I had gone to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on a sunny day. The sky was clear, the air was mild. Teenagers were playing frisbee on one side; mothers walked along the manicured pathways, pushing strollers; a group of elderly nuns stopped me and told me how much they had enjoyed their recent holiday in Mumbai, where I was born.
My friends had gone shopping in Cape Town, but I was in that garden, looking for a hedge of almonds. A week earlier, in Johannesburg, the South African writer Allister Sparks had told me about the hedge: That’s where it had all begun, he had said.
The hedge was not a natural formation—it was planted to keep people apart. Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch colonial administrator who founded the western settlement in that fair city, asked for it to be built as a barrier between the colonial settlement and the khoikhoi people, the original inhabitants of that area. The Dutch empire was in full bloom at that time, and van Riebeeck was not going to face a rebellion from the khoi lightly. Battles followed, and the khoi were pushed back, their final humiliation coming in 1659. Good fences make good neighbours, the Dutch thought, and planted the hedge. The National Party may have made apartheid a governing policy after its election in June 1948; the idea of dividing people has a far longer history in South Africa.
But the hedge was remarkably and disarmingly banal. It looked like any piece of unkempt, wild, disorganized vegetation. When I took its pictures, a group of tourists wondered why I was paying attention to this piece of ugliness, when so much beauty lay around me.
And that was right: The hedge was a piece of ugliness. As I went to South Africa more often, through the 1990s and beyond, many aspects of such unpleasantness confronted me with astonishing regularity. My first visit there was much after the Pass Law had become meaningless. Yet the separateness of the country was visible the moment the aircraft began descending at any of South Africa’s airports. On one side, you saw identical homes surrounded by greenery, with cool swimming pools reflecting sunlight; on the other, teeming slums on sun-baked, brown landscapes, where the majority of South Africans lived. You didn’t need to be a genius to figure out which homes were black and which white. Every country has inequality; in South Africa, it was artificially constructed, by erecting barriers.
It is now nearly 20 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison and South Africa increasingly looks like a normal country. But in those heady days of apartheid’s twilight, when that odious system had not yet officially ended and democracy had not fully taken hold, it was easy to understand the enthusiasm my friend felt as she showed me around Johannesburg. A few years earlier, what she was doing—taking a non-white person with her in her car—would have been a crime, she told me excitedly. But this was new South Africa; the barriers were crumbling. We went to bookstores, to delightful suburban restaurants, downing Cape wines with exceptional fish, and later she introduced me to the haunting sounds of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Mbongeni Ngema, and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
But there was something artificial about that veneer of the rainbow nation and its good cheer. It almost seemed as if collective amnesia was being required of everybody to leave the past behind, to build a different, better country. Keeping bad old memories buried can have tragic consequences for individuals. When nations are forced to do it, the results can be catastrophic.
Fortunately, there are two monuments now which remind us of South Africa’s more recent past, and its shame.
The Apartheid Museum, in Johannesburg, is set far from the city centre, in the suburb of Ormonde, and forces you to face apartheid at the doorstep. The ticket you buy tells you—white or non-white. And then you must enter the museum through the relevant, marked door. Once inside, it is a depressingly familiar history of contemporary South Africa, with video footage, sound recordings, giant video screens, famous speeches— including Mandela’s defence speech, “I am prepared to die,” at the Rivonia trial—and a real hippo, or the large armoured personnel carrier which imperviously levelled homes, people and animals, on its way to establishing its authority in violence-prone or defiant black townships.
While you are separated from your friends when you enter, you are reunited inside. And when you are outside, the silence is almost oppressive.
If the lack of sound is numbing enough outside the Apartheid Museum, the lack of colour is what’s most striking about Robben Island, where Mandela was jailed for 18 years. The small size of his cell did not surprise me. Jails are not hotels, and the whole point of keeping Mandela on that lonely island was to isolate him and attack his will. The real punishment was the pitiless, heartless, shining, blinding, white light, reflecting sun at the limestone quarry, which Mandela and other prisoners had to face day after day as they broke the stones, with Sisyphean perseverance. There was no point to that exercise, and yet they did it, uncomplainingly.
Still blinded, we returned to Cape Town, the reassuring Table Mountain providing neutral certainty to the divided landscape. Beyond were the beautiful wineries of Stellenbosch. Seagulls twittered. The colours of the city returned, spreading quietly, like an image emerging in a dark room, revealing richness.
But there was that scar, that hedge, in that beautiful garden. And at the same time, to the city’s south-west, where the land met the sea, was the region they called the Cape of Good Hope.
There is enough man-made ugliness in South Africa—the harsh limestone quarry, the wild hedge, the reminders of separateness. But there is also incomparable beauty. And good hope.
(Write to Salil at email@example.com)