Notebook

Fear, loneliness and nostalgia: a return to Johannesburg

Justin Cartwright’s South African notebook

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

Oddly enough, the cabin service people on the plane are constantly eating during the night, helping themselves to the first-class snacks. They are bulging out of their uniforms. They cannot pass each other in the aisles without difficulty. This is the sort of thing you notice during a long flight; at least the sort of thing I notice. I arrive in the morning at Johannesburg after an 11-hour flight from Heathrow, to promote my new book, Up Against the Night. I am met by a minder who turns out to be the wife of an admiral in the South African navy. He is stationed in Pretoria. I point out that there is no naval base within a thousand miles of Pretoria. She says her husband has noticed this.

The book tour is a strange institution. You are wheeled about to explain your book, and even to justify it. I know from experience that many of the people who come to hear me will think of themselves as being under siege; their children have long ago gone to Australia and New Zealand and Canada. In Johannesburg I don’t meet a single African journalist. I am driven to a very luxurious hotel in Houghton, not far from where Nelson Mandela lived after his release. He was often lonely, and Nadine Gordimer, who lived not far away, told me he invited himself for dinner. This landscape is familiar to me; we lived nearby. Not many people like Johannesburg, but I love the place. I look at the barbed wire threaded along the garden walls of every house. I recognise the bird song and feel the morning cold and I am caught up in nostalgia.

The hotel is staggeringly luxurious. It was once a huge private house. There are shortbreads in every room and jars of biltong and hillocks of white towels, flowers everywhere, and the breakfasts are Homeric. Yet there is almost no one but me in residence. Large black-and-white birds, the hah-di-dahs, stalk the lawns. They have crescent beaks, which they use to dig up worms and insects. When they are fed up, which is often, they make a raucous complaint and take to the air. It is a startling racket, more strident than melodic. These birds — they are ibis of a sort — migrated some years ago to the lush and watered suburbs from their original homes, which were miles away in places like the Okavango Swamps.


In the long hours of travelling and waiting, I read R.W. Johnson’s book, How Long Will South Africa Survive? He offers a chilling analysis: ‘Twenty years of ANC rule have shown conclusively that the party is hopelessly ill equipped for this task. Indeed, everything suggests that South Africa under the ANC is fast slipping backward and that even the survival of South Africa as a unitary state cannot be taken for granted…. it is now clear that South Africa can either choose to have an ANC government or it can have a modern industrial economy. It cannot have both.’ Johnson, a South African, a friend of mine and an emeritus fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, was never susceptible to the delusion of the Rainbow Nation; he exposed corruption and ineptitude from the start.

The plane approaches Cape Town and, as always, I am astonished by the view of Table Mountain and the surrounding sea. It is so overwhelmingly beautiful that I feel the urge to belong, not necessarily to the people, but to the landscape. I was taken by Robert Macfarlane’s suggestion that landscape can be internalised, and am susceptible to the idea that the landscape can be a part of one’s basic make-up.

The Fugard Theatre is the creation of Eric Abraham, the film and theatre producer; now it is the centre of the Open Book festival. It is on the edge of what was the multicultural and vibrant District Six, maliciously razed by the Nationalist government in the 1960s and never rebuilt. The theatre has become a important venue for theatre and music and film. Eric had the Donmar Warehouse in mind when he and his architects planned it. Now it is lively, with events going on day and night. I am staying in a nearby hotel. There are two or three criminal courts up the road and as I walk to the theatre, I see prisoners being taken from one building to another in handcuffs. The guards are all obese, the prisoners thin. Some onlookers shout up at their relatives in the direction of the cells, and voices shout back. They speak to each other in Cape Afrikaans.

I manage to get away for half a day, walking on my favourite beach. Too cold to swim, alas, but the surfers are out and the view of the enormous rocks and the pounding sea are almost as therapeutic as a swim. I feel a pull when I have to leave. Although I haven’t lived in South Africa since I was a boy, I think about it every day.

Back home after my tour, I am happy to go to Wolfson College, Oxford, for the launch of the final volume of Henry Hardy’s and Mark Pottle’s labours. They have edited the final volume of Isaiah Berlin’s Affirming: Letters 1975–1997. I have worshipped Berlin from the day I read ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ in South Africa. It seemed to make it respectable to be a liberal. Shortly before he died, a Polish researcher asked Berlin what the meaning of life was. In a world beset by violent strife in the name of some religious belief, Berlin’s reply is a manifesto of common sense:

As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any: I do not at all ask what it is, for I suspect it has none, and this is a source of great comfort to me — we make of it what we can, and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some deep, cosmic, all-embracing, teleologically arguable libretto or god are, believe me pathetically deluded.

