Living in the bubble

It will be with a heavy heart that I get on board the BA flight to London on Friday evening. I’ve really enjoyed being back here in South Africa. Sort of.

We came here in mid-October and Di left for her medical consultation in London a couple of weeks ago.

The update on that is that she is now waiting for a consultation which ought to immediately lead to radio therapy for her acoustic neuroma, rather than surgery. She is also about to start seeing a physiotherapist, who specialises in balance-related problems. Hopefully soon, she will be on the mend. Di that is. I’m sure the physio is fine already.

So, I’ve had the best part of three weeks living back in the bubble that pretty much everyone I know in South Africa says we live in. It’s true. Inside is largely secure, protected, insulated from the daily horrors of rape, murder and mayhem that beset the broken South Africa outside.

We live in quiet ocean-side villages, towns or gated communities and travel from home to work to shops to restaurant by car and in the main, send our children to private schools. Those living beyond the bubble have to deal with poverty, massive unemployment, township (shack) housing and non-existent, or poorly run transport facilities. The other option is to use one of our so-called minibus taxis; all too often overloaded, badly maintained, uninsured and quite likely piloted by a drunk driver. There’s lots of lip service, but little meaningful policing of these kamikazes.

Awful prospect that may be, but it’s that or walk.

The press bays about our desperately unequal society and I agree.

What I don’t agree with is that it is the fault of anyone who isn’t a black African, in some kind of “I’m OK, you I don’t care about” attitude.

Let me put that in context.

Like most South African families and in the forty-odd years we’ve both been here, we have worked, paid our taxes and supported various initiatives to assist the mass of the population. I’ve employed countless people, volunteered and worked for a number of aid organisations, including the world famous Outward Bound. Di funded one of Laura’s school chums through senior school and made a telling contribution to her university education. We might have done more, but that would then have been at the cost of our own family.

In 1994, when the ANC was voted into government, Nelson Mandela and his comrades inherited a state that worked. And before you tell me that it was uneven and legislated against the bulk of the population, I agree.

However, we had water. It was piped everywhere for everyone and cheap. Today, the so-called Minister of Water Affairs has announced a R900 billion (£40bn) plan to upgrade our water infrastructure. Why? Because the one we have now has been ignored and allowed to deteriorate to the point where many small towns have no water, sewage in their rivers and in many cases, no infrastructure left, as it is either broken beyond repair, or has been stolen and sold for scrap.

Of course, the Ministers from 1994 until now have all been ANC appointees, most believed to have stolen/misappropriated the bulk of the funding allocated to keep the filters, pipes and pumps maintained.

My recent experience aside, our railway system is a shambles. Copper cable theft, signalling system failure and zero maintenance mean commuter trains never run on time; in Cape Town a 30-45 minute delay in in- and outbound trains is the daily norm. Often several hour delays are experienced.

That makes those least able to afford and avoid the inconvenience late for work and it is only a short time before tardiness leads to non-payment for unworked hours and eventually, dismissal. It’s not the employee’s fault, but who cares?

In 1994, we had electricity. So much that we were busy selling it to governments as far north as Ghana. Well, that didn’t last. By the late ‘90s, government was being told by those that know that we needed new generating capacity. The advice was ignored, because the Mbeki administration didn’t want to fund that kind of capex.

We eventually ran out of capacity and despite belatedly spending billions on building two giant coal-fired stations, have experienced load shedding and complete black outs for the last several years. Both new stations are years and years behind schedule and both currently running at well over 100% cost overruns. Poor workmanship, management failure and corruption are the culprits and still no-one seems to know how to get the electricity flowing.

As I finished editing this piece, a link to an article in this morning’s Sowetan newspaper arrived. I feel as though the author Ebrahim Harvey was watching over my shoulder.

Back to my own rant.

