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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Twelve nights as a tourist at home

Karoo reality: Lola the pet dog at Gamkapoort Dam: Pic Steve Pike
 Tourists tend to get a distorted view of Cape Town, but I got a refreshing perspective when I became a tourist in my own city recently.
Hosting friends from the US for 12 nights during the July school holidays, we showed them our local haunts. We also used the break to indulge as holidaymakers and explore our surroundings.

# There's always something new to see in your backyard

On day 1, we eased our friends Tom Landon, Beth Macy and their 13-year-old son Will out of jetlag by taking them to our favourite suburb, Muizenberg. We walked along the coastal path past Baileys Cottage to St James, the giant swell from spring tide lashing the route along the way. We spotted a few baby sharks, not in the ocean but in Kalk Bay, in a tank at the Save our Seas Shark Centre, a place of interest I have never visited before. We ate fish and chips at the Brass Bell, watching a group of gung-ho surfers getting barrelled at a break a few metres from our table window.

# The resilience of Robben Island

Madiba's prison cell on Robben Island. Pic: Tom Landon
Our laid-back friends from Virginia had one non-negotiable on their trip: a pilgrimage to Robben Island. On day 2, we took the Sikhululekile to the island, which has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. We got choked up with emotion thanks to our superb tour guide, Yasien Mohamed. The tour, which cost R220 for adults (R110 for children), became the subject of conversation throughout the holidays as we tried to figure out whether we had blinkers on that day, whether we were just lucky, or whether the new CEO is shaking things up at the scandal-ridden World Heritage Site*.
We walked to the station by following the fan walk through the city. We caught the Metrorail train to Steenberg Station, giving our visitors a feel for the natural working rhythm of city life.

# Spoilt for choice: Neoprene or lycra

The mountain or the ocean?
We headed for my weekend hangout, Surfers Corner, on Day 3. Will stood up within an hour of getting into the water, with the help of a learner soft board from the Surf Shack. Amped and stoked, Will spent the rest of the holiday like us - dreaming about his next surf.
So day 4 became a surf morning too, for half of us. The others took a break from the ocean and tight neoprene in favour of the mountain and moulded lycra, heading instead to the Tokai forest for a bike ride followed by a quick tour of Groot Constantia, the grand old dame of wine estates.

# Even locals can be fooled by the weather

Half-way up Platteklip Gorge in a black South Easter

The alarm clock beeped at 6.45am on day 5. It was a calm, clear day – perfect for our scheduled overnight hike on Table Mountain (Hoerikwaggo trail.) We got to the Cableway for a leisurely ascent, but the service was closed due to the wind (huh? We thought). Forced into the unthinkable, we had to climb the steep, scary face of the mountain up Platteklip Gorge. Instead of shedding clothes as we climbed, we piled on our inadequate, thin layers as we looked up to face a menacing veil of black south easterly cloud streaming down the mountain crevice. Our iced-up hands clung to the rocks as we navigated our way precariously upwards. We reached the top more than two hours later, but could see nothing through the thick cloud. Fighting the bitter cold, we trudged on. Eight and a half hours after our journey began, we arrived at the eco-friendly Orangekloof camp above Hout Bay.
Only then did I decide that the foot sores and stress of the day (being know-it-all Capetonians who don’t need mountain maps, we also got lost briefly) had been worth it.

# It can be safe to sleep outdoors near the city

Orangekloof tented camp, a safe haven
We made cowboy-style spaghetti bolognaise on the communal stove. Fortunate to have the camp to ourselves, we shared a precious bottle of wine around a bonfire before collapsing on mattresses in luxury double tents (R200 a person). Here we were, close to the city and amid a spate of mountain muggings (we kept this from our US visitors till later), sleeping out in the open, with no doors or fences. Priceless.
On day 6, we walked through the shopping labyrinth at Greenmarket Square. We toured Newspaper House, Beth – a journalist at the Roanoke Times - delivering a talk to our newsrooms. We explored the devastation of District Six and pointed out the socio-economic contrasts between returning home along the M3 and the M5.
Later we headed out on the N2 for a night in Greyton, staying at a friend’s house. The town was blissfully quiet, like everyone had gone into hibernation for the winter.

