South africa

The day I met a sun priest

Palomino, Colombia I’m in a truly wonderful place: the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It’s got more bird species than most of Europe, exquisite cotton-top tamarin monkeys that hop through jungles, and one of the world’s highest coastal mountain ranges. There are empty beaches, shimmering lakes, colonial townscapes and a recent folk memory of terrible gangsters. Some male babies are largely kept in caves from birth, in the darkness, until they are nine  It also boasts several indigenous tribes, one of which – the Kogi – I had never heard of until I got here. But the more I read about them from my hammock on the beach, the more I

Why South Africans lost faith in the ANC

A red dawn had just broken when Stephanie Sathege joined the queue to vote at her local polling station in the Johannesburg township of Alexander on Wednesday. The voting booths hadn’t yet opened, but she and dozens of other people were enthusiastic enough to be there ahead of time. A 62-old black South African, this was the seventh time she had been allowed to vote in a general election, having lived under democracy only half her life.  Today, just as she did 30 years ago, Stephanie is contributing to an historic outcome. But this election day would be different to all the previous ones.  ‘Since 1994, I have been voting for the

Will South Africa reject the ANC?

After many years in power, a corrupt and inept government is finally close to being removed. There is no great confidence in the opposition — but the people have had enough of seeing their country ruined and are finally having their say. No, I’m not talking about Britain and the Conservative party but South Africa, where the ANC looks as if it might be close to losing power after almost three decades of one-party rule. Very high turnout for other parties is understood to have perhaps caused the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, to fall below 50 per cent of the vote for the first time. It’s

From Cleopatra to Elizabeth Taylor, women have found jewels irresistible

When workmen demolished an ancient building in Cheapside in 1912 they saw something glinting out of a broken wooden box. They had stumbled on what became known as the Cheapside Hoard – a collection of jewels dating from around 1600, its star, the Cheapside Emerald, a wonderful stone holding a miniature watch. It came from Colombia, still the source of the world’s finest emeralds, probably the world’s most ancient gems. The first recorded instance of them is on an Egyptian papyrus around 2400 BC. Their beauty and rarity made them the favourite of the élite, with Cleopatra probably their most famous fan. The Rockefeller Emerald fetched $5.5 million in 2017.

Why do South Africans still support the ANC?

Support for South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, has just fallen below 40 per cent, which makes it very likely that, come the May election, there’ll be a coalition government. I’m surprised that support for the ANC is as high as it is. Across South Africa, states run by the ANC are failing. Infrastructure has collapsed and unrepaired sewage systems mean the water is polluted and poisonous. Electrical systems are down and the railways and ports are often closed. Property prices in Cape Town soar as South Africans flee here from all across the rest of the country. Because South Africa’s rand has collapsed against the euro (and

There is good news in the world – and it is mostly about wine

My last piece began with a one-word sentence: ‘Gloom.’ A dear friend reproached me. ‘In a world already abundant with gloom, surely you can find a way of cheering us up. After all, you’re not writing about politics – or at least you’re not supposed to be.’ I promised to try harder to propagate good news. When it comes to wine, that is not impossible. Twenty years ago, in Lisbon, I was treated to a bottle of Barca Velha. I was told that the Portuguese regarded it as their Château Latour. Needless to say, it was not that good but I remember thinking that it was a jolly decent drop

It will be difficult for Israel to ignore this ICJ ruling

Yesterday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered an interim ruling on South Africa’s genocide case against Israel. Its decision is likely to please neither side of the debate, but seems broadly balanced: it criticised Israel, but failed to demand a suspension of the conflict.  The court, which sits in The Hague, was formed in 1945 and is one of the principal organs established by the Charter of the United Nations. It is the UN’s highest court.  On 29 December, South Africa brought its proceedings in the ICJ under Article 9 of the Genocide Convention of 1948. It claimed that Israel was engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people

