Allen Varney, writer and game designer


African Dispatches

Allen Varney's letters from Africa (5 of 5)

[On June 9, 1998, my lady love Beth Fischi and I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, to begin a seven-and-one-half month journey across sub-Saharan Africa. From Kenya we travelled by bus, train, and occasionally hydrofoil ferry down to Tanzania and Zanzibar, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and finally South Africa, flying out from Pretoria in late January 1999.

[Along the way we found that Africa is getting reasonably wired, and we rarely lacked access to e-mail. Before our departure we had created a mailing list of friends, "African Dispatches," and we posted periodic updates to the list throughout our trip. - Allen Varney]

Date: Sat, 20 Mar 1999 (South Africa)

AFRICA TRIP: Postscript

After seven and a half months travelling in Africa, from Kenya down to South Africa, Beth Fischi and I flew out of Johannesburg to England in late January. We spent a pleasant ten days or so in London and the West Midlands, then three lovely weeks in Paris, before returning to America in early March. In all that busy time I've been meaning to write about our 2+ months (November-early January) in Cape Town, at the extreme southern end of Africa. Now back in Austin, a month ahead of Beth (who is visiting her parents in Pennsylvania), I recall our Cape Town interval as idyllically happy, sort of.

Imagine it: one of the world's most spectacularly beautiful cities, a three-floor apartment unprecedented in its luxury, a couple in love, perfect health, good food, no money worries, no deadlines or obligations, visiting from a country at the peak of its worldly power. With so much to see and do in that cosmopolitan city, we obviously didn't just waste our time watching Woody Allen movies, ambling up Table Mountain, going to the library, and reading 17 Terry Pratchett novels. Of course not. Instead we did lots of exciting things that I'm sure I'll think of in a moment. The point is, the days had a piquant fairy-tale perfection, which I recognized because I started to have trouble falling asleep. It all seemed so ideal there in Cape Town that for the first time since my teens, fears haunted me, fears of death and loss and oblivion. The idea that I was now living "happily ever after" made it painful to realize I eventually won't. It's stupid to worry about dying, because there's nothing I can do about it, but it got so I left my bedroom light on all night. (Fortunately, Beth had her own bedroom.) Before, in my hustling hand-to-mouth freelance existence in Austin, I could find a certain solace in Buddhist philosophy's lesson of detachment from this evanescent world. But then, that kind of life was fairly easy to detach from. Now I understand why Buddhist monks seeking enlightenment always retreat to those spartan communal wats, where they eat two dull meals a day and sleep on boards. If they were living it up in the Buddhist Ritz Hotel with buffet dinners and sexy chambermaids, they'd never buy into detachment.

I felt better after we got back on the road, and I'm fine now, but I'm getting ahead of my travelogue. Many of the Americans I've talked to confess (or try to avoid confessing) a very hazy awareness of the Republic of South Africa. What's it like?, they ask, and seem genuinely surprised to hear of an industrial, English-speaking nation with a 350+-year history, a stubborn enclave of European culture at the tip of sub-Saharan Africa. Americans may know the RSA's famous citizens without realizing they're South African: Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world's first human heart transplant here in 1967; 1960s pop-rocker Manfred Mann; Gary Player, the first golfer to win Grand Slams on both the regular and senior tournament circuits; Nobel Prize novelist Nadine Gordimer; and J. R. R. Tolkien, born here in Bloemfontein before moving, aged four, to Oxford. Stamp collectors lust after the rare Cape Triangulars, the first three-sided stamps, issued in the Cape Colony in the 1700s; wine drinkers may be fans of the well-regarded Cape wines. Or maybe you remember oddball factoids like the coelacanth, the primitive deep-sea fish that scientists thought had been extinct for 60 million years until 1938, when a fisherman off the South African coast caught one.

Yet on their mental map of the world (which usually includes America, England, France, Japan, maybe Russia, and nothing else), Americans draw no image of South Africa. Even Beth and I, decently informed by purblind American standards, and bound for Cape Town ever since we landed in Nairobi last June, had no idea how pretty it is. The Mother City, the oldest European settlement south of the Sahara, curls around the foot of the two-mile-long north face of magnificent Table Mountain, a flat-topped sandstone mesa 3500 feet high and covered with trees and greenery. The mountain often has its own cloud cover, the Tablecloth. Moist southwest winds strike the face and condense quickly; you can see the clouds forming along a ruler-straight line of empty air, like vapor flowing from some invisible dimensional gate. Then the newborn clouds pour over the mountain in a dense cascade, fall a hundred feet or so, and evaporate again into nothingness. It's a perpetually rolling fogbank, glorious at sunset. (South Africans consider this southwest wind healthy, and call it the "Cape Doctor.") A missionary visiting Cape Town back in the 1600s was an amateur astronomer, and for some reason he got to imagine and name all the constellations in the southern polar sky that Europe couldn't see; so Table Mountain is Earth's only geographic feature to make it into the sky, as the constellation Mons Mensae.

