Tag Archives: Western Cape

Ebola Hammers South African Tourism, while Rampant Bilharzia Goes Unnoticed

Although South Africa has had no confirmed cases of ebola and is thousands of miles from the epicentre of the epidemic in West Africa, it appears that its tourist industry is being hammered anyway.

According to local reports, panic over the disease is reminiscent of that generated by SARS in 2003, causing holiday-makers from Europe, the US and particularly Asia to cancel their travel plans to the country in droves.

Enver Duminy, chief executive of Cape Town Tourism, told national Sunday newspaper City Press over the weekend, for example, that, even though the organisation had issued numerous statements confirming the Mother City’s ebola-free status, its Asian tour promoters and trade contacts were experiencing cancellation rates of up to 90%.

And this despite the fact that the city is actually further from the centre of the epidemic in Freetown, Liberia (3,365 miles) than it is from London (3,172 miles).

But as unwarranted as such fears may be, they could potentially be disastrous for the local economy. Tourism is worth about ZAR18 billion (£1 billion) to the Western Cape, South Africa’s largest sightseeing destination by far, and employs a huge 150,000 people.

In fact, across South Africa as a whole, tourism contributes a significant 9% of GDP and accounts for one in 11 jobs, making it a hugely important, and often underestimated, industry.

As a result, in a bid to help try and prevent the spread of the disease to these shores, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene has allocated an extra ZAR33 million (£1.9 million) to help support the continent’s worst affected nations – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Each of South Africa’s nine provinces has also designated certain key hospitals to handle an outbreak should one occur, introduced trained response teams and implemented surveillance at all ports of entry, including thermal scanners at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo and Lanseria airports.

And such preventative measures would appear to be vital. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week, the disease has already killed 5,160 out of the 14,098 people who have been infected with it in eight countries across West Africa.

Bilharzia

But another dangerous illness worth considering, even though it has received nothing like the global attention of ebola, is bilharzia – or to use its scientific name, schistosomiasis.

Despite being a rather neglected condition to date, the WHO expressed concern last month that the spread of bilharzia may be about to hit epidemic proportions in South Africa.

It is estimated that as many as five million out of a total population of 53 million could be infected, with the problem being particularly acute in Kwa-Zulu Natal’s (KZN) humid, low altitude coastal areas.

The disease itself, meanwhile, is caused by a schistosoma parasitic flatworm that enters the skin through contact with infected fresh water from rivers and lakes. These parasites, which can live in the blood stream of their host for up to 30 years, develop over time into worms, which mate and release up to 500 eggs a day.

Some of these eggs are passed out in an individual’s urine or faeces, while others remain trapped in body tissue, the most common being the intestine, liver, bladder or reproductive organs, causing inflammation or scarring in the process.

While symptoms vary, for many people, they start with a rash or itchy skin within a few days of infection. The next stage is often a fever, chills, a cough, muscle aches and diarrhoea a couple of months later.

But, while the illness takes a number of forms and can even remain dormant in people’s systems for years, the ultimate outcome is generally immune problems and progressive organ damage.

While children are most vulnerable to the disease, it is actually its effect on women that is causing most concern to experts. Estimates are that about two million South African females are currently infected with bilharzia, which can cause severe gynaecological issues, including infertility.

Taking action

Other problems include severe pain and chronic bleeding, particularly during sexual intercourse, which mean that women are as much as three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS – a disease already at pandemic levels among disadvantaged women in rural communities – if having sex with an infected partner.

And even more worryingly, the WHO believes that more than 150 million women across the continent suffer from this generally unrecognised form of the disease.

But there are things that can be done. If diagnosed early enough, the worms can be killed off quite easily with a single dose of the drug praziquantel, although the eggs cannot.

Children in particularly affected areas of South Africa are already given such medication once every two years for prevention purposes, although some experts believe that an annual dose would probably be more appropriate.

But there is currently no vaccine for bilharzia and, to make matters worse, the illness tends to go largely un- or mis-diagnosed. Too few medical practitioners are even aware of its existence, and those that are tend to look for blood in the urine as a primary symptom, which is not necessarily the case.

As Dr Eyrun Kjetland, an honorary lecturer at KZN University and the Norwegian Centre for Imported and Tropical Diseases, told a gathering of WHO experts, African doctors and leading researchers at the University last month: “It is a neglected tropical disease and there’s not a lot of attention on it. The pharmaceutical companies don’t care about it, there’s no donations coming forth and the authorities are not doing enough in paving the way to make it less of a public health problem.”

