The Airplane Is Faster Than the Heart

Posted by Kelly Abeln and Eve Fairbanks

Nearly three years ago, I quit my reporting job in Washington, D.C., and flew to Cape Town, a city on a continent I’d never been to before. I wanted to get as far away from America as possible. Partly, I was burned out on Washington politics. The longer I spent there, the less I felt I understood. An old college roommate, the kind of globe-trotting girl who styled herself a “citizen of the world,” had once told me that “the most significant part of travel is the return,” and I hoped if I left honestly—with a one-way ticket, return date unknown—that when I came back I would see my home more clearly, with some of the perspective of a stranger.

But I’d also long had a dream to live and write in Africa. Books of journalism set there were always my favorites: The Village of Waiting, George Packer’s Togo memoir; My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan’s depiction of South African apartheid’s dying days; We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s landmark testimony on the Rwandan genocide. It’s hard for me to say exactly why these books developed such a hold on me, but I think something of their power is expressed in the photograph on Gourevitch’s jacket cover. Instead of the obvious image of suffering Africa—say, the “massacre memorial” at Nyarubuye, where the skeletons of murdered Tutsis were left where they originally fell, for tourists to step over—it’s a picture he had snapped himself, of a small wooden chair looking out over Rwanda’s Lake Kivu.

On the one hand, the chair is so white and elegant, and the sunlit lake so lovely, that the scene looks almost as if it could depict a resort: And, indeed, fabulous resorts have sprouted up on the shores of Lake Kivu since the massacres took place, symbols of how swiftly circumstances change in Africa, and of the resources—scenic, geologic, human— the continent possesses, right on the tantalizing verge of being tapped. On the other hand, the image is also eerily empty, as if the chair’s occupant is hanging back outside the frame, afraid to sit down until he’s certain the place won’t go to shit again—and, of course, he can never be quite sure of that. The devil performs miracles, too, in Africa, in tedious alternation with the angels. I badly wanted to travel to this paradoxical continent.

The writing fellowship I used to get to Cape Town seemed perfectly tailored to deliver the experience I wanted. It demanded I spend two years developing a “deep national” understanding of South Africa through cultural immersion; indeed, for the whole two years I was not supposed to leave. But in his Congo novel A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul describes a trap that modernity has set for explorers. The speed of air travel—depart from New York and 18 hours later, hello, Mongolia!—zaps away the journey time that emigrants used to take to digest the change they had made to their lives. “The airplane,” Naipaul warns, “is faster than the heart.” In my own case, my flight made it to Cape Town not only faster than my heart, but faster than my stuff.

I discovered at the check-in counter that I wouldn’t be allowed to put my overweight main suitcase on the plane, so I landed in Cape Town with the hodgepodge of a refugee: a frying pan had made it over in my carry-on, along with some classical-music CDs, but only two pairs of socks. Hoping my bag would be sent along soon, I didn’t purchase socks my first week in South Africa. Instead, I washed the ones I had every night, wearing one pair while the other dried at the window of my apartment, which sat high up on the slope of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. For some reason, my socks were accumulating thick scales of dirt by the end of the day, and the Great Scrubbing became a nightly ritual. I squeezed soap through them again and again while listening to Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem and felt like the most placeless, drifting, purposeless person in the world.

More troubling was the way the sensation of placelessness persisted even when I got out into Cape Town. I was supposed to be developing a deep understanding of South Africa, and yet I seemed unable to meet any actual South Africans. My roommate was an American Francophile and my first three friends were Congolese. I spoke more French than English my first week.

One afternoon, I decided to take a walk down to the harbor, introducing myself at every store. I cut down Wexford Road toward the sea, to a block of shops at Buitenkant Street: a café newly opened by a hip Serbian; a tavern recently bought by a Yorkshireman who claimed he used to party with the Clash; and a café whose menu revealed the motley influences the nomadic life had wreaked on its Ethiopian owner: kitfo, avocado pizza, bacon-and-banana sandwiches. I thought of a passage I love from the book of Isaiah: “Nations will come to your light ... and the sons of strangers will build up your walls.” This was the kind of cosmopolitan place that the prophet was talking about, and it made me dizzy.

