The South African Scene

CAPE TOWN – Starting today, I’ll be posting a series on South Africa. I’ve been here twice before, but have spent considerably more time in its neighbors Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Many Zimbabweans, with their country then not even halfway into its downward slide, told me they looked to South Africa as a potential refuge. And in Mozambique, as I hitched up the coast, white South Africans in SUVs passed me nearly every day, and never once offered a lift. At a gas station south of Vilankulo, I ambushed one group of South Africans to ask why no one ever stopped; they said they had come up to Mozambique as a holiday from the troubles of South Africa. It seemed a bad sign for the region that everybody was going somewhere as a refuge from something.

That was seven years ago. In September, South Africa’s International Marketing Council contacted me to suggest a trip around South Africa. It would be, I thought, a potential corrective to the unfair indirect impression I had acquired so long ago, of a country that was at least better than Mugabe’s tin-pot dictatorship but inferior to a fragile democracy run by a benevolent eccentric and littered with land mines. Simon Barber, the shrewd manager of South Africa’s brand in the US, offered an itinerary of relentlessly sunny presentations and experiences, focusing on South Africa’s tech industry. I already use Ubuntu, a South African flavor of Linux, on one of my home laptops. Apparently the tech sector contains many other surprises, some of which I’ll cover here. In the coming days, expect to read accounts from electric-car factories, wind farms, gold mines, and more.

Here, then, is the prologue to my posts: all activities described here have been organized and paid for by Simon and his crew of marketers, and are being covered by a group of other bloggers here. I’ve been accused before of being willing to cripple a child in exchange for a free transoceanic flight; keep this in mind, if in any of my posts I sound in any way credulous or Moonie-like in my descriptions of the country.

If I do begin to swoon unduly, perhaps I’ll be buoyed by my native dyspepsia, and a predisposition to hate the type of managed tour that I’ll be on. Packed itineraries, tourist buses, waiting for others and making them wait for me, hotels that serve champagne at check-in, hours of compulsory socialization — none of these is my usual idea of pleasurable or productive travel. The travel I’ve found most rewarding has been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and prolonged. Not coincidentally, the travel that produces the best writing tends to be from awful places. Think of Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, Apsley Cherry Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, or anything by Redmond O’Hanlon. One intriguing consolation, though, is that most of these books describe journeys in the company of others. I ought to give that a try.

So this trip will be a lesson for me, not only in the wonders of modern South Africa, but also in traveling in herds, and in luxury. Thus far, the herd I’ve joined has proven a delight. (They are all bloggers, many with tech focuses, so they tend to chime and buzz and click at random moments. When we first gathered together and began synching our phones and laptops, we sounded like a Spike Jones warm-up session.)

As for the activities and meetings, they’ve barely started. This afternoon we dined at Moyo’s, a cheery outdoor buffet in Rosebank, Johannesburg. I ate springbok stew while a quartet of musicians sang the Click Song (‘We have lost our queen!’ exclaimed one white South African, in a moment of delayed mourning for the late Miriam Makeba). I even submitted to having my face painted, or rather stippled in the zygomaticosphenoid region with a black-and-white feathery design. Within minutes, I absentmindedly smudged the artwork. For the rest of the afternoon I looked less like a Xhosa warrior than like a half-hearted Gene Simmons impersonator. Or like a man with a Siamese fighting fish preparing to attack his eyeball. I leave you that image, as an appetizer for posts to come.