Further thoughts on Cape Town

Cape Town, South Africa, is, as I wrote yesterday, one of my favorite small citites in the world. But to be fair, I should point out that like any other country with a large population of poor people, it is not without its warts.

The other day, a beggar pulled a knife on my brother-in-law, saying "I don't want to do crime, but if I don't get some money I might have to." My brother-in-law and his wife and son walked away with no crime perpetrated and no money changing hands, yet that sort of experience is not unheard of in this city (though less than in many other South African cities.)

Then there's the other side of the beggar world: Yesterday, a young-ish guy asked me and my wife for money as we were walking, with our kids in a stroller, in to a supermarket. We declined his request, after which he held the door open to make it easier for us to get the stroller into the store. And when we came out, my wife was ahead of me and the same guy walked into the street to hold up traffic so she and the kids could cross, also helping her lift the stroller down and up at the curbs. I caught up with them halfway across the street and gave the guy what change was in my pocket. Perhaps there's a lesson there...

Cape Town has its share of homeless people sleeping under bridges, near vacant fenced-in lots with two feet of trash blown up against the fence. Yet that scene can be (and is) just a few blocks from a shopping district which would not feel out of place in Cherry Creek, Beverly Hills, or Knightsbridge.

Separately from any warts, I have seen absolutely no evidence of inter-racial strife in this town. Quite the opposite: I see blacks and whites working collegially together , including many blacks in management. And how else could it be in a now-free country in which about 79% of the population is black and only 10% white? (The rest of the population is defined as "colored" which comprises people of mixed race as well as the substantial South Asian -- mostly Indian and Pakistani -- section of South African society.) As I've said before, the people are uniformly friendly, not just to tourists, but to each other, regardless of skin color. I'm sure there are still racial issues in this country, but given a much more recent history of repression and violence against blacks than we have in America, it's hard not to notice that at least in the cosmopolitan Cape Town, there's a lot less focus on the past and more on the future than one might see in a large American city -- or in the White House and Congressional Black Caucus.

All that said, one has to notice politician Julius Malema, President of the African National Congress Youth League, and a communist race-hustler of the worst sort. A sort of Jesse Jackson writ large, right down to the fact that he uses his divisive rhetoric and position to get rich. Malema is calling for the nationalization of the mining industry using language such singing an old anti-apartheid song "Shoot the boer" (Afrikaans word for farmer, and generally used the past to describe white farmers and white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans). Malema's construction firm was criticized by a newspaper, following which Malema released all sorts of private information about one of the newspaper's editors and her family, including their bank account details. He's a true bad guy who richly deserves a high-speed lead injection. In the meantime, like Ahmadinejad in Iran, he has fairly strong support in rural areas and "townships" where large populations of South African blacks have little or no eduction or wealth. Perhaps the recent accusations of taking bribes and buying a multi-million dollar home will wake those supporters up to what sort of guy Malema is, though if Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are object lessons, that may be a naive hope.

Now this next part may sound politically incorrect, but if there's one thing about Cape Town that troubles me more than any other, it's the huge proliferation of women wearing burkas and (obviously Muslim) head scarves in public. Asking some locals, the increase from my last visits here is not my imagination and seems due in part to the existing Muslim population being more public with their religion and perhaps, as one local said to me, "making a statement." Immigration of Muslims is also substantial, at least in percentage terms. Also, as Islam seems to be religion gaining the most converts in this country, those new Muslims are, like converts in many religions, likely to be the most fervent and perhaps the most public about their religious views. Some argue that the conversion rate reflects black South Africans seeing the former white apartheid government as Christian and rebelling against that by moving to Islam. It's not a completely irrational move, especially for someone with little education about religion. And I should note that despite the large number of reported converts, the vast majority of Muslims whom I recognized as such were South Asian, not black.

In any case, this trend scares me more than anything else about Cape Town -- not for my safety but for the future of this city and even of the country. Yes, it's fairly amusing to see a Muslim woman walking through a high-end shopping mall wearing a burka covering everything but her eyes and feet, while she wears a pair of those new "butt-shaping" athletic shoes with the oddly shaped soles. But at the end of the day, she's wearing a burka in a country where such attire would have drawn stares only a decade ago. Increasing Muslim population anywhere scares me more than increasing Chinese population everywhere -- the latter of which does not scare me at all but seems to trouble some people I've spoken to from other nations, including Australia. Islam is the most destructive force on the planet today and any increase in its adherents, no matter the reason, is a cause for concern. Perhaps it's interesting that the thing that bothers me most about Cape Town is the thing that least impacts my safety in this town in the short-term. All that said, I had a conversation with a Muslim cab driver and nothing he said sounded radical, hateful, or inclined to violence. He was not anti-American though I did not mention that I'm Jewish.

Today we're going to visit Robben Island, South Africa's version of Alcatraz, where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 18 years (after which he spent another 9 years in other prisons). It should be an eye-opening experience, as so many things are in this fascinating country and city.

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