The Cape in question is the Cape of Good Hope, which trails into the Atlantic Ocean like the tail of Africa. Tourist brochures claim it's the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (false; that's Cape Aguilhas, a few hundred miles east), and that it's "the most southwesterly point in Africa" -- a claim that, if you think about it for thirty seconds, makes no sense and conveys nothing. But at least the hype correctly quotes Sir Francis Drake, who sailed around the world in 1547 and declared Good Hope "the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the Earth." Though the weather was Californically terrific when we were there, this place is also called the Cape of Storms; you may remember the legend of Captain Vanderdecken, who wagered his salvation that he could sail his ship around the Cape during a storm, and so was condemned to sail forever on his ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman.

I only found out when we got to the Cape that botanists divide the world into six great plant regions, or kingdoms; the Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest, hardly 180 square miles, but by far the most diverse, with over 2,200 herbaceous flower species found nowhere else. There may be as many species here as in any other two kingdoms put together: 900 different kinds of erica (heath) plants, for example, and hundreds of species of the remarkable proteas, so called for their astonishing variety of forms. You ask what they look like? It's easier to list what they don't look like. The proteas and most of the Cape flowers belong to a general category that the early Dutch settlers called "fynbos" ("fine-leaved"). To look at a fynbos meadow, you might be looking at any sub-alpine scrubland meadow in Europe or America. But examining individual plants, you wouldn't recognize any. Scientists still discover new plants here often; even now it's no great trick to find one yourself, I expect, if you're good at mountain climbing. Beth and I contented ourselves with visits to the lovely Kirstenbosch botanical garden, no more than a few miles from our apartment.

We loved Cape Town. But as the ten weeks went on, our love for the city became edgy and tentative. We stayed in a pleasant suburb around the mountain from downtown, Rondebosch. ("Bosch" = Dutch, "forest.") Just downhill from the University of Cape Town, it's a typical college area with the usual American trappings: fast-food joints, laundromats, bookshops, video stores. Very pleasant, really, lots of trees and fresh paint and attractive Cape Dutch architecture, but we noticed as soon as we arrived that all the homes have high spiked walls and PROTECTED BY FIRST ALERT SECURITY signs. Each week brought new reports of burglaries, assaults, and murders in the area. Halfway through our stay, the police station in neighboring Claremont got robbed. Five guys with guns just ambled in, held up the cops, and stole lots of automatic weapons and ammo. After that, First Alert Security volunteered to watch over the police station. Gotta admire that civic spirit.

In the wake of a high-profile Planet Hollywood bomb that exploded a couple of months before we arrived, greater Cape Town suffered several more bombings while we were there. One, on New Year's Day, destroyed a car in the parking lot of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the shopping complex that has become South Africa's leading tourist draw. After that, Waterfront business plummeted. The likely culprits were PAGAD, a vigilante group that began in the early '90s as the relatively benign People Against Gangsterism and Drugs but gradually devolved into crazy anti-Western Muslim fanaticism. The cops caught PAGAD's leader while we were in Cape Town, but no magistrate would preside over his indictment, for fear of retribution; so they had to let the guy walk. A short time later, the senior cop in charge of the PAGAD investigation was assassinated in his car. Civic order in Cape Town, as in most of South Africa, deteriorated visibly in just the ten weeks we were there. A few days after we left the city, another bomb exploded directly opposite police headquarters. At this point I would dread going back.

The problem is, the police in South Africa have no experience in fighting crime. For over 40 years they worked solely to prop up the system that created beautiful Rondebosch, that kept it safe, prosperous, and orderly like the marvelous Eloi paradise in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, a system likewise built and maintained through the oppression of an unseen underclass: apartheid.

Apartheid (Afrikaans, "separateness," pronounced "apart-hate") drew an enormous amount of bad press in America during the 1970s and '80s, far more than other repressive regimes in, say, Cambodia or the Soviet Union. Any large library has at least a shelf, possibly a whole case of books chronicling apartheid's lunatic practices. Yet for all that coverage, I never had a clear idea of apartheid until I got to South Africa. Four decades of supremely wrongheaded government, based overtly on white-supremacist principles systematically enforced, made this country a pariah and devastated its culture. I used to think America was maximally neurotic about race, but we're not even on the neurosis radar screen compared to this place. Every white person in South Africa has plainly been driven as crazy as a parrot.