As a result, she is currently working with a number of other health experts in order to compile an information booklet. The document, which is due to be published within a couple of years, is intended to help doctors recognise the condition and treat it more effectively.

A team from KZN University is also undertaking research on the province’s south coast, where infection is rife, in a bid to come up with a wider plan of action for treatment and prevention. To this end, a draft report is already in the pipeline – and so it would appear, not a moment too soon.

SA Brandy Goes International

I must admit that before I came to South Africa, I had absolutely no idea that the country had its own brandy industry – and an award-winning one at that.

Wine, yes, but brandy, no. Not that I’m a connoisseur, but I can’t say that I had ever particularly noticed the stuff in UK off-licences, or bottle stores as they’re known here, let alone in your average supermarket.

Admittedly though, in Europe, the market tends to be dominated at the high end by French Cognac with its global reputation for quality, while everything else tends to compete on price, making brand recognition relatively poor.

But this lack of visibility internationally could be about to change. South Africa may be the seventh largest producer of brandy in the world, but it has so far been very much a locally-consumed product, with a mere 8% being exported elsewhere.

A key issue at the moment though is that, beyond the growing premium segment, this domestic market is actually in quite steep decline.

According to Christelle Reade-Jahn, director of the South African Brandy Foundation (SABF), sales of this grape-based spirit have dropped by about a third from 48.5 million litres per year in 2006 to a mere 33 million last year (South African Liquor Brandowners’ Association).

But the industry, which is based in the Western Cape, has been hit by an “almost perfect storm”, she says. The eradication of local protectionism after the introduction of an excise tax rebate and the removal of import tariffs for EU spirits in 2006 certainly did not help matters.

But the decline had already set in a couple of years earlier, following the entry of huge multinationals such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard into the South African market, leading to a massive marketing push behind their Scotch whiskey brands.

The effect was “like a wave going over local industry”, Reade-Jahn explains, and had the same devastating impact on the local brandy market as it had on pisco in Chile and ouzo in Greece.

A question of image

The situation was also not helped by the apparent South African thirst for international brands, after being starved of them for so long due to anti-apartheid sanctions.

Local brandy, meanwhile, tends to have somewhat of an image problem, often being associated in popular consciousness with male Afrikaner rugby fans swilling “Klippies (short for Klipdrift, a popular local brand) and coke” during a match.

But interestingly, according to Nick Holdcroft, brandy ambassador at Distell, a huge wine and spirit company and the country’s largest brandy producer, it is Xhosa township dwellers who generally take a bottle of Viceroy home when they visit family in the Eastern Cape, that actually make up one of its biggest customer segments.

Commando brandy is likewise a traditional component of the tribe’s male post-initiation ceremonies.

But the SABF, which represents 95% of South African brandy producers, is trying hard to broaden the spirit’s appeal out. Over the last few years, it has introduced a “major premiumisation strategy” in a bid to transform its image into a more upmarket, youthful and female one domestically.

It has also been avidly entering international contests such as London’s International Wine & Spirit Competition in a bid to boost the product’s standing and image at home.

And although much fruitier than France’s more woody-flavoured Cognac, it has been winning too – in fact, South African offerings have been awarded Best Brandy in the world accolades no less than 12 times over the last 15 years.

But the Foundation has also been exploring how to play whiskey producers at their own game – even without their vast marketing budgets to work with.

In a bid to increase the spirit’s attractiveness, for instance, the industry has started hosting ‘Fine Brandy Fusion’ shows over the last two years in Cape Town and Johannesburg, which are similar in nature to the locally very popular ‘Whiskey Live’ festivals.

Among other things, it has also introduced a couple of Brandy Routes in the Cape Winelands to sit alongside the more traditional Wine ones as well as creating a so-called Urban Brandy Cocktail Route to target a younger, more metropolitan market.

New markets

The idea here is that, designated Route venues such as restaurants, bars and hotels located in South Africa’s major cities of Cape Town, Joburg and Durban, offer punters a choice of eight bespoke brandy cocktails based on their audience from a possible menu of 25.

But the only realistic way to increase South Africa’s current 2.9% share of the global market (Euromonitor, 2012) will be with the support of government and marketing activity from the Foundation to create a distinctive “category” like Cognac, which can act as an umbrella term for individual brands to slot into, Reade-Jahn believes.