# Sex sells, even along the R62

Ronnie Price is the face of the R62 sex shop. Pic; Beth Macy
 Travelling along the R62 on day 7, we popped in for a beer at Ronnies Sex Shop, which is safe to take the kids though they may giggle at the Pompstasie sign on the exterior wall. Chatting to Ronnie Price in his wheelchair (I didn't ask how he broke a leg), I learnt that the sex shop - actually a restaurant and bar where you may leave your signature underwear behind - had opened 13 years ago, “for fun”. “Sex sells,” said Ronnie before grinning for the camera. A sign of the times, his shop was littered with Karoo anti-fracking stickers and graffiti.

# It’s wild fun taking a sedan into 4X4 country

Gamkapoort Dam: The curvaceous Klein Karoo. Pic: Janet Heard
We pushed on through a treacherous 21km stretch up Seweweekspoort pass, dodging humps and bumps along the way, my city sedan groaning in sympathy with my edginess.
After zigzagging for another 25 km along a hazardous dirt road that had recently been eroded by floods, we reached our destination, Gamkapoort Dam, in the dark. I patted my car. We settled into our two-bedroom, Eskom-free cottages (R125 per person a night) which are managed by Fox Ledeboer, the legendary unofficial water bailiff who lives at the bottom of the hill, and Anne Reid, who lives at the top.
The next morning, the Karoo winter sunlight reflected, refracted and shimmered over liquid and rock in front of our cottage. I forgave my husband Steve for insisting that we trek for a day along unforgiving roads to show our US friends an obscure place way off the tourist radar. With no cell reception and aware that the closest shop was in Ladismith 90 minutes away, we spent three nights in the Swartberg among the oddly shaped cacti and giant thorn trees. We walked, cycled, kayaked, ate, drank and stared into the stillness of the illuminated Klein Karoo.
En route home along the N1 on day 10, we stopped in at Matjiesfontein for lunch in the pub, then back to the Mother City.

# There’s more to the Noon Gun than the big bang

On day 11, Beth and I separated from our clan to vist the gorgeously kitsch Tretchikoff exhibition at the Iziko National Gallery. We strolled through parliament gardens, toured Lavender Hill “where Ellen Pakkies lives”, and ate a tasty Breyani for lunch at another place I had never been to, the Noon Gun Restaurant at the summit of Bo-Kaap.

# Where there’s a Will there’s a wave

A stoked Will catches a giant ripple at Surfers Corner. Pic:Tom Landon
 Before waving goodbye to our friends on day 12, we returned to Surfers Corner for Will to ride one last wave.

*An article about Robben Island appeared in the Cape Times on Wednesday July 20, link:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Press freedom: no time for complacency

January 8 is a day of celebration in our household. It is my 15-year-old son’s birthday. After meeting exiled Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe about two years ago, the day became known for something else.
 On January 8, 2009 Sonali’s husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated in Colombo while driving to work at the Sunday Leader.
I recall hearing about Wickrematunge’s murder seven months before meeting Sonali. His chilling “Voice from the Grave” leader in which he predicted his death was circulated via email around our newsroom in Cape Town.
Wickrematunge’s death didn’t make big news around the country, save for a snippet in a few papers and perhaps a brief mention on the television news. But it made me sit up and take more notice of events unfolding in Sri Lanka. The devastating effects of the December 2004 tsunami had been given considerable coverage. However, the protracted civil war was covered sporadically and often superficially.
Sonali and I met in the United States while on a journalism fellowship at the Nieman Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We struck up a friendship, swapped notes about sambal and curry recipes and also our country’s mutual passion for cricket.
More profoundly, through Sonali, I was given a crash course in the complex political landscape of her country, and how brave journalists risked their lives daily.

