South African pineapples that could suddenly go off

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The Independent Online
I HADN'T realised hand grenades came in so many shapes and forms. That is, I hadn't until we went to South Africa a week ago. We were off to visit my father-in-law. He doesn't have any hand grenades himself; but in Cape Town airport there is a big notice headed 'Look And Save A Life', which gives a sketch ('Actual Size') of the main kind of explosive devices you might see here and there. Mini-limpet mines. Anti-personnel mines. Land mines. (I have made a note, I see, that says: 'Land mine indistinguishable from dustbin lid.')

There are also four kinds of hand grenades, all looking like unripe pineapples. However, I didn't see any while I was there. Unripe pineapples, that is. Along the Cape coast road from George to Knysna there were occasional lay-bys with stalls set out proclaiming the presence of 'Natal Avos' and/or 'Sweet Pines'. The big, juicy Natal avocados hung in string bags looking for all the world like little green bombs, although much cheaper at about pounds 1 for half a dozen, and the sweet pineapples lay stacked up like, well, ripe hand grenades.

Even if you are journalistically prepared for a visit to South Africa (ie, you have taken an oath to try not to use the phrase 'this beautiful but troubled country'), it's hard not to be haunted by images of violence. Not that you see any violence. I don't think we came across any, apart from the severity of some storms over Cape Town. ('Calling that place the Cape of Good Hope was one of the first bits of misleading PR on record,' says my father-in-law. 'Cape Tempest, more like.')

It's hard to take in headlines such as the one that greeted us on arrival: '470 die in Cape over the weekend'. No political trouble, just the Easter traffic rush, producing mayhem on a scale that politics and racial strife can seldom rival. Mark my words, the greybeards say, there will be a bloodbath one day. Wake up, greybeards - it's out there already, on the roads]

My father-in-law, who was in Egypt during the war, developed a theory that chaotic traffic such as that in Cairo held its own solution. Over the years, the bad drivers would kill themselves off, leaving the good ones behind. Viewing the worldwide rise in traffic accidents, he now recognises there was something wrong with his theory, and tends to the view that not only do the bad drivers survive, they also kill off the good ones.

We were in Port Elizabeth, hoping to get to the Addo Game Park to see some elephants. There were two reasons why this plan seemed less than ideal. One was my father-in-law, who had been a game warden in Kenya, and has ceased to be excited by going to see elephants. The other was the two townships en route to the park; trouble had been reported after the death of Chris Hani - cars set on fire, people attacked, etc.

'Never mind,' said one of our number. 'We can always phone the Unrest Unit before we go out and see if it is safe. '

You can ring up the Unrest Unit, just as we might do the RAC, to discover the road conditions. ( 'Hello. . . Are they looting and burning on the M4 tonight? No? But a bit of rock-throwing near Swindon? Thanks.') I'd never heard of such an Orwellian outfit before, but then I don't live in such a, well, troubled but beautiful country as the RSA.

We rang the unit. Everything should be fine, it said. Nevertheless, we left Port Elizabeth early. Not a moment too soon. The next day the centre of PE was filled by a huge crowd and much looting and breaking of heads and windows took place. Still, the coast road home was almost empty, apart from the occasional baboon, and road deaths were at a record low that day.