White South Africa needs black friends to survive

'Because Zimbabwe's white farmers remained separate, it was easy for Mugabe to demonise them'

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In the bad old days they called it DF Malan International, in honour of the dreary Calvinist who led the National Party to victory in 1948. Daniel François Malan, godfather of apartheid, a lump of plump certainty with his jowled face and squinting eyes. These days it is just plain Cape Town international airport, and for the hundreds of thousands of tourists arriving every year apartheid is a phrase in the guidebook.

In the bad old days they called it DF Malan International, in honour of the dreary Calvinist who led the National Party to victory in 1948. Daniel François Malan, godfather of apartheid, a lump of plump certainty with his jowled face and squinting eyes. These days it is just plain Cape Town international airport, and for the hundreds of thousands of tourists arriving every year apartheid is a phrase in the guidebook.

When I first came here blacks couldn't use the same toilets as whites or mixed-race people or Indians. You went into post offices and joined the white queue, while over on the black line elderly men were humiliated by young Afrikaner clerks. That was in "liberal" Cape Town. Police had only recently stopped examining beds to see if there was evidence that white and non-white had slept together.

Black life was a nightmare of racist strictures enforced with the gun, the electric shock machine and – most lethally of all – the ballpoint pen. With the flourish of a pen white bureaucrats consigned blacks and coloureds to native "locations"; as the apartheid dream flowered into full madness, blacks were dispatched to overcrowded, overgrazed tribal homelands run by handpicked black stooges of the regime.

In those days the tourists were much fewer. South Africa was morally isolated (well, a bit) and the beaches, mountains and winelands of the Cape an undiscovered treasure. Nowadays you fly into Cape Town and the runway is crowded with 747s just in from the European winter.

You jostle for a luggage trolley with safari-clad German, Dutch and British tourists, join the long queue at the car hire desk and the even longer line to change money. But do you feel impatient? Not a bit of it. This is non-racial democratic queuing! South Africa waited 350 years to get queues like these.

When you leave the airport take the left turn on to the N2 highway and drive in the direction of the mountains, passing the squatter camps of tin and plywood in which hundreds of thousands of impoverished blacks wait for houses, schools and jobs. After about 15 minutes driving there is a sign for Stellenbosch and a side road veering to the left. Straight ahead the great granite face of the Jonkershoek mountains rises above the vineyards, and if you come on a summer's morning I beg you to pull over and watch the early light flooding down the slopes.

My friend Richard lives about 40 minutes from the airport. You bypass Stellenbosch and climb the Hellshoogte Pass before the road drops again towards the Franschoek valley, passing the Boschendal wine estate where the writer Mark de Villiers met an elderly coloured man and asked him where he came from. In this old man's veins ran the blood of black and white South Africa and the blood of the Khoisan, the early hunter-gatherers obliterated by successive waves of invaders. The old man's reply to De Villier's question is one of the most poetic evocations of identity ever recorded. Where was he from? "I am from everywhere," the old man said.

After Boschendal the road crosses a railway line and an old police station and then a right turn takes you into the valley and the heartland of South African viticulture. The first vines were planted by exiled French Huguenots and some of their descendants still farm here today.

But the valley is changing. The tumbling South African rand has made this a cheap place for foreigners to invest. They are buying wine farms for a song. Many of the new landlords are German or Italian, along with a sprinkling of English-speaking South Africans from Johannesburg. My friend Richard is one of the latter and he owns a small property on the slopes of the Klein Drakenstein mountain.

I worked with Richard in the battle-torn townships of South Africa's transition in the early Nineties. He is a gifted cameraman but was weary of violence and longed to escape south to the Cape. Having grown up among the sugar cane fields of Natal, he also nurtured a desire to run his own farm. He met his wife, Sylvanna, in Argentina during the Falklands War, when she was working as a doctor in Tierra del Fuego. They fell in love and she agreed to come back to South Africa with him.

Like most sane human beings – and especially those with four young children – she eventually tired of life in security-mad Johannesburg and migrated to the Cape with dreams of farming fruit, olives and wine grapes. Richard scaled back hugely on his camerawork and invested his savings in a fruit farm.

For the past four years I've watched the progress of Richard and Sylvanna's African farm. They started out with fields of fruit, but Richard didn't have enough land or labour resources to mass-produce. Troops of baboons invaded the orchards and guzzled his peaches and apples, and wild pigs tore at the roots. Whenever I met him he looked tired and worried. He worked from dawn until nightfall, every day.

Then I heard from a friend that Richard and Sylvanna had a new dream. They would sell half the farm and use the money to build a Tuscan farmhouse on the slopes of the mountain. They would grow organic olives and shiraz grapes and live their lives at a pace more suited to their glorious surroundings.

The dirt road to the farm leads past fields of horses (they belong to the neighbours) and a little wood of blue gum trees before crossing the river and curling around a barn in which Richard has installed his olive press. The house is a hundred yards or so further on, a true Tuscan farmhouse at the base of an African mountain.

It might have the stonework and high ceilings and wooden shutters and the vast kitchen of a Chianti mansion, but it does not feel like an alien imposition. The landscape helps, of course. The Franschoek valley is green and sunny and instantly redolent of the Mediterranean. But I think a large part of that has to do with the kind of people who built it.

Richard and Sylvanna have made their choice to stay in Africa. They know that many whites are making a different choice, terrified by crime or fearful that they will become targets of black rage in the years to come. The targeting of white farmers by Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe has heightened the level of white fear.

Part of the answer is for whites to give more – not just in financial terms, but on a basic human level. White South Africa needs to make black friends and to exercise some humility when it comes to the past. The problem for many of Zimbabwe's white farmers is that because they remained a distinct, separate community it was easier for Mugabe to isolate and demonise them.

I know that Richard worries sometimes. He looks at his young sons and wonders if they will want to stay in Africa as adults. More to the point, will black South Africans still want whites?

I hope they do. The good life in the Franschoek valley will only last if whites share the bounty. Richard knows this. He has travelled all over Africa and had ample time to reflect on the aftermath of colonialism in places like Zimbabwe and Congo. In his own quiet way he urges his neighbours to open their hearts. For the sake of everybody in South Africa, I hope they listen.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent.

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