South Africa – A second time for First Thoughts

It’s not my first time in Cape Town and I doubt I’ll have anything particularly new or insightful to say. After all, there are innumerable Saffas knocking around the UKand Europe and they are going to be far more on the button than I.

It’s a world of contrasts though, that’s my first thought. It’s not just the obvious ones. At lunchtime on Wednesday I was in a meeting in the City of London. Nothing particularly highpowered, but I was minutes away from the old lady of Threadneedle Street, within a short stone’s throw of dozens of heavy hitting financial players – institutions that could make or break global markets in a multitude of commodities, equities and ever more diverse exotics.

Within 24 hours I was sat on a yacht, drifting out of Cape Town’s Table Bay Harbour for a short afternoon’s jaunt to Clifton where we moored up and enjoyed a brai, swimming to the shore and generally feeling that Europe is a million (rather than just 6000) miles away.

Cape Town is European. Make no bones about it. From its international airport with mobile phone adverts and wireless LAN in its arrivals lounge; to its transport infrastructure, 3 lane highways full of Japanese and European cars, it’s a sunny outpost of Britain.

You don’t have to look too deeply to find the inequalities – from the buying power of the British visitors, two and a half years ago it was 16 rand to the pound, now it is under 12 but it is still a bargain. For ease of comparison we’re assuming 10 to the pound and it still feels cheap. But there’s an inequality amongst the residents, while it might be 10 years since Apartheid loosened its grip on this Rainbow Nation, there are still some obvious signs of its legacy.

Walk in the bright and shiny V&A Waterfront amongst the restaurants and bars. While the white population is only about 10% they dominate the faces you see. Expensive bars, white faces. In our hotel, the non-white faces are among the staff, the white faces the management and the guests.

Every property you pass – from the palatial villas near our hotel in Constantia, to the waterfront apartments of Clifton, through the City Bowl urbanites and even out towards the cape in Scarborough and Kommetjie; they all share a nervousness. They are all hidden in their secure compounds, their armed response guard companies and 6 foot walls topped with razor wire.

The people you meet couldn’t be friendlier – but it’s the people we’re not meeting that make you really think. The last time I was here my car was broken in to when parked on the street. I don’t conspicuously show off my relative wealth, and on the face of it I am not necessarily a tourist (although the Lonely Planet under your arm and the camera in your pocket are giveaway signs). It’s not like parts of the far east where just the colour of your face tell you apart. But I do feel nervous here – nervous of not doing bad just by trying to spread a little wealth. I can afford to be magnanimous purely because I’m spending pounds. It’s a strange thing to be considered wealthy – I’m not used to it and I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

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