This time for Africa

Once ruled by a repressive, racist regime, South Africa today is a free country which has much to offer travellers: natural beauty, lots of wildlife, great food and drink.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2010 17:46 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

For many people of my generation, South Africa evokes memories of a different era. For all of my youth and part of my professional career, South Africa was a pariah state. In many ways, it was the evilest nation on earth. There were worse dictatorships and more repressive regimes of course, but this was the only country in the world (even Rhodesia was not as bad) that made discrimination on the basis of race or colour the very foundation of the existence of the state.

Blacks, Indians and Coloureds (people of mixed race) were not allowed to live in the fancy areas occupied by the ruling white minority (about 15 per cent of the population). If a white person entered into a relationship with a black or an Indian, this was a crime punishable by imprisonment. Children of mixed race were taken away from their parents and sent to live with foster families. And so on.

AfricaHow this kind of neo-Nazi state could survive into the Nineties beggars belief. But white-ruled South Africa flourished because of the backing of the British (the appalling Margaret Thatcher even defied Queen Elizabeth over imposing sanctions on South Africa) and the behind-the-scenes support of America which set up monitoring devices at a British naval base in Simonstown (near Cape Town) to keep a watch on the activities of the Russians in the Indian and Atlantic oceans. (Ronald Reagan claimed that sanctions against South Africa would be ‘repugnant.’)

It wasn’t till the Nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the West stopped backing the white regime. By then, the rest of the world had stepped up the pressure, imposing economic boycotts and refusing to play sport with South Africa. (Don’t let anyone tell you that politics and sport do not mix. The sports boycott played a huge role in destroying the morale of white South Africa).

India would not let white South African passport holders into the country and most of us refused to touch any product made in South Africa. I have many memories of checking to see where anything I bought was made when I studied in England (so that I could avoid South African goods) and I offended many hosts by refusing to drink the sherry if it was South African. (No great loss – it was cheap and disgusting sherry, anyway.)

One lasting memory of the anger with which Indians regarded white South Africans was the sign that went up outside the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in the early Fifties. It read “No dogs and South Africans allowed.”

I offer all this by way of background to tell you how strange it felt to be visiting a free South Africa for the opening of a Taj hotel. The end of the apartheid regime and the installation of a popularly elected government must rank as one of the major miracles of the twentieth century. I knew that apartheid could not last forever and that, at some stage, the neo-Nazis would be overthrown. But I never believed that it would happen peacefully – with a leader like Nelson Mandela who quoted the example of Gandhiji – and that democracy (rather than a brutal dictatorship) would succeed the apartheid regime.
Since that happened, nearly all of us who marched in our youth against the apartheid government have held our breaths. Sceptics always warned that it was only a matter of time before South Africa’s tribes turned violently against each other or till some despotic black dictator took over.

But despite these predictions, South Africa has continued to confound the sceptics. It can be a corrupt and unequal society (like India) but it still works. And the success of the recent soccer World Cup (brilliantly organised, from all accounts) demonstrates how, even as our own Commonwealth Games preparations have degenerated into farce, the South Africans know how to put on a world-class show.

Because India was such a vocal and active opponent of apartheid, Indians have a special place in the hearts of important South Africans. These days, as the world’s businessmen rush to South Africa to take advantage of the economic opportunities, Indian businessmen have a special advantage. I spent a day in Johannesburg where the CII had organised a conference on business co-operation between our two countries and the city was packed out with visiting Indian businessmen. It was not just the top tier of corporate chieftains who came. At a party hosted by our Consul General (Vikram Doraiswami, best remembered here as PS to the PM in Manmohan Singh’s first term), I was pleased to meet a variety of small to medium-sized businessmen who had come to sell Indian products in the vast South African market. All of them enthused about the opportunities and called Africa the new frontier.

When it comes to South Africa, of course, the Tatas are among the pioneers. Though we do not necessarily realise this back home, the Tatas are now an international group with around 65 per cent of their revenues being earned outside of India. Pretty early in the game – right after the apartheid regime was dismantled and before the new gold rush began – the Tatas identified South Africa as an important part of their global strategy. And today, the one Indian industrial name that educated South Africans recognise is Tata.

The new Taj in Cape Town emerged out of the Tata commitment to the new South Africa. The inner city area of Cape Town is beautiful (as is the rest of this amazing city.) But it needed funds for regeneration. An Irish developer called Frank Gormley took over a historic part of the inner city and redeveloped it as Mandela Rhodes Place.

Part of the area that was redeveloped included the old Reserve Bank building and the old mint. The Tatas partnered with Gormley (he owns 50 per cent of the new hotel company, the Tatas’ African subsidiary owns 25 per cent and the Taj owns another 25 per cent) to take over the two buildings and to construct a new block to give Cape Town one of its grandest hotels – the new Taj Cape Town. Though the hotel had a soft opening some months ago, it was formally inaugurated by Ratan Tata in late August, and that is the function I went to South Africa for.

It is a measure of how important Africa is to the Tatas that the Taj opening drew not just Ratan himself but also many other Tata grandees including B Muthuraman, Noel Tata and of course RK Krishna Kumar who, in addition to his vast Tata responsibilities, is still vice chairman of Indian Hotels, the company he once ran as managing director.