I kept walking all the way to the water-front. A pier jutted into the bay, and a white fog squatted over its edge. When I walked into the fog, it smelled. (In Cape Town, the mists often smell strange—sometimes like the ocean, sometimes like something else, rust or wet wood or entrails. I sometimes wonder: From whence are these mists coming? From which decaying shores?)

Behind the fog sat a hundred-foot luxury yacht in the final stages of construction. Inside its bowels, where every cabin had a flat-screen TV and a nozzle spat espresso straight out of the wall, a French marine engineer and a team of Australian skippers sang out “Ciao, ciao!” to each other as they buzzed around.

The yacht’s manufacturer was a rich Italian investor. Twenty years ago, he engaged a South African boatyard to build him a yacht. Midconstruction, the boatyard went belly-up. Loath to lose his investment, he simply bought the boatyard. While finishing his yacht, he decided the business of yacht making in Cape Town was a good one. So he expanded the yard and hired the French marine engineer.

It was a theme all the foreigners’ stories shared. They were tales of accident, of random drift, of ending up in Cape Town and then staying because the beaches were nice, or the labor was cheap, or just, hell, why not? I heard two separate stories of travelers who stuck around because it happened to be the city in which they got diagnosed with hepatitis A. The equanimity with which they accepted their unintentional destinies as Capetonians amazed me. Ishmael Biyoko, a Congolese cab driver who settled in Cape Town after a thief stole all his belongings during a layover to Mexico, put it to me this way: “I realized all places were the same to me. South Africa was just another place where I could do what I wished.”

I admired Ishmael’s adaptability, but it also repelled me. I had moved to Cape Town on the principle that all places are not the same, and that there was something to be witnessed in Africa I couldn’t witness in America. But Cape Town struck me as a multicultural jumble. Sushi restaurants were everywhere. And the foreigners I met often seemed like users. Ishmael, for instance, gleefully let me in on the tricks he used to undercut South African cab drivers’ fares.

And so I gave up—temporarily—on finding a deep understanding of South Africa among the people of Cape Town. I would have to look for what made South Africa South Africa somewhere else. It turned out to be right under my feet.

* * *

There was a reason, my roommate explained, that my socks had been gathering so much dirt. Our apartment was full of ashes.

Three weeks before I’d gotten to Cape Town, a brushfire had raged over Table Mountain. Much of what had burned was fynbos, a kind of flower-sprinkled shrubland that covers the Western Cape. I felt bad about the fire, but my roommate told me fynbos likes to burn.

I hiked up behind our apartment to take a look. Cape Town is supposed to be a beautiful city, but—and maybe this was just the bitterness engendered by my lost suitcase, which I never saw again—I’d been finding its beauty banal: bluffs, beach, blue sky. The torched fynbos, on the other hand, was as breathtaking as anything I’d ever seen. The fire had seared the dirt smooth, and clumps of shrubs sat where they’d burned, transmuted into delicate, silvery-black fingers of charcoal: nature’s echo of the field of skeletons in Nyarubuye. In one or two places, two new green leaves lay flat on the dirt, spread open like lips. Out of the leaves shot a red stalk, and out of the red stalk a round, insanely neon pink blossom. In the ruined landscape, they looked as shocking and luridly gorgeous as a sex toy would on the face of the Moon.

I emailed a fynbos botanist, Dr. Tony Rebelo of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, to learn more. Fynbos, it turns out, is one of the most uniquely South African things in South Africa. One cannot speak of fynbos except in superlatives. It is the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms, and the only one confined to a single country. And yet it boasts the greatest diversity of species, unparalleled anywhere in the world. It covers 6 percent of southern Africa, but hosts a quarter of the plant species on the subcontinent. Those neon flowers? Fire lilies, genus Cyrtanthus. They need smoke to bloom. I learned one more thing from Tony Rebelo. Fynbos, this precious native feature of South Africa, is under intense attack. Foreign plants—Protea neriifolia, aurifolia, and burchellii; Australian wattle imported for rich people’s Japanese-style gardens—are choking off the indigenous fynbos species. Such species, Rebelo told me darkly, are “aliens” and “must be removed.”

