There are six floral kingdoms in the world. The Western Cape is one. It is the smallest and, with over 9000 species of plants (6200 of which are endemic), it is also the richest in terms of its size. One of the loveliest places to enjoy the fynbos is Kirstenbosch, a botanical garden on the slopes of Table Mountain. It’s sheltered, and a favourite spot for picnics, so when our plan to have breakfast at Eagle’s Nest on Saturday morning was foiled by a howling south-easter (a wind of sufficient notoriety to have its own wikipedia entry), we regrouped at Kirstenbosch. My brother Mike and nephew Greg joined us, as did Andrew and Heather Davies (friends from university days) with their two children, Caitlyn and Cameron.
After we’d spent several hours polishing off the better part of a substantial spread (including spinach and feta croissants which appear to be a local speciality; I’m not sure the French would approve), we headed down to Muizenberg beach where Heather had very kindly organised a surfing lesson for Charlotte. Muizenberg is over on the east side of the peninsula, at the western end of the very long stretch of sand which curves all the way round False Bay. It catches the full force of the wind, so Tony parked the car facing on to the beach where we could watch Charlotte’s progress without being sand-blasted.
Muizenberg has always had a somewhat seedy, dilapidated feel to it. It’s a popular surfing beach and while there are plenty of trendy surfer dudes to be found in the beachfront surf shops and cafes, the wind and the sea spray covers everything with a slightly sticky, salty residue, and the holiday flats and apartment blocks overlooking the beach seem tired and run-down.
In front of us, a group of seven or eight smartly dressed, earnestly friendly young people were making their way along the promenade, handing out Watchtower magazines and homilies to the beggars and down-and-outs that were hanging about. Having time to kill, I cleared up the car, folded towels and picnic blankets, and threw the bag of rubbish we had accumulated from breakfast into a nearby bin. Within minutes, one of the down-and-outs had opened the bin and was investigating its contents. I felt awkward and uncomfortable – at the same time both relieved that I hadn’t thrown out wasted food, and apologetic that there would be nothing for him to find. However, his ideas about what constituted useful pickings were rather different to mine: I watched as he carefully retrieved each of the dozen or so discarded yoghurt pots and licked them completely clean. His need of the breakfast left-overs was clearly greater than ours, and I went to the boot to see what food there was. Three small boys immediately materialised, and I distributed the few remaining croissants and some half-empty cartons of fruit juice. It felt desperately inadequate.
There is, of course, a painful difference between telling one’s children to eat their greens because there are starving children in Africa, and having those same hungry children in their raggedy clothes and holey shoes appearing at one’s elbow. ‘Where are the soup kitchens?’ one thinks. ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’ Well, because the problem is huge. And complex. With roots that go back through the decades of Apartheid, and further through centuries of dispute about how this country’s land and resources should be shared. At an individual level, I can tip the car guards, pay the cleaning lady somewhat more than the R24.00 (£2.20) an hour she asks for, make sure that food, clothes and other surplus-to-requirement household items reach those who need them. This might assuage some of my white middle-class liberal guilt, but it does nothing whatsoever that’s meaningful at any sort of population level. The contrast that confronts me between my happiness and well-being – the delights of the mountains, Kirstenbosch, family picnics, surfing lessons – and the difficulties that are faced by so many of the people that I encounter here on a daily basis, is deeply discomforting.