“What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South Africa?”

Our Uber was winding up and over the road that runs between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. In the back, I sat attempting to find a way to get the seat belt to not actually touch my stomach, distended with steak and wine and liqueur and prawns. My father had just asked him the question that had become almost ritual whenever we met a South African.


I perked up, interested to hear this. The driver obviously lead a very comfortable life, judging from his car, and his talk about beer and beaches. And yet clearly he was aware that there is a problem, a bug in the system. That his comfort, like mine, comes at the expense of others’ suffering.

“If I gave a rand to everyone who asked me for a rand I’d be working for them.”


Beggars. He said beggars. 


“Do you find it difficult to work with your old jailers?”

We were standing on the historic pier at the Victoria and Albert waterfront, inside a preserved building that used to be where ferries to Robbin Island launched. Mom and Dad and I had just come back from a tour of the island, where, standing in the room that had served as a church for the block where Mandela spent so many years, our guide had told us that two nights earlier, at jazz fest, he had run into one of the men who tortured him when he was arrested in the 1980s. “They had used electric shocks, and beat me, and used my private parts as an ashtray,” he said, “but now he offered to buy me a drink.”

Back on land we met Vusi Mncongo, a man who had himself spent many years imprisoned on Robbin Island after he was arrested as part of a peaceful protest. Today he works in the museum, alongside men and women who served as his jailers.

“No,” Vusi said, “that is past. That is part of history. We have signed a new constitution now, and they can’t do that anymore.”


“I am talking,” the professor said to our Anthropology class the day before we reached Cape Town, “about a country that until recently divided the races by law. Their schools, their housing, everything – divided. Now it’s not law, but one race still has all the money, the other none. One race still has all the education, the other very little. It is a country where more black men go to prison than college.

“I am talking, of course,” he said, “about the United States.”


“There’s this thing with the word, “them,”” Mary Anne began.

We were sitting in the kitchen of a wealthy, energetic Italian woman, four glasses of wine in. Emma had been teaching us how to make pasta and crostini and carpaccio and panna cotta with espresso and grappa. Isobel, the daughter of a famed wine farmer, had been walking us through wine pairings (and sharing with me her fear of Vietnam, ‘I had never seen poverty before.’) The curated gardens of the house sheltered two rotweilers behind a high gate with barbed wire on the top. Beneath us the moon glinted off the ocean. It may be the most beautiful kitchen I have ever seen. I was a little tipsy.

We had just asked the room – expats and immigrants from Switzerland, Ireland, England, and Italy what they thought of South Africa, the country they had committed themselves too. All spoke glowingly of the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to overcome hardship. “I would never,” the Irish woman declared, “want to live anywhere else.”

As conversation rolled on, Mary Ann turned to speak to me, her voice covered by the cheerful clatter of several red-faced men and women exclaiming over the quality of salmon.

“South Africans I mean – white ones. Black people are always, ‘they.’ I have this bush in my yard that grows a berry I hate, but all the maids pick them and eat them on their way to work, and my South African friends always say, ‘oh, they love it.’”

She looked at her wine for a second and sighed. “I’ve asked my South African friends about it, and they say, ‘oh, but we love them!’” Mary Ann made a sour face, “we love them.”


“What are you most interested in?” Ibrahim asked. We were speeding down the highway towards the airport – I had just landed in South Africa and was racing to make a flight to Kruger. Ibrahim had told me a little of his life story: he had grown up, at first, in a mixed neighborhood at the foot of table mountain. But when he was a little boy it was declared for whites only. His grandmother sold their house at a little under $200, and they moved to a new Coloured township. He remembers going back to sit on his old lawn, and weeping.

Ibrahim would be guiding my parents and me for a day of touring in a little under a week. There was a tour of the Cape all set, but he could switch it up, show us whatever we wanted to learn about: “history? nature? politics? What would you most like to see?”

“Penguins,” I told him, “I am very interested in penguins.”


“What are the biggest challenges facing South Africa?”

We were in Ibrahim’s car, speeding back down the highway. We had just bought strong, fragrant coffee at a deli that was filled with wooden crates spilling over with fresh fruit and racks selling South African wines. Tiny flakes of buttery pastry were scattered over my jeans from the pain au chocolat I was finishing. 

“Education is the biggest one,” he said. The car turned and revealed a dazzling view of craggy cliffs over a glistening ocean, white villas clinging to the side of the rock, “and unemployment. And crime, but the crime is mostly because of unemployment, which is mostly because of the education.” Below us, white sand beaches were dotted with sunbathers and walkers – it was a perfect morning, breezy and warm. “And corruption, I suppose.” 

“Do you think South Africa can face those problems?”

“Don’t call them problems” Ibrahim said, smiling, “call them challenges.”

He swung the car off into a lot filled with cyclists looking out over the Pacific and parked.

“We ended apartheid without a war. Anything is possible.” 


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