As a foreign journalist who might sow misinformation, I was made to understand I posed a threat, too. “Please get hold of Fynbos by Cowling and Richardson,” Rebelo wrote me acidly. “You need to get yourself a level or two up in understanding of Fynbos before you will be competent to write anything intelligent about it.”

* * *

I had started to wonder if having an American roommate was the problem—if he, plus my Congolese friends and my lost bag, might explain my unease in Cape Town. I’d come to lead a South African life, not a thoughtlessly globalized one. But it turns out I’m not the only one who has found Cape Town’s multiculturalism unsettling.

Just before I arrived, South Africa was rocked by riots the country took to calling the “xenophobic violence.” These started at South Africa’s heart, in a Johannesburg slum, but soon shivered out to its limbs, racing west. In the Western Cape, xenophobia displaced at least 20,000 migrants—Somalis, Zimbabweans, Malawis, Congolese. The rioters targeted foreigners operating shops inside the black squatter camps surrounding Cape Town.

Soon after, an International Organization for Migration study compiled a list of afflictions that might have provoked the attacks, including economic inequality and the country’s “culture of impunity with regard to public violence.” Other sources cited the 23 percent unemployment rate among South African citizens. But surely this was to blame, too: It remains opaque just how many non-South Africans occupy South Africa, turning the bulk of them into a shadowy, mysterious force coursing silently through the jobs-starved country like a viral load, unnumberable and, therefore, seemingly innumerable. In 2003, then-president Thabo Mbeki suggested 3 million Zimbabweans were in South Africa—an estimate that would mean, as the chief of the South African Migration Project, Vincent Williams, put it, that “one in 15 people you meet would be Zimbabwean.”

I asked Williams to meet me at a café to help me nail down some numbers. Just how many aliens were spreading over the Cape, and where were they from?

“I don’t know,” he answered, smiling apologetically. The xenophobic violence hadn’t made persuading South Africa’s foreigners to return demographic surveys any easier. “I don’t think anybody else knows. I don’t think anybody will ever know.”

Here’s what Williams did know: He knew what the foreigners do once they get to Cape Town. He knew this to an astonishing degree of ethnic precision. “A lot of shopkeepers and people selling things are Somalis,” he told me. “People providing services—hair-dressers—are Democratic Republic of the Congo. People who work in a garden, you’d assume they’re Zimbabwean. Ghanaians work in security.”

Williams only meant all this in the best of faith. But in fact, of the two security guards I had met, neither were Ghanaian. Both were from Zimbabwe. I offered Williams the story of Ishmael Biyoko. He frowned. “It would be unlikely” to have a Congolese taxi driver, he said.

This devotion to classifications seemed to me to be a hangover from apartheid—a comfortingly familiar way to deal with the presence of undesirables in a nation that, until very recently, felt compelled to explain the presence of every group of its own citizens, both according to the labor they did and the place where they lived (one “homeland” for every black tribe). As gardeners, Zimbabweans have a legitimate place in the South African ecosystem; if they—and only they—perform that kind of labor, they have a certain right to be here. Otherwise—well, otherwise, they’re alien invaders. It appears such a prospect is as horrifying in the ecology of man as it is in the world of plants.

* * *

Shortly afterward, an unusual newspaper story caught my eye. It was about Orania, an all-white enclave in the middle of a South African desert. The town was purchased whole-cloth in the early ’90s by one Carel Boshoff III as an anti-Mandela Afrikaner breakaway settlement. It had made the paper because—startlingly—it had recently accepted a visit from Julius Malema, a young black political leader. After expressing surprise that the town’s whites didn’t shoot black visitors on sight, Malema had praised the Oranians for something unexpected: their strong work ethic.

