Monday, March 01, 2010

cape to victory

Written after a whirlwind pro-trip to South Africa. This appears in Verve Magazine's March 2010 issue.

Cape Town has its meditative aspects. You can walk through its fabulous botanical gardens virtually undisturbed by the sound of human voices. You can hike up Signal Hill talking quietly of J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. You can spend hours savouring your kingklip à la mode as you linger over a bottle or six of superb South African wine. It makes it almost difficult to imagine that over the summer, it's going to feel like the fist of a crazy god will smash figuratively through this rarefied air and unleash the dogs of what Orwell called 'war minus the shooting.' It's the football World Cup, and it's going to get Cape Town's hair down and hips swinging – something, once you get past the Coetzee and the Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2001, that it is in fact exceedingly good at doing.

We cricket fans are a step ahead of the rest of the world in some respects. We already know what it feels like to follow the last heart-stopping minutes of a game as the moon rises over Johannesburg. We've cried as our side crumbles against the backdrop of the timeless cloudbank over Table Mountain. We've kept our fingers crossed as the silvery, changeable light of a South African winter plays over the faces of our boys in the middle.

Apply that, if you will, to a different sport, and something an order of magnitude larger. Standing at the edge of the town square in Cape Town on a bright, bracing winter's morning with your back to the Castle of Good Hope, it's easy to look across the stately cobbled expanse in front of you and imagine what it will be like in June and July 2010. The heritage lampposts will be requisitioned as support beams; the facades of establishments great and good that hem the square in on three sides will be all but hidden by rows of projector panels. The quiet hum of business district traffic will be an unheard buzz under the songs and shouts and tears imploding through it with the force of a million small hurricanes. It will accommodate an impossible number of human beings, certainly more than the cantonments of occupying forces ever dreamt it would, when it served as a drilling square for the Dutch and then the British armies. South Africa will be playing host to the World Cup in those chilly winter months (even the biggest summer tournament on the planet can't escape the vagaries of the hemispheric calendar reversal). What dreams may come, what drama unfold, no one knows, except this: that it will be big and emotional and diverse. Football always is.

And so, you learn, is South Africa. Touch down in Cape Town and you find yourself overwhelmed at every step. If it isn’t the shimmering crescent of Table Bay with its pure shoreline and clear waters, it’s the sight of Table Mountain, that jagged, ancient behemoth of a rock around which this elegant city orients itself. Walk down to the picturesque V&A Waterfront from your elegant hotel – the exquisite Table Bay hotel still has a plaque over its sea-facing entrance that announces reserved right of entry to those inappropriately dressed – and find a crowd of tony malls and cafés perched on the edge of a decidedly commercial waterfront. Music and colour call to you from every corner. And everywhere there are layers of history written into earth and stone. Such beauty is not for the faint of heart. Like Paolo Rossi's hat-trick against Brazil in 1980, you can't quite believe your eyes. Like the art of a classic Number Ten, the more you know about it, the more it awes and moves you.

Cape Town is one of the major venues for the World Cup – the shimmering new Green Park Stadium will be a semi-final venue, second only to Jo'burg, which hosts the final – but edges out other cities in the country with sheer charm. The greenery and Indian-influenced vibrancy of Durban, the pumped-up metropolitan whirl of Jo'burg, the small and quiet stateliness of Port Elizabeth notwithstanding, you inevitably circle back to Cape Town as the epitome of the urban experience in southern Africa, perhaps because South Africa's modern history really did begin here.

The thread of familiarity that runs through most of the world’s colonial cities is evident in the graceful European architecture of the city’s business and political districts. The city centre itself occupies the sliver of reclaimed land between the mountain and Table Bay – the fort, you discover, was built on what was originally the coastline. Cape Town's colonial history began in 1652, as a trading outpost of the Dutch East India Company. With maritime trade came Dutch settlers and Huguenots fleeing persecution in Catholic France, indentured labour from Madagascar and Javanese slaves from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia who originated the Cape Malay and Cape Coloured cultures that grew out of here. Indian slaves and settlers, soon to be part of the mix of peoples who now give the Rainbow Nation its moniker, stirred in their own contributions into the melting pot that Cape Town now represents. It stands, today as always, as South Africa's First City of culture and a sort of hyper-microcosm of the whirlwind of historic and cultural change that have gone into the making of modern South Africa.