Imagine it like this. Pretend you live in a splendid three-bedroom suburban home in a great neighborhood, but in your elegantly furnished living room stands a large, smelly, two-humped Bactrian camel. Now, you must not, under any circumstances, acknowledge the camel's existence. Something horrible will happen, you'll lose your wonderful home and everything else, if you ever let on that you see the camel. So you go about your daily life, edging around the camel as you dust the antiques; silently cleaning up and hiding its droppings; pulling the drapes so no one can see inside. Every night TV news anchors report, "It's been another good camel-free day here in our lovely community. The Anti-Camel Bureau has condemned foreign reports of camel problems here as false and malicious. Remember, camels are the enemy." While you watch, the camel in your living room leans down and starts munching on your hair, as you stare fixedly ahead. After that, as much as possible, you avoid your living room.

But then the camel starts following you around the house. It clomps after you down to the curb when you pick up your mail, and piles into the back seat of your car when you go shopping. In the supermarket aisles you steal nervous sidelong glances at your neighbors. They all have camels following them too. But you know absolutely, in your deepest soul, you must not ever acknowledge these camels! Newspapers trumpet headlines like NO CAMEL SIGHTINGS TODAY and SUSPECTED CAMEL-SMUGGLING RING CAPTURED. Your friends (with camels behind them) talk incessantly about how camels sure are smelly and awful, good thing we haven't seen any around here, though if you ask me that fellow next door may secretly be a pro-camel sympathizer...

Do you see that after years of this, you would literally block out any idea of the camel? That you would dismiss any camel sighting before it hit your conscious mind? That, in all sincerity, you would strenuously deny ever having seen a camel in the neighborhood?

It gets worse. One morning you wake up and, suddenly, it's okay to mention camels. The news is full of stories of your neighborhood guiltily harboring camels for years, permitting all kinds of camel atrocities. TV crews come into your living room to film your camel, zooming in on the piles of droppings you hid in the corner. They have tapes of your camel going back 40 years! You're caught! You must get rid of the camel at once! You push the beast down to the curb, where your neighbors are shamefacedly pushing their camels. "I never wanted this camel," you tell each other. "I was always a big opponent of camels." With camels all around, you stand waiting nervously for the camel removal truck. You wait, and wait -- but the truck never comes...

Do you see the exact way this would make you crazy?

Though South Africa's explicitly racist policies go back a century or more, apartheid formally began in the early 1950s, after the National Party won Parliament in 1948. This was the party of the Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch settlers who set up a trading post here for the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s.

Afrikaners were, and are, a remarkable people. They descend from the Boers (Dutch, "farmers"), unlettered and narrow-minded but astoundingly tough people who carved several independent republics from the native land, fighting Zulus and other tribes every step of the way. Modern Afrikaners remember this as the Great Trek, and cherish their descent from the "Voortrekkers." Always independent and combative, the Boers really put a chip on their collective shoulder after two wars with Britain (1899-1902). The Boers lost both, but Afrikaners today say they won "the moral victory," because they suffered horribly at English hands. Not many Americans remember that genocide and concentration camps, those familiar 20th Century evils supposedly invented by the Nazis, were in fact pioneered by our buddies the British Empire. No one was left in early 1900s Tasmania to keep the memory of British genocide alive, but the Afrikaners to this day nurse strong, bitter grief over the 25,000 Boer women and children who died in British concentration camps.

By 1948 Afrikaners had a very long list of past grievances, which the National Party skillfully employed to develop a nationalist sentiment that capitalized on the distinctive Afrikaner character: vigorous, united, big on obeying the law, faithful to the Old Testament fundamentalism of their Dutch Reformed Church (the Calvinists), firmly convinced they are chosen by God for a high purpose, and indescribably, inalterably, cussedly stubborn. Nobody but an Israeli matches Afrikaners for stubbornness. Believing that God put whites in South Africa to subdue the indigenous "Bantu" population, just as the Israelites enslaved the Biblical Canaanites, the National Party embarked with religious zeal on a program to separate all races and ruthlessly exploit the non-white majority as cheap labor. Buildings had separate entrances for "Europeans" and "non-Europeans"; trains, buses, schools, hospitals, park benches, everything got rigidly segregated; non-whites couldn't vote, own property, or get decent jobs reserved for whites. The whites confined non-whites in townships way outside the cities, and bulldozed whole neighborhoods in a kind of ethnic cleansing. Non-whites couldn't venture into white areas without a pass, a thick identity document with pages for a passport, driver's license, marriage license, criminal record, and weapons permit as needed. Every citizen was rigidly categorized by race: White, Bantu, Chinese, Indian, or mixed-race, to whom the government gave the official designation "Coloured."