Nowhere does this situation apply more than in the lucrative Chinese market, which is fast-developing a credible wine industry of its own, with brandy production likely to follow quickly behind.

“We’ve done the category analysis and strategy development, but it will take many years and much investment. So a lot of companies are going for low-hanging fruit in Africa,” Reade-Jahn says. “Brandy is already big in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola and Mozambique, which are all easily accessible without major development work.”

Distell, meanwhile, has just purchased a 26% stake in KWA Holding East Africa Ltd, Kenya’s leading spirits manufacturer and distributor, in a bid to establish a presence in East Africa, which has recently become more interesting due to recent oil and gas discoveries.

Last year, it also acquired a 60% stake in Chinese liquor distribution firm, CJ Wines & Spirits, which it has rebranded Distell China, in a bid to take advantage of the country’s surging brandy sales.

But as long ago as 2009, the firm had also started taking on arch-rival Cognac in its European heartlands by purchasing France’s Bisquit brand from Pernod Ricard for ZAR 390 million (£21.9 million) and exploiting its existing supply chain.

So although most people may not be aware of it, should they have a glass of Bisquit, they will actually be sampling a South African-owned, if not produced, brandy.

As to how I got to know all of this stuff, my interest was sparked after going on an excellent brandy-tasting course courtesy of Distell in my former home of Stellenbosch a couple of weeks back – and I can only say what a merry and spirited occasion it was.

Revisiting the Happening Cape

Sometimes you don’t realise how much you miss a place until you go back.

 

And so it was with our five-day jaunt to Cape Town last week, with me in my official capacity as hanger-on, and my Beloved working his socks off at a conference.

 

Because, although it undoubtedly depends on what you’re into and what your tastes are, Joburg, to me, simply isn’t a patch on the Cape.

 

Particularly at this time of year during the dry winter season when everything in Jozi is turning a parched, ugly brown, and bush fires, some laid as fire breaks and others just ignored, appear to be breaking out all over the place.

 

The Western Cape, by way of contrast though, is looking lush and green and gorgeous as ever – and just has so much more going on, even during the tourist low season.

 

Even the shopping’s better. For ages now, I’ve been looking all over Jozi for a nice ornamental bowl to act as a wedding present from my Beloved and drawn a complete blank, disheartened as I’ve been by either the pedestrian or the showy bling that a lot of shops seem to specialise in here.

 

But a couple of days in the Cape and that coveted bowl is mine – a beautifully simple Zulu izinkamba, or drinking pot, traditionally used to share beer around a camp fire – courtesy of the African Trading Port at the V&A Waterfront.

 

A truly intriguing and suitably musty-smelling store, it resides over four uneven rickety floors in the Old Port Captain’s Building. And it specialises in selling genuine African artefacts ranging from sculptures to ceramics sourced from rural villages all over the continent by 500 or so art scouts. It’s fabulous.

 

Keeping on the arty theme, I also took myself off at one point for a trip to the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, initially to nose around an interior design exhibit at custom furniture producers, Leon at CCXIX.

 

World Design Capital

 

Created to celebrate Cape Town’s World Design Capital (WDC) status this year, the 12Rooms Exhibition showcased the work of a dozen local designers, including a Xhosa tribal-inspired living room and a French loft-style bedroom.

 

The WDC designation is awarded every couple of years by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design to those cities that demonstrate a desire to employ design as a tool for social and cultural change as well as economic development.

 

But Woodstock seems to have been doing it for itself over the last two or three years regardless – although the city’s WDC status certainly won’t do it any harm either.

 

Woodstock is, you might say, the equivalent of East London’s Hoxton about 20 years ago – an area that you’d now describe as being down-at-heel but was once quite dangerous, with an eccentric mix of car repair shops, tatty hardware stores, ultra-trendy art galleries and foodie hang-outs all sitting cheek-by-jowl.

 

It’s also home to what you can only describe as ‘retail spaces’ such as the upmarket and extremely pricey Bromwell Boutique Mall [http://www.thebromwell.co.za], and the Old Biscuit Mill office and shopping complex, which holds a popular food and craft market every Saturday.

 

So while Woodstock’s regeneration may still be very much a work in progress, you can definitely see that it’s a neighbourhood on the up.