It's evident in everything Capetonians do. Walk into any artefact or design store and you will be confronted not just with masks and fake assegai, the usual samples of the 'African souvenir' but with a truly funky DIY aesthetic that celebrates the continent's spirit of innovation. Whether it's working radios made out of wire and Coke cans, or accessories that do something unique with traditional African motifs, originality is everywhere – and it's of the first order of cool. One ubiquitous style motif, you’ll notice, is the face of US President Obama, present in painting, decals, prints and sketches on every design must-have. (“But we want a scarf with Nelson Mandela on it!” we exclaim, shallow as puddles. “Also a bag, a t-shirt and possibly a set of kerchiefs?” We’re told gently that our hero’s face is no longer free to copy, since he is retired, while Obama’s public office makes his image fair game for playful reproduction. We love it.) Step out of any of the exciting stores around Green Market Street into the bylanes of street bazaars where you can haggle for anything from elephant hair bracelets to exquisite malachite jewellery. It applies to food, too. The working-class Cape Malay cooking that was once called 'South Africa's home food,' with its experimental mix of Eastern spices on Western bases, is now haute cuisine the world over, and where better to sample koeksisters (a sort of pastrified gulab jamun) and Cape Malay biriyani than the bright Bo-Kaap district, the traditional heart of Cape Malay culture?

As in India, diversity is as much a political issue as a cultural one. South Africa achieves it in spades, which is one of the reason it delights travellers looking to experience an authentic, living history. From the silent reminders of the empty roads above District Six, to the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Groote Schuur - Rhodes' grand residence that now serves as a pied-à-terre for South Africa's head of state - it's worthwhile to stop and think about the legacy of pain and resistance – one that came full circle from Gandhi to Mandela in the late twentieth century. Cape Town, always vital to military and mercantile empires, was once the pivot of the world, as important psychologically as it is strategically. While the British and the Boers fought each other all those years ago, their colonisation wreaked havoc on the African nations whose land they came to occupy, and the Castle of Good Hope today flies six flags on its battlements, as a reminder of each of the forces who governed South Africa through its history, including the current flag of the Republic.

It is a flag you will see flying high and proud through the country as the world tunes in this summer (or winter). Its colours are blazoned across the décor of Johannesburg's airport, touched up a couple of years ago in Cup-anticipation. Across the country, you will see it on cars, newspapers, touristy knick-knacks, and jerseys. At its best, sport makes nationalism fun, and South Africans, by and large, make truly excellent sports fans. Their ability to churn out consistently talented and lovable sportspersons (we give you two words: Jonty. Rhodes.) is matched by their endless enthusiasm for games people play. It will be hard not to share it even if you can't typically tell a football from a golf ball. And if you really aren't an enthusiast, coming to South Africa might help you reconsider. The epic sexiness of those baggy green rugby jerseys – we make no mention of the torsos filling them – must be seen to be believed.

The World Cup is a chance for travellers and football fans alike to see South Africa at large, and Cape Town in particular, at its finest. Ever since the world football federation (FIFA) drew the Rainbow Nation’s bid to host the big daddy of all sporting events – sorry, International Olympic Committee, we can but report the truth – the world has been anxious to get a look in at the newest face of a very old country. The roads will be wider, the spirits higher. World Cups always throw up the defining images of their era, and the new decade will truly begin at South Africa’s tournament this winter (or summer). Hearts will stop, tears will fall, and fingers will be crossed as never before. In Cape Town’s main square on those magical evenings, the grander emotions will be on full display against the very grandest of backdrops. Feel it. It will be South Africa at its most infectious.

A few of our favourite Capetonian things

Shine Shine: Tracy Rushmere's airy studio in Bo Kaap houses the products of her hip, contemporary take of African commemorative cloths. Out of her definitive aesthetic come bags, cushion covers, t-shirts and more. If you buy one thing in Cape Town, we suggest it comes from Shine Shine. (
African Image: A collection of authentic African art and artefacts from all over Africa. Find anything from Zulu beadwork, Ashanti cloths and Baule figures, as well as edgy, urban street-craft and postmodern design. (
Monkeybiz: A non-profit that co-ordinates the production of exquisite traditional beadwork from some of South Africa's most underprivileged women, Monkeybiz sells unique, one-off products made of beads: dolls, magnets, animal figurines and more. (
Afro Tea: The Afro brand is almost hypnotically cool, and their antioxidant loose-leaf teas in fabulous blends drive us crazy. If we weren't addicted to their Cape Town blend, we'd still recommend anything by Afro for the amazingly pretty packaging. Afro also do coffee. Puzzlingly, the only Afro Café we can find is in Salzburg, Austria. (
Chocolats Marionnettes: Handmade artisan chocolate in uniquely African flavours. Dark Karoo Mint and Limpopo Lime. Milk Cape Malay Spice. Dark Red Hot Chilli. Pink Peppercorn. White Egoli Flake. Reeling yet? Eat it, believe it. (

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