South African Splendor
By Brendan Lemon (Editor)
Out Magazine - October 2002

A trip to gay-friendly Cape Town reveals to Brendan Lemon why its physical beauty and cultural contradictions make it endlessly fascinating.

Cape Town used to be a place Americans went to feel smug, where we could congratulate ourselves for having, at least officially, shed the racist ways that were still law in South Africa. These days, it's the Capetonians who are feeling a little superior, for while their country struggles with poverty, unemployment, and one of the world's highest AIDS rates, they live in a city that is highly livable (think Los Angeles 30 years ago), a region that is stunningly beautiful (Napa Valley without the traffic), and a nation that, almost alone in the world, has enshrined equal rights for gay men and lesbians in its constitution. All this in an economic climate that, with the relative strength of the dollar against the country's rand currency, means meals in the top restaurants are $25 per person and oceanfront two-bedroom flats can be had for a hundred grand.

At the end of a recent, cape-concentrated visit, arranged by the wonderful gay luxury travel company DavidTours, I felt ready to proclaim the country the most interesting in the world right now, in much the same manner that I think Berlin is the most intriguing city. The comparison may strike you as strange. Because of its cold weather and often cynical populace, Berlin would appear to be nothing like the openhearted cape with its Mediterranean climate. Yet apartheid, the brutal system of racial separation that went into effect in 1948, is much like the Berlin Wall, according to Cape Town's resident Dame Edna, Evita Bezuidenhout: "Officially it ceased to exist, but in the minds of millions it's still there." The fact of having to accommodate rapid change within living memory means that South Africans, like Berliners, are still sorting out their feelings; they're adjusting. This provisional, transitional status makes each place a fascinating mixture of nationalities, races, sexual combinations.

During my drive into Cape Town from the recently renovated airport, I was a little disappointed to notice how modern the most conspicuous buildings were. Unlike some other great cities with a mountain-to-sea setting Hong Kong and Sydney, though not Rio Cape Town doesn't thrust forward with glittering examples of modernist or postmodernist building. Its old town with its Dutch colonial Castle of Good Hope, its British colonial Town Hall, and its Victorian St. George's Cathedral, where crusading Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu once breathed fire is not immediately visible, though well worth strolling through.

It was not some edifice from Cape Town's colonial days but the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, along the Atlantic, that initially aroused my delight. A working harbor rich in restaurants, it is anchored by an excellent shopping center that opened a few years ago and a hotel, the Table Bay, that debuted in 1997. At the superbly run Table Bay, where I stayed for two nights, I relished outstanding wine and seafood and excellent service, but most of all I was stimulated by my view: facing the Atlantic and Robben Island, the former prison that once held Nelson Mandela, South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999 and its most famous citizen. As I gazed across wind-whipped water to this shrine to struggle, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I experienced one of my week's many reminders that I was a lucky man looking onto a place of moral and physical deprivation.

Contemplation of the harbor furnished other reminders.

In the early days of the Cape Colony, gay men were drowned there; the fate of lesbians reflecting the typical neglect of women's lives isn't recorded. And during the apartheid era, which officially ended in 1994, the state was similarly tough on gay and lesbian activists, although its treatment of us had little of the scope and severity of its treatment of blacks, Indians, and "coloreds" (people of mixed European and Asian heritage).

Today, however, the city's conspicuous gay community is thriving, particularly in summer. A local attorney with whom I dined one night at Rozenhof, an excellent, gay-managed restaurant with sinful desserts, encouraged me to return during Cape Town's wildest season, summer, the height of which is from mid December through early January. That is when the city turns into a mecca of sleepless nights and beach-baked days, when the traffic, manageable by American standards, swells with visitors from throughout the world. The gay clubs, concentrated around Somerset Street near the waterfront, emit a tom-tomic disco throb and revelers "perv out." At that season, international scenemakers instigate a whirl of exclusive parties, underlining the way the circuit has gone truly international. For peripatetic gay Americans, Mardi Gras now means not New Orleans or even Rio but Sydney; August not Provincetown or Fire Island but Mykonos; and New Year's not South Beach but Cape Town.

Hanging out in Cape Town's gay district, however, reminded me of the dangers of monoculture. You begin believing that the whole world pivots around the color of Cher's hair or Britney's bustier. But spending at least one night among the tribe is essential. Tiaan, my South African guide, took me to Bronx, which in New York may be the least glamorous borough but in Cape Town is the liveliest club. I was there on a packed karaoke night. Like Star Search hopefuls, a parade of young contestants waited for their turn to Garland the mike. Some straight interlopers snogged next to us, and a lesbian couple filled me in on the town's sapphic scene: Cafe Manhattan hosts a women's night on the last Thursday of the month; otherwise, interactions are quite private.

