, worn homes, Tilly and Jack Van Zitters’s two-story place looms large, behind a beauteous flower garden.

Tilly looks to be in her early sixties, with a cafe-au-lait complexion, and boy, can she cook. She serves up cold plum soup, paella, chicken Kiev and salad lavished with ripe papaya. As we tuck in, she joins us, telling how in 1968, after an apartheid clampdown, her family was forced to move to this side of the river. Her contractor husband built their house himself. With her kids grown, she thought she’d attend a development program for aspiring home-stay proprietors. The problem is, nobody’s been training the tourists. “Most people don’t know I’m an option,” she says.

Villages by the Sea

There’s nothing like dipping your toe in a brand-new ocean. We splash into the chilly surf at Stilbaai, a little town set where the Goukou River spills into the Indian Ocean. About 220 miles from Paarl, it’s become a vacation mecca, thanks to whale-watching and pristine, powdery beaches. After two days exploring the ovenlike winelands, water is a welcome change. “Can you believe it’s January?!” my husband shouts, as a wave smacks him.

Our hosts at Hibiscus House B&B, Mike and Louise Steytler, have invited us to a fish braai (“barbecue” in Afrikaans) with the other guests, a couple from the Netherlands. Mike keeps our glasses brimming with sauvignon blanc and greets neighbors who paddle up in a canoe, all while instructing us in the art of the braai, his wood-fueled brick altar to barbecue. The local cob fish is moist and delicate, complemented by a spread of salads and braai bread stuffed with tomato, cheese and onion.

As sunset floods orange across the still river waters, we chat about the town and its people. “There’s no crime here,” Mike says, “because if we see a colored person on the street at night, we know he doesn’t belong. And it’s the same for the village up the road, Melkhoutfontein. If they see a white person at night, they know he’s up to no good.”

I avoid the urge to debate this crime-busting strategy and sip a glass of Amarula, liqueur made from a native fruit. Little do I know, two white people will be on the streets of Melkhoutfontein tomorrow night — us.

The village of Melkhoutfontein is 2 1/2 miles inland from Stilbaai, which seems odd because it’s always eked by on the dangerous, fickle fishing trade. In 1994, unemployment in Melkhoutfontein stood at 85 percent and the town lacked electricity, plumbing and paved roads. Now tourism is the new hope. Stilbaai’s boom has brought jobs and a better standard of living; locals are even looking to make Melkhoutfontein a destination itself.

We meet up with Sheryldene Kleinhans, a young woman who runs the tourist office. She walks us past a new clinic, playground and senior center.

Outside town, a stone church stands on a hill. In the graveyard, many headstones are worn smooth, the oldest graves marked by piles of rocks. Two cows graze among the dead. Sheryldene tells us old folks buy coffins in advance and store them in the rafters of their houses. “My grandmother is very superstitious,” she says. “She covers all the mirrors and windows with blankets when there’s lightning.”

The town’s fishermen are superstitious, too. They refuse to live within view of the ocean, believing it’s bad luck. “But,” she claims, “they can predict weather better than a TV meteorologist, just by looking at the sky — and the old women can read tea leaves, too.” A gust of wind snakes through the graveyard, a cow rears its head and looks me in the eye, and I shiver.

Down at the ocean, Sheryldene shows us ancient fish traps, arced walls of stones that loop into the surf, trapping fish when the tide flows out. They’re still used by some Melkhoutfontein residents, descendants of the Khoisan people who first built them hundreds of years ago.

Usually it’s possible to arrange a braai here on the beach, but today the wind has kicked up to sandblasting force and we flee back to the tourist office. A table is spread with baked cob fish;chakalaka, an addictive vegetable relish; and fresh homemade bread paired with melon jam and honey from local fynbos plants. We’re joined by other locals: a young couple, Juanita and Hendrik, and Sybil, a rowdy 50-year-old. Though Afrikaans is the first language of Melkhoutfontein, the dinner guests all speak English.

Paul and I tell the story of how we met on an airplane, and Sybil says she met her husband while attending a funeral in Melkhoutfontein. “I love him like I love my feet — they are ugly, but they’re mine,” she exclaims. The night speeds by and we discover we’ve spent four hours at the table, swapping stories like old pals. With a flurry of hugs and photos, we part. I look out on the still streets of Melkhoutfontein. Tonight we are friends, not suspects.

‘My Momma’s Back’

Depending on who you are, Mossel Bay holds the great (or dubious) distinction of being the first spot where Europeans set foot in South Africa. Sixty-three miles down the road from Stilbaai, this broad harbor is home to nearly 100,000 people and a tree reputed to be South Africa’s oldest post office. The Bartolomeu Dias Museum boasts a full-sized — but shockingly tiny — replica of the Portuguese caravel that landed here in 1488 (this one repeated the voyage in 1988).

Mossel Bay guide Jauckie Viljoen is a new entrepreneur who happens to be white. He matter-of-factly tells us that racial quotas caused him to lose his job as a medical technician, so he turned to tourism. Now he introduces travelers to interesting local characters: a sixth-generation oyster harvester, an ostrich farmer, a fifth-generation furniture craftsman, plucky women who’ve started a sewing business.

Jauckie takes us to meet Lovelyness Mpumlo, who opened the first alcohol-free shebeen (informal cafe) in a township. Its name, Emqolweni Kamama, means “My Momma’s Back.” Lovelyness tells us that since African mothers traditionally carry infants on their backs, the name symbolizes security and safety.

“I didn’t have a good life as a child, so I want these children to have better,” she says, serving up cake and coffee while kids cavort in the cafe’s playground.

South African Rainbow

We’ve seen everything in South Africa, from swanky suburban housing developments swathed in barbed wire to wretched township settlements — and a lot in between. But the first place I spot an interracial couple is in Knysna, about 73 miles east of Mossel Bay, where pricey new homes hang from the headlands cliffs and mellow attitudes prevail. From Naomi’s Islandview Guesthouse, I can look down on a neighborhood that’s home to a mixture of races.

For dinner, Naomi lays out an Afro-Malay feast including fried fish, lamb, mashed pumpkin and homemade cheesecake. A rainbow assortment of guests, family and neighbors wanders through the scene.

Chatting on her balcony, Naomi says she started taking in lodgers because there were no places catering to blacks — they weren’t allowed at hotels. As sunset paints the lagoon gold and the sky softens to a velvet blue, she describes the 30-room hotel she wants to build. I tell her there’s no doubt I’ll be checking in the next time I’m in town.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
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