And this was the aspect of the town that fascinated me, more than the separate currency it prints or the monument it erected to a traditional Afrikaner doughnut. In 2007, Orania’s P.R. man, John Strydom, told a Time magazine reporter that the Orania project wasn’t about white supremacy. It was about breaking the white South African reliance on black labor. “We’re a new breed of Afrikaners, because we do our own work,” Strydom explained.

Even in postapartheid South Africa, the idea rates as eccentric. The reporter observed with astonishment that in Orania, “the garbage is collected and the houses of the wealthy are kept clean by poorer white people.” “Our motto,” Strydom gently informed her, “is self-sufficiency.”

And the sons of strangers will build up your walls: No more of that in Orania.

* * *

Shamed by Tony Rebelo, I got ahold of Fynbos by Cowling and Richardson. I’d been intrigued by the idea of fynbos’s unparalleled diversity. Why were there so many different plants here at the Cape? Imagine a geology movie, the kind that depicts in warp speed how the adolescent Earth’s appearance changed, volcanoes bursting out of its skin like pimples. The Cape’s ecology was evolving at such a pace hundreds of millions of years ago. Warm interludes alternated with cool interludes. The mega-continent called Gondwanaland got drier, then wetter; sea levels rose and heaved nutrient-filled marine sludge up onto the sand. Tropical and temperate plant species surged down to the Cape from Eurasia. And then, about 2 million to 5 million years ago, the Cape changed.

Scientists believe the Cape dried out then, and became unusually prone to lightning storms. “Fire would have fragmented populations of fynbos plants into small and isolated subpopulations,” Cowling and Richardson write, promoting differentiation and preventing rapacious species from growing over more delicate ones.

There’s a paradox at work here, in other words. Fynbos can support such an astonishing range of plants within such a small space only because each species was kept separate from the others. To maintain diversity, the identity of each individual species in this floral kingdom had to be preserved pure. Less melting pot and more child’s dinner plate, on which no food is allowed to touch. Isolated by fires, the Cape’s floral subcommunities were also protected from the “invasion of genes from distant populations,” write Cowling and Richardson. They call what happened at the Cape “catastrophic speciation.”

* * *

I looked up the route to Orania: 11 hours through the desert. This was catastrophic speciation, for sure.

But the notion of a group of South Africans trying to build their own walls—something about it was strangely seductive. At this point, you see, I was starting to wonder if the distaste I felt toward Cape Town’s exploitative foreigners might not be born of anxiety: the anxiety that I was no different.

One night I dreamed I was walking with a Sri Lankan friend uphill on a Cape Town street, and I linked my arm through his. Just then, an older white man stepped off the curb, smiled, and said, “Oh, that is just great!” and handed me a coin—as a token of thanks, I guessed, for the open-mindedness I was showing toward interracial dating.

I turned to my friend, but suddenly realized that I’d lost him, and had mistakenly linked my arm through a stranger’s in the street: a black boy of maybe 15, who stared at me enigmatically.

I’m not much of a dream reader. But, after waking up, I thought this must be a nightmare about foreign ambition on this continent—about the way I harbored the goal of writing a book like George Packer’s or Philip Gourevitch’s. I’d be linking my arm through the black boy’s and parading him in front of Westerners. I think this was a dream about the way a white foreigner like me can’t help but use Africans the minute she steps onto the continent.

The Oranians, according to the articles I had read, were driven by a similar anxiety. Our motto is self-sufficiency. I had to go see the place for myself.

* * *

Just before I left, one more Cape Town story rolled across my path. Googling the street on which I’d need to pick up my rental car, I discovered Prestwich Place and its history. In 2003, construction workers there unearthed an unmarked burial ground of more than a thousand human skeletons. An archaeologist told the newspaper he thought they might be slave remains.

I went to meet this archaeologist: Tim Hart, a peachy-cheeked man with wire-frame glasses. Swiveling on a chair in front of the office computer that contains a separate file on every skeleton his crew exhumed, Hart described the Prestwich Place cemetery to me with breathless excitement: “I don’t know if there are any other cities in Africa that have a site like this,” he said. “There is extreme diversity.” Fynbos.