I mentioned the idea of “keep ‘em poor, keep ‘em stupid” in a recent post and it may never be more apposite than in South Africa’s state education system, which has lumbered from un-inclusive and barely acceptable (but working) in 1994, to a non-functioning process which is hallmarked (for me at least) by the idiotic idea of Outcomes Based Education, which required modern schools, skilled teachers and access to computers – none of which the country had then and still doesn’t possess today. It took more than a decade to dump this ludicrous idea and still we have ideals that simply can’t be met. When tens of thousands of school leavers can’t even read and write, you have to know the problem is writ large.

Many rural classes are held under nearby trees as there are no buildings. A couple of years ago, one youngster drowned having fallen into a long drop (pit latrine). The government’s response was to allocate several hundred million Rand to building toilets for our school children. Because there is no oversight or morality, every single cent of those millions have gone AWOL and not a single toilet has been built. Are the culprits in jail? You need ask?

In our state schools we have a so-called Democratic Teachers Union wagging the dog and controlling what goes on. Up to 40% of its members are believed to be absent, drunk or making sexual advances to their pupils on a daily basis. Try and fix it and the teaching (such as it is) stops completely.

One of the government’s sops to itself has been to reduce the pass mark for almost anything, including a university-entrace-necessary matric pass to 30%. Now, children who can barely scribble their names are lauded for the great achievement(s) of the education system. They get a matric pass and head for further education. Our once proud universities are a laughing stock and good luck to you going for a job interview in London, Paris or New York, brandishing your Wits, or UCT degree. It’s just about as valueless as our currency.

The Post Office collapsed a couple of years ago, with something like 80 million undelivered letters/parcels to deal with. It’s a different 80 million today, but the backlog still remains.

But, if you stay in South Africa and live in your bubble, everything is OK. You might have to boil your drinking water and need a little generator in the garage, but that’s OK. Woolies has lots of very expensive food for sale and we’ve got little else to spend our salaries on, as the Rand is so weak that overseas must remain just that for now.

Looking at the mess, one thing is clear; the wooly-headed notion of cadre deployment – communism is alive and well down here – has proven to be a complete failure. Before you ask, cadre deployment is the placing of loyal ANC people (cadres) in jobs for which they have no aptitude, qualifications, interest or motivation, beyond a month-end salary cheque. Uneducated, unskilled and uninterested, these loyal political hacks are there to ensure things go the way the ANC wants. They don’t of course, as they do no work at all, or worse, interfere and then really break things.

Similarly, the Black Empowerment programme was intended to quickly move black folk into partnership and management jobs across the entire spectrum of South Africa’s commerce and industry. That hasn’t worked either.

So, twenty five years after the celebrations of 1994, the Stalinists and central controllers have won the day. Our economy is becalmed and slipping further into complete melt-down by the moment. What money was in the fiscus has been stolen by generations of corrupt politicians, most recently Jacob Zuma and his coterie of helpful Indian shoemakers, who are believed to have siphoned more than R1 trillion out of the economy between them.

They’re all in jail now?

Not one.

Still, we’re in our bubble. As secure as money can make us.

So is it to be civil war or an African Spring? If only the nation could stop the deliberately uneducated and starving from continuing to vote for the so-called party of liberation, South Africa might stand a chance. No matter how much I love being here, I’m not holding my breath.

#livinginlondon7 (but not there at the moment)

No-one stops to look at impala

The Kruger Park

It took a while to get here – three days of travel – two spent on a 36 hour train journey from Cape Town that should have taken only 26 hours and then, a day long 700km drive from Johannesburg. More than 2000km in all, literally, from one end of the country to the other. The weather is overcast, meaning a coolish and pleasant 20C, as opposed to last week’s 39C in the region.

Aside from a few drops last night, the Park hasn’t had much rain of late and is as dry as I’ve ever seen it. This is the wet season and there’s still hope; some years, the rains don’t come until December/January, but then they tend to be biblical.