One day, Sonali, US journalist Beth Macy ( and myself crossed the Charles River to explore Boston. We stumbled upon the open New England Holocaust Memorial, its six luminous glass towers set on a granite path. We strolled through symbolic gas chambers amid suffocating steam, with tattooed numbers of the deceased on the walls. Then we came to Martin Niemöller’s chilling Dachau poem: “First they came for the Jews,…Then they came for me.”. It was a harrowing experience. For Sonali, at this point, it was unbearable. These were the words that her husband repeated in his editorial published days after his death.
As a journalist I realised how comparatively “normalized” South Africa had become. I had entered journalism during the last decade of apartheid. I negotiated my way through a myriad repressive media laws, a state of emergency and a flagrant abuse of human rights by the government. Then the country fought for – and won – press freedom. It was enshrined in the constitution at the dawn of democracy in 1994.
This was something else for Sonali and myself to swap notes about.
Sonali had joined the Nieman fellowship as a journalist in exile, just like a number of journalists from South Africa during apartheid, starting with the late Lewis Nkosi – an outspoken Drum writer – 50 years ago. Other outspoken journalists often flew to the sanctuary of the Nieman Foundation after being detained, banned and harassed.
In tribute, a handful of South African journalists have been honoured with the Nieman Foundation’s Louis Lyons Award for conscience and integrity, all during the apartheid era. Recipients include Max du Preez (1991), Zwelakhe Sisulu (1987), Allister Sparks (1985) and Joe Thloloe (1982).
In the year of our fellowship, Wickrematunge was honoured with the Louis Lyons award, securing a unanimous vote by our group of fellows (won jointly with Afghanistan journalists).
I returned home to South Africa after our fellowship ended last July. Sonali remained in the US, still fearing harassment if she returned to Sri Lanka.
In Cape Town, Sri Lanka has all but fallen off the news pages, except for a brief period this year during the World Cup Cricket tournament.At the Cape Times (, where I work, news about Sri Lanka rarely makes more than a brief, even though the paper stands apart from its competitors when it comes to international news. The reality is that space constraints have limited the paper to one dedicated page for world news.
But Sri Lanka is on the radar in journalistic circles. At last count, there were 19 journalists forced into exile, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It is ranked fourth on the CPJ’s 2010 Impunity index, a ranking of countries where journalists are regularly murdered and governments fail to solve the crimes.
According to the CPJ: “Ten Sri Lankan journalists have been murdered over the past decade for their coverage of civil war, human rights, politics, military affairs, and corruption, but not a single conviction has been obtained. Most of those killings have come during (Mahinda) Rajapakse’s time as prime minister and president.”
According to Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2010, Sri Lanka is towards the bottom of the list, at 158 (with the worst being Eritrea at 178).
South Africa is relatively high up, at number 38, though it has slipped five positions since the previous year.
I write this as South Africa falls under the threat of censorship – unprecedented in the new SA. Politicians are showing increasing disdain for the media, the craft of journalism and the quest for truth. We face a statutory media appeals tribunal to monitor and regulate the press, we face new regulations in the form of a Protection of Information bill, which will censor state information, and the ANC-led government has stepped up its verbal attacks on the media, thus threatening to tarnish the country’s image as a bastion of press freedom.
Seventeen years into democracy, journalists are engaged in a new battle. The hard-fought freedoms that I was so proud of and felt so privileged to enjoy during my sabbatical in the US as recently as a year ago are now under attack.
These warning signs are a reminder that an open society can never be taken for granted. Press freedom is always under threat from the rich and the powerful. Threats are carried out in different ways, from censorship and banning to harassment and murder. We can never become complacent. Journalists from around the world – from Sri Lanka to South Africa – need to stand together to keep up the pressure.

