The burning issue
Tuesday 30th November 2004 12:37
Feeling depressed about the state of the world? Cynical about the seeming inability of human beings to live together without falling out about race, religion or resources? Pessimistic about the future of the planet? Don't despair, because I think I've found a cure. You need to spend some time in South Africa. Any holiday is good for the spirit, especially if you're somewhere with infinite blue skies, searingly beautiful landscapes and thrilling wildlife, but South Africa also tenders a rarer, more precious gift, something that should be guaranteed to refresh and uplift even the most jaded - South Africa offers hope.
It's only 10 years since the chains of a truly horrific and cruel past were finally broken, and it's no wonder that the wounds are still apparent in the grievous problems that continue to face the country today. Apartheid's miserable legacy is visible in the abject poverty of the townships just a few miles from the vibrant and booming Cape Town waterfront. Things are changing, and there is progress, but it's a decade since the people of those same townships had their first chance to scratch an X on a ballot paper, so the fact that the wealth of the nation remains so obviously in the hands of a minority would seem a certain recipe for resentment and reprisal.
Most apparent, instead, are much more positive sentiments - a sense of achievement, a determination to move forward, and a real belief that with an almighty effort the country can really be transformed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of hospitality. Almost everyone you encounter is eager to know your opinion of the country. Are you having a good time? Have you been looked after? Have you felt safe? What's being said about South Africa back in the UK?
The importance of tourism, both as an economic driver in itself and in terms of attracting people to the country who may want to invest, seems to be understood at every level. The directives may come from the government, with for instance a series of very basic commandments (always greet the customer with a "Hola" and a smile, etc) that would probably be greeted with derision if they were issued by tourist boards over here, but that are enthusiastically adhered to by staff in South Africa. It's a simple idea, but it seems that whatever foreign reports say about South Africa, people who have actually visited the country will come home and market the place for them.