Elephant at the Mopani water hole
Dawn in the Kruger Park
Beobab at Mopani
Sunset at Talamati

Friday – 18:15 and a brief halt to tapping at my keyboard as a lion roars thunderously nearby. We quickly head for the camp’s floodlit waterhole, but by the time we get there the fun is over and Leo has legged it.

Until you experience it, it’s unlikely you have any kind of idea what it’s like. When asked on his first visit to the bush, our son-in-law said that he had imagined the bush was like being in a “drive around zoo.”

Not.

The Park is huge. A business and massive revenue generator for the operators and nation alike, but the bush is just that. In many of the rest camps there is no electricity, save that generated on site with solar systems. There is no blanket cell coverage – this to try and deter poaching, which has decimated our rhino stocks and is now hunting down our elephants as well. The rest camps offer limited and very localised coverage for those of us who don’t want to be too cut off from the rest of the world.

The bush is dry, dusty and dense. If like us, you prefer to drive yourself, there are strict speed limits; 30km/h on sand roads, 50km/h on the main tarred sections. Faster than that and you’ll miss the flash of a zebra just a few metres away, or the unmistakable shape of a lion in the distance.

The Park teems with game, but the thickness of the bush coupled with a visitor’s limited ability to see deep between the trees and scrub – visibility from publicly accessible areas of the Park is estimated at around 3% of its 19,500 square kilometres – means there’s plenty of space for the animals to hide.

Kruger sunset
Kruger sunrise
Zebra crossing
Threatening clouds

The title “No-one stops to look at impala” will quickly become self explanatory. As a species, the beautiful, doe-like impala are by far the most plentiful – estimates as to the current population suggest upwards of 150,000. Singly, in pairs, small groups and large herds, there are impala everywhere. Often it’s all you’ll see for hours on end. It’s not their fault, but when you are desperate to see a one of the Park’s very few leopard or cheetahs, even a rare antelope, the appeal of an endless procession of impala can quickly pall.

Impala

Remember too; aside from around the rest camps and closing-off the Park to the outside world, there are no fences. Even the fences between South Africa and Moçambique were removed some years back, creating an even larger Trans Frontier Park.

This is Africa in the raw.

Stay in your car, or end up being trampled by a hippo (Africa’s most dangerous animal and no.1 killer), eaten by a lion, stomped and gored by a Cape Buffalo, or bitten by a snake.

I tend to start wilting as the thermometer breaches mid thirty degree Celsius numbers. As I write at 11:36, it’s already 36C and our self-declared rest day continues to underline our prescience. 38C is the predicted maximum for today and a whopping 41C tomorrow, there’ll be lots of mooching in our rondavel (circular, thatched chalet), sitting in the shade and endless thanks to the air conditioner that is belching cool air at 18C.

As it turned out, the thermometer hit 45C. It’s very, very hot and not conducive to doing anything.

Cooling down from a high of 45C

But then, this is Africa.

Changing gears; South Africa is now without any kind of political opposition to blunt the excesses, venality and stupidity of the ruling ANC. Officially, the Democratic Alliance (DA) carry the banner of opposition, but last month’s ructions in the party have seen the return of long time and much hated (on the Thatcher-scale) leader Helen Zille, now once more at the helm of the entire DA, following the departure of its leader, parliamentary leader, Chief Whip, and Secretary General (albeit to retirement). The ensuing days have seen a constant stream of press announcements; changes, new faces and newly appointed leaders. I suppose when the dust has settled, we’ll see a new look DA, or more likely, a slightly facelifted version of the old one.

Whatever happens, the DA will continue to fight the accusation that it is a party solely for whites, something the office bearers’ merry-go-round is only underscoring, as if that were that necessary.

It’s a shame. The party is populated by many, many really fine, well intentioned people, dedicated to a liberal future for South Africa. Aside from the inevitable political and internecine squabbling, their task is stymied by the way South Africa votes along cultural lines. Non-racial liberalism? I’d love to say yes, but know it’ll never happen as it looks today.