 

Another suburb that’s also starting to see gradual change is the infamous District Six. Unlike Woodstock, which was one of the few multi-racial areas to escape forced resettlement during apartheid, District Six was decimated.

 

Renowned at one time for having some of the best music and nightlife in the city, after it was declared a ‘white-only’ area in 1966, the bulldozers moved in, flattening homes and evicting a vast 60,000 people to the barren wastelands of the Cape Flats.

 

Cultural zone

 

While some have since managed to reclaim their land and rebuild with the help of a Trust set up for the purpose, another 800 or so claims are still on-going. But one of the few buildings to survive the devastation was the 1860 church hall of the now disappeared Congregational Church in Buitenkant Street.

 

This beautiful red brick space reopened its doors in February 2010 as the entrance hall and downstairs bar area of the Fugard Theatre, which is meant to act as the centrepiece for a new cultural zone in a bid to breath life back into the area.

 

The theatre itself, meanwhile, was named in honour of Athol Fugard, arguably South Africa’s most significant and internationally-acclaimed playwright. Perhaps best known for the 2005 Academy Award-winning film of his novel Tsotsi (Sesotho for ‘thug’), he also won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2011.

 

Anyway, I wish I’d known about the place when we lived in Stellenbosch as I’d have been there every five minutes. While last week, I treated myself to the former Broadway romantic comedy classic ‘Same Time Next Year’, the future repertoire seemed to cover everything from Shakespeare to good, old Fugard himself. A lovely, intimate space seating just 335 souls, I’d highly recommend it.

 

And then finally for the trip’s foodie piece de resistance, there was Nobu at the One&Only hotel close to the V&A Waterfront.

 

The first restaurant in Africa to be set up by celebrity chef, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the décor was tastefully modern and the cuisine classically Japanese with a bit of a twist – my favourite.

 

Out of a six-course tasting menu though, my pet dishes simply had to be the smoked salmon sashimi and yellowtail California roll – gorgeous. The only bum-note to the proceedings, in fact, was the coffee-flavoured desert, which not only seemed out-of-keeping but also didn’t suit my caffeine intolerance.

 

Nonetheless, seeing as it was all kindly paid for by my parents who’d left us money for a culinary treat ages ago while on holiday in the Cape, I couldn’t complain too much.

 

Which means that, all in all, it truly was a good few days well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

Making the Great Trek

One thousand, four hundred kilometres is one hell of a long way.

 

So like any sane British person would, my Beloved and I decided to spread the epic drive from the Cape to Johannesburg over two days and break the journey by staying overnight at Gariep Dam in the Free State, which is just over half way up.

 

But it appears that such laxness puts us in a minority here. Even though we found it trashing – and that was sharing the driving between the two of us – it seems that the majority of South Africans just keep on going, relentlessly, all day and all night until they get there – and very often riding solo too.

 

I simply don’t know how they do it, but apparently it’s a mere trifle. “Oh, so you’re taking it easy then” was one remark about our proposed plans, made without the tiniest scrap of discernable irony.

 

Another kindly-meant comment in relation to our obvious feebleness was “well, being English, you’re not used to big distances”.

 

Which I guess is true. After all, how often does the average Brit drive the equivalent of from London to Rome, even for their annual holiday?

 

But it’s only when you start making your way through South Africa that you get an inkling of just how vast the country really is. I guess if you’re born and bred in a land of infinite panoramas and limitless skies, you’re bound to get a bit cavalier about distance. You’d have to or you’d never go anywhere.

 

But coming from a tiny island, it does take a bit of getting used to – although undoubtedly you do. When we lived in San Francisco, for instance, we’d think nothing of driving the four hours or so on a Friday night after work to get to our lovely ski lodge, jointly rented by six of us for the winter on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

 

Huge, open expanses

 

Can’t imagine such expeditions ever becoming part of the regular routine back home in Blighty though. It would definitely be an occasional, possibly long weekend thing that you psyched yourself up for in advance.

 

One of the things, as a Brit, that you do notice, however, is, despite the huge open expanses laid out before you in South Africa, there is a comparative lack of variety in the types of landscape on display.

 

While the UK may be teeny, it has an amazing amount of scenic variety packed into its compact shores. But South Africa – or the bit along the N1 that we saw anyway – doesn’t.

 

As you leave the verdant, green, mountainous grandeur of the Cape Winelands behind, you very quickly enter into the apparently endless, brownish, semi-desert emptiness of the Karoo.