The National government jettisoned much of this "petty apartheid" (except for the universally hated pass laws) in the early 1970s. But then, to dodge international complaints about the wide economic gap between whites and non-whites, the Afrikaners tried a pernicious sleight of hand on a national scale. They concocted a dozen tiny tribal "Bantu National Homelands" scattered across the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. Installing ridiculous little puppet governments, complete with national anthems and similar paraphernalia, the white government forcibly relocated Africans from across the country to these desolate patches of land; most of the bewildered deportees had never come near their supposed "homeland" in their lives. With all the troublesome Bantus deported to these "other countries" and thus off the registers (though still within commuting distance of the white businesses that relied on their cheap labor), the South African government could claim a much nicer, more equal economy. So you might be looking down from a hilltop upon a nice little town nestled in a valley and reaching up to two ridges to either side; but you'd really be seeing three separate countries: white South Africa in the valley, two different homelands on the opposing ridges, and a lot of unguarded "border crossings" on the roads between them. Driving around, you might cross back and forth between countries a dozen times in an afternoon. Every book on apartheid has 50 loony stories like this.

Fortunately, no other nation recognized the bogus homelands, and international opinion continued to condemn South Africa. But the National government kept getting re-elected with ever-larger majorities, and it also had support from every bastard's good buddy, the CIA. South Africa was violently anti-Communist, you see, and given that Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, and other African states were falling to the Soviets, America (particularly under the Reagan Administration) became South Africa's staunch ally in the fight for, umm, freedom. Or at least capitalism. So we funded the RSA's destabilizing forces in neighboring countries, its assassination squads, and its biological warfare programs. As the recent Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings revealed, in the 1970s the National government covertly caused an anthrax epidemic in Zimbabwe that killed 60 people and thousands of cattle, and was working on a tailored virus that targeted black people.

Meanwhile, black discontent grew at home, the underground African National Congress party turned to violence, and the whites grew correspondingly paranoid. In the name of fighting Soviet Communism, South Africa transformed itself into a repressive totalitarian quasi-socialist police state. Kind of unclear on the concept, you might say, but that's Africa.

After the USSR fell, American support for the National government evaporated, and white minority rule became untenable. A transitional government was set up in 1990, all-race elections held in 1994, and Nelson Mandela, head of the ANC and long reviled by the Nationals as a Communist revolutionary, is now president. His rehabilitation has been remarkable; now no one mentions of his lengthy "How to Be a Good Communist" treatise from the 1950s, nor his alleged involvement with "necklacing" executions (where you drape a used tire around the victim's neck, fill it with gasoline, and light it). Now they call him "Madiba," a term of affection and respect for old people used in his tribe, the Xhosa. The terrorist of one power structure is the revered elder of the next. And Mandela does seem to live up to his saintly image. He's become an authentic statesman, far different from the bozo dictators of other African governments. Still, he's principally a figurehead now, with the real power subsiding to his anointed successor, ANC deputy president Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki takes office this year, and it's unclear whether he'll be a statesman like Mandela or a more conventional African leader. Shudder.

Anyway, just as postwar Germany was curiously devoid of Nazis, you can't find a white South African today who ever supported that nasty National government. The party has basically had to reinvent itself as "the New National Party." A few Afrikaner holdouts who refuse to accept the change of government (I said they were stubborn) have retreated to the northern Transvaal desert with long-range plans to set up a whites-only state called Orania. The rest busily deny that they're racist, except that, well, birds of a feather like to flock together with their own kind, and it's just the same with people, isn't it? That's just nature, isn't it? They talk about a "rainbow nation," tolerance for minorities (i.e. themselves), moving on, and putting the past behind them (as quickly as possible).

Meanwhile, the blacks, having been assiduously ill-educated for 40 years (the 1953 Bantu Education Act lobotomized the black school system to discourage the spread of revolutionary ideas), have no clear idea how to run South Africa but are happy to get on top and give back some of what the 20th Century gave them. Crime, always high in the black townships (not that the police ever cared), has now spread to the once "European" neighborhoods, and oh god, are the whites screaming! They're emigrating in droves, mainly to Australia and New Zealand. Investors worry with justice about this brain drain, yet I imagine plenty of blacks think, "Good riddance."

