Punters escape their troubles with a day at the Durban July: John Carlin in Durban takes a critical look at fashionable racegoers in South Africa and asks why Boipatong seems a long, long, way away

IT IS a peculiar fact of white South African life that, outside of sports, there are no heroes, no stars. No home-grown Terry Wogans, Kylie Minogues, Sylvester Stallones. No Lenny Henrys.

But on those rare occasions when overseas celebrities, however obscure, visit South Africa they are received with the acclaim of kings. Take Perry Stevens, better known as Jack Forbes, one of the blue-eyed heart-throbs in the hugely popular American soap series, Loving.

Mr Stevens stole the show on Saturday at 'the Durban July'. South Africa's attempt to emulate Royal Ascot, 'the July' is the biggest, most fashionable horse-racing event on the calendar, complete with a pounds 200,000 race and a competition for the woman with the most outrageous hat.

Mobbed by female fans upon his arrival in a helicopter, Mr Stevens judged the hat and best- dressed-lady contests, posed with Miss South Africa and did an interview with the Durban Sunday Tribune. 'Hunky Perry', as the Tribune described him yesterday, did not fail in his duty. 'It's been a once in a lifetime experience,' he said. 'I love the warmth of the people here. I didn't expect South Africa to have such a European feel to it. It's a nice plus.'

Mr Stevens' inanity uncannily hit the spot. The charm of 'the Durban July' is that, more than any other event in the South African social calendar, it reinforces the abiding apartheid myth that the whites are still living in Europe, that this is not Africa at all.

Which is not to say that there were no brown or black faces at the race track. There were plenty on the grandstand, serious race- goers of the type you find all over the world, wizened chain-smokers studying their form cards with the single-mindedness of dogs chewing bones.

But across the way from the grandstand, on the sunny side of the track, that was where the real - in other words, the mythical - Durban July was going on. This was where Mr Stevens did his turn, where 'dramatic, daring, lavish and over-the-top styles' were the order of the day. It could have been Royal Ascot, it could have been the Derby, it could have been the VIP 'tent city' at Wimbledon.

For this was not only white South Africa, it was Durban, bastion of the white tribe's 'English' clan. Here a string quartet, there a piano, made mild the breeze as middle-aged men in Panama hats, checked grey suits and brown Hush Puppies ambled on the lawns beside blondes in red velvet stiletto-heels, pale girls in conical 'Madonna' bras and bow-tied youths with Brylcreemed hair.

Making the point of the rejection of Africa more forcibly than any white person, a black mother and daughter popped across for the fashion show dressed like Edwardian nobility in cream-coloured satin and lace. Two young black women, funny hats their cultural weapons, portrayed their visions of the new South Africa in red chiffon and black leather.

An attempt was nevertheless made to inject an indigenous note. To the beating of drums, and starts all around, a troupe of Zulus dressed in leopard skins stomped on to the course. It was a piece of pageantry so wackily out of place that a vision arose of the kind of treatment Mel Brooks might mete out to Gilbert and Sullivan. But no one saw the funny side. No one, indeed, saw anything at all, after the immediate surprise had passed. As the warriors filed out, their routine completed, a young white couple in morning coat and flowing dress literally brushed past the spear- wielders and walked on without even turning to look, without acknowledging the existence of the Zulus, as if they were not really there.

For the fashion show beckoned. Here was reality in all its European glory in the shape of the compere, a genuine English import (the accent gave him away) of the Butlins variety - loud jacket, loud tie, tinted blond hair and jokes along the lines of, 'That's a nice mini-skirt you're almost wearing, dear.'

The winner of the hat competition was Vee Kasimov, from Cape Town, but, between races, debate raged over lobster and champagne as to whether Gail Carruthers deserved to win the best-dressed-lady title. The evening chatter centred on the man who lost pounds 40,000 in bets, but would have won pounds 160,000 had his horse come first, and not second, in the last race.

All of which was some way removed from what was concerning Nelson Mandela, 400 miles away in Johannesburg. Even as the Durban July's hallowed last ritual was getting under way - drunken young men doing a 100-yard streak to the finishing line - the president of the African National Conference was rejecting an offer of peace talks by President F W de Klerk who, he said, had 'chosen to drive South Africa on a collision course'.

Mr Mandela referred to the dangerous deterioration in relations between the government and the black majority the ANC represents after the massacre at Boipatong, saying: 'I see no reason to mislead the public and the international community about the gravity of the crisis facing our country.'

In a frenzy of forgetting, the public at the Durban July would have wondered what planet Mr Mandela was from. One drunken shirtless young man in a green jacket, bow tie and white shorts, asked what he made of events at Boipatong, replied: 'Boipatong? That's the name of a horse isn't it?'

(Photographs omitted)

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