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The Bittersweet Beauty of South Africa:
Place of the Year 2009

Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant

Author Richard Rathbone first went to South Africa as the Students’ Visiting Lecturer Fund nominee at Cape Town University in 1976 and returned as Visiting Lecturer to the 9780192802484University of the Witwatersrand in 1979 and then as visiting professor to the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand in 1998. He has authored, co-authored and edited ten books on African history including African History: A Very Short Introduction. In the following piece Rathbone reveals where South Africa’s true beauty lies and why it is deserves to be “Place of the Year.” You can check out more “Place of the Year” contributions here.

South Africa has been my place of the year on a regular basis since we first got to know each other in 1976. It wasn’t quite love at first sight; rainy winter days in Cape Town spent in chilly rooms with inadequate heating aren’t exactly romantic. But like many who think they are in love, I noticed South Africa’s looks first and learnt to enjoy its company afterwards. If you start, as I did, at the Cape, you first catch your breath by that jagged seascape dominated by Table Mountain and the last land before the South Pole. And at Cape Point I saw my first baboons, and my first sea eagles soaring over the meeting of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the meeting of hot and cold, ying and yang. But I saw all of it first during apartheid and all that beauty was deformed by very visible cruelties of the system which was older than apartheid. The beaches are scattered with the relics of ship-wrecks and the tragedies of lost lives. Piles of seashells are all that is left to memorialise the old hunter-gatherers, the strandloopers, whose beaches these once were, years before whites started building mile on mile of ugly but expensive beachfront apartments. And the most spectacular view of Table Mountain, that from Blauberg Strand, the Blue Mountain Beach, is spoilt by the grim history of Robben Island inescapably there at the edge of the famous view, a leper colony before it was escape- proof prison. In turn the majestic sweep of Hout Bay was deformed by the fish-canning factory whose sad labourers’ drawn faces betrayed harsh working conditions and poor nutrition.

Further along the coast and then inland are the beautiful winelands, glorious valleys over-shadowed by intimidating mountains. Here again beauty is bittersweet for this world once depended upon slavery and until very recently upon the labour of the descendants of those slaves whose pay was partly taken in alcohol which damaged their and their children’s health. The country’s national flower, the protea, catches the contradictions being both shamelessly pretty while being incredibly hard, irresistible and repellent. I had fallen in love with a tart, a very pretty tart, but a tart with stony heart.

But I learnt fast that the real beauty was and is still to be found less in its scenery and more in its people. In the apartheid years I was thrilled. Inspired by, and even jealous of, the commitment and courage of so many people, black and white, Afrikaaner and African. The cruelty of it all was so obvious; housing in which decent people would refuse to house a dog, the in-your-face insult of “whites only” signage and the ultimate negation of humanity, the idea that people of colour were somehow non-whites, somehow less than human in the eyes of the country’s rulers. The sheer awfulness of that all provoked something more wonderful than cowed, sullen victim-hood. Instead defiance and resistance were suffused with a warm and inclusive humanity. Although it was a state which killed, tortured and incarcerated innumerable people, it and its supporters were made absurd as well as cruel and weakened by the sting of satire, of cartoons, of performances both formal and informal. What often appeared to be obsequious behaviour was frequently audacious and thinly concealed piss-taking at the expense of thoughtless whites. It was and is a sceptical society, a society which refused dictation. And that underlying refusal to internalise the brutal and unintelligent messages of apartheid but instead to imagine and then work for a world without it has informed all that is good about today’s South Africa. So much of that is bound up in the remarkable personality of Nelson Mandela.

Of course South Africa isn’t perfect; all countries that survive revolutions, and the end of apartheid was a revolution, are bound to be imperfect because revolutions are violent affairs which generate all sorts of collateral damage, psychological as well as material. But the real reason why South Africa must be my place of the year is that despite all the many temptations to break with the idea of “a rainbow nation”, the vast majority of South Africa’s continue to subscribe to warmth and humanity, and to reconciliation.

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