This Time For Africa
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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

travel Updated: Sep 20, 2010 00:07 IST

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.

How 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 cooperation 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 ribboncutting 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

First Published: Sep 20, 2010 00:07 IST