PAUL MENDELSON: A DIVIDED CITY NO ONE SEES

Written by Mike Stotter

Paul Mendelson wrote stories at school when he should have been doing other things, but went on to become the, then, youngest ever playwright performed at the National Theatre, with his play, You're Quite Safe With Me. This was followed by further work for theatre and, briefly, for television. For over twenty years, Paul has written on mind sports, such as bridge, poker and casino games, becoming the UK's best-selling author within his genre. SHOTS first met Paul when The First Rule of Survival was published in 2014, which was shortlisted for the CWA Crime Novel of the Year. Paul’s third novel, The History of Blood set in Cape Town and Southern Africa was published on 7th July. Do you think you know Cape Town? Not the way Paul does as he describes in his article below that he entitles: A Divided City No One Sees.


The drive into town from Cape Town airport focuses on the looming Mountain, the government’s attempt to hide the sprawling townships and squalid corrugated-iron squatter camps behind rows of newly built concrete houses and flats pretty much succeeds. The Southern Suburbs hove into view, then a glimpse of the sea, Table Mountain - or at least Devil’s Peak – golf courses, suburbia, the University and lushly forested slopes of the Mountain. Around the corner, the docks and Waterfront glitter against a dark silver sea, the freeways run smoothly (out of the rush hour), the CBD is glassy and slick, the meeting of Africa and Europe complete.

The tourist experience is dream-like, especially if you leave London in December and arrive in mid-summer. The light, the air, the space, the beauty, the heat, the welcome, the amazing value. Most of all, everyone seems happy; races mingle and seem content; building is rife. Cape Town is a prosperous, beautiful city. As with any destination however, the reality is just out of shot. Unlike most other cities, the grim reality threatens to overwhelm paradise.

Friends of ours - a middle-aged couple - who live in a modest but comfortable neighbourhood, full of cafes and bars, lush gardens and Victorian verandas, report the drug deals down the street, the unrelenting threat of burglary or robbery; they tell me that their fervent wish is, when the time comes, they are robbed by the ex-military professionals who might pistol-whip them, but leave them unharmed. The desperate, drug-addled, knife-wielding and gun-toting are truly terrifying. For them, dogs are pets, but they are also guards and another layer of alarm. They are usually left at home to fulfill their role when owners go away, be it to work, for the weekend, or even an extended holiday.

When my wallet was lifted at the airport a few years back (the only instance of personal crime I’ve experienced), my parents in the UK received a call from a man who had retrieved it. We travelled to Khayelitsha, a major township on the Cape Flats, maybe twenty miles from the central Cape Town. A black African man, living with his wife and baby in a clean concrete house of three rooms. He was a teacher, ashamed there was nowhere to sit down; he had not been paid in eighteen months. Despite clearly struggling, we were offered tea and biscuits. He refused reimbursement for the long-distance telephone call. If the ANC have one responsibility, it to education, to give everyone a chance. There are many who feel that this promise, amongst so many others, will not be fulfilled.

A few days later, I visited Langer – an older township, closer still to town – for a cricket match. My friend was their star cricketer, the only white face in the match. We were given the best seats – wooden barrels – offered food and beer. The Langer team loved being a mixed team. When we returned to the captain’s house, it was one small room, concrete again, but unheated or cooled. At night, he told us, noise would keep him awake: from the freeway, the shebeen, the ghetto blasters. His house had been broken into over fifty times. But, he loved Langer. He was twenty-eight. I had guessed, thankfully not out loud, that he was forty-five.

My police advisor, now a Captain in the SAPS, has been posted to Philippi, a township of a quarter of a million. She is one of the best shots in the SAPS, but even she is afraid. When she reaches the outskirts of the township each morning, she must ring through to the station. A security patrol is dispatched to escort her to and from work. Here, men kill because you spill their beer, look at their girl, or smile at wrong moment. Almost everyone who operates in Philippi has a connection to drugs or firearms or excessive alcohol – and that is just the police.

In the centre of Cape Town and The Waterfront, tourists are as safe as in any major city. The Cape Town authorities have clamped down on begging, pick-pockets and thieves. You can enjoy wonderful bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants, galleries and markets, relaxed in the knowledge that Cape Town is safe. You won’t see many black people – other than serving you – and after a day or two, it’s easy to feel that Cape Town is a city of white people, waited on by the black and coloured population.

The sadness is that the disconnect grows as the economic gulfs widens. A few black and coloured citizens can now be seen in white Rolls Royces and matt-black Range Rovers but, for the most part, it is the white Capetonians who install ever more advanced alarms, pay more for private security and surround themselves with cameras and razor-wire. They drive, windows sealed ignoring everyone.

We live in a small house without bars or an alarm. Admittedly we have nothing of any value thieves might target – no TV, no computers, no object d’arts. Our house is full of branches and rocks from the Mountain, sculptures, drawings and heavy second-hand furniture. We drive with our windows open and we chat to the hawkers – almost all men from every country in Southern Africa - who appear inever greater numbers at every junction. We notice that the universities are full of black and coloured students, that school-children walk in neat lines to more and more places of education, that non-white businesses are starting all over town.

No specific legislation will brook the divide. Everyone feels hard done-by now, the black and coloured ghettos get bigger, the working class whites have fallen below the poverty line. Capetonians feel pessimistic. But, Cape Town possesses magic qualities. If everyone is patient and reasonable; if the extremes of opinion can remain muted, there is anticipation at the tip of Africa that, as has been so long hoped for, it can become a beacon at the bottom of a giant and troubled continent.

About the Book ...


When the South African Police Service receive a panicked call for help from the wayward daughter of a former Apartheid-era politician, they discover not only her body but, within it, a message which will take Colonel Vaughn de Vries and Don February of the Special Crimes Unit on a journey through their country – and their country’s past – to decipher and resolve.

As organised crime grips South Africa, new players arrive in Cape Town, determined to exploit the poor and hopeless, promising redemption. While other government agencies snap impotently at the small fish, De Vries, linked by a personal connection, resolves to follow this trail to its source and take it down from the top. As decades old webs of corruption and influence are exposed, and the boundaries of morality blur, his decisions begin to impact on his friends, colleagues and family.

Constable (7 July 2016) £7.99 pbk

Amazon.co.uk

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Paul Mendleson



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