If you were lucky enough to stroll through Cape Town’s famous Waterfront on New Year’s Day, you might be forgiven for thinking that much about South Africa since the dark days of apartheid has changed– all of it for the good. The sun shone from a cloudless sky, the familiar flat contours of Table Mountain were etched against a bright blue backdrop and the Mother City, as it is known, lived up to its deserved billing as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The greatly renovated and restored docks – the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, to give it its full name – was teeming with people of all shades of colour (including some very pink and burnt England cricket supporters), of all countries, classes, creeds, castes and tribes. All were happily mingling and one was struck by the prevalence of parents from mixed races shepherding lines of beautiful, brown-skinned children. Quite apart from the absence of the much-hated and disreputable segregationist policy of the former white minority government, it was notable that an emerging black middle class with money to spend was taking root in a country where wealth had hitherto been solely and shamefully in the hands of the privileged white communities. So far, so good. For someone who had played cricket in South Africa in the 1970s and who was naively bemused by the whole concept of ‘separate development’ when clearly the black population was not being developed at all, it made my heart sing.
But appearances are deceptive. It is a well-known fact that Cape Town is a bubble, to borrow that strange word used to describe a place, such as political Westminster, quite disconnected from the rest of the country. Hop in a car and drive around the city’s environs, or better still, live a little on the edge and venture further out into the bush and the veld, and you will be struck by how little South Africa has really changed. The vast and teeming townships are still there, mile after mile of hastily constructed hovels of corrugated iron and scrap heap detritus. What about sanitation, I asked myself, rather pointlessly. Admittedly Nelson Mandela’s promise to provide electricity for all has been honoured, judging by the spaghetti canopy of electricity wires overhead with more satellite dishes in evidence than GCHQ in Cheltenham. What could not be hidden however was the grinding poverty of these people, living in their teeming millions in shantytowns fit to rank with the world’s worst. There were pockets where attempts to provide the most basic of brick built accommodation had been made but they were few and far between. How on earth is South Africa going to house, feed, employ its poor underclass, who seem no better off than they were 50 years ago?
There were too other clear indications that this is a country not entirely at peace with itself. When the electricity goes down at regular intervals, you immediately have misgivings. That used not to happen. Further suspicions are aroused when these ‘outages’ are explained away with excuses such as “load sharing”. Why should the load have to be shared? Why is the load so diminished in the first place that it has to be shared (ie rationed)? Whatever you may have thought of the Afrikaans when they were in power – and let’s face it, the charge sheet is long and inglorious – at least the trains ran on time, the roads were maintained and the services were reliable. The current crisis (forgive the pun) is easily explained, I was told; sub-stations have not been maintained properly and the national grid is suffering from lack of investment. On our travels, we saw plenty of major road projects left half-finished and deserted of activity; clearly funding has run out. Potholes abounded on major roads. As a driver, you spend more time looking down at the tarmac immediately in front of you instead of keeping your eyes on the road ahead. The infrastructure of the country is steadily eroding and even the smarter districts are slowly showing signs of wear and tear.
The Test match at Newlands provided a microcosm of South Africa in decay. I was told the ground is nowadays only full to capacity once every four years, when England are in town and even then three quarters of the crowd are English tourists. At Port Elizabeth for the second Test, the crowd numbered a measly 4,000 of whom 3,000 were English. When I played in a Currie Cup there in the 1970s, the ground was packed. Now it is three-quarters empty for a Test match. Against England! What on earth is happening to South African cricket, I glumly asked myself.
It was evident that something major was amiss from the total chaos that reigned before start of play on the first day at Newlands. The authorities were simply not geared up for the occasion. How anybody found his right seat was a miracle. We slipped in through a service gate along with twenty or so others, even though we had bona fide tickets. Had not the gate opened for a delivery van, we would probably still be outside, barred from entering by a jobsworth who hadn’t a clue what to do except to say you can’t come in here. One poor man, no longer in the first full flush of youth and a sporting a capacious figure that betokened a life well lived, was perspiring dangerously as we encountered him on his second ascent of the stairs in the main stand. “Does no-one know where Door G, Floor 4 is?” he cried in desperation. The catering was a shambles. I felt sorry for tour organisers and hosts who had carefully and early put in their orders to discover no sign of food and drink at the appropriate time. In comparison, you could say that the Brexit negotiations had proceeded like clockwork.
The Western Province Cricket Association, once the jewel in the crown of provincial cricket, is on its beam ends. How can that possibly be? Cricket South Africa, the governing body of the game, is splitting at the seams, assailed by allegations of catastrophic failures of governance, wasteful expenditure and massive corruption in high places. Pity the poor players who are, with increasing desperation, bailing out a ship mortally holed below the water line. Oh my Barry Richards and my Graeme Pollock of long ago.
Ask any man in the street – actually never a good idea in South Africa – or alternatively any cricket lover, barman, waiter, taxi driver, hotel guest, park ranger et al what ails his country and once you have gained his confidence, his reply will verge between the gloomy and the bleak. To some, the country is breaking apart; to others it is already broken. The ‘fat cats’ are to blame, it is said, those who have betrayed Mandela’s legacy and made themselves rich at the expense of South Africa’s future. The country is riddled with ineptitude, incompetence, fraudulence, cronyism and wholesale corruption. Not uncommon in Africa, it is true, but somehow we hoped better from post-apartheid South Africa. A friend despondently confided in me, “This lot have had 20 years in charge. You’d think they would’ve sorted things out by now.” Well, yes and no. It is true that the current government, the ANC, have not covered themselves in glory but perhaps it was always too much to ask, given the endemic problems they inherited. After all, the democratic system we have in place in this country has taken a thousand years to develop. In that context, 20 years is but one over in a long innings. The question is whether South Africa is even trying to bowl at the stumps. It appears not.
For someone who has had a love affair with South Africa and its peoples (note the plural) for 50 years, it grieves me that the country is slowly, inexorably, sliding towards self-immolation. Zimbabwe Mark II, I was apprised by another friend, accompanied by a cynical laugh. A final clue to the current state of play – not of the cricket, that’s another story – but of the parlous economic, social and political situation was provided by an internal flight we took to Johannesburg on our way home. All announcements were first made in a strange language (later I discovered it to be Malay) and the food was unrelievedly curry. What is going on, I thought. South African Airways, once a hugely successful and well-respected national carrier is undergoing turbulent (once again, forgive the pun) times, facing bankruptcy following exposure of appalling governance, In an effort to avoid total engine failure, it is teaming up with other global carriers, on this occasion, Malaysian. How sad for a once proud flag carrier. How did it all come to this?
It is said that once you have the dust of Africa on your shoes, you can never shake it off. It would be a crying shame if I ever had to chuck those shoes away.