*This article was first published on the new human rights website,

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Friday night out

Cape Town Stadium, January 14, Ajax-Chiefs: Pictures: Steve Pike
“Who are you voting for?” my nine-year old daughter Ella asked enthusiastically on Friday night. We had just sat down with 40 000 people to watch Ajax Cape Town play Kaizer Chiefs at Cape Town Stadium.
Only one member in our group of 14 had made her allegiances clear. Tina wore a yellow and black bandana and shirt. The rest of us – aged six to 48 – were dressed nondescriptly or in Bafana gear.
Except for Barry, who wore a loud Bloemfontein Celtic shirt “because that’s the only PSL shirt I have”.
There was a balance of Chiefs and Ajax supporters among us, though also a few fence-sitters who switched sides during the game as the play ebbed and flowed.
Like a loyal party supporter, I stuck with tradition. I told Ella I was “voting” Chiefs, “because this is the team that I grew up with” (though in truth I had only watched two live PSL games, first in Joburg in the early 1990s between Chiefs and Pirates, and again a few months ago at the Cape Town Stadium).
For Ella, loyalty meant backing her home city team. She declared her support for the red and white side.
Premier Soccer League fans-in-training, we settled into the game.
We cheered. We clapped. We stamped our feet. We stood up and swayed to the yellow and red Mexican wave. We shared chairs with the family next to us due to seat shortages. Six-year-old Jemima blew competently on her vuvuzela, to a nod of approval from vuvu veterans behind her. She offered her plastic horn to me. I passed it on to my husband Steve, who plays social soccer every Wednesday as a diversion from his seven-day surfing obsession.
He pursed his lips to the horn, emitting a few feeble sounds.
He handed it to the American in front of him, who trumpeted away loudly, repetitively and rhythmically.
The game took shape. Our cynical “Oh-no-it’s-2011” spirits lifted. Exuberant fans cheered at the high level of skill on the field.
Halfway through the game, Steve nudged me and said: “Gee, we live in an amazing country.”
That’s exactly what I had been thinking, I said, cliché and all.
I glanced around the heaving stadium. A passionate Chiefs supporter in the row in front stood up and began copying the fancy footwork of one of his heroes on the field. He slumped back into his seat after the player – (I had no idea who it was) – missed the goal.
 few seats from him, a tourist from Chicago – a soccer fanatic – kept his eyes glued to the game throughout. Every now and then, he muttered words of praise or criticism to a stranger next to him who had become his new-found mate.
Six months after the final whistle blew on the World Cup, we had been unsure what to expect when we set out for the double-header on Friday night, which opened with the game between Vasco Da Gama and Supersport United. We wondered whether these PSL games would be a let-down after that feast of world-class football half a year ago.
Friday night’s soccer was parochial when compared to the grandness of that historic moment, but the evening was a real treat.
We have graduated – moved on – from the World Cup. Yes, it was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime event, but what we saw on Friday night was the emergence of a more authentic cultural experience.
Stripped of bells and whistles and glamorous A-list celebrities, here was a down-to-earth show, a local night of regular soccer. This is what made the evening so special.
Capetonians – and a smattering of tourists – had made Friday night a Soccer Night at the Cape Town Stadium. More than 40 000 supporters from all around the city had paid between R40 and R80 a ticket. Leaving their comfort zones in front of the television, they had commuted to Green Point – by bus, by taxi and by car – to be spectators.
The game ended with victory for the home team. The crowds streamed out the stadium, most heading for public transport home and some strolling to the nearest bar. There was a feeling of camaraderie and not a hint of aggression – not even from the disappointed fans in yellow and black.
The success of the World Cup demonstrated that South Africa was capable of anything, that the country was full of potential and possibility. This seed of hope – against the odds – was planted six months ago.
Friday night at the Cape Town Stadium was just a local soccer game, but a timeous reminder that strength lies in our diversity, and that the glass is not half-empty.
And Friday night’s success was a sign that soccer – including the stadium monolith – can be a unifying cultural force in a historically divided city. I’ll vote for that.
*This article appeared in the Cape Times on January 17, 2011.
Ruling Chief: struggling to dominate Friday night

Ajax supporters at the Cape Town Stadium