But in one way it was not like fynbos at all. The skeletons did not appear to be well separated, isolated in layers as if the plot had changed hands from one community to another. Instead, differing dead were all dumped together. Hart estimated that Capetonians used the burial ground from the late 1650s—when Jan van Riebeeck, the former surgeon in charge of the Dutch East India Company’s station at Table Bay, imported his first boatload of 174 Angolan slaves—to the early 1800s, when the British abolished slave trading. During that century and a half, a motley set of characters were interred in the plot: people with teeth ground into fangs in the traditional Angolan style, people laid to rest in the “niche burial” manner of the Muslims, even one wild shaman-looking type buried with a fish-vertebra necklace around his shoulders.

I was as curious about the forces that created Prestwich Place as I’d been about the ones that fashioned fynbos. Imagine that geology movie again, the kind that dramatizes droughts and rains shooting over the Earth’s surface at warp speed. During the colonial period, bodies were shooting from all over the world into the Cape like that. There were the Colony’s employees, who hailed not only from Holland, but also from Germany, France, and beyond. There were people like the railway maven James Logan, who tumbled into Cape Town when his Australia-bound schooner sprung a hole. The slaves poured in from everywhere: Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia, India. The Cape became more heterogeneous than any other slave society on Earth. Jan van Riebeeck’s own domestic retinue turned into a world bazaar: two Bengalis, two Ethiopians, and a girl sent as a gift from the king of Madagascar.

The little Babel was a product of circumstances, but also of the Dutch East India Company’s explicit policy not to enslave the local Khoikhoi herders. The company was vigorously pursuing what sociologist Orlando Patterson has called the “social death” model of slave labor, importing a mixture of foreigners so that they understood neither the locals nor each other.

But a strange thing was happening alongside the development of South Africa’s diversity. As the races at the Cape multiplied, Capetonians’ obsession with the distinctions between them hardened. The city cultivated an intense, even paranoiac consciousness of the different traits possessed by the Africans, Malaysians, and Indians, and their appropriateness to different kinds of labor—early shades of the Zimbabwean assigned to the garden. Blacks from Guinea made fine domestic servants, while blacks from Angola were more fit for the field.

* * *

This kind of thing happened in other slave societies, too, but Cape Town stands apart. Robert Shell, South Africa’s historian of slavery, draws a link between Cape Town’s heterogeneity and its “unprecedented—even fantastic” levels of stereotyping based on origin. Rigid labor roles, writes Shell, made the world “seem a much more predictable, and hence more comfortable, place.”

But eventually, these more or less benign constructions weren’t enough to keep things comfortable. They weren’t enough in the 1830s, when the British abolished the slave trade—but then also, in their anxiety over the frailty of their social position, required the native Khoikhoi herders, previously utterly free, to apply for a pass to work in white areas. They weren’t enough in 1948, when South Africa’s new Afrikaner government began to institutionalize apartheid, trying to glue down each character in the South African diorama once and for all.

It was the Orania Afrikaners’ forefathers, though, who became the most uncomfortable. Nothing could soothe their anxiety in the Cape Colony—nothing, that is, save a bid at catastrophic speciation. I’m talking about the group of Dutch East India Company offspring who, in 1834, abandoned the Cape altogether and struck out into the interior on the famous South African Great Trek, spreading all the way to the edge of Zululand.

But they made a mistake. Too few of them spread out too far. They splintered into dispersed homesteads—and to tend their great holdings they continued to depend on native help.

This is the mistake that Orania was founded to correct. Our motto is self-sufficiency. Its founders believed relying on the labor of the other kept the Dutchman a permanent colonist in South Africa—even as generation after Afrikaner generation was born on South African soil. Throughout apartheid, the Afrikaners remained as essentially helpless in Africa as journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley was on his journey down the Congo River, propped up by 200 native porters. It was a paradox, though. In order to feel finally comfortable in South Africa—in order to feel at home— the Oranians had to retreat from South Africa into an all-white pod.

