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16 December 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Return of the happy shoeshine boy

In Cape Town, Steven Berkoff finds the blacks smiling and all too eager to offer help. Just don't me

By Steven Berkoff

The first thing you notice once you leave Cape Town city and drive south is such unbelievably breathtaking beauty that you gasp in scenic wonder at this great gift of a country – God’s own. You sweep past gaunt mountain ranges revealing between their divides deep lapis lazuli seas, jade shallows and infinite creamy beaches.

My hired Toyota automatic leaps over the hills like a dancing springbok as I head to the southern coast, winding through turn-of-the-century hamlets, elegant houses tumbling down the hills, their wooden verandas greeting a perpetual sundowner’s paradise. On the edges of the towns, there have sprung up little street displays where blacks peddle the crafts of Africa, lurid masks and gigantic carvings of giraffes, buffaloes and elephants. The fascinatingly weird masks seem to confirm our ancient feelings of the dark continent beyond: the stuff of nightmares. But not here and now, for here all is at peace.

I drive past the old converted theatres, whitewashed facades, tiny shops selling wholesome clean and laundry-fresh cotton safari khakis, and the owners flash beaming smiles at you and address you with that charming Afrikaans accent. It’s a fusion of Dutch, Flemish and even Cockney stretched into a musical cadence which sometimes sounds as if an elephant stepped on your toe, but is still very charming, if a little “emphatik”. As the sun breaks the waves into a billion points of light, I catch the last of the whales of the magnificent Hermanus Bay slapping their tails in the water. Hermanus Bay is now a sanctuary, and this is where the great beasts of the sea have travelled to, all the way from Antarctica. This truly humbles you as you watch these miracles who come here to calve. No one will lay a finger on them and turn them into sushi!

I drive back satisfied to Cape Town and my rented apartment . . . I take out my security card and press it against a small screen . . . The gates open . . . Aha! Such technology! A smiling black face waves me in; they’re so friendly here. I enter the garage and once again have to retrieve the bloody card which I had inadvertently slipped into my pocket. Press the buzzer . . . open – ah, such security!

Soon I am off to meet a friend on Long Street, one of the funkier streets in the city where, for a few yards at the end, people can actually be seen walking. Back in the car: crunch, press, snap, buzz, gates rise and fall and, yes, I made it and am once more in the street. What bliss. The wide avenues are bereft of traffic and, in fact, there are few humans on the street either. I notice that the caffs where they serve African “game” – you know, buffalo, springbok, crocodile, ostrich, iguana – are full. What a change from your gentle fishcakes at the Ivy. As I reach Long Street, I find it buzzing. I park and a charming black boy jumps out, waving his arms frantically as he guides me to the best space and offers to mind the car as a kind of unofficial valet. How thoughtful, and it seems that every street where there is some semblance of activity has its minders of the turf. They guarantee the safety of your car. Also, what a splendid idea for our own crime-festered streets, where every other day your car is smashed by drug-crazed bandits. Why not take agile and unemployed youths and have them man the streets? It might cost you a few bob more, but not the arm and leg charged by Rip-off Parking Plc. Think about it, Ken!

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The relics of Africa are a dominant factor in the tourist trade (of which I am part, although I will be earning my rand playing at the famous Baxter Theatre). The swirls of colours in the fabrics on sale stun the northern, colour-starved eye, and the now popular “Mandela shirts” are comfortable, beautiful and a tribute to the old boy, who will certainly be remembered and seems to wear a different creation each day as if he were making up for all those years on Robben Island.

I’m moving out of my fortress-like apartment – it seems a bit excessive for it to be as protected as it is, but it makes the white occupants feel more comfortable, even if I’ve hardly seen any black faces around except those street car-parkers and the newspaper sellers at the traffic lights (here called “robots”). There is a small army of security guards protecting the shoppers and the shops. They’ve even reinstated that old – dare I say it – racist symbol from American movies, the black shoeshine boy in the shopping mall. He looked more than happy cleaning the white man’s shoes and I tried to snap a picture, but the white man’s wife sniffed that something was up and stepped in front. Bitch! It would have been a nice study of racial harmony.

