Travel writer Paul Theroux’s two post-apartheid trips, a decade apart, reveal a growing sense of pessimism about the nation’s politics and prospects.

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

Paul Theroux. London: Penguin, 2003. £7.99. Electronic edition.

The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola

Paul Theroux. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. £7.00. Electronic edition.

At the tail end of an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town in 2002, travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux – then more than 60 years old and writing his thirty-eighth book – had lunch with Professor Lee Berger, an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, in a Johannesburg mall. Recalling their conversation in his book Dark Star Safari, Theroux recounts how the professor challenged him to make a threatening face. Theroux attempted his best grimace, but his failure to bare his teeth was, for Berger, a sign that humans were ‘undoubtedly a peaceful species’. According to him, the ‘paedo-morphic face’ (or child-like, rather than aggressive, features) that humans had developed showed that they were largely defined by ‘peacefulness and cooperation’ rather than conflict. ‘Warfare is symbolic,’ he concluded. ‘It was anyway, until this century. The idea of mass slaughter is pretty new.’ Reflecting on this conversation, Theroux writes that the professor ‘had painted a bright persuasive picture – we humans were peaceable, resourceful, cooperative … That was hopeful, and the fact that he was saying that in the clean and safe food court of an African shopping mall, was hopeful too.’

Ten years later, Theroux, now 70, attempted a kind of sequel to this first trip, writing about his experiences in The Last Train to Zona Verde. His original intention was to cover the entire western flank of Africa, but after passing through South Africa and Namibia, Theroux finally found a train he didn’t want to board, and his trip ended in Angola.1 As during his earlier trip, South Africa figured prominently among the countries visited, yet the hopefulness he felt during his time there in 2002 seemed to give way somewhat in 2012. He describes feeling disheartened, for example, with Africa’s enduring inequality, the ineffectiveness of aid, and China’s mercenary resource opportunism.

Certainly, South Africa has arrived at a watershed. It has lost, with the death of Nelson Mandela, its elder statesman and symbol of unity. Its government, which has been controlled by a single party since the country’s first universal elections in 1994, seems bent on quashing the very things that make South Africa a beacon for the rest of the continent – its free press, independent judiciary and civil society. The country struggles daily with a horrifying legacy. While there is much about which to be optimistic, the most recent news has not been good.

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Alexa van Sickle is a former Assistant Editor of Survival and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2014–January 2015

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