‘We make it what we can.’ I find this deeply moving in its simplicity.

Justin Cartwright’s new novel, Up Against the Night (Bloomsbury) is set in South Africa.

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Show comments
  • But… what was the point of this article? It was just a collection of random observations, tangents, and ‘feelings’- as I would ask my students, what is the argument?

    • davidshort10

      The clue is in the title – ‘notebook’.

    • Sean L

      Why should there be an argument? The writer’s a novelist. Observations and feelings are his stock in trade.

  • Lubumbashi

    Since when have hadedas been black and white?

    • freddiethegreat

      Journalist alert. Corrections needed

    • Gilbert White

      He is getting confused with the black and white ones outside the ibis hotel in Oz.

    • Richard

      Perhaps memory renders things black and white?

  • Will South Africa survive? That’s the real background to this essay. Why don’t those who reported on South Africa during the anti-apartheid era continue to report on it with the same level of scrupulousness? Because they don’t like what they will see. No, South Africa will not survive.

    • Sardo_Numpsa
    • freddiethegreat

      I heard Peter Hain was organising a boycott of the next soccer world cup in Qatar over human rights concerns….. no?

      • Gilbert White

        He is more likely to rob a bank?

    • KittyR

      Yes, we hear next to nothing about SA in the UK media. I laughed my socks off the other evening a couple of weeks ago when, on Radio 4’s PM, they featured a piece about the burgeoning and supposedly successful brewing industry in SA, visiting a local shebeen in Soweto and interviewing an ‘average’ punter (an accountant) having an after work drink. We hear nothing about the appalling corruption, the calamity of SA’s crumbling infrastructure (e.g. the appalling neglect of power stations and the national grid, resulting in regular black outs and energy shortages) but instead are subjected by the British media to either radio silence or utter irrelevance. I am of South African heritage and can tell you, as my family living there will, SA is a basket case being run into the ground.

      • It’a an absolute tragedy and liberal progressives – having created it – have washed their hands of it. They bear a huge responsibility for this dreadful situation.

      • King Trollo

        the world doesnt (and shouldnt) revolve around south africa

        i know people who live there it isnt even that bad a country. it isnt 1/10 as bad as what youre saying

        once again, south africa is one of the most widely reported on countries anywhere, sky news even has a dedicated south african correspondent. im always hearing bad stories about the place, they dont sugarcoat it. i dont know where youre fetting this from. probably saying it for affect

        south africa isant a corrupt country yet you call its corruption appalling? lack of perspective there

        its the most overhyped country for crime and corruption in the deveoloping world

    • King Trollo

      south africas always in the news

  • Mark Anthony Fysh

    I enjoyed this gentle ramble of observations very much.

    As a citizen of SA, perhaps I must point out that ineptitude, corruption and the like is only made economically possible because of our great natural wealth (including Table Mountain, I might add).

    Without natural resources of this scale, SA would slide into the familiar back-waters so familiar to much of Africa.

    Now, just imagine how wealthy we would be if we ran our country well.

    • freddiethegreat

      We pay around 60% tax, and most of it is stolen by senior members of the ANC, including the Chocolate Peanut.
      Student protests: Selling Nkandla and the useless 3rd rate junk foisted on us by Sweden, the UK and Germany in the arms scam would enable the country to REDUCE university fees by 50% at least.

    • freddiethegreat

      Don’t you think it’s time for the Cape to secede?

    • kingkevin3

      I’m sorry to say your country is fucked and a lot of it has to do with the Afrikaners lack of respect for other cultures. Either you take it up the arse and learn to live with the fact you fucked up badly or you leave. Ende der Lektion mein Freund.

      • Shazza

        Your dire lack of knowledge regarding the history of South Africa is only matched by your rudeness and crudeness.

        Be that as it may. I wonder who you will blame when your country within the next thirty years has the flag of islam flying over Westminster?

        BTW I lived in SA for a very long time and now live in the UK so am perfectly qualified when it comes to seeing the writing on the wall.

      • freddiethegreat

        Poluka!

      • Christian

        Remind us who has been in charge off the last 20 years. Hint: it wasn’t the Afrikaners.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      Or released Nelson Mandela, imagine that.

      • Mark Anthony Fysh

        Or elected Jacob Zuma as our President….

        • Johnny Foreigner

          I can beat that, imagine if F. W. de Klerk, was still running the country. I’m pretty sure if you produced an A4 piece paper, then started the list of Good v Bad, you’d run out of paper, long before you finished the good.
          Today listing the bad, would probably use up more than a box of A4.

