Beauty and family aside, one of my favorite parts of visiting my native South Africa are the two-hour flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town. It’s not long enough to worry about being stuck next to a pain-in-the-neck — as one might on the 14-hour New York-Johannesburg leg — but it is enough for really great conversation.
On my most recent trip, last month, I had an additional mid-trip jaunt to Jo’burg, and thus doubled the pleasure. Given that most of my precious time there is focused on relatives, this tally of strangers was doubly fascinating:
• a young (Jewish) fashion designer with his own store in Cape Town
• a (Czech-born) documentary filmmaker and social justice researcher
• the principal of a Jewish day school
• an (ethnic Indian) accountant working in the Office of the Auditor General
The first one took me by surprise, though he could just as easily (accent aside) have been American. He was blond, buff, and very stylish — and evidently heterosexual.
“Everyone thinks I’m gay, and I admit — I do take advantage of that,” he confessed. He also complained that too many girls are interested only in sex when he’d like to have a serious romantic relationship. When I said, “So, don’t go to bed with them,” he shrugged and replied, “I’m a 22-year-old guy; of course, what else am I going to do?”
The filmmaker was typical of a very different kind of young South African: She is deeply upset by the economic inequality that pervades the country 21 years after its transition to democracy. “It’s tough trying to make a living doing what I do,” she said, “but if we don’t make people see what’s going on in the townships and the rural areas, how are we ever going to make things better?”
With my third companion, the school principal, we played Jewish geography, of course. Cheryl Lazarus, it turned out, knew some of my cousins, and works with one who is involved with the organization linking the city’s Jewish schools, from pre- through secondary.
Contrary to what others had said, she insisted Jewish education is thriving in Cape Town. “There was a dip in numbers a few years ago when the economy got worse,” she said, ‘but we’re back up and we’re doing really well.” Part of that is due to the reputation of the Herzlia High School. “Though we have a policy of accepting every student who applies, regardless of their academic ability, our matriculation results are only just below those of the top schools, which accept only the very best students,” she said. My cousin confirmed that.
The fourth flight companion was the biggest surprise. He told me that the government is sensitive to and responsive to the Auditor General’s assessments. “The provincial administrations are a mess, but the central government does try to keep things straight,” he insisted.
Most South Africans I met regard President Jacob Zuma and his inner circle as grossly corrupt. There were similar complaints about all kinds of professional groups.
“I can’t function as a Realtor without certification, but everyone knows that the people in control pocket the fees we’re forced to pay,” one guy told me. I heard the same account from a rugby players’ agent, and from regular citizens dealing with issues like medical insurance, or building permits.
I kept saying similar things go on in the United States, but we really don’t have it as bad, even in Washington. The South African scene makes Congress look positively collegial.
On the night when Zuma gave his State of the Union address in Parliament, a breakaway group from his own African National Congress tried to tackle the subject of embezzlement. They were hustled away by gun-wearing policemen. The official opposition then walked out in protest about those guns, and the president ended up addressing his own loyalists, with nary a comment about the upheaval — or the brief attempt to blur all transmissions from the chamber. The one bright aspect, I thought, was that the press freely reported on the whole fiasco.
But even that was called into question. I had one more travel encounter, at the luggage carousel after the Cape Town flight. It was with a former journalist who now works as “brand manager” for the Speaker of the House, the parliamentary official who had to try to control that mayhem during the State of the Union. Way too professional to say anything indiscreet, she just sighed and shook her head when I asked about that night. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly choose an easy job,” she admitted, and added, “And the press likes to lie.”
However, it was from a regular Facebook user, not the press, that I found the comment that best summed up the most prevalent attitude I encountered among white, Jewish South Africans. It was written in response to a very clever — and well received — insurance advertisement playing up South Africa’s quirky charm.
“Hey, you are all fooling yourselves,” ex-pat Bram Fine (now living in Israel) wrote. “The country is basically bankrupt, whites are having serious problems getting good education and jobs as blacks have so many perks (catch up scheme). Reverse prejudice. Rainbow, my ass. Government is brain-starved. Bribery widespread. Anti-Semitism deeply imbedded both in government and in society. Crime rampant. It’s only a matter of time before the fabric breaks down. The potential was huge, the actuality dismal. Such a pity — as it is the most beautiful country in the world.”