Johannesburg Stories

Alex Duval Smith on why Jo'burg diehards would rather tough out the heat and crime at home than head for Cape Town; a foiled prison escape that's left the authorities in a hole; and a pop diva who may not be all she sounds
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The Independent Online

It is so quiet in Johannesburg at this time of year that you can almost hear the security catch being dropped on the gun when armed robbers stage their regular hold-up at the off-licence down the road. It is midsummer in the Southern Hemisphere, and everyone who cannot take the heat in Johannesburg has left for "esCape Town".

It is so quiet in Johannesburg at this time of year that you can almost hear the security catch being dropped on the gun when armed robbers stage their regular hold-up at the off-licence down the road. It is midsummer in the Southern Hemisphere, and everyone who cannot take the heat in Johannesburg has left for "esCape Town".

That is how we diehard Jo'burg dwellers refer to that place by the sea, which we tell ourselves isn't "real" Africa. After all, most of the people in the Cape are mixed-race, not, as here, black. Whites in Cape Town are preoccupied with Europe, either because they are shooting television commercials for them, using the stunning scenery as a backdrop, or tailoring their wines to suit shoppers in Tesco and Sainsbury's. Where's the pride in Africa, we ask?

We, on the other hand, stoically survive 12 months out of 12 in Johannesburg, where crimes are committed at a faster rate than Argentina changes presidents. Needless to say, the exodus to esCape Town is all the more welcome because, by leaving, thousands of people self-select themselves for burglary. The odds are on their house, not ours, though it does get a bit wearing listening to the endless whine of burglar alarms and the barking of dogs left behind.

This year's escape to the Cape may be less pleasurable for locals, though, because South Africa has become the cheapest holiday destination in the world, thanks to a plummeting rand. Cape Town has become one of the most popular holiday spots, thanks to cruise ships avoiding the Suez Canal and airlines with seats to fill.

Sheryl Ozinsky, the city's tourism manager, is in two minds as to whether to welcome the trend. "The way the economy is going, we are going to have massive inflation," she said. "It is going to eat away at the local market, which we need if we are to keep the guest houses and hotels open all the year round. We have been resisting dual pricing, but soon we are going to be forced to introduce lower rates for South Africans and higher ones for visitors – a system no one is comfortable with."

Be that as it may: if you have hard currency, now is the time to come to South Africa. Cape Town's super-swish Mount Nelson Hotel is quoting prices in dollars (a single room costs the equivalent of £120) but there are also luxury guest houses at just £25 a night. Going out is really cheap: R100 (£5.70) for the ferry to Robben Island, R65 for a cablecar ride up Table Mountain and just R10 to enter one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch.

 

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You generally have to adjust your mind slightly before it can deal with South African realities. When an escape plan by 50 inmates at Pretoria Central Prison was foiled on Wednesday, it was not the prospect of robbers and murderers on the loose that worried the authorities. It was the need to call in the builders.

The prisoners had burrowed a tunnel behind a basin in a cell on the third floor, and were planning to escape through the building's sewerage system. Isaac Mosiane, a correctional services spokesman, said the men had been searched for digging equipment and transferred to other sections of the jail.

This created a logistical nightmare for the prison governor, Nico Baloyi. "We sealed up the tunnel with cement within a few hours. We had to move fast, because we needed to use the cell," he said. Overcrowding is such in South Africa's jails that it's not so much a case of inmates watching paint dry as they serve their sentences, but warders waiting for cement to dry so as to be able to fill up the cells again.

 

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As the rand falls and inflation bites, there are still those in South Africa who need not watch the currency charts. Pop diva Brenda Fassie is one, thanks to a trademark piercing voice that at some point every day booms out of practically every speaker in Africa. But is it really her voice?

Deborah Fraser, a backing singer and "voice double", claims not, and is suing the black madonna of Soweto. "This has been going on for far too long," claims Fraser, a successful gospel artist in her own right. "My fans know my voice when they hear it, and they hear it all the time on Brenda's albums."

Brenda's producer, Sello "Chicco" Twala, dismisses the claims as nonsense, and says he is spending R80,000 (£4,500) to fly a musicologist from London to verify that the voice on Brenda's chart-topping albums really belongs to her. EMI, Brenda's label, wants to stay out of the row. "We don't know what goes on in the studio," one executive said.

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