Let’s hope for good cheer this Christmas

A couple of years ago, I saw a charming cartoon. A boy and a girl aged about seven were in an earnest conversation. ‘Of course I don’t believe in Father Christmas,’ said the boy. ‘But we’ve got to keep up the pretence for the sake of the parents.’ This Christmas, all over the world, many parents will be especially keen to dwell on the great festival’s innocent joys. Innocence: in many places the fear is that the glory of birth will give way to the massacre of the innocents. Like the shepherds, a large number of people are sore afraid. Unlike the shepherds, their fear has no relief at hand

Beware South Africa’s rising star

Cape Town ‘Shoot to kill! Kill the Boer, the farmer! Kill the Boer, the farmer! Brrrr! Pah! Pah!’ These were the words chanted in fine voice by Julius Malema to a rapturous crowd of 100,000 at South Africa’s biggest stadium in Johannesburg on Saturday 29 July. Malema was celebrating the tenth birthday of the EFF, the political party he founded and leads. EFF stands for Economic Freedom Fighters. It is dedicated to fighting economic slavery. It declares itself Leninist–Marxist, wants to seize private property (as Malema’s hero Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe), plans to nationalise the banks and the mines and enforce total state control. The EFF is the fastest-growing political

From she-devil to heroine – Winnie Mandela’s surprising metamorphosis

Apartheid South Africa created many heroes and villains, and in the heat of battle for the soul of that country it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which. For decades, Nelson Mandela represented righteous liberation for a society enchained by the grim political philosophy of apartheid. Throughout most of this time, his wife Winnie embodied fearless defiance and radical resistance to the system, a charismatic beauty who howled with rage: according to Lord Hain, ‘a quasi-revolutionary to Mandela’s reformism’. A complex Shakespearian tale unfolds of two charismatic figures thrown together by apartheid Today, as South Africa lurches from one crisis to the next, the legacy of the Mandelas is

How to escape the cold without jet lag

My mum yelped. The kayak bucked back and forth as we both mouthed: ‘Dolphins!’ The pair zigzagged around us while we tried to paddle after them. Afterwards, we were paddling back towards land for a busy afternoon of exploring coffee shops and wine bars when a penguin bobbed its head up from the water. In moments like these it’s hard to believe you’re in a city – but there was Cape Town spread out on the shore ahead of us. The taxi driver who met us at the airport had summed it up: ‘In Cape Town, you can do everything.’ There’s nature in spades (from antelope to whales), incredible food, culture,

The Zulu’s new king brings peace, for a moment

A new king of the Zulu was crowned at the weekend. Thousands in South Africa went to Durban to watch the coronation of Misuzulu kaZwelithini. The city was sunny, which meant the Zulu ancestors were happy. The coronation, held at the Moses Mabhida stadium, was a celebration of Zulu tribal dominance. While South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who handed over the certificate recognising Misuzulu as the Zulu monarch, was booed by the audience, his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, was cheered. Ramaphosa comes from the tiny Venda tribe, on the border with Zimbabwe. Zuma is a Zulu. Zulus don’t care much about the accusations against their former president. His opponents say he’s

Brilliant and distinctive but also relentless: William Kentridge, at the RA, reviewed

William Kentridge’s work has a way of sticking in the mind. I can remember all my brief encounters with it, from my first delighted sight of one of his charcoal-drawn animations, ‘Monument’ (1990), in the Whitechapel’s 2004 exhibition Faces in the Crowd to my awestruck confrontation with his eight-channel video installation I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) in Tate Modern’s Tanks in 2012. That marked a high point for the Tanks, since when they’ve tanked. Kentridge’s is a face you don’t forget, partly because it often appears in his own animations in the guise of his beaky alter ego Soho Eckstein, partly because of the trademark