 

It’s all about scrubby bushes, the occasional lonely farmstead, and small towns and settlements 100km or so apart sitting in immense plains and surrounded by distant grey mountains that you never actually seem to ever go through.

 

What I did see that got me quite excited after having read a novel about them though was a couple of families of San karretjiemense (the Afrikaans word for ‘Cart People’) driving along the back roads in their donkey-driven carts.

 

And there was also an incongruous sighting that made me laugh at the hotel in which we stayed near the Gariep Dam. Described in the tourist brochures as ‘The Karoo’s Oasis’, it’s actually a huge man-made lake that was completed in 1971 and has since enabled hundreds of farms to flourish in an area that was previously too arid.

 

Anyway, as I was leaving our hotel room in the morning, I was greeted by a glam-looking Afrikaner woman searching for her cute, handbag-sized terrier that had wandered off. All big blond hair, red nails and lipstick, I was expecting her to jump into her Porsche and make off to the local spa or whatever for a bit of pampering.

 

Pleasant surprise

 

But, no. She ended up clambering into a huge, tarpaulin-covered old truck laden down with hay bales and disappearing in a cloud of exhaust fumes instead. Which just goes to show that you should never make assumptions about people.

 

Once out of the Karoo though, the scenery changes to one of vast acres of grassland, some brown and some green, obviously depending on rainfall or maybe irrigation from the Gariep Dam. Until you hit the immense urban metropolis of Johannesburg, that is.

 

And boy – what a pleasant surprise. With the spring rains, the harsh, ugly, grey skyline of winter has been transformed into a lush tree-filled vista. The northern suburbs, where we’ll be living, are leafier and more open than I remembered, while our ultimate destination, Parkhurst, is as hip and happening as I recalled.

 

To add to its charm, on our first evening here, we were befriended by a tipsy group of six, which included a former rugby international, and invited for dinner later in the week to celebrate an evening of late-night opening in the run-up to Christmas. Any excuse – but a good one nonetheless.

 

The only dark spot on the horizon has been the veritable shambles that the removal people managed to make of our transfer. Stuff broken, valuables gone, clothes thrown carelessly into boxes rather than being hung properly and so looking like they’d been wrung through a mangle.

 

I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, and it wasn’t like the service – or lack of it, I should say – was cheap. So the next job is to wend our weary way to a police station in order to get ourselves a crime number.

 

At that point, apparently, a union-blessed internal investigation can begin, complete with polygraph, or lie detector, tests in order to try and establish exactly what it was that happened.

 

Not good. It’s at times like this when you really do feel as if you’re a long way from home.

 

 

 

The Secret Side of the Cape

Most tourists pursue pretty much a set route when they come to the Cape.

 

They’ll spend a couple of days in Cape Town, followed by a day or two’s tour of Stellenbosch and the Cape Winelands in order to indulge in a bit of wine-tasting and maybe even some superlative cuisine at a local wine farm.

 

Then there’s the inevitable mad dash along the world-renowned, heavily-touristed – especially during high season which is November to February – but undoubtedly scenic Garden Route.

 

This expedition comprises a good 750km or 12 hours of solid driving from the Mother City to Port Elizabeth, from where people generally fly back to Cape Town before departing for home.

 

All very lovely, with lots of dramatic mountains covered in forest sweeping down to azure seas, but unless you’ve got enough time to amble off the main drag and explore a bit, it can all seem a bit relentless.

 

Hence the possibly controversial decision when my parents were visiting here to take a somewhat different tack.

 

In a bid to offer them a broad overview of what the Cape has to offer as well as lessen the car fatigue, I plumped for exploring the more gentle beauty of the Overberg and its environs, a mountainous region between Stellenbosch and the Garden Route that most people simply sail through without stopping.

 

First on the list of adventures was Aquila, a private game reserve about two hour’s drive north west of Cape Town in the lower reaches of the Klein Karoo. The Karoo, which is a Khoi-san word meaning ‘land of thirst’, is a vast, scrubby, semi-arid area that covers about a third of South Africa’s total land mass.

 

Karoo adventures

 

But while everyone will tell you that the game reserves in the Western Cape are not a patch on those elsewhere in the country – most particularly the Kruger National Park on the Zimbabwean and Mozambique border – we loved it nonetheless.