The rest of the gay village, with its compact grid of streets, contains the usual amenities: a bathhouse, outdoor café, even a male brothel. As notable as the fleshpots are the area's real estate developments, spearheaded by Village & Life Ltd. This privately held tour and hospitality company, founded in 1994, has been coordinating the management and renovation of the area's former slave quarters, which in their charm and paint-box array of facades suggest Key West crossed with the French Quarter. The company's jewel, on the top of the neighborhood's hill, is De Waterkant House, a beautifully restored nine-room Cape Georgian hotel.

One could be quite content in Cape Town to explore its old quarters, its shops, and its cliffside panoramas, or to splash on its beaches: The gay ones are Clifton No. 3 and Sandy Bay; at the latter clothing is optional. Or to linger in its restaurants, which are famous for Cape Malay cuisine, a reflection of former Indonesian slaves and of the fact that unlike the rest of the country, where black Africans are the predominant group, here the colored form the largest contingent.

But the cape's true glory lies in the magnificent coastline of the peninsula just below the city and in the surrounding wine country. I wound my way down the peninsula's Atlantic side to the tip: the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve. My guide kept up an informative commentary about the various coves and beaches, about the wildlife (bonteboks, elands, zebras), and about local legends. At the Cape Point lighthouse, reached by funicular, I carved my initials into stone, and in its parking lot I laughed at the antics of baboons. Watching a couple of the males fight over a piece of food, I thought of two guys I'd observed in the Bronx bar the night before, who seemed to be amiably chatting up a third, cuter bloke, until the hottie put his arm around one of them and caused the other suitor to hiss, "I saw him first, asshole!"

The wine country, about a half-hour drive to the northeast of Cape Town, is a patchwork of fertile valleys and dramatic mountain ranges. In the air of prosperity you think of Falcon Crest, only instead of having Jane Wyman stand guard, the estates are ruled by dynamic men and women with Dutch Afrikaans names like van der Stel. It was a Governor van der Stel, in fact, who founded the region's most famous community, Stellenbosch, in 1679. Now a university town full of blond-god students (why hasn't Abercrombie done a campaign here?), and Cape Dutch, Georgian, and Victorian architecture, it also contains one of the loveliest small inns I've ever stayed at: the Lanzerac Manor. The hotel's deluxe rooms and facilities utilize the estate's 300-year-old manor house and outbuildings. In the Lanzerac's Governor's Hall restaurant I feasted on tender beef, ostrich, cape salmon, and the estate's delicious wine. Several of the patrons had prim coifs that reminded me of Evita's do; the next morning, however, the hall was filled with gay couples and honeymooners.

Although I ate well everywhere in the cape, two meals stood out. At the Constantia Uitsig restaurant in the lap of Constantiaberg, just outside Cape Town, I had one of the blissful days of my life, an all-afternoon lunch organized by two wonderful South African acquaintances, a meal drenched in six varieties of local grape and notable for such dishes as foie gras, Norwegian salmon, and a chocolate dessert so rich that even I, a confirmed sweets lover, couldn't finish it. The meal was capped by sparkling wine, causing me to think of the queen mum's remark when, after a day awash in Dubonnet, sherry, gin, scotch, and wine, she was asked by a footman around midnight whether she wanted anything further to drink. "No," she replied with a straight face, "just bring champagne." The afternoon was further enhanced when the restaurant's amiable, opera-loving owner, Frank Swainston, joined us, and by a visit to the adjacent cricket pitch.

The other great lunch was consumed at Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town. When South Africa's notorious "pass laws," which confined blacks to certain areas, were in effect, the township housed only men; when the laws were abolished, it grew to include entire families. Though the township infrastructure has improved since 1994, with new concrete houses sprouting up, there remain vast squatter camps with a communal standpipe for water and shared toilets. At Langa our luncheon was in a private home, which a brightly kerchiefed woman ran with supreme hospitality. Lunch was served buffet-style: a dozen dishes of which a savory mince pie, or bobotie, and sautéed pumpkin salad were my favorites.

The two meals were testament to how profoundly divided the city and country still are; as Bezuidenhout says, "The walls have migrated within." Yet the resilience of Capetonians and their ability to absorb the rapid pace of change of the past decade are impressive. This absorption was brought home one afternoon after I strolled through gardens along the parliament house and stopped for a moment at a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the English imperialist who was once the prime minister of the cape colony and who fancied good-looking male secretaries, at least emotionally. With thoughts of Rhodes on the brain I turned into a nearby museum, where an exhibition called "Positive Lives," of photos dealing with AIDS, was on display. One of the pictures was of a London urinal where two gay men were cruising each other lasciviously. As I looked at it, two pretty, impeccably uniformed young black girls, about 10 years old and part of a school tour, suddenly glided up beside me.

"Do you think they're going to do it?" one of the girls asked her friend.

"Maybe," the other replied, "but they won't have much time."

Nothing about the moment not the display of subject matter, not the degree of adult sexual awareness, and certainly not the content of my nonchalant long chat with them would have been as likely in the era before they were born.