The mother of all Black Swans has turned the world on a dime, and no less in Cape Town. But watching the way the problem has evolved and been managed in first world countries has actually surprised me considering how it is being managed in a tiny country at the tip of Africa. To quote the Daily Maverick of March 17: “The contrast between (President) Ramaphosa’s decisive action and the initial trivialization of the threat in London and Washington could not have been starker.” The threat of social disruption is so much greater in the third-world half of South Africa. Yet action has been clearer and more precise at a much earlier phase in the growth curve of the corona virus than the pitiful early Federal response in the USA. Again, to quote the Daily Maverick: “In the United States the narcissistic President first down-played the pandemic, then blamed the media and opposition Democrats for making political capital to prevent him getting a second term in office.”
In simple terms so far South Africa has set a shining example of how to learn from the mistakes of others and put together a radical plan. Testing is a major component, and in an ironic way, the HIV/AIDS epidemic this country suffered has provided it with a powerful platform for widespread testing, with national availability through a national Covid Hotline, regional clinics and education programs, ability to isolate, and a number of other advantages. There is widespread awareness, hand sanitizers at every store, counter, checkpoint etc. But we are sadly in the early days of a pandemic, and who knows what future any country, population, socio-economic group, family, and even ourselves face going forward?
So let me leave this concerning and depressing subject and report on some other aspects of this remarkable city, Cape Town.
Driving in Cape Town is an adventure, not one any of you would enjoy. Too many roads are narrow, probably designed for horse drawn carriages a couple of hundred years ago, curvaceous around the mountains with San Francisco type inclines, blind corners, and crossroads with limited sight lines to oncoming traffic. Freeways were excellent but the last new one was built around 50 years ago, and they are now hopelessly inadequate at peak times for the massive increase in number of cars on the roads. Cape Town drivers are unique. They delay taking off from green lights because they know that their compatriots on the road regard amber as a signal to speed up, and usually end up running the red light. Many have no compunction on overtaking on blind corners or double white lines. Driving on the wrong side of the road is not uncommon. Perhaps the latter can usually be blamed on foreign tourists rubber necking and driving into the nearest pole. Then there are the MyCiti buses with stops that ensure the bus completely blocks the traffic behind, the red double decker Hop-On Hop-Off tourist buses that travel at 40km/hour on the coastal roads that have 70K limits ensuring a snake of cars fuming behind, the bicycles, with some cyclists unconcerned about riding 2 or 3 abreast, chatting and oblivious to the chaos behind them, and finally the minibus taxis providing those of lesser privilege their main mode of getting around. For these drivers time is money, so they career around the roads like kamikaze pilots. We have seen multiple bad accidents. Yes, driving in Cape Town is an adventure.
Historically Cape Town was always the most liberal city in South Africa. Since independence in 1994 I am not so sure that is true anymore. Certainly there have been giant strides in integration, especially in the workplace. But less so socially. At the Federer tennis event the bulk of the crowd was white, as at the orchestra and most art and theater events we attend. One sees few mixed-race tables at restaurants, for example. There has been some economic advancement with housing, but most suburbs are still quite segregated. And yet…interaction on a daily basis between people of all races, genders, and socio-economic level feel far warmer and more interactive than, say, in the United States. I cannot say that for small towns, villages and rural areas. In parts of the country there are literally millions of black Africans who have probably never ever spoken to a white South African. The cities are different.
Tourism is what greases the wheels of Cape Town. The majority of tourists still appear to be Europeans, especially Germans and Brits, and increasing numbers from former Eastern European countries. Asian tourist numbers were expanding rapidly, especially large Chinese group tours, but the coronavirus seems to have halted that for the moment. Hotels are expensive by any comparison which is why so many people we engage in conversation tell us they use Airbnb for better value. The weak Rand makes many restaurants a giveaway. Cape Town is wine country. Excellent wines by the bottle are exceptional value at restaurants. It is therefore amusing to see tourists at restaurants ordering bottle after bottle, the Germans in particular. Of course I am basing this observation on what I personally see when we are out.
Now tourism has been cut short with all foreign passports banned from entry. The social and financial impact is incalculable.
Then there is the wind. This season has been particularly windy. Table Mountain is world-renowned for the tablecloth of cloud that pours over it when severe south-easterly winds blow over. Property values are determined by exposure to wind. Areas like Bantry Bay, Clifton, and the Glen in Camps Bay are not exposed and about the most expensive places to buy property. They do face the northwesters which also bring the rain to the Cape Peninsula.
I would be remiss not to comment on homelessness and crime, although these are not necessarily linked. Every year we return we are increasingly saddened by the escalating number of homeless people we see all over the city, on the beachfront, in suburbs, downtown, in parks, around the periphery of the Herzlia school cricket field, under road bridges, yes literally everywhere. These unfortunate souls are not usually the individuals responsible for the escalation in muggings, home robberies, and occasional assaults and car jackings. The real culprit here is unemployment, the official rate approaching 40%. The inept South African Government just cannot get its act together, come up with more imaginative approaches to cure the Escom power shortage, lower interest rates, and simply get the job market growing. The inter-government infighting has reached stalemate. Which is what makes their response to Covid-19 so surprising.
Cape Town has unique architecture. I have described Cape Dutch architecture in a previous letter. The homestead at Groote Constantia is one of the best examples. The photo below is the back of the building, and an example of their wines which go back to around 1660. But walking anywhere in the suburbs of Cape Town can be a delight, with examples of other early architecture. Just around the corner from us are numerous restored Victorian homes and cottages, also illustrated below. In the Central Business District, downtown, many of the early buildings still survive and have been beautifully restored.
Sport is popular worldwide, but Capetonians are extreme in their fanaticism, be it for rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, hiking, surfing, fishing, jogging, and especially cycling. The second Sunday of March witnesses something unique to the city, the biggest timed bicycle race in the world. Almost 50,000 cyclists from around the globe cycle 105 km around the entire Cape Peninsula. The main roads are literally shut down from dawn to dusk, and it is a thrill just to take a vantage point and watch wave after wave of cyclists pass by. Note the variable architecture in the background. These photos were taken on March 8, 2020.
Living is very confusing at the moment. I doubt there is one of us who has not been directly impacted by this epidemic. None of us can possibly know what the future holds. So Moira and I send love, hope we can all show concern and care for others, and with good fortune come out stronger on the other end.
Cape Town, March 17, 2020