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  1. Politics
31 January 2000

Mugged by the mother country

For all the talk of crime rates in South Africa, Bryan Rostron found bigger crooks in the UK

By Bryan Rostron

Attend my fable if your ears be clean,
In fair Banana Land we lay our scene –
Roy Campbell (1901-57)

Unlike the days when the imperial mails arrived via the Union-Castle Line, after several weeks at sea, the newspapers from London arrive pretty promptly in Cape Town these days – and still seem curiously out of date. The weekly editions of the Daily Mail and Express, for example, usually have a front-page headline about Diana, Princess of Wales, who we hicks in your far-flung former colonies thought was sadly departed.

Still, it’s a sobering, even surreal, experience reading about one’s country in the British press. Is this really how others see us? Or am I simply using the wrong end of the telescope?

The poet Roy Campbell once wrote: “South Africa, renowned both far and wide/For politics and little else beside.” Now in the British press, South Africa is famed for crime and little else beside. Johannesburg is the “crime capital of the world”, with Cape Town competing closely. The statistics, from murder to mugging, are deeply shocking, sure. But – pleez, man – can’t there be a moratorium on the recycled headline “Cry, the beloved country”?

Personally speaking, my eyes are now dry. Since returning to South Africa two years ago, you see, I have been mugged no fewer than seven times. Let me explain.

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The first hit came immediately. Several items from the container transporting our goods from London went missing in transit. The second assault followed when we lodged a claim with our British insurers. They effectively told us to sod off.

We hired an English lawyer. “They’re trying it on because you’re 6,000 miles away,” laughed m’learned friend. Even he got a stunningly offensive and arrogant letter from Gothic House, Leatherhead (“Where every shrimp his proud career may carve/And only brain and muscle have to starve”). Finally, a director intervened and the claim was settled – leaving us, after legal fees, several hundred pounds short.

The third clobbering was the most brutal. After I had suffered several years of chronic ill-health, my GP advised a return to the sunshine of South Africa. The alternative, as recommended by a consultant at the Royal Brompton Hospital, was to have blood transfusions every three months for the rest of my life.

Allied Dunbar had begun paying an income protection policy, with the agreement that this would be reviewed after a year. The policy stipulated a geographical limit of western Europe, and when they baulked at South Africa I consulted a chartered loss-adjuster, Richard Hanson-James. He pointed out: (a) I was going for my health, (b) that I could happily claim from any French Caribbean island, because they are considered metropolitan France.

Allied Dunbar agreed to carry on paying, but cut me off after three months, with no review, citing . . . geographical limits. What were the exact co-ordinates, I began to wonder, of that Banana Land described by Campbell: “Where pumpkins to professors are promoted/And turnips into Parliament are voted.”

The excellent Hanson-James took the company to the industry’s ombudsman. This provoked the fourth sandbagging. The ombudsman took a strict, small-print view, and ruled against an award. One point that went strongly against me was that I had continued to write for a small British political weekly. “I am particularly shocked,” Hanson-James wrote, “by the view that benefit of about £17,000 a year should automatically be ruled out if you manage a meagre income of £46 a month.”

Clearly, I would have to increase my earnings, even if this entailed a corresponding deterioration in my health. My first act to augment my income was to write about this shabby treatment. I offered the article to the Times. After several weeks, and many e-mails, I finally rang the newspaper to find out what was happening. That was my sixth mugging. An article had indeed appeared; not by me, however, but about me – by someone I’d never heard of.

It was the first time in a 30-year career that my work had been purloined in this fashion. (“Where the precious tadpole, from his bog/ Becomes a journalist ere half a frog.”) Fortunately, the paper’s management swiftly realised the impropriety of such conduct, and not only paid up, but offered a handsome apology. Was my luck – the best of British – beginning to change?

Before the Queen’s recent visit to South Africa, a former colleague flew out to write a preview for the Daily Mail. Over some excellent Cape wine, I briefed him on “the situation”. Later, I was astonished to read in the Daily Mail that not only had “beggars and goats set up home in the marble foyers of derelict banks”, but that “the parks and beaches have become killing fields”. Gosh, if banks and beaches are such no-go areas, one wondered, how do all those British tourists acquire such uncomfortable-looking tans and exploit the advantageous exchange rate?

Frankly, I can’t face another cudgelling from our former colonial masters. Last year, a friend who works in Soweto and other poor townships visited Oxford and was invited to dine at All Souls. The butler had to lend him a tie. It was a clip-on: if set upon by footpads while returning home in the dark, explained the butler, a tie could be used to strangle one.

Campbell painted an unflattering picture of us uncouth colonials: we were lazy, greedy, dissembling and sly. “And, ‘twixt the hours of strenuous sleep, relax/To sheer the fleeces or to fleece the blacks.” True enough, once. It was a land: “Where weeds in such variety are found/And all the rarest parasites abound.” But in the mother country, things were supposed to be different.