 

As the trip involved an overnight stay, we were lucky enough to be taken out on a couple of two-hour game drives to see the Big Five – elephants, leopards, lions, rhino and water buffalo – plus a goodly number of zebras, springbok, hippos and eland by head warden, Timothy.

 

Timothy had not only trained at Kruger and knew his stuff, but was also a first-class entertainer, which all added to the fascinating experience.

 

But he did, quite rightly, become incensed by the new depths that the ‘canned hunting’ industry is currently plumbing – rather than having to be physically present to shoot drugged animals in an enclosure these days, so-called hunters can now opt to do it virtually over the internet in a games format.

 

All they have to do is point and click from their computer and some paid lackey will perform the deed on their behalf before couriering the head to them as a trophy. Sick.

 

Anyway, still staying on the Karoo theme, another worthwhile stop was the Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens near Worcester, which is a sister site to the vast and rather more famous Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town.

 

Divided up into separate themed rooms housing plants from different arid and semi-arid regions across southern Africa, the delights on show range from weird and wonderful tree- and cactus-like structures to vibrantly colourful displays of wild flowers.

 

Enchanting. You don’t realise just how much variety there is in what often appears to be uniform, scrubby old brown and green terrain until you get up close and personal.

 

A bit of culture

 

On the more historical and cultural side of things, meanwhile, the area also offered an abundance of delights.

 

For example, there’s the Kleinplasie museum, again near Worcester, which is like a smaller version of the Beamish open air, ‘living’ museum back home in County Durham – except that the former focuses on Boer heritage and the latter on life in the North East of England at the apex of industrialisation in the early 20th century.

 

But there’s also the tranquil and charming village of Greyton to have a nice relaxing coffee in as well as nearby Genadendal or ‘Valley of Grace’ – the first and oldest mission station in South Africa, which was founded in 1737 by Moravian missionaries from the Czech Republic.

 

The Moravians happened to be among Europe’s first Protestants, rebelling against Rome some 50 years before Martin Luther – and they continued their non-conformist ways in South Africa, providing education and vocational training to the indigeneous Khoi and local coloured communities in the face of opposition from white farmers and the Dutch Reformed Church.

 

In fact, in recognition of the good works performed there, Nelson Mandela even renamed his official residence in Cape Town after the village in 1995.

 

And it must be said that the tourist information office and café adjacent to Church Square at the heart of the village do know how to do a mean bran muffin. They also offer iced honeybush tea in various flavours ranging from pineapple to vanilla, which was a new one on me.

 

A bit sweeter than the more famous rooibos, honeybush tea is only grown in the Cape’s more mountainous regions and, being packed full of immune system-boosting vitamins and anti-oxidants, is supposed to be good for all manner of coughs, colds and allergies.

 

Also good for you – unless, like my mam, you happen to slip and cut your legs to ribbons, poor thing – are the hot springs in Caledon. Located in a spa next to the casino, there are five pools of natural, hot brown water, created as the waters cascade down a small hillside.

 

Although they scald progressively more flesh from your bones as you scale the heights, the views over the surrounding farmland are lovely. Despite a dead frog in one pool and painful scarring from another, it was, in fact, an altogether relaxing and rejuvenating experience. Which is, after all, what holidays are all about.

 

Home Sweet Home in Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch found itself at the centre of a public art controversy lately.

A new statue of former president, Nelson Mandela, has caused ructions in the heartland of conservative Afrikanerdom, but not for the reasons you might think.

The artwork, which was created by Afrikaans landscape artist, Strijdom van der Merwe, and approved by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, was unveiled outside of the Town Hall on Plein Street last Wednesday to great fanfare.

Consisting of a concrete block clad with white marble and etched with areas of the South African map that have played a key role in Madiba’s life, a laser-cut steel silhouette of his face has been placed on either side – to great effect.

Along the ground in front of the statue, one of his most famous quotes is also displayed. It reads: “Never, never and never again will this beautiful country of ours be oppressed by one over another.”

Very apt for a town that has the dubious honour of being the birthplace of apartheid, with academics at the university here having dreamt up the philosophy in the first place.

But it isn’t the Afrikaner community that’s up in arms over the presence of the new statue. Oh no. It is instead members of the ANC Youth League who are seriously disgruntled about it.

They accuse the municipality, which is controlled by arch-rivals, the Democratic Alliance (DA), of wasting R800,000 (£72,000) on the artwork when the money could have been better spent on catering to the needs of the local population living in informal housing settlements.

