The past week has been spent in Illovo, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa (at least I think that is the correct string of names to pinpoint the location.) Yesterday I returned to Westdene where, in 1973, I bought a house for R10,000, sold in 1979 for R45,000, and which today is worth R1.3 million–the impact of inflation rather than upgrading. Today I went to Valhalla near what was called Pretoria.
Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. Johannesburg is still the rough and vital city it has been since it was founded around new-found gold, gave rise to great mining houses, and grew to be the South African center of finance and wealth. For there is still great wealth here: the great new buildings and streams of expensive cars around the office I visited prove that. Yet things are still cheap: less than eighty dollars for a superb meal for four at one of those casinos that could have been lifted intact from the Las Vegas strip.
It has rained everyday I have been here: violent afternoon thunder storms accompanied by torrential downpourings of water that flood the streets and leave lawns swimming. Everywhere is a mass of green vegetation around the vast swimming pools of every house I visited. The houses are huge, sprawling, filled with fine-wood furniture, and warm, moist pre-precipitation air and cool, post-precipitation breezes.
The talk is of corrupt government, immoral politicians, crime, high prices, and failing infra-structure. Then the talk advances to the excitement of the upcoming soccer games, the current cricket season, and education. I remind my hosts that little has changed in thirty years: long ago the Sunday Times was filled with tales of corrupt politicians, immoral laws, the horrors of apartheid, and insufficient infra-structure. I remind them that today, at least there are successful and able black engineers, Indian lawyers and wives, and a happy mix of peoples of all races mingling peacefully in the streets, shops, and restaurants.
I have supped with mixed-race couples, gay couples, gentle professors and their adopted black sons busy with their LLBs, and hard old-timers who dream of the illusionary sweetness of a golden age that never was. I prefer today’s mix, today’s energies, today’s verve and confidence to the old, enforced “peace & order” of the past, founded as it was on oppression, outrageous privilege, and a brutal suppression of freedom of person, thought, and speech.
The rich, with money derived from mining, bewail talk of nationalization, long permitting times, the drive for equal opportunity, and the state of education. Yet they still enjoy a lifestyle we can only dream of in north America, with cheap houses, servants, and limitless travel to all parts of Africa, Russia, and South America.
I know I am seeing only the topmost sliver of a big country with a large population, great poverty, and all that goes with that poverty and class difference. Yet I have never before been so optimistic about a country I left thirty years ago in great pessimism. Today I see qualified and skilled black engineers, great opportunity for educated technical people, a mining industry waiting to spring forth to greater heights, and a warmth of people living in a racial harmony I never imagined possible.
I shake my head in disbelief at talk of nationalizing the mines, at driving out the whites, and national customs that lead to polygamy. I know that if wise leaders do not curtail this talk and if the intemperate young prevail, the country is doomed, like Zimbabwe, to despair and distress. But then I remind myself of the great diversity of individuals, tribes, peoples, and organizations that make up this polyglot nation, and I must put my trust in diversity, and the freedom to talk, report, and act that seems to be the foundation of sane, successful societies.
I was wrong once before in my pessimism of the country’s future. I try to remind my hosts that they may be wrong in their pessimism of the present and future.
Thus I leave tomorrow for Cape Town, whence I shall record my opinions of that city.