January 18, 2020
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Vegas Meets Rome

Vegas Meets Rome
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Landing in Johannesburg for a conference in which Meghnad (Lord Desai) and I are participating, we are whisked away to a hotel designed for culture shock: a slice of Tuscany with deliberately ruined castle walls, marble statues, fountains playing and frescoes in elegant decay. Perhaps imported architecture is easier digested than recent South African history—and the lavishly built Hotel Palazzo with its own bird sanctuary is meant to dull the senses into rejecting reality, still cruelly reflected in the city's high crime rate. The really bizarre touch, in a country with over 40 per cent unemployment, is Montecasino next door, a fantasy world of one-armed bandits and a painted azure sky on which clouds float in perpetual twilight: Las Vegas meets Rome in Johannesburg. It's a luxurious but duplicitous encounter.

The wake-up call is a visit to Soweto, the famous South West township, where on a single street you find the homes of two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Soweto resonates with realpolitik: the memorial to Hector Pieterson, the young Black schoolboy who died in the 1976 language riots, is so poignant it brings tears to your eyes. Through carefully assimilated videos, eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports a horrific reminder is built up of the schoolchildren who disappeared while protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The rebellion had rapidly ignited the whole Black student population of the country.

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