Tuesday, March 02, 2010

South Africa - the View from Down Under [Part 1]


An alarming perspective from a country that South Africa could once have become - by Nick van der Leek

The SAA Boeing descended through Australian skies that, as I suspected, were much like South Africa's. Sunny and blue. Outside the plane, Perth, Australia's and the world's most isolated city [and the closest Australian city to South Africa] felt a lot like Cape Town. It's difficult to say why. The sandy flats, the relaxed vibe, the sense of ocean and harbour around the next corner.

Of course, Perth, on closer examination, is nothing like Cape Town. In fact, South Africans living permanently in Australia have the following shorthand to guide new ex-South Africans. They say Sydney is Johannesburg, Perth is Bloem-by-the sea, and New Zealand is Cape Town. I can confirm that the first two are, broadly, correct. The third gives you an idea that it is really a rough picture, but also the bias built into the comparison. Comparing New Zealand, the entire country, to the city that is Cape Town, is probably a bit like comparing diamonds to pearls. And let's face it, add vinegar to your pearl and within a short period of time it disappears entirely.

Perthfect

Perth was the first city I encountered in Australia. A modern, sweltering, compact and it must be said, beautiful city. Perth has an apex of skyscrapers shouldering a beautiful park - King's Park - which is where many locals congregate to view the Australia Day fireworks as it has lovely views of the city within a tall forests. Fraser's, a restaurant set in the park, is a must-dine venue for the same reason. One thing I realised during my visit was that all of Australia's cities have places to go to, and buildings or places that are iconic, that say to the visitor, this is Perth, this is Melbourne, this is Adelaide. I guess what I am saying is that all the city centres are functional, they operate and they shine.

This is in great contrast to almost all South Africa's major centres. Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, East London - all these cities' centres have degraded. In the case of Johannesburg many skyscrapers have become condemned, and most residents are terrified of having to drive through the city centre, day or night.

While Cape Town and Durban perhaps have more functional urban fabric at their cores, the slums surrounding these cities are horrifying, and cesspools of crime. Cape Town though has places that visitors consider iconic, that represent Cape Town and visitors head towards to 'be' in Cape Town. The mountain, the waterfront, Greenmarket Square. Durban has the Golden Mile, although it's become a dangerous place at night.

I remember seeing an advertisement to promote the host cities of the 2010 World Cup, and the footage of Johannesburg is particularly curious. What, pray tell, is the heart of Johannesburg? What is the iconic structure of Joburg? Is it the Hillbrow tower? Is the Hillbrow tower worth visiting? The skyline of Johannesburg represents the city, but locals know you don't go there. Now what kind of city, what kind of country is that?

Australia in general, and Perth in particular, has none of that urban schizophrenia. The cities are integrated, and sensible, they know what they are because they have an identity. People are comfortable biking through the city centre because the city recognises the individual, not merely the human appendage known as the car which is the currency of urban planning in Johannesburg.

Across Perth are large snaking lagoons luxuriating between neat suburban homes. It is never a large or overwhelming city and feels very clean and taken care of. The suburbs are shockingly open and accessible for someone coming from Johannesburg, someone who is used to boom access on public roads, and palisade fencing with the requisite electrified 8 wires spanning those walls. Even the schools have no fences, the paths to one lovingly decorated with a long snake made out of colorful stones.

The paths in Perth are something else to behold. There is an entire network dedicated exclusively to walkers and cyclists. Pavements everywhere are wide, and sloping at corners. The result is you feel like walking around, or cycling, and so you get a wide spectrum of outdoor transport activity. Cars, busses, walkers and cyclists. And, of course, modern commuter trains knifing every ten minutes along corridors cut between highways.

At the time I was in Perth the government was proving subsidies of around AU$1500 [That's over R10 000] for homes to be fitted with special insulation. This insulation would reduce the need for air conditioning and/or warming in winter.

The day after I arrived in Australia was Australia Day. Imagine a smorgasbord of flags and fireworks, barbecues and surfboards. Australians love their country, and so do many people from other countries. I don't think I've encountered a more cosmopolitan bunch anywhere else.

What also impressed me a great deal is Australia's approach to sport. Take swimming. It's virtually compulsory for every toddler to enrol in a State Swim program. This employs a whole bunch of people who work to get every young Australian in the water, able to swim. They then progress through swimming kindergarten etc. Is it any wonder that Australia produces the best swimmers in the world? And besides the emphasis on sport, swimming is one of the healthiest sports one can do simply because it is low impact, you can do it whether you're young or old.

Of course on an island continent like Australia, being able to swim is essential. Which is why you so often see stacks of people swimming in the coves of Sydney beaches or a lagoon in Darwin as the sun sets, or the 20km swim from Perth to Rottnest Island. And why not, swimming is one of the most enjoyable outdoor activities, whether it is associated with surfing or sailing or just swimming for its own sake. More country's could do with a state swim program like Australia's, South Africa most of all. Ryk Neethling's swim schools are probably the beginning of something in that direction.


The most significant sensation I felt in Australia was also perhaps the most subtle - the lifting of tension. There's none of that oh-so-South African tension here. The Australians bicker about climate change more than anything else, and with good reason. More on that in the next episode, where I'll share my impressions of Adelaide.

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