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What has happened to South Africa’s Western Cape? Fifteen years ago, Cape Town was a risqué destination associated with car-jackings and worse. A tough first decade after the fall of apartheid had left its future uncertain at best. Now the roads are blocked with gleaming white, latest-model cars. The city has been given a bus system which wouldn’t look out of place in Zurich. Tourists wander about as obviously as in Spain, picking between designer coffee-shops and cocktail bars. The ‘Mother City’ – once famed for its cliquey-ness and complacency – has become cosmopolitan.
Two things have happened. One, a reformist party – the Democratic Alliance – has been running the province since wresting power from the ANC in 2009. It has invested in infrastructure and sent out a serious message on corruption. Two, the ANC’s mismanagement of the rest of South Africa has created demographic and economic dividends for the Cape. Internal migration from the rest of the country – typically among the affluent middle class – is anecdotally now running at four thousand families a month. In economic terms, a weakening of the South African Rand – accelerated by the shameless power-mongering of ageing kleptocrat Jacob Zuma – has tended to benefit the Cape’s two economic motors: agricultural exports and tourism. As a completely unpegged currency, speculators have also been adept at making money out of the rollercoaster Rand.
The effect is tangible. The idea of working in Cape Town was once something of a joke (‘Ah,’ used to be the answer, ‘neither am I!’). Now investment and risk-management businesses have set up offices. Those still in Johannesburg see an increasing number of senior execs weekly-commuting up from the South. The city has also become something of an international hub. Its rich coastal suburbs – Camps Bay and Clifton – are a go-to property haven for the new HNWs of the Southern Hemisphere. Nigerians and Indians invest tens of millions of dollars in spectacular sea-front properties. Russians too. Emigrants who sold up in the first decade after self-government have regretfully watched the price rise. Even the dour satellite towns which line the N1 motorway – Bellville and Durbanville – have become a prosperous, middle-class commuter belt, populated by mainly Afrikaner migration from the northern provinces. The effect on traffic has in turn caused those that can afford it to move right into town – pushing up central Cape Town prices, and helping balance it further away from tourism.
The relationship between tourism and the Cape’s domestic economy is in something of a virtuous cycle. Migratory and economic changes have allowed the leisure sector to engage in a type of export-substitution: serving well-heeled locals throughout the year rather than just seasonal visitors. The Fairview Wine Estate – originator of the ubiquitous Goats-do-Roam Côtes-du-Rhone
Capetonians used to get uncomfortable if a topic of conversation strayed too far north of the Orange River. Now they open up. Technology has supported this cultural convergence. Where once South Africa suffered a hemispherical lag of up to five years, it now gets broadband shows with the rest of the world. It helps that the city developed an online sector early on. When WPP acquired digital leader Quirk in 2014, that sector felt it had come of age. Now one of Quirk’s founders can be seen on CNN, casually discussing how his new mood-analysis company predicted the US election result.
The local and international economy also intersect in the Cape’s emergence as an international cycling destination. Catalysed by the ‘Cape Epic’ – a race around the peninsular founded in 2004 – nearly every summer weekend now sees pelotons busily blocking the road for some spin-off event. This is a testament both to the improved security situation and to the successful stigmatisation of drink-driving; once something of a national sport in South Africa.
Not all is roses. For all the DA’s genuine efforts at poverty alleviation – even the sight of Portaloos in the city’s largest townships is an improvement on the previous efforts of the ANC – the Cape remains a two-lane society with an extremely large central divide. Conversely, enrichment itself has let public-service reform off the hook – because those who have the loudest voice politically have little need of public services. Private security and private healthcare are very mature sectors in the Cape. The middle classes tread carefully to avoid falling from their cradle into the unreliable safety net of the state. When it happens, you encounter a Byzantine hand-to-eye management system apparently not updated since the 1980s. It is said that public workers resist digitisation precisely because of the better management information – and narrower window for corruption – that it would provide. Similarly, the national media is transparently unfree. It only takes a few tweets directed against a critic of the government – most recently, a national prosecutor turned private anti-corruption litigator – to make headline news.
The lacuna between the ANC’s South Africa and the Democratic Alliance’s begs the question of where – or whether – an equilibrium will be found. The country is under pressure from international migration from Zambia and Zimbabwe. Like East-European migrants to the UK, Zimbabweans have seen enough of real hardship to outwork a local population undone by the promises of soft socialism. This has led to riots and lynchings – a nativist backlash that resonates uncomfortably well with the ANC’s existing blood-and-soil political strategy.
When municipalities in its northern heartlands threatened to fall to the Democratic Alliance in 2016, the ANC threatened voters that “their ancestors would not forgive them” for voting DA (a deadpan claim about a party which grew out of the anti-apartheid Progressive Party). It was a predictably hollow message for people equipped with cable TV and smartphones: Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Johannesburg all fell to the DA. The Electoral Commission announced the results somewhat circumspectly: but announce them they did. Six months into the DA’s tenure, there are reports that police are already scared to ask for bribes in Johannesburg.
In another country, this might signal the start of a sea change. But the ANC was founded as a revolutionary movement: as such, it may be more comfortably taking power by democratic means than relinquishing it by them. The initial counter-attack has centred on blaming the enemy within: specifically, the “state capture” of “white monopoly capitalism’ (in this, as was recently revealed, the ANC has been aided by UK PR firm, Bell Pottinger).
Yet Zuma shares with other autocrats a distinct lack of irony, given that the phrase “state capture” was originally an accusation levelled at his close association with the Gupta family. Like the Duke of Buckingham at the court of James I, the Guptas have become emblematic for critics of everything that is wrong with South Africa. It was allegedly an attempt to take on this interest group – as well as a magnificently opaque nuclear power deal with Russia – that cost the internationally-respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan his job. The result was a junk ratings downgrade for the country. South Africans of all background took to the streets under the banner “Zuma Must Fall” – a nice riff on the neo-Marxist ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign which spread across South African and British campuses last year.
Campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall are a natural concomitant to destabilising race-rhetoric of the ANC (and, increasingly, the Western Left itself). Yet a check to Zuma’s radicalism has appeared in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Formerly the ANC’s own youth wing, this newly-formed party is openly Marxist, wearing red jump-suits to Parliament. Its leader is currently on trial for activity relating to land seizures; meaning this is one populist tactic at least which is temporarily closed off to Zuma. His other flank is hemmed in by a vibrant private sector and relatively strong civil institutions.
With his tenure expiring, the ANC will have to pick a successor at their party conference in December; who will then have to fight an election in 2019. One hope is that the intense focus on the succession – in a Clintonesque twist, the “feminist” candidate is one of Zuma’s ex-wives – means the ANC is fiddling while its electoral prospects burn.
The sublimity of Africa looms over the Cape in the palls of smoke from forest fires. They sweep down the mountains at night, sending the inhabitants of quiet settlements out onto the plain. The blazes too have become a political football. Can they all be natural? If not, who is starting them? One candidate is the private crews which patrol the Cape claiming bounty for catching fires early (entrepreneurs once again stepping into the gap left by the public sector). With the ANC potentially entering a death roll – and having already threatened at one election to make areas it loses “ungovernable” – let’s hope these vigilantes are the only arsonists-turned-fireman at work in South Africa next year.