  • freddiethegreat

    Another journalist who can’t be bothered with research, but writes from the top of the head: Hadedas (correct spelling) are not black and white (that’s the sacred ibis) and don’t come from the swamps. They are endemic.
    Having said that, let’s put cards on the table: South Africa can have a revival, or violent revolution where large numbers of the ANC are executed or go into exile. That’s it, Britisher pals

    • Richard

      That is not likely to happen. And it is far too simplistic a solution to the – sadly insoluble – problems facing the country.

  • kingkevin3

    Yes I’m sure you love Joburg but of course you have never lived there. I have and I can tell you there is nothing romantic about being locked up 24/7 in a secure compound wondering whether you will survive till the end of the month.What a crock of shit this article is.

    • davidshort10

      I have to agree. Joburg is unnerving and it has got worse not better over the last ten years.

      • freddiethegreat

        It certainly hasn’t improved over the 40+ years I’ve known it, and since the occupation it has got even worse.

      • King Trollo

        the city is a lot safer than the early 2000s and 90s. theres no doubt about that

    • King Trollo

      i know people who live there, its not that bad tbh. it felt much safer than i expected when ive visited

      not all that really

  • davidshort10

    I don’t know of a hotel of this quality in Houghton. Houghton Place, for instance, is OK but not great. The Westciff is good but it is not in Houghton.

    • Grumpy

      There are super-luxury boutique hotels all over the place nowadays, tucked away and converted from grand houses.

  • trace9

    African anomie – big deal?.. Book deal.

  • NickG

    Large black-and-white birds, the hah-di-dahs, stalk the lawns.

    They would be sacred ibis…

    • freddiethegreat

      LOLS Bigtime!!!!!!

      • Pierre Burger

        That is absolute nonsense and pure fabrication. I hold no brief for SAA, which I regard as grossly financially mismanaged, but you can’t get away with just making stuff up like that. Bitter expat, are you?

        • freddiethegreat

          I’m not an expat. These are actual experiences of myself and my wife. Not made up at all, unfortunately, but like so much else that happens under the occupation, it’s unbelievable.

    • Grumpy

      Quite, one would have though a local boy would know the difference. The personal alarm clock that is the Hadedah–looks like this.

      • NickG

        You know you’re flying SAA when they serve you your chicken or beef, you ask the hostie for the ‘black pepper please,’ and she brings you a copy of the Sowetan.

        • Grumpy

          yebo! Ten upticks for you.

  • Christian

    Isaiah Berlin knew that life had no meaning and there was no God? How profound.

    • Mr Grumpy

      It apparently bothered him that others thought they had found a meaning. Which seems to me a bit inconsistent.

      • James H, London

        Inconsistent, but expected. Intolerance is a cottage industry among those with self – indulgent beliefs.

      • Christian

        Precisely. As is the case with most atheists, it grieves them greatly when they encounter anyone who doesn’t share their point of view. Almost as if they have doubts…..

  • Paul_Mid _Beds

    I think people here are exaggerating the power the modern state has over its citizens. South Africa rolls on much as before, a few corners get rounded off by the government but expecting the state to have any meaningful influence in the modern world is like expecting a group of people to be able to dismantle table mountain with teaspoons. A lot of South Africans I know of in the UK have gone back – one even bought a farm. Africa is Africa and there is no point in asessing it by home counties standards.

  • richardvine

    The author has great style but little substance. Clearly he has not spent much time there recently. A murder rate of 49 per day should give you an idea of where this beautiful country is headed, not to mention a currency on the way down the toilet coupled with an intermittent power supply. It could be a truly fabulous country but sadly it’s in the wrong continent.

  • TommyCastro

    I left in 1998 and miss it every day, we are going again on holiday in February and I can’t wait. Would I move back? No, my daughter has a better future here.

    • freddiethegreat

      Welcome back (temporarily). Cape Town?

      • TommyCastro

        Jo’burg, Eastern Tvl and then (my favourite) Garden Route & Cape Town.

  • Neels Uys

    Just finished the book the writer is here to promote, spot on piece of writing, loved it !

  • King Trollo

    re a number of the comments below: its another case of south africans (once again) on an internet gorum obsessively hyping the countrys insecurity and corruption way beyond its true level. why are these people trying to fool the world?

    theres no explicit travel advisory in place and its ranked as less corrupt than more than half of the worlds countries. yet its simultaneosly one of the most dangerous/corrupt the most dangerous/corrupt country in the world?

    some credibility issues there, and its always on the news. many countries have a censored media, so (in fact) it recieves more coverage when it should recieve less

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