The Fairest Cape south of Chernobyl

When Sir Francis Drake hove into view of the south-western appendix of our great land, hyperbole was inevitable. No doubt ankle-deep in Elizabethan upchuck, his britches starched by pig fat and a robust bout of dysentery, his bodkin cruelly ravaged by months of salty air and now nothing more than a rusty tool dangling between his thighs, and his sable merkin reduced to a faintly lascivious savannah for herds of nits, he was primed for rhetorical excess.

Before him squatted a hot, dry, brown flatland, distinguished by a mountain amputated at the waist.
Clapping his spyglass to his stye-encrusted eye, Drake thought it “the fairest Cape in all the world”. Given that his diet for the previous year had comprised greenish porcine enigma garnished with varmint, and that his home had been a large floating septic tank, one has to concede that it was the timeous appearance of the Cape, rather than its looks, that turned his prose purple. Had he and his crew run aground on a sandbar decorated with a dead palm tree and the jawbone of a 15th-century castaway, he would no doubt have named it the finest stretch of oceanic majesty ever to rend the brine asunder. Or something like that.

Of course, history is notoriously good at mishearing famous mutterings, and we must consider that Drake might simply have been glaring at his effete cook, then just busily wrecking dinner (“The fairy ape has mauled my curd!”) or perhaps dealing with the effects of a sudden gust on his dandy ensemble (“My favourite cape has got all twirled!”).

But what is certain is that the long curving coastline he gazed upon, stretching north from Table Bay, is still as ugly and windblown as it ever was; which is probably why the Koeberg nuclear reactor was built there: if a meltdown ever happens, the flora won’t give anything away. It is all of that scratchy, Morning After The Day Before variety—one expects to find blackened dolls and melted cufflinks under each thicket—and in its modest way it has been quietly accustoming the residents of Cape Town to Armageddon for the past couple of decades.

Capetonians’ relationship with their little cancer mill remains a curiously somnambulistic one. Last week’s two blackouts involved the words “failure”, “fire” and “nuclear reactor”, which, however loosely arranged, might normally have prompted the citizenry to dust off science textbooks or log on to To be fair, some did ask if the municipality had an evacuation plan in place. The ensuing silence suggested that the plan involves bicycles, Morse code and men in fluorescent bibs waving traffic towards waiting paddle steamers. No doubt the mayor’s office has a prepared statement insisting that the Western Cape has historically always been irradiated, and anyone who disagrees is simply serving the reactionary non-irradiated elitist viewpoint that makes racist distinctions between those who are green and rotting and those who aren’t.

But the rest remained idly fatalistic, this columnist included. Nuclear energy, after all, is a mystery far beyond the ken of mortal man: being a product of the Post-Enlightenment one is instinctively disinclined to believe physicists and other people with postgraduate qualifications, instead having a vague sense that nuclear reactors house several hundred demons who spend their days eating atoms and passing radioactive wind into large turbines. This process is called nuclear fissan, because, on a subatomic level, it resembles intense nappy rash.

Thus enlightened, we flirt with the energy debate, dipping ideological toes into the opposing currents. When the north-wester drags its rainy fallout over the city we dream fitfully of Chernobyl, waking to righteous decisions about wind energy; but when the south-easter scours the peninsula clean in the morning, that faraway dome on the shore with its belfry of flatulent djinns seems a monument to our technological hipness.

Do we need nuclear energy? Air pollution kills about a million people a year: the implication—that safe energy annihilates the entire population of Cape Town every three years—seems a fairly convincing argument in its favour. On the other hand, tradition needs to be respected. If coughing up his lungs was good enough for Oupa and Oupa’s oupa, then it’s good enough for us.

So can we get back to you tomorrow?