Back in the 1970s, when I was the BBC correspondent based here in South Africa, just about everyone expected the lunatic experiment of apartheid to end in a bloodbath.
I didn’t, because in my work I saw so many signs of basic decency from all the different communities. Now it’s one of the great delights of my life to come back regularly and see how pleasant and stable this country is.
OK, so it’s not Switzerland. Government ministers often find it hard to tell the difference between meum and tuum, and the sense of entitlement that the ruling ANC still displays is pretty nauseating. (Nelson Mandela often warned about it but without result.) White rule has left South Africa with first-world expectations; it still instinctively measures itself against the US and western Europe rather than African kleptocracies such as Nigeria or Kenya. That brings a lot of complaining, of course. There are power outages and talk of water rationing in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the key province of Gauteng is threatened with fuel cuts. Not good, I agree; yet for the most part things function remarkably well.
One of the best things in this country is its journalism: bright, aggressive and fearless. My South African wife has recently written for City Press, a Sunday newspaper that is mostly read by black people yet seems entirely colour-blind. For a while the editor, a tough and feisty Indian woman called Ferial Haffajee, had to face a campaign that claimed she didn’t employ enough black journalists; but the owners backed her and she won by showing that most of her staff were black. Nowadays City Press is the liveliest newspaper in the country.
A recent edition led on an exposé of dodgy goings-on in hospital tenders, continued with probing articles about the national airline and the revenue service, and carried a hard-hitting feature with the headline “The era of the democrator”. Topped by pictures of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, Recep Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Robert Mugabe, it outlined “a global trend in which leaders who win national elections do not respect the institutions of democratic government”. Perceptive stuff, as good as anything in the British, French or German press.
One of South Africa’s perennial delights is its use of English, raking in Afrikaans, African and Indian expressions. City Press has a report on a confrontation between two leading South African rappers at a night-club. AKA went over to Cassper Nyovest “and greeted him with a hot klap”, says the story, klap being Afrikaans for a slap. It’s a pleasure to hear people of all backgrounds affectionately call each other bokkie, “little buck”; and braaing, the art of the barbecue, is the national religion, boerewors and pap the national dish, and niabonga the way of saying thank you for it.
This week I’m with my family in the Kruger National Park, arguably the best-run nature reserve on earth, braaing a lot of boerewors. We remember President Paul Kruger as the bearded ancient in a stovepipe hat who had the misfortune to govern Transvaal when the British, at the height of their George W Bush-style imperialism, decided to take it over; the Boer war was the bitter price they paid. Kruger would disconcert visiting British journalists with his frequent and noisy use of the spittoon. But he was also a visionary, who turned a vast area of what was then the northern and eastern Transvaal into one of the world’s first and best national parks. My wife, a former Ms Kruger, feels a distinct sense of family involvement here.
Every morning, after our obligatory tea and biskuit, we drive out and watch great herds of elephants heading down to the Sabie River to drink; or giraffes stepping elegantly through the bush; or hippos lounging around on the riverbank like something out of a Gary Larson cartoon, ignoring the huge crocodiles laid out nearby, one sharp little eye always open. And there are wonderful lions.
Here in the Kruger they are safe from marauding American dentists, unlike poor old Cecil in neighbouring Zimbabwe, and the elephants are well protected from ivory poachers. Rhinos have had a harder time of it, but new methods of protecting them are being introduced. The rangers knock them out and inject their horns with a poison that, though harmless to the animals, makes anyone ill if they try to ingest even the smallest amount of powder from it. The thought of men in China who insist on buying rhino horn for their erectile problems ending up with their heads down the lavatory bowl is distinctly pleasing.
In the west, we care about Cecil’s death greatly. But suppose you lived in a black township outside an unprepossessing little dorp like Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg. Would you really worry about lions and elephants when a life-and-death struggle was going on in the streets of your own town? Last week a 35-year-old policeman, Njabulo Buthelezi, was on patrol in Vosloorus when he and his colleague came across a robbery at the Cash Crusaders store. The robbers were heavily armed and shot Buthelezi dead. He trained as a teacher but joined the police 11 years ago because he felt that crime was the worst problem South Africa faced. He didn’t do it for the money: the cops here are paid wretchedly. Buthelezi leaves a widow and three young sons. Fifty-three police officers have been killed in South Africa this year – 10 per cent more than last year.
No doubt all these problems, from the fate of lions and elephants to murders of policemen, are part of a greater and more disturbing whole: this is a society in turmoil, with too many guns, too much corruption at the top and not enough secure prosperity. But it is also delightful, friendly and usually pretty happy. I still think it’s a success story.
John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News