I grew up in the 1960s and 70s when South Africa was never out of the news. Bulletins featured black heroes and martyrs called Tutu, Mandela and Biko, snarling right-wing white politicians with Dutch names and off-putting accents, apartheid (which term our geography teacher, in a tone heavy with meaning, explained was pronounced apart-hate), sanctions, and things called townships where black people lived in shacks. We - the UN, the civilised world - were unequivocally, righteously hostile in our view of the regime: we signed petitions, demonstrated, and refused to play cricket with them or buy their oranges. If you went there (which you were not encouraged to do for fear of "legitimising" it by your visit) it took hours longer than it needed to because of overflying restrictions.
The issue was, emphatically, race - the anti-apartheid struggle perhaps the biggest race-based conflict since the American Civil War - and Britain in those years was a country coming to terms with its own recently acquired multi-racial character. Collectively, we were not at all sure of where we stood on this highly ethical, super-sensitive, profoundly human subject; and South Africa was at once an awful warning and a beacon of hope. In our uncertainty, we relocated our anger and fear, our doubts and hopes, to the far south - partly, I suspect, so that we did not have to look at ourselves too closely. This led to some extraordinary expressions of bigotry and self-righteousness, and also some of true heroism and towering humility. For a good 25 years, it was impossible for the ordinary Briton not to have a view about South Africa - and there was really only one respectable view. With strong competition from the Vietnam war, it became the political cause célèbre for a whole generation of young Westerners.
This, and what has happened there since those dark years, has inevitably coloured my view of this huge, complicated country. I have recently returned from a 10-day holiday in the Western Cape - which some will tell you is not the "real" South Africa (let alone the "real" Africa) at all. Its Mediterranean climate and its Western social attitudes - not to mention its extraordinary beauty - provide a highly sympathetic point of entry for the urban liberal. And if you can contrive not to take in the glimpses of the townships that rise along the motorway from the airport into Cape Town, if you restrict your subsequent range to your ocean-view apartment, city-centre restaurants and beauty spots, you can pretty much avoid contemplation of recent history and its legacy. You can eat very well and very cheaply. You can (if you're the type) surf and paraglide in idyllic surroundings. You can visit pristine vineyards, admire their contemporary art installations, and taste the very fine and varied wines of Constantia and Stellenbosch. You can wander the exquisite Kirstenbosch botanical gardens which nestle into the side of Table Mountain. You can bathe in the warmth of these smiling, hospitable people - who will switch without missing a beat to English from their native isiXhosa or Afrikaans to welcome or help you. You can go to church - this is still a very religious country - in large, often racially and linguistically mixed Anglican congregations, and feel entirely at home. If you want, you can ignore the other stuff.
Except you can't, really. You can't ignore a train platform populated entirely by black people (out-of-town whites commute by car). You can't ignore people toiling along hard shoulders miles from anywhere, hitching lifts if they can (I am mildly haunted by the sight of young men lying impassively on piles of timber or furniture in the back of pick-up trucks); you can't ignore the vast, dense, tumbling shanty settlements of the Cape Flats, with their dodgy-looking electricity poles and kids playing football on waste ground. You can't ignore the men who appear from nowhere to help you park your car in the hope of small "donation". Most of all, you can't ignore people standing, sitting, eating, even sleeping, at every crossroads and motorway junction, waiting for God knows what or whom. And, on the flipside, you can't ignore the gated security, and the bars at every window of the smart houses of the leafy, silent white suburbs, patrolled in police fashion by ubiquitous ADT vans.
It's too easy to slip into a bleeding-heart guilt-trip about all this - especially on the basis of a short visit to what is probably one of the most affluent corners of the entire African continent. But it is salutary (and perhaps simply human) to be aware of the inequalities, and of how little income disparity has changed since the abolition of apartheid (in fact it has increased). And it's clear that the poor are generally black and the rich are generally white. That's not unique to South Africa, of course; but it is certainly more graphically obvious there than it is in the UK. As far as I could judge, nobody much expects this to change in a hurry: there is much cynicism about the present ANC government, which many - of all races - believe to be riven with corruption and nepotism; and the economy of this country - fertile, resource-rich, and bursting with potential - is flatlining. But the visiting, well-wishing foreigner finds it hard not to be hopeful. It's simply a lovely place, and its people so damned nice that it's hard to regard it as anything but blessed.
Post script. On the day I got back, the BBC ran a TV programme documenting the hot water that American singer-songwriter Paul Simon had got into over his landmark album Graceland. Simon had rather stumbled into the South African controversy in 1986 when he went there to record songs for the album, breaking the "cultural boycott" of South Africa which was by then in place. He collaborated with the then exiled and since deceased black South African singer Miriam Makeba ("Mama Africa") but, most famously and controversially, with the indigenous male-voice group Ladyship Black Mambazo.
I vaguely remember the fuss at the time; and I also remember largely ignoring it. This was partly because, by the mid-80s, boycotting South Africa had become reduced to a sort of background noise; but mainly because I regarded (and still regard) Simon as a poetic genius and Graceland as a work of musical art. Its fusion of African tribal rhythms and harmonies with Simon's lonely urban mysticism is a - possibly timeless - triumph and, as far as I know, a truly unique undertaking.
So I had not realised how badly affected Simon - an apparently liberal and humane man - had been by the criticism which he had attracted by his unwitting "legitimisation" of the Pretoria regime. The programme suggested that, 26 years on, his album caused offence that has only just been forgiven by some former anti-apartheid activists. This made me smile: in the Cape Town department stores, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and airport lounges in which I had found myself days before, I could not escape the strains of Paul Simon's poignant celebration of Africa, and of human memory:
Joseph's face was as black as night;
the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes.
His path was marked
by the stars of the southern hemisphere
and he walked his days under African skies.
This is the story of how we begin to remember.
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein.
After the dream of falling and calling your name out,
these are the roots of rhythm
and the roots of rhythm remain.
Listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDg6YHjN72A