A nice villa for a retired torturer

Observations on South Africa

A boat trip from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront to Robben Island followed by a carol concert at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town - it was not our family's usual way of spending Christmas Eve, but it was an interesting snapshot, none the less, of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

On the island we met Ntoza Talakumeni, who had spent six years incarcerated at the same time as Nelson Mandela. He is now one of the guides who show you round for a couple of hours in an organised tour that costs 150 rand (£9) per person, more than most South Africans can afford. He showed us the isolation cells, the nutrition list on the wall stipulating that coloureds and Indians require larger rations than blacks. He showed us the "university", a hole in the lime quarry where Mandela and the other leaders of the liberation movement taught the uneducated in their short break while using pickaxes to carve stone out of the rock in the baking heat.

In the courtyard, Talakumeni took questions. He was asked about living conditions. He was asked about torture. He told us how he had been frequently subjected to electrodes on the testicles and had been ordered to eat his own excrement. I asked him what had happened to the prison governor who had personally given the orders. "He's somewhere in Cape Town in a nice villa, I think," he replied. I then put that essential journalist's question: "How do you feel about that?" He shrugged his shoulders and said: "We've all moved on."

Truth, reconciliation and all that . . . I wanted to believe him, but somehow wasn't convinced. Back in town, we rushed to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the main Anglican church, a liberal sort of place, we were told. The choir included four or five black faces. The congregation, several hundred-strong in its Sunday best, was almost exclusively white.

A few days later, we drove for five hours along the Garden Route of the Western Cape, past the comfortable beach resorts into which few blacks venture and past the barren shanties outside the resorts into which whites fear to tread. We started with the corrugated iron shacks of Cape Town and ended at the polo club at Plettenberg Bay, where we had lunch with an old journalist friend who presents a radio news show. He was staying at his parents' place in Nature's Valley, a protected area that opens on to the Indian Ocean. His mother had been one of the leading lights in the liberation movement.

I asked them about Thabo Mbeki. Were these the beginnings of a Mugabe-style kleptocracy? No, they still had hope for him. I asked them whether I was right to conclude that, in the Western Cape at least, little had changed - the big houses were still the preserve of whites, economic power was still delineated by race. I was not wrong, they suggested; redistribution had gone much more slowly than had been hoped, but in Johannesburg, for all the crime, a more modern multiracial South Africa was being built.

Then I asked about Aids, the prospect of seven million South Africans dying of it by 2010, and Mbeki's refusal to tackle it. On this, suppositions were offered but no answers given because there aren't any. Perhaps, it was suggested, Mbeki has given up on a whole generation - better no children than millions of orphans to deal with. At least Mandela has been seized of the seriousness of the crisis. Next month, he will host an Aids benefit pop concert, appropriately enough on Robben Island - a gesture, but at least a start.

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