I’ve come to understand that some South African food is wrong and irresistible at the same time. Peppermint Crisp tart, koeksusters and Karoo lamb chops come to mind. So indulgently tasty, and so potentially unhealthy, but soooo good, much like the experience of travelling to this beautiful but strange country.
Recently I took a surf trip around parts of South Africa, from East London down to Cape Town and then up to Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast. I stayed in Airbnbs all the way, hitting every surf spot, eating venison pies, drinking lime milkshakes and sampling the droëwors and biltong at every padstalletjie along the way.
When staying in South African Airbnbs, you are taken into people’s homes and enthusiastically welcomed into their glamping magazine fantasy. Concrete-formed dolphins and whales abound, toilet floors are consistently beset with patterned river stones, curtains are draped evocatively from every protuberance.
Mosquito nets are knotted artfully above the beds, no bush animal escapes caricature in shells, wire, wood or recycled art. The hosts are unfailingly affable, first walking us through the amenities of the house and then going over the inevitable “security protocols” including where tourists should NOT go.
“No, look, you CAN use this main road IF YOU WANT, it does go through the township but as long as you keep the doors locked and get home before dark, you’re fine. Nobody’s going to bother you as long as you just don’t stop for any reason.”
They stare at you to make sure you are getting the message, and you nod vigorously while patting your pockets checking on where you put your wallet and passport. Thus reassured that you still have the means to go home again if you survive the trip, you get your notebook for the inevitable briefing on the security mechanisms.
These ‘truth for the foreigner’ talks are usually delivered over a large ‘braaiboep’ with the hot coals and sizzling braai full of Karoo chops, steak and wors, next to a cooler box full of beer.
First the house door key, usually an old-fashioned one that requires the keen ear and feel of the safecracker to turn over. Then it’s the burglar bar trellis gate key (known as a “Trellidor”). These are always tough, turn over twice before the key releases, then lock both doors behind you.
Then it’s the outside gate trellis door with another double-turn mechanism and, of course, a different key. After closing that behind you, get into your car and press the green button on the key remote to open the rolling gate. (“green is for gate” you are told helpfully.) Pull the car out and now press the brown button to put on the laser beam (“brown is for beam”), and wait for the blue light to come on before closing the gate behind you with the green button again.
By now you realise that you left your phone on the charger inside so you have to redo the whole procedure twice (going in and coming back out) before you are finally sitting outside with the engine running, ready to go.
As you put the car in gear the host affably explains that if you do trigger the laser beam alarm for some reason, “it’s not to worry, the armed guard will come by very rapidly to check. He’s a sweetie! (from Zimbabwe, you know – they speak excellent English there – such a shame about their country!)
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“Just say the password which is ‘Jericho’ and he won’t shoot you as long as you don’t make any sudden movements!”
I write JERICHO in very large letters on the front page of my notebook. I’m guessing this password is not case sensitive.
Once the security briefing is out of the way my conversations with South Africans of all races had two main themes. One was how corrupt the government is, and the other how bad crime is. These “truth for the foreigner” talks, as I have come to call them, are usually delivered over a large “braaiboep” with the hot coals and sizzling braai full of Karoo chops, steak and wors, next to a cooler box full of beer. The aforementioned Peppermint Crisp tart or granadilla fridge cake is usually temptingly displayed on the overloaded dessert table.
It’s usually very soon after the government corruption discussion that the crime discussion comes.
Other times we get the talk in one of South Africa’s many excellent restaurants (usually Indian, Japanese or some other ethnic food) with swarms of black waitstaff bringing sparkling water, assuring the guests that there really are no carbohydrates in the banting menu items and apologising for any delay in the table service. There are two main themes being transmitted to us foreigners:
Theme 1: How corrupt the government is
It is usually only halfway down the first brandy and Coke before the conversation wanders into government corruption. The catalyst for this subject is usually load shedding and how fucked up it is that the country can’t keep the lights on. The Eskom contracting and bidding process is laughed at as a sick joke which is killing the economy. BEE is seen as government overreach and further evidence of corruption.
One host delivered a compact five-minute seminar on how the ANC political structure prevents competence from rising through the ranks. Cape Town and the Western Cape are seen as the great hope against corruption: “Everyone (meaning those who have the means to do so) is leaving Joburg and Durban and coming to Cape Town, the traffic is only going to get worse,” was a frequently cited trope.
Theme 2: How bad the crime is
It’s usually very soon after the government corruption discussion that the crime discussion comes. The talk is ongoing about the latest carjacking or home invasion, how close it was to “where we are standing right now”, and how people are contract-murdered for the price of a bottle of whiskey and how tourists are particularly targeted.
There is an official sign up at Noordhoek Beach which informs beachgoers that “criminals frequent the area”, and to “not resist” if approached. My Kommetjie host tells me a German tourist was murdered in the fynbos wildlands above Hout Bay a few months ago (in fact, he disappeared, and has not yet been found).
This makes the South African tourist experience rather schizophrenic. On the one hand, there’s the breathtaking scenery and experience of the African landscape along with the food and drink of Bacchanalian fantasy.
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On the other, the distinct and ever-present reminder of brutal and possibly fatal victimisation by an unnamed “other”. It’s enough to make you lose your enthusiasm for granadilla fridge cake and Peppermint Crisp tart.
But that Karoo lamb is pretty good too, and I guess it tastes extra special when you have to risk your life to get it. The waves aren’t bad either. DM