Homage to Sydney Kentridge, South Africa’s courtroom giant

Sydney Kentridge, the protagonist of Thomas Grant’s superb legal saga The Mandela Brief, is that trickiest of biographical subjects: a great man. Grant acknowledges ‘it is rare that, on closer acquaintance, a person touted as a “great” man or woman conforms to the initial description’, but the South African lawyer has been described by countless barristers as the greatest courtroom advocate they had ever seen. Notable for the apartheid cases he conducted as a defence lawyer of especial distinction and passion, Kentridge has also been admired for his calm and assured bearing in court. The Observer praised him in 1968 as having ‘the face and bearing of an upper-class Regency

The lost world of the Karoo

Julia Blackburn’s Dreaming the Karoo is the diary of a very bad year: from March 2020, when a research trip to South Africa was cut short by the sudden emergence of Covid, to March last year. Blackburn had gone to Cape Town, and then into the dry interior, the Karoo, to explore the lost world she had found in an obscure volume that she had once chanced upon in the London Library. Specimens of Bushman Folklore, by the linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, published in 1911, contains the texts – life stories, origin myths, tales about animals, accounts of murders of women and children by the encroaching colonists –

A belter of a podcast, featuring a mad South African: Smoke Screen reviewed

I go back and forth on tobacco companies. On the one hand, they are merchants of death. On the other, cigarettes are fun and delicious. On the one hand, they push cigarettes on children, which is unconscionable. And on the other, I remember how I would gather in the park with other children to collectively venerate a ten-pack of Marlboro Lights, our soft, pink fingers shivering and struggling with the lighter mechanism, our untutored lips puffing ineffectually at the speckled filter, all of us beginning to grow woozy from the acrid smoke filling our virgin lungs as we stood there and thought: this is the life. Luckily, Smoke Screen sidesteps

Why I was almost thrown out of South Africa

On my 2 p.m. arrival for a week-long work trip to South Africa a fortnight ago, an immigration agent flapped my passport while inquiring as to the purpose of my visit. ‘To appear in the Franschhoek Literary Festival’ clearly meant nothing to this woman, but hey, lit fests aren’t exactly Glastonbury. I only grew, shall we say, concerned when she announced that because my passport lacked two sequential completely clean pages, she was denying me entry to the country. ‘You’re kidding me,’ I said – quietly; I didn’t shout. Yet this reflex expression of disbelief was all it would take for the entire team of Cape Town’s gatekeepers to blackball

Is Omicron now falling in South Africa?

Man makes Covid predictions and God laughs. Yet with the stakes this high in Britain, every bit of real-world data is useful. That’s why South Africa is so important: it’s a country with a well-digitised healthcare sector that we have to thank for sequencing the Omicron variant, and has been first to experience the impact. That’s why its figures, released daily, are being watched so eagerly world over. Right now, there are two questions: is Omicron now falling? And if so, what conclusions can we draw? The epicentre is Gauteng province: home to Johannesburg, Pretoria and about a quarter of South Africans. The below chart adjusts for population and shows that

The promise of South Africa

‘Earth has not anything to show more fair.’ One can admire the view from Westminster Bridge and feel near the epicentre of a great civilisation, but still believe that Wordsworth was exaggerating. His line came to mind when I was thinking about Christmases past, two of which I was fortunate enough to spend in the Cape. That scenery really is hard to rival. In the 1980s, the Cape offered five of life’s greatest pleasures. Landscape, politics, shooting, wine — and about 120 miles from Cape Town, there is an enchanting village called Arniston, or Waenhuiskrans, not far from Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. Its inhabitants are Cape Coloured

How 19th-century gold rushes led to a distrust of China

For a brief moment three summers ago it seemed that the clear Idaho air wafting through the Sun Valley Literary Festival had become tainted with the smoke and soot of Nuremberg. Here was Thomas Friedman, bloviator-in-chief to America’s chattering classes, standing before a rally of thousands, delivering a powerful philippic about the ascent of the Asiatic East. As he warmed to his theme, he decided for some messianic reason to demand that his audience chant the phrase that he suggested now dominated the American economic landscape. Come on, he urged like a latter-day Elmer Gantry, yell out with me the words: ‘Everything. Is. Made. In. CHINA!’ And, as one, the