Srđan Garčević | Remembering the Cape

Serbian author Srđan Garčević recounts his experiences of the Cape, and reflects on the similarities between contemporary South Africa and former Yugoslavia

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Guest Author


Feb 29, 2024

Srđan Garčević | Remembering the Cape

Srđan Garčević is founder of The Nutshell Times, an English-language cultural magazine for Balkan and East-Europe

Seasoning my overpriced, underwhelming Serbian ribeye with Robertson's traditional braai mix to grill it on a barely passable IKEA pan on a grey winter day made me yearn for the days I spent around the Western Cape when my friends would just fire up the braai, especially if there was a power cut and that was the only option.

It was during those cuts that I felt people really opened up. Those occasions felt familiar, as they invoked a memory of power cuts back home in Belgrade during our worst days, just after the NATO bombing of 1999, when I was 11.

On one such occasion, the young, Gen-Zish crowd was pissed off with the celebrities who turned their backs on South Africa, much like their counterparts in Serbia.

People my age were more cautious about any such opinions, finding them edgy and borderline problematic (my curiosity to visit the Paarl's Afrikaans language monument came across as strange). They were more concerned about personal lives, as people with families and "real lives" tend to be.

Nevertheless, the situation permeated my hosts' lives as much as they wanted to avert it: one guy was made into a primary culprit for power cuts in front of his girlfriend's children by their father to make them wary of him.

While people cared about what was going on, they wanted to maintain subtlety and good cheer, in contrast with pure neurotic and activist mindset back home and in the rest of Europe.

When the queen of the social scene in a lovely coastal town, an immensely charming owner of the local artsy bar, was explaining how things worked, she mentioned a patron who got overly worked up about the state of South Africa to the point of being unpleasant. "We all think it, so you don't need to say it," she told me, explaining that that guy was no longer welcome.

Then, she flew off to entertain another patron. That night, a veteran journalist gave me a rundown of the developments in the local press since the 1980s. Much like his types in Serbia, he was despondent. However, he still tried to chronicle those developments on a website.

Maybe my sense of local optimism and gung-ho attitude was borne out of the simple fact that I was on vacation, seeing one of my best friends, whom I hadn't seen in ages.

On top of that, during the two weeks that I spent with my friends going around the Western Cape, escaping the grim late autumn in Serbia, the vastness and beauty of the scenery gave everything a magical and exciting tinge.

To my tourist's eye, there seemed to be an abundance of vitality everywhere - penguins, baboons, wild horses - protected by the jagged peaks and wilderness of the land. Then, there were the majestic towns at some of the most scenic places I have ever seen. Hermanus bathed in the waves, Stellenbosch surrounded by some of the loveliest vineyards I ever saw.

But it was always the people that were the most impressive.

The first thing was hospitality: When we went for an art walk in Greyton, we ended up being hosted by a local family in their marvellous, well-manicured garden. Then there was the sense of hardiness from people walking casually barefoot to just a general outlook on life.

Despite all the challenges in South Africa, people were stoic and understood that challenges are an integral part of life. My friend told me about the spirit of people sticking out on their farms to prove to themselves that they can persevere.

Sadly, that spirit has perished in Serbia, with the majority of the local discourse being dominated by constant comparison with Western Europe, eliciting either slavish devotion or bitter ressentiment.

Indeed, that is what made Serbs admire South Africans for more than a century. One of our greatest 19th-century writers, Stevan Sremac, wrote a novella in 1899 called "The Boers and the English", where he found similarities between the Serbian resistance against the Ottoman Empire and the Boers who opposed the onslaughts of the British Empire. It was about a hardy innkeeper who loved Boers so much from afar that he insisted on creating Serbian-style epic poetry about their struggle, who, despite misgivings about his party-loving son, forgives him everything for being pro-Boer himself. Later, Yugoslavs sided with the ANC in what they saw as a bold fight against an unjust and ruinous system.

The struggle and the hardiness, of course, are not always pretty, but they seem to be part of the land and the people in South Africa, and what makes them both magical.

On my way to Belgrade, I had a longish layover in Zurich, a city that best captures the idea of bountiful West and Europe. Its centre was beautifully decked out for holidays, with Christmas markets where the locals treated themselves to glühwein and sausages. It was probably mainly due to the December weather, but despite all the affluence, there was a sense of that European unease and bloated greyness below all the fancy clothes.

Apart from all the braais, half-forgotten from all the fantastic wine and beer, two other memories stand out when I think about South Africa.

While running around Stellenbosch one afternoon in late November, I saw a student couple packing up their jeep and moving out of their residence for the summer. The scene seemed like something out of a dream, or a 1980s US movie or TV show, which, for millennials, is the same thing. Two young people, images of bliss and well-being made flesh, in a stunning backdrop, preparing for a summer of fun in a beautiful land made for exploration and excitement. Or at least that is what I imagined, looking at them in the last golden glow of the day.

Finally, I remember just taking in the Cape.

Whenever I could see it, I would stare at it, thinking how it symbolises things turning for the better, finally getting over the worst, and bravely sailing off to the new uncharted waters.

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