South Africa, the Ugly

One day in particular, on the drive from Drakensburg to Port Elizabeth, crystallized an early impression of South Africa that subsequent experiences have done little to shake. Clarens is a touristy town encircled by spreading luxury resorts on private game parks, with horseback riding and fine wines on offer. Hunting too, maybe. It’s located in South Africa’s Free State, which is where Dutch Afrikaaner settlers retreated after the British had muscled their way in, grabbing the reins of colonial power. The story of how Afrikaaners fled to the mostly (and still mostly) empty, arable Free State, settling there with their retinues of slaves, reminded me a bit of those contemporary, right-wing anarchists in America’s Pacific Northwest, inhabiting huts in the rural forest regions.

Lonely Planet, our ever-inadequate, spunk-filled guide, described Clarens as a funky, hip town. Art galleries, restaurants, boutiques; it was on our way south anyway, so we thought, why not? And initially, it sort of delivered.

 

Cappuccino plus above-average pastries nestled into a tastefully funky shopping complex, which also housed a “farm-fresh” restaurant with outdoor seating, a lifestyle boutique selling hand-mixed face creams and funky bamboo sunglasses, a gourmet cheese shop, counters arrayed with little custard cups offering with tastings. Nearby, historic, single (or at most double) story brick and stone buildings slung around a large central open area—in New England, this would be The Green. Surrounding it all were the dramatic, burnt umber and red ochre mountainscapes of the Golden Gate National Park.

Clarens occupied a pleasant enough hour or two. The “antique” shops and “art” galleries were, predictably, a joke. Nearly every face we saw was white, including the settlers gazing out from the historic photographs hanging in the foyer of the simple, ochre-brick 19th-century Protestant church. The locals spoke Afrikaans among themselves. In the boutique, two women effortlessly switched between it to English, graciously explaining local customs and answering questions regarding the origins of their goods.

Time to go. Piling back in the car, I nodded at the black construction workers repairing the sidewalk outside our café.

We were barely out of town when we spotted the slum. This one, worse than many we’d seen, but better than the disgraceful shantytowns in Johannesburg. The typical – horrifyingly typical — one-dark-room, dirt-floored tin shacks. Unpaved dirt pathways. (Cars are mainly unaffordable for underprivileged South Africans. Hitchhiking is common.) Electric lines, yes, though scant evidence of running water, and plenty outhouses indicating its scarcity.

Cheek by jowl. Clarens proper, which reminded me (without really resembling) my summer hometown in Woodstock, Vermont, and this destitute, garbage-strewn slum.

That’s where those construction workers, to whom I’d politely nodded, probably lived.

The racism, the grotesque inequality. Inescapable.

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