Tomorrow South Africa does battle with England for the Rugby World Cup. I have no idea who will win but expect it to be a real tussle. I’ll be watching it at the rest camp at Orpen, undoubtedly alongside the black, white, pink and grey South Africans who also love the game. We’ll drink copious amounts of beer, yell at the idiotic French referee and cheer our lads on regardless.  Both sides have world-class players, equally determined to win. England has Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Jerusalem for inspiration, we have gees*. The two anthems are well known, gees is our secret weapon.

Oppas mense. Suid Afrika kom vir jou.

Winning the Cup – gees in action

Sunday. I decided before turning-in last evening that I wouldn’t set my alarm for 04:00 to go out and look for a sunrise to photograph. It had been a long day; up early, an interesting and fruitful game drive, breakfast, drive for an hour to Orpen camp, watch South Africa win the World Cup, another hour long drive back to our own camp, an early supper, a congratulatory drink or two to the team and a couple of strenuous hours reading and just after nine o’clock, bed.

Rugby; a passion since I was at school. I stopped playing when I came to South Africa; one look at the rock hard winter pitches – it doesn’t rain here in the winter months – suggested the smart thing to do would be to quit while I was ahead. The pleasure of watching rugby hasn’t dimmed however and yesterday was no exception. 

Initially, I hadn’t expected South Africa to go so far. The round-robin stages turned out to be easier for the ‘boks than I’d imagined and aside from the opening game’s loss to the All Blacks, we did pretty well, albeit in a not particularly inspiring fashion.

England’s path to the final was much harder and their win over the same All Blacks in the semi finals, certainly made me awfully nervous about our chances in the final.

It’s often said that most teams competing in tournaments at this level have one great game in them. And so it proved. England’s demolishing of the All Blacks was a masterstroke. Sadly, the team had showed its hand and running out against South Africa yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking there was little left in their collective tank.

So, South Africa holds the Webb Ellis trophy for four more years. It was a great game.

Cape Buffalo
Portrait
Beobab at Mopani

The last few days of our stay and we’re back in the deep bush at one of the Kruger’s more private camps, called Bateleur, after the famous raptor. The thermometer was at a wilting 39C when we arrived and sweated to unpack the car, 19C, twelve hours and a crashing thunderstorm later. It’s remained overcast, but rain and the game we’ve travelled so far to see, remains elusive.

And then. One of the most bizarre incidents I’ve ever encountered.

Heading south towards the Mopani rest camp, to make contact with the cell network and get our irregular dose of e-mail and messages, we see a large collection of cars stopped in the middle of the road. In the Park, this usually signifies a lion kill, or something everyone wants to see – definitely not impala. This requires good manners and lots of patience, waiting for occupants of the other cars to see their fill and leave, making space for the next visitor(s).

Not so. As we approach, it becomes clear that there has been an accident. At 50 km/h? Huh?

Maybe not so. A minibus carrying many members of the Park’s staff had been also heading southwards. The accident was caused by two things; a giraffe emerging from the bush to cross the road and secondly, judging from the skid marks, the minibus’ excessive speed.

Long story short, the bus hit the giraffe, tossed it in the air, only to land on top of another visitor’s vehicle coming in the opposite direction. What must have been close to a ton of already dead giraffe smashed the roof and cab of the bakkie and then seems to have rolled off into the bush. The Swiss driver was very badly hurt and spent several days in a Johannesburg ICU, before succumbing to his injuries.

The aftermath

Passing the carcass en route from the Park this morning, there is surprisingly little left and a huge flock of vultures making sure that that doesn’t last much longer.

The media reported the death of the driver in a Johannesburg ICU some days later. I’m beyond words at the poor man’s misfortune. The taxi driver who should be charged with (at the least) culpable homicide? No police at the scene, no forensics and I imagine the worst that will happen to him is his vehicle being written off.

Welcome to South Africa.