* * *

Halfway to Orania, I stopped overnight in Matjiesfontein, a Victorian spa outpost. James Logan, the entrepreneur who landed in the Cape off of a shipwrecked schooner, sculpted this place, and Cecil Rhodes once partied here. Today, an empty hotel flying the Union Jack and a bank that no longer tenders money stand in the dust. Nearby lies a shattered red London double-decker bus. At the sound of a tourist’s footsteps, a black driver and a costumed tour guide scurried into the sun, fired up the bus, and drove it in frantic circles around the parking lot, the guide jiggling a bugle and windmilling his epaulettes like some kind of piteously over-bejeweled Hindu god.


Inside the hotel, behind the reception window, the hotel’s owner sat in a wheelchair, eating a bowl of cottage cheese. He had been in this spot since 1968, when he purchased the hotel. Yards away, maids lit candles and placed dishes of butter on every table in the hotel’s vacant dining room. “We’re all waiting for the beam to the moon,” the owner explained, referring to a geodesic observatory proposed for construction three miles away. He thinks the observatory could bring tourists, reanimating both the resort and the black village across the railroad tracks. The two encampments could not look more different. But in this South Africa they wait together.

After Matjiesfontein, my first impression was that Orania looked normal. And, in many ways, it’s an ordinary rural community of 700: a grocery store, a radio station, a pair of schools, and a pecan farm on the edge of town. How mystical this is: the way that—no matter the idealism driving it forward—living, breathing, day-to-day life drifts back toward a moderate keel.

But I also found it sad. Its founder, Carel Boshoff III, had dreamed Orania would swell to 60,000 residents, so long as South Africa’s black-dominated postapartheid government didn’t interfere. But the town’s growth had stagnated. The problem wasn’t the black government. It was whites themselves.

Carel Boshoff IV, Carel Boshoff III’s son, explained it to me at his house over a bottle of wine. Boshoff wore round tortoiseshell glasses and let his blond hair hang curly and loose, like a New York radical. He loves philosophy, and his house’s walls were lined with titles by thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Charles Taylor, the Canadian communitarian. Before we’d been talking 20 minutes he was quoting from Democracy in America by heart.

He still fervently believed in the ideal of Orania. But he and his father had found that many of those who followed them into the desert were not idealists—not whites bent on changing their ways so they could stay in South Africa in a morally uncompromised way—but mere racists. He recounted the tale of certain early migrants who hadn’t comprehended that they wouldn’t be able to treat Orania’s white laborers as they had treated their blacks. After a few nasty spats—one faction alleged underpayment, the other underperformance—a number of Afrikaners moved away. “They didn’t realize the sacrificial nature of the thing,” Boshoff said, sadly.

I thought about the sacrificial nature of the thing. What would my sacrifice have to be? It seemed obvious that walling myself off like the Oranians had done wouldn’t be the answer. Maybe it would be a different kind of sacrifice: the abandonment of some of the notions of African exoticism and otherness that had driven me to Africa in the first place. Maybe South Africa was becoming cosmopolitan, and that change itself was essential, real, and worth witnessing; maybe Africans ate sushi and that was not only OK, but also exciting. It seemed increasingly clear to me that other ideas born of my Americanness stood to be lost over my two-year journey. The Cape’s unsettling paradoxes had already challenged my American belief that more diversity inevitably brings more tolerance. My college roommate had told me I’d see the United States differently when I returned. But perhaps this process really begins as soon as we board the plane.

For his part, though, Carel Boshoff IV’s vision of getting it right in Africa seems to require a more and more ascetic character, proceeding more and more from the certainty that the Afrikaners must give up nearly everything to make a place for themselves here. “We Afrikaners have to start completely anew,” he told me, “like the phoenix rising out of the ashes.”

Outside Boshoff’s house, thunderstorms palpitated on the dark horizon. Through the window past his shoulder, lightning flashed over and over, so bright it made me wince.

“Like a plant that only sprouts after a fire,” I offered.

“Yes,” he said.