Flying over the veldt with the African dawn streaming in from the left-hand side window brought to mind the first time I did this journey – back in April 1994 on a Swissair flight from Zurich. I had stopped in Athens for a business trip and also to get a paper visa for the Republic of South Africa stapled to my Indian passport. The South African visa department in Athens was small and seedy. You walked up a staircase to an office with an open window. A chain-smoking disheveled man who would not have looked out of place in a Graham Greene novel took in my passport without any questions and a couple of hours later, had a visa stapled to it. The passport clearly said that it was not valid for travel to Israel and South Africa, but as long as I did not have a problem he did not have a problem with it.

It is impossible even now, to put into words the sheer vastness of Africa that I observed from 35,000 feet. I was in my early 30s and full of wide-eyed wonder at the world and the limitless possibilities it offered. The expanse I witnessed beneath me seemed to resonate with my outlook. As the plane started to lose height as we approached Jan Smuts International Airport, neat houses with manicured green lawns and the stark blue of a swimming pool could be seen from up on high. The sun was bright, the air seemed pristine and the sky was blue. Given that I was about to land in a country that was about to put the finishing touches on an amazing transformation, the portents from the weather gods were ominously good.

When I landed, I remember walking into a sepulchral immigration lounge that did not seem very different from the one I had left behind at Zurich. White-shirted beefy white men sat impassive and unsmiling at the visitors. The man flipped through my passport, and asked me in Afrikaans-accented English, “Are you a thraderr? Are you carrying samples?”. I, of course, raised my nose and told him I was leading an assignment to transform the South African Post Office Bank. I don’t think he believed me one bit and normally he would have thrown me out. Except of course, his world was about to go under beneath him. And India was one of the few countries which, thanks to its principled opposition to apartheid, was on the favoured list of the expected new masters.

So I walked into the Arrival Hall. Before I could spot Ian Fraser, my Australian colleague who was there to pick me up, I also saw that most of the Arrival Hall was damaged and police were all over. It transpired that the Afrikaaner Witbroderbond (Afrikaaner White Brotherhood) lead by a crackpot called Eugene Terreblanche, had bombed the Arrivals area and attempted to take over the black homeland of Bophuthatswana to try and disrupt the elections. It did not work and Eugene was on the run being chased down by the very same white Defence Forces he had once served in.

Ian took me to the Sandton Country Club for a shower and change before driving me to Pretoria. All lily white. White people ate and drank served by black people. White people were in the showers and sauna. I was the only non-white person in the club but I did not feel out of place – largely because of my inflated sense of self!

Later that afternoon we hung around in his apartment drinking Castles and listening to the radio. Metro FM was full of news and doings about what was going to happen the next day – free multi-racial elections. Music from all over the world was being played while relaying the news. Ladysmith Black Mambozo, Mbongeni Ngema, many others.  Hope was in the air and the DJ was caught up in it.  He relayed advice to people who had never seen a voting booth before on what to do the next day. I have a tape of that lying somewhere. It was the most magical afternoon.

That evening Ian’s girlfriend Joyce showed up. She was – well, a prostitute and black – and of course Ian was happily married back home with a wife and son. Without being cynical about what was going on, I think this was also part of the whole new South Africa that was being built where there were no rules, no boundaries. Joyce was a wonderful, simple girl. She was shy and spoke haltingly about how she felt about what was going to happen. The words “new South Africa” are all that I remember.  She showed us where they were going to vote the next day.  More beers and the braai came out to fry up some steaks and potatoes.  A few days later she took us to a shebeen – or black pub – where talk was raucous and the music loud. Our car window was smashed and Ian’s gym bag stolen – perhaps adding another necessary facet to the South African experience.

All around me was first world infrastructure and signs of great wealth – as long as you ignored the black people on whose labour it was all built. I had not visited Europe or the US at that time (ok Greece does not really count!) but later I realised how very modern the country was. It takes a great organisational genius to create what the Afrikaaner had managed to do under sanctions. But no one should forget on what it was built. Legalised exploitation of the worst kind.

What Ian and Joyce were doing would have been punishable under the Race Relations Act and Prohibition of Immorality Acts  which forbade relationships between black and white. In order to be sure you were not breaking the law, every citizen had to be classified as “black” or “white. Further, there was no way Joyce could have visited Ian just a few years ago – the Group Areas Act created separate living areas for blacks and whites. Black people living in formerly mixed cities like Jo’burg and Durban were exiled to settlements outside the cities. Then new “homelands” were created and all black people were made citizens of these homelands, and lost their South African citizenship. To exit a “black” area and enter a “white” area you needed a pass – hence the infamous pass laws of which you have heard.

Joyce was not very well read, and not all of that was her fault.  Henrik Verwoerd, when introducing the Bantu Education Act in Parliament in 1949 said that “Of what use is mathematics to a Bantu child when he is unlikely to use it in daily life. We need hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Black children were exiled to separate schools, the schools were starved of funds and teachers paid so badly they got the worst. This was just one of the pillars of apartheid.

What used to be profoundly distasteful to me was that South Africa’s apartheid system was founded on law that relied on a few selected sentences in the bible for inspiration. I could not think of anything more repugnant – to law or to the Good Book!