For the sake of clarity, the DA is also the governing party in the Western Cape and the ANC’s official opposition at a national level. Although somewhat complicated in lineage terms, it traces its roots back to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Anyway, while it seems to me that the DA’s argument that it is trying to honour Mandela as an international statesman and the country’s first democratically-elected president seems reasonable, I also sympathise with the point made by the ANC, no matter how political.

Kayamandi

A similar kind of debate took place in the North East of England, where I come from, following the erection of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North statue on a hill near Gateshead.

While everyone outside of the region seemed to rave about it, a lot of local people were somewhat less enamoured. In a deprived post-industrial area, which in the 1990s was in desperate need of regeneration, many felt that the £1m in Lottery Funding would have been better spent on activities such as job creation.

But the living conditions in Stellenbosch’s Kayamandi township, particularly in its Enkanini informal settlement area, have nothing on Gateshead.

Kayamandi, which means “sweet home” in the Xhosa language, would seem, on the surface anyway, to be anything but.

To illustrate the point, a local charity, Prochorus, indicates that a huge 70% of the population still don’t yet live in the promised government-built Reconstruction and Development Programme houses, but instead dwell in shacks made from anything serviceable that can be found.

To make matters worse, the infrastructure, which includes sanitation and running water, is widely reported to be inadequate.

But to upgrade and extend it would cost a huge R3 billion over the next seven years, according to estimates put forward in a book called “Sustainable Stellenbosch – Opening Dialogues” by Lauren Taverner-Smith of Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership.

Unfortunately however, she believes that there is currently a funding shortfall of at least R1 billion.

And this already difficult situation is not exactly being helped by the huge influx of migrant workers from the poorer, more rural Eastern Cape.

Although this migration has been going on to a greater or lesser extent for nearly 100 years mainly due to the employment opportunities offered by the local wine industry, there has nonetheless been a veritable population explosion over the last few.

Vision AfriKa

In fact, the number of Kayamandi residents has now nearly tripled from 12,000 to 33,000, only adding to already high rates of unemployment (30%). Other problems include high levels of malnutrition and HIV/AIDS infection as well as low levels of literacy.

But within this challenging environment, there are beacons of hope. One of them takes the form of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Vision AfriKa [www.VisionAfriKa.com], with which I’ve been working on a voluntary basis over the last few months after a friend mentioned them to me.

The charity’s aim is to support the personal growth and development of selected 13-to-18 year olds in order to complement and enhance their standard education and help them to become the success stories of tomorrow.

A key issue for many children from deprived backgrounds is that they have deeply-ingrained negative perceptions of themselves, their communities and their ability to succeed.

So the goal is to help them reframe their views, acquire vital life and leadership skills, which include critical thinking, and encourage them to take responsibility for fulfilling their own dreams.

To its credit as only a small organisation with nine full-time staff, Vision AfriKa assists nearly 400 young people each year. While the majority are based in Kayamandi, there is also a secondary site in the nearby rural settlement of Vlottenberg about 8km away.

As for my role in all this though, I’ve developed an editorial strategy to help the NGO raise its profile, not least in a bid to try and boost its fundraising activity.

I’m also acting as content editor, which means helping a busy team of youth leaders to write informative and interesting news stories for the web site as well as internal reports and the like.

And, it must be said that they do amazingly well seeing as none of them are trained writers and nor do they have English as their first language. I’m not sure I’d fancy it.

But they really are proof of their own pudding, which is that just about anything becomes possible if you’re prepared to give it a go.

Bastille Day? In South Africa?

It hadn’t ever occurred to me that I might get to celebrate that greatest of all French festivals, Bastille Day, in South Africa. Paris, tick. Lyon, tick. But South Africa?

 

Being a francophile and one-time fluent French speaker having studied the language, along with German, many years ago at university, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the country’s 14th of July celebrations in both of its major cities and can safely say that the French know how to do such things with aplomb.

 

After a grand military parade along the Champs-Elysees watched over by the beady eye of the president and other dignitaries, the whole affair dissolves into a day of eating, drinking and dancing in streets all over France, followed by a stupendous firework display in the evening to bring the country’s national day to a close.

 

The festival, which has been celebrated since 1880, takes place on the day that a band of artisans stormed the Bastille fortress (aptly seeing as this is France, a couple of restaurants are now located on the site), thereby firing the opening salvos of the French Revolution.