I said goodbye to the nice plump domestic and, with my natural curiosity, asked her how much she earns. “1,100 rand a month,” she replied, without the shyness or hesitation that people in the western world would usually have over such a question . . . OK, that’s about £17.50 per week, and although things are cheaper here than in rip-off Britain, they ain’t that cheap. Other price comparisons revealed that, at Woolworths, some of the foodstuffs were on a par with Tesco in Britain, and CDs were still selling at between $10 and $14. She also told me her travelling time is three hours return, which costs her 14 rand a day, so she must take home 1,100 minus 280 for fares. So her bus fares are almost a third of her wages. I was about to suggest that she move into this area, but she said she was quite happy where she was. Mentally, I was calculating how many South African women I could employ . . . one to cook and clean, one to do the laundry and so on . . .

Best commercial on TV this week: a really nice white family are sitting down to dinner in an elegant room, wine on the table, in one of those seafront flats. Suddenly the nice little white child appears sick (too much ostrich burger, no doubt). Mum and Dad look glum but don’t seem to have a clue what to do, as whites have apparently long since forgotten these family skills. Along comes black “Mama”, their faithful domestic. She takes the brat under her arm and gently shakes her, and out pops the nasty thing from her stomach. The ad was meant to encourage you to get your domestics to take a training course. Now, I’ve been wondering where most of the black folk are, but this would explain everything: they are happily helping us white folk at dinner by holding up our vomiting kids.

It has to be said that South Africa is a delightful place and blessed by fair winds, a soft warm climate and gorgeously brilliant-hued seas . . . And yet, according to the Cape Argus, one of the two daily papers, out of 44 million people, 181,000 are currently in jail and, in ten years, the prison population will reach 450,000. At that rate, they beat Britain hands down. Our miserable 50,000 or so does not seem so impressive after all, even if we do take the lead over the rest of Europe. I mean, here they get on with it. This could be the reason I’ve seen so few blacks around. In fact, South Africa leads the world in a lot of things. It has the world’s highest murder rate – about 35 a day, which is almost 13,000 a year – the highest rate of rape, and the highest rate of Aids: Cape Town is now the gay capital of the world, overtaking both Sydney and San Francisco.

You can’t believe all these dire figures when you head out to the charming wee village of Simon’s Town. Here you can take a delightful lunch overlooking the exquisite bay and then visit the penguin colony, where the sweet little things just sit as still as statues since they are moulting. The local council, with the sensitivity to animals for which it is justly famous, built wooden walkways so we wouldn’t disturb the little buggers.

South Africans are quite an astute folk, and no conversation takes place without the “B word” coming up – “what shall we do to improve interaction, education, development” and so on, so that they (the blacks) can develop a strong middle class. I suppose they have half an eye on what is happening just across the road, so to speak, in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe (whose actions have met no criticism from the South African president, Thabo Mbeki). Well, this is South Africa and I assure them it can’t happen here: just think of the happy faces of the singers and the pedlars in the street market, and happy mamas shaking kids.

This is a truly cosmopolitan town and you can find anything, so it’s no surprise to find in Seapoint a bit of Golders Green, a wonderful deli where you can enjoy the tastes of the old homeland: bagels, salmon, cream cheese, herrings, chicken soup, pickles and on and on . Again, I check the wages and ask a very charming waiter, who reluctantly tells me that he makes 1,200 rand. “A week?” I ask. “No, a month.” So he’s getting about £20 a week.

I had a chat with the owner of the deli. I told him that I was wondering, in a sudden flush of conscience, whether in fact the wages were a tad low. He agreed with me immediately. “So, in that case,” I gingerly ventured, “since we both hail from the same chicken-soup stock as Abraham and Moses, would it not be beneficent for our reputation to be a little more generous?”

At least he agreed and said he would look into it.

I strode out, packed to my pot-belly which I am now acquiring so as not to stand out too much, paid my street minder five rand and headed to the Baxter Theatre to arrange some lights for my forthcoming performances. I swung along the dipping highway passing glorious views: pine-lined avenues, the profusion of yellow protea (South Africa’s national flower), serene homes complete with balconies for those delightful sundowners and adorned with pretty little signs: “ARMED RESPONSE”. In fact, nearly every house has that sign on it, so it figures that there must be some sort of “B” army hiding out in the hills somewhere. In one case reported in the Cape Times, an owner being robbed managed to press the button to alert the Armed Response security guards who patrol the streets. However, when they arrived, the owner jumped on his tormenters, whereupon he was mistaken for a burglar and shot three times. And now he’s suing ARMED RESPONSE . . . Just goes to show, let the professionals do their job!

Bryan Rostron, page 58

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