In the history of South Africa, I consider FW De Klerk to be the greater man because, like Gorbachev, he made the South African white population see for themselves that their monstrous system of racial exploitation was going to be hollowed and would collapse disastrously under the weight of its own contradictions.  He got them to change and allow change, however reluctantly. He and Mandela were not friends and there is some evidence that Mandela was not all saintly towards him. But together they did something fabulous. Mandela’s essentially good and forgiving nature was what made De Klerk take that enormous risk with his own kind. Just imagine if Mandela had turned out to be Mugabe.

Twenty three years on, here I was, with my little girl  and my wife at my side, winging my way to see what the new South Africa looked like. The country has been captured by a sexually voracious thieving President and his three Indian cronies. The ANC are enriching themselves. There is a Black Empowerment Act that states that 30% of all business and jobs must go to black people or black firms. But nothing much as changed. The restaurants are full of white people being served by black people. There are, of course, a few very rich black people and also a few very poor white people – something unthinkable all those years ago.

Democracy is not perfect. In Plato’s Republic, there are cogent arguments for democracy – even the limited, patrician Greek kind – being the foundation of mob rule. South Africa has done well but not well enough. Democracy has delivered enormous corruption but not chaos. The infrastructure is good, and if there was anger we did not see it. Driving past the giant slum of Khayelitsa – just 10 miles from Stellenbosch – was a sobering experience of how inequality was entrenched. It will take fifty years for the country to right itself and it could do with another Mandela if the Gods would be so kind.

When leaving Cape Town after a great holiday my thoughts turned homewards to India. There is so much to be proud of. It tries. It is not perfect, and it is not without flaws. There is so much to criticize and we must! However the process of transformation begun in 1947 continues. People are getting lifted out of poverty and getting healthier, living longer and breaking out of their shackles. We must stop and reflect on that every now and then. And feel pride.


9 thoughts on “Revisiting South Africa

  1. Wonderful Post; precisely the sort I would have thought will come if you chose to write a blog. Delighted that you have taken it up .

    I was first in South Africa a full 10 years after you. And still I went through exactly the same experiences. I was the only non white in the hotel. All the waiters were black ; the management was all white. There were historical photos all over the hotel; and not one coloured or black was to be found. Even the wonderful beaches in Durban had “segregation by choice” – although there was no more official segregation, the blacks went to the earlier blacks beach and the Indians went to the former coloured beaches.

    Lovely perspectives from your first visit, then the transformation of South Africa, and to what is happening now. Really sad to see Zuma and the Guptas raping one of the most beautiful countries in the world. For the sake of South Africa we can only hope that a better leader will emerge. If they land up with Julius Malema, he’ll be even worse than Zuma.

    Welcome to the blogworld my friend. It is infinitely richer by your presence. You are one of the best writers I have ever known. If only you chose to write more, we will all be much the wiser; for what you write is interesting, thought provoking and an absolute pleasure to read.


  2. Ramesh ordered me to pay attention to this blog, and dutiful and obedient as always I am (haha!) I am here 😉

    1. I now have this blog in my radar.
    2. “Democracy is not perfect. … a sobering experience of how inequality was entrenched. ” always get my unquestioning support. It always upsets me a great deal when people are ready to support systems that do not support democracy on the grounds that democracy is not perfect. I want to us resist and fight those systems and their sympathizers/supporters. And, yes, we need to recognize how entrenched inequality is. However, that inequality cannot be addressed via non-democratic and anti-democratic politics. Nor do I have patience for political ideologies that dismiss entrenched inequality is.

    You blog, and I shall return 😉


    1. Dr Khe, thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. My life is quite chaotic, full of cares of business balanced with the need to be a good father and husband given my advanced age. I am going to give this blog a decent shot if its the last thing I do. 🙂

      My recent disappointments with democracy are arguments with its form and process, which are are barely a hundred years old and a mere bagatelle in the history of human political life. The fact remains that in this day and age, there is no better way to improve the masses.


  3. Oh hey, do not be fooled by my Twitter ID … I am a mere sriram 😉
    Yes, democracy can be–and is–awfully disappointing at most times. But, that’s all we got; everything else we have ever come up with is way worse. So, yes, we love it “warts and all”

    While my day job does give me the time to think and ramble on and on, over the years I have come to an understanding that I need to ramble on and on in the public space, if I really cared about democracy. I am no expert at most things that I blog about, but then democracy requires us to think about stuff in which we have no expertise.

    trump in my country is a classic example along Plato’s arguments on how democracy could be ruinous too. Andrew Sullivan sounded the warning bell on this even before the party conventions last summer. ( But, given that there is no other alternative, “there is no better way to improve the masses” and we shall continue to engage in discussions in the modern agora that such blogs are.


  4. Never been to South Africa, so this was a nice travel post for me to read. Some experiences looked scary (window-smashing, travelling with a non-passport-passport etc). I loved the Graham Greene reference — very romantic like a good old secret agent movie.


    1. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I am in Dubai parked at a Starbucks. The experience around getting the car window smashed was in April 1994. A lot of this was recalled from my first visit in 1994 – and I ended up staying for a year and more. And I never had to travel with a pass – until 1990, if you were black, you needed a Pass to enter a “whites only” (or Segs Blankes) area. And vice versa but that was taken for granted. Pass laws do not exist in South Africa.


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