SA the land of slums and millionaires

19 Nov 2010

Like many people in South Africa, I simply don’t understand this country – and I’ve lived here all my life and loved just about every minute of it too. I’m sitting in the Table Bay Hotel, on a bright, warm, sunny morning, staring across the still harbour waters where gulls mourn, jostle for space on the quayside and squabble with other just because they can.

Paddy Hartdegen writes a regular column for Property24.com

Cape Town is possibly the most beautiful prostitute in the world.

I look up the mountainside where buildings argue about the view across the bay – each apartment costing millions and each one belonging to somebody right now. Each one paid for from some source that, for me, is mostly a mystery.

I’m one of a contingent of media people who have been brought to this wonderful, graceful, beautifully appointed hotel to listen to Andrew Golding, chief executive of Pam Golding Properties talk about the South African market, the prevailing economic conditions affecting property prices and the state of the international market in the wake of a widespread economic crunch that crushed international property prices two years ago.

And Golding has some interesting views to share with the media and the rest of his executive staff who are in Cape Town for the event. He provides those careful words that so many commentators choose to use like “cautiously optimistic” and “a slight improvement” and “things are starting to get better” as he talks us through a scenic and imaginery tour of country, starting in Johannesburg, moving to Cape Town, up the Wild Coast to Durban, inland to Bloemfontein and then down through the Karoo.

His views are being widely recorded and reported – I’m sure you’ve all read some of them already – so I’m not about to repeat them for you. But I can’t help thinking that this country, while very special, is so fraught with anomalies and so deeply confusing that it is almost impossible to unravel.

For instance, as I look up the slopes of gentle Table Mountain, I am reminded that, just behind its northern façade, the people of Hout Bay are fuming over plans to forcibly remove them from the regions they’ve hijacked and now occupy illegally.

They live right next door to some of the most precious property in the country – but do they share it with their neighbours?

I wonder?

If my gaze drifts to the left, out along the N2 towards the airport, I am reminded of those idiots who stole a young bride and murdered her for no rhyme or reason. Suspects have been arrested; police investigations are at a sensitive stage; a young husband’s dreams are shattered. And this is Cape Town, where property prices are among the highest in the country, perhaps even in the world.

And I come to that inevitable conclusion that I just don’t understand.

I’ve heard and read about the miseries that poverty breeds – and as I look up the slopes of Table Mountain I wonder where the money comes from. Extreme poverty in the informal slums of Nyanga and, within a few short miles, Millionaires’ Row past Clifton, Camp’s Bay to Llandudno and Kommetjie where, Andrew Golding tells us, a beach cottage sold for millions just last month.

I suppose like so many developing countries, South Africa has the extremes of poverty and wealth. It’s not unusual when you look at India, Brazil, Eastern Europe or Mexico. It’s not unusual in Africa either. But that’s not the point, is it. What I’d like to know is where the South Africans are getting all their money and I’m struggling to find anyone who can tell me.

You see the statistics will tell us that South Africa’s savings rates are very poor and all the citizens of this country – barring the 5% who are unspeakably wealthy – do not manage to save at all. Unemployment levels are particularly high among the skilled professionals who are engineers, artisans, consultants, designers and advertising executives.

I know how bad it is because my own brother, Luke, has been unable to find work in the media industry for more than a year and has been seconded, on two occasions to take his skills inland to other countries in Africa.

So where is all the money coming from.

Many people immediately turn to the high levels of corruption within the different spheres of government and I personally have no doubt that there is a lot of illicit money being earned by errant tricksters aboard a whistling gravy train. But that doesn’t explain the wealth that I see as it sidles up Table Mountain, does it?

I hear people tell me that South African’s from all walks of life made a fortune from the boom during the previous ten years or so and I listen to them and think to myself: “Where is the evidence for this? South Africa does not have a culture of saving?”

I ask Richard Day, one of the executives of Pam Golding Properties this question and, after some banter, he shakes his head in much the same way as I do and says that he doesn’t know either. We don’t know.

I ask Laurie Weiner what she thinks and she tells me the story of her own son who is running and extremely successful business and doing very well in the information technology industry despite the supposedly tough economic conditions we’re facing. “Yes, he’s making money, he’s bought his property and he’s doing really well,” she tells me.

Back to the anomalies: some people are doing really well while others are battling unemployment even though they have the professional skills that are so urgently required. I shake my head and wonder what is actually going on here.

People making so much money that a 33-year-old from Gauteng can buy a R38-million holiday home in Constantia just for fun. A designer in Parktown selling a lifestyle (house, paintings, furniture, fittings and a Ferrari) for R25-million.

Where is all the money coming from?

Even Andrew Golding can’t tell me – although he does concede that South Africa is awash with cash right now – and his company, his people, his franchisees are selling those properties that cost millions for cash. Where from?

I’m not convinced that even the South African Revenue Service knows.

But the cash is here, flowing across the fringes of Table Mountain, down into the valley of Constantia, up the West Coast to Langebaan or inland to Swellendam.

And at the same time we have our hell-holes where there are, on average, more than two people killed every day in Gugulethu and just about every one of these murders remains unsolved until a British couple are involved. Then, our police force snaps into action.

Now, perhaps, you can see why I say that I just don’t understand my own country – awash as it is with murders and cash. – Paddy Hartdegen

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*Hartdegen writes a regular column for Property24.com. The content of his columns constitutes his personal opinion and doesn’t pretend to be facts or advice. Contact him at paddy@neomail.co.za.

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