The emigres talk a lot about how much they miss home, and it's easy to see why. It's a lovely country, from the Cape to the Garden Coast, the hills of KwaZulu, the bustling Indian market in Durban, the spectacular craggy green mountains of the Drakensberg, and the stately avenues of Pretoria -- to mention only the areas Beth and I saw on our rather quick ten-day trip from Cape Town to the Johannesburg airport. And the luxurious white standard of living must surely have seemed worth protecting, worth any number of protests by oppressed majorities. White South Africans were (are) proud of their culture, powered as it is by gold, uranium, minerals, and an endless supply of cheap labor. They have their own small range of slick magazines, newspapers, several radio stations, a few of their own TV programs (a soap opera, a couple of game shows, a sitcom, et al), a tiny film industry, etc. While we were there they launched their first satellite, albeit on a French rocket. South Africans make an interesting contrast to Australians, who suffer from what they call "the cultural cringe," the conviction that Australia's domestic productions can't compare to those of Europe or North America. South Africans tout their own products with any degree of bluster required, convinced they've done it right despite the world's belligerent refusal to recognize them. Afrikaners in particular go to lengths to present Afrikaans (a simple Dutch-Malay-Portuguese pidgin) as the world's best language -- I don't exaggerate. They do big scholarly dictionaries, publish hordes of thin books, and are now setting up hundreds of Afrikaans-only Web pages.

Yet with just three million speakers, Afrikaans will always be a clubby linguistic backwater. In fact there are a couple of interesting Afrikaner writers -- but (oops!) they wrote in English. The best-known South African novel is Cry the Beloved Country (1947) by Alan Paton, a staunch opponent of racism and critic of apartheid. My great discovery, though, is a delightful writer almost unknown outside South Africa, Herman Charles Bosman. In the 1940s and '50s Bosman wrote comedic short stories about Transvaal farmers, slyly ironic tales in the manner of his hero O. Henry, and very similar in spirit to Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" radio monologues about Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. (I was pleasantly staggered to learn that Bosman's papers now reside in the HRC Library at the University of Texas, Austin.) Highly recommended.

I can't object to wanting to promote your own language, although as in so many things the Afrikaners limit themselves by not embracing world standards. The more I saw of South Africans, the less I liked, but to some extent I have to respect them for their genuine accomplishments. They made a colossal mistake with apartheid, but hey, so did we with slavery.

That thought, in truth, has often given me pause. Because of it, I finally made a resolution. America doesn't get half the race trouble in a month that South Africa faces every day, but our racial conflicts still strike deep, and our moral high ground is way too low. If Native Americans had outnumbered the West's white settlers to the same degree that blacks outnumber whites in South Africa, no doubt we would have installed some apartheid-like police state instead of just committing genocide. More to the point, whites in America know very little of African-American history or culture, lack understanding of the daily pressures of underclass life, and basically live in the same continual denial as South Africans. After all our travels in Africa, I learned how limiting, not to mention dangerous, that can be. Now back in Austin, I intend to learn more. Maybe I'll start by visiting East Austin, my home city's answer to the RSA's townships.

I'm sorry this letter sounds more like a book report than a vacation chronicle. It's because I found South Africa's history compelling, but in our actual travel there, nothing very noteworthy happened. We saw a colony of jackass penguins in Simon's Town, home of Just Nuisance, the Great Dane who became a sailor in Britain's Royal Navy. We loved rambling around the Drakensberg and went horseback riding there. In Pretoria we saw various monuments, including a statue of Paul Kruger, president of the Boer Republic during the Boer War; he was also notable for his unshakable conviction that the Earth is flat. (I told you Afrikaners are stubborn.) In Pretoria I bought new tennis shoes. Whoopee. You can do lots of exciting things in South Africa (the world's highest bungee jump is there, 200+ meters), but we were short of time and energy. There's a lot we'd still like to see, but the situation there is clearly getting worse, and I doubt we'll return.

By contrast, we loved London and Paris (duh!), but I don't have anything to report that a million others haven't said better. Beth made me promise that at some point in the indeterminate future we'll live in England for at least six months. That won't be for a while, although we have highly tentative plans to return to Europe briefly this August for the total solar eclipse there. Meanwhile, I'm about to line up a short lease for an apartment in Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood (crossed fingers) and start looking for a technical writing contract. Beth should join me here in time for the city's bacchanalian spring festival, Eeyore's Birthday Party. She may even get here in time for my birthday, April 16, when I turn (fingers tremble as I type) 40. During this trip I formed a plan for the rest of my life. I have 17 books in mind that I want to write in the next 17 years, fortune willing. If I take as long to finish them as I did to send this letter, I'd better get started soon.

Best, Allen