The Taj was also well represented; chief executive Raymond Bickson (who flew off to check out potential hotel properties in Johannesburg afterwards), the head of hotel operations Abhijit Mukherjee, the head of International Hotels, Yannick Poupon, the big boss of sales and marketing, Ajoy Misra, the Taj's marketing and PR whiz Deepa Misra and of course, chef Hemant Oberoi whose Bombay Brasserie restaurant has already been declared a hit in Cape Town.

Most hotels would collapse under the strain of hosting so many heavyweights but the Taj Cape Town coped admirably. It is a lovely hotel, the historical parts are quite fabulous and the new tower has also merged seamlessly with the old Reserve Bank building.

The opening was a razzmatazz affair, complete with red carpet, a ceremonial ribbon-cutting by Ratan Tata, a jazz band with a singer, a very attractive lady MC in a wedding gown, a glamorous party that attracted (or so I am told) the cream of the Cape Town set. President Zuma had promised to attend but a couple of hours before the party he was at a cathedral opposite the hotel at the funeral of a comrade from the old anti-apartheid struggle days so I guess it might have seemed insensitive for him to then cross the road and attend a rollicking party.

I had never been to Cape Town before but had always heard that it was one of the world’s great cities. Having explored the city and its surroundings, I have to agree. It is a surprisingly laidback place, relaxed and informal with excellent restaurants, very drinkable wine (most of it grown all around Cape Town), a lively waterfront full of singing, dancing and shopping and some stunning countryside all around.

I fulfilled my ambition of visiting the Cape of Good Hope (ever since I saw the Tom Cruise movie Knight and Day a couple of months ago, I have also been seized with the idea of visiting all the southern-most tips of all the continents in the world.) But I rather fear I got it wrong. The Cape of Good Hope is not the southern-most tip of Africa (that lies about 300 km away) regardless of what they told us when we studied geography at school.

It was certainly the point at which most ships sailing to India from Europe ran into weather problems (it was originally called the Cape of Storms) and so, once ships managed to pass it they believed that they were well on their way, having survived the toughest part of the journey. So there is not a lot to see of geographical value. You do not, for example, see the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic (the Cape is on the Atlantic side of Africa) and though people claim that you can see two different currents (warm and cold) meeting in the ocean, I could see nothing…

Even so, it is a great journey. You see whales jumping out of the water and rocky, tree-less hills and mountains, wild ostriches leap out of the side of the road suddenly, forcing the car to swerve. Large brown rabbits stare at you as you look out into the ocean. And there’s miles and miles of great coastline along the way.

Somebody will have to explain this to me one day but there must be a reason why countries with large populations of white people in unlikely continents tend to have great wine and great food. The English make crap wine. Their food is rubbish. And it is hard to get any good ingredients in that country these days. But in every country that English people have taken over, the opposite is true. Australia and New Zealand make great wine. In recent decades, Australia has been at the centre of new cuisine trends. And in both Australia and New Zealand you can eat brilliantly because the natural ingredients (the lamb, the beef, the butter etc) are so good.

In that sense, South Africa is a lot like Australia and New Zealand. It is full of excellent ingredients and good wine so all you need to do to eat well is to order a steak (in Cape Town I was particularly taken with the aged Karan beef) and a bottle of local wine or – if beef is a problem – then some of the wonderful local fish with a bottle of cold Sauvignon Blanc.

For all that, there are excellent restaurants serving global cuisine. Everyone in Cape Town recommended Willoughby’s, a large Asian seafood emporium on the waterfront with first-rate sushi and sashimi. But Cape Town is brimming with other excellent restaurants. A short drive away – in the wine country and by the coast – are many country restaurants and inns which provide an almost European experience which combines nicely with the majesty of South African countryside and local wildlife.

The Taj aims to be the top hotel in Cape Town but the competition is fierce. The grand old lady is the Mount Nelson Hotel (run by Orient Express) which reminded me of Bangalore’s West End. There’s the newer Cape Grace Hotel by the waterfront which could well serve as a model if the Taj ever wanted to refurbish Cochin’s charming Malabar Hotel. And there’s a brand new One and Only which has quickly established itself in Cape Town.

It is now remarkably easy to get to South Africa from India. In the old days, you had to either wait for the South African Airways flight (around three times a week) or fly to Dubai and take a connection. But the new Jet Airways flight has suddenly brought South Africa much closer. I left from Bombay at 2am, ate a very light dinner and fell asleep for the next seven hours. When they woke me with coffee and a muffin, we were ready to land in Johannesburg. (Cape Town is a two-hour domestic flight away and there seems to be a flight every half hour or so).

On the way back, I left at 11am from Johannesburg airport which, at that time at least, is a completely painless process partly because the airport is full of cheerful staff – unlike Bombay where the CISF takes over an hour (yes, you read right) to clear each passenger, a scandalous state of affairs that would never be tolerated at the more high-profile Delhi airport and would result in the immediate sacking of the DG, CISF. But because there are no big shot politicians travelling out of Bombay, the CISF runs a disgraceful operation, its ineptitude made even more apparent because both Immigration and Customs are now remarkably efficient. In contrast, South African security is helpful and quick while remaining thorough and careful.

My return flight was full of high-profile passengers (most of the Tata brass were returning from the CII show to Jo’burg) but service on the flight was relaxed and warm with the big shots getting exactly as much attention as the rest of us ordinary passengers.

South Africa is not near – it is as far as Europe and the flights cost nearly as much. But once you get there, both food and hotels are much cheaper than most European destinations. Plus you get to see a great country with lots of wildlife and natural beauty and European standards of shopping and hospitality.

First Published: Sep 17, 2010 19:58 IST