 

This momentous event eventually led to the collapse of absolute monarchy in the country, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the state’s rebirth as a republic. All very significatif.

 

So I was intrigued to know just what form the South African version of le quatorze juillet might take. Knowing the South Africans, it would definitely include partaking of some form of food and drink, particularly as the celebration was taking place in Franschhoek, the culinary capital of the Western Cape and a town of French Huguenot origin in the heart of the Cape Winelands.

 

Just to refresh your memory as to who they actually were, ‘Huguenot’ was a name ascribed to French Protestants who were initially influenced by German monk, Martin Luther, and later became members of a reformed church set up by French theologian, John Calvin, in 1550.

 

In a bid to escape religious persecution in Catholic France, however, between 1688 and the early 1700s, about two hundred of them (out of an estimated quarter of a million who fled the country) accepted an offer of safe passage to, and farmland in, the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company, which had a base there.

 

Famous sons

 

Once in the Cape, the majority of settlers were awarded land in the Berg river valley between Wellington and what was later to be dubbed Franschhoek (‘French corner’ in Dutch), which is about half an hour’s drive more or less directly east out of Stellenbosch.

 

But even though many of the Huguenots had no farming experience much at all, being, as a rule, merchants, artisans and craftsmen of different types and descriptions, some handily brought with them wine-making experience and a knowledge of viticulture from their homeland – and even named their new wine farms after the areas of France from which they came, for instance, La Motte, Provence and/or Chamonix, which are still there today.

 

Due to inter-marriage with local Dutch farmers and a ban on any language but Dutch being spoken in schools or employed in official correspondence, however, within two generations, the Huguenots had lost their distinct identity and no longer spoke French as a home language

 

But just because they assimilated so swiftly doesn’t mean to say that they completely disappeared from the scene. Not only did the settlers contribute significantly to the lucrative South African wine-making industry, but they also went on to sire some of the country’s most famous sons.

 

These include former president FW de Klerk (Le Clercq), who along with Nelson Mandela brokered the end of apartheid, and Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the extreme right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement, who was beaten to death in April 2010 by two farm workers following a dispute over unpaid wages .

 

So, while the Huguenots may have nothing to do with Bastille Day, having left France nearly a century before, we felt that it really wasn’t for us to let historical fact get in the way of a good knees-up.

 

And so it was that my beloved and I wended our way through the beautiful mountainous terrain on route from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek last weekend to see what delights awaited us.

 

Bastille Day a la Franschhoek

 

And what a surprise we got – as we entered the environs of the town, it seemed that just about every wall and Frenchified or otherwise building was decorated with red, white and blue flags and bunting.

 

Visitors and residents poured up and down the main street in red, white and blue berets and wigs, and, somewhat bizarrely and in decidedly unGallic fashion, a cheery steel drum band merrily played their percussive rhythms as if they’d never left Trinidad and Tobago.

 

Although, sadly, we’d missed the boules competition, which anyone could enter but which had taken place the day before, we were nevertheless treated to the rare sight of the ‘Waiter’s Race’. Compered by the most bored and disinterested-sounding MC in the entire Western Cape, it comprised a relay race of slothful waiters using one hand to balance a tray with a plastic bottle of water on it, who proceeded to potter around a track marked out by hay bales.

 

By the time the audience had woken up, it was all over and the winner was given a Cup made of metal wire, of which he proceeded to drop the lid. Not South Africa’s finest sporting hour, it must be said.

 

More to the commercial point, however, was the inevitable Food and Wine Marquee, which for R150 (£10) bought you entrance, a free wine glass and five tasting vouchers. Although unable to partake as I was driving that day, my beloved took full advantage, choosing to specialise in the local sparkling wines, while we both snacked on that old French classic, mushroom gnocchi (?!!?).

 

Not quite what I had in mind, although I shouldn’t complain as the subsequent mushroom vol-au-vents were lovely.

 

So all in all, it was a bit of a mixed bag really. The good people of Franschhoek may have been hosting the festival for the last 20 years, but it still hasn’t quite got the panache of its genuine French counterpart, I’d say.

 

Nonetheless, as we posted later on my beloved’s Facebook page to much hilarity: “Great time at the Franschhoek Bastille Day festival. Those French Hugenoses certainly know how to party like it’s 1784.” It was funny at the time.