Flat Earth

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The Independent Online
A new African dawn?

READING as you probably have of looming famine in Sudan, war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and political upheaval in Nigeria, you might wonder what is meant by the term "African Renaissance".

In South Africa, from where Flat Earth comes to you this week, the phrase is much in use. Coined by the President-to-be, Thabo Mbeki, it signifies the spread of democracy and prosperity in Africa - or rather (I would have thought) the hope of it. The small question of whether or not there is such a thing as an African rebirth has failed to deter a horde of commentators from writing whole broadsheet pages on the prospects for Africa, the chances of the continent leading the world in the 21st century, and so on.

But when Jacques Chirac arrived here on Friday and promised French help in forging a new African dawn, I really started to worry. If South Africa studies France's behaviour in its former African fiefdoms, it will know what to expect: an expatriate army of Ecole Normale-trained bureaucrats, a currency controlled from Paris, a reaction force of paratroopers ready to sort out any threat to French interests and a secret service which encourages genocidists. Is this what Africa needs? Probably not.

Taste of the bush

WHEN you have completed your meal in one of South Africa's trendy restaurants, the waiter is sure to offer you rooibos along with the usual choice of tea or coffee.

Rooibos tea - it means "red bush" in Afrikaans - is a ghastly infusion which was once drunk only by those who could not afford the proper brew. Made, according to rumour, by shredding the entire bush, leaves, stems and all, it used to be deemed social death to serve it to your guests - as bad as giving them instant coffee bulked out with chicory.

But health faddists claim to have discovered that the stuff is full of anti- oxidants and such, and drink it with such enthusiasm that it now appears on every menu. For myself, I cannot help feeling as one would if the Pont de la Tour proposed PG Tips to round off the meal.

Death to foreign trees

THOSE who remember the Mediterranean pines which used to clothe the slopes of Table Mountain and its neighbours, Lion's Head and Devil's Peak, are in for a shock. These trees, often bent spectacularly by Cape Town's ferocious south-easterly gales, are progressively being felled.

It seems that there is a movement in South Africa to eradicate alien plant species. The conservation authorities have recruited former members of the special forces who, instead of staging sneak attacks on neighbouring countries, now drop from helicopters on to mountain crags to root out foreign plant life and give native species a chance.

This programme is being pursued with particular zeal in and around the Cape Peninsula, though I might find all the concern for the environment more convincing if there did not seem to be so much suburban development on ecologically fragile sites. The pines have to go, we are told, because they swallow up too much water, a scarce resource in these parts. New growth will take decades, though, and in the meantime the slopes looming over Cape Town will look a bit naked.