Africa’s growing taste for the American dream

“I don’t know how they do it,” said a friend, just back from Cape Town. “I don’t know how people can sit in Camps Bay, eating and drinking, saying what a great place it is when there is such poverty just down the road.”

I knew what he meant, but I queried if we could really single out Cape Town and South Africa for special blame. There are swanky restaurants in central London, I ventured, where the destitute and homeless press their noses to the window.

In South Africa, however, it must be said the contrasts are particularly jarring. It’s often described as one of the most unequal societies in the world, and can sometimes seem dangerously close to a revolutionary brew of Versailles aristocrats and bread-starved masses.

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, wrote in a Daily Telegraph column last week about a jog through Westcliff in Johannesburg. “Among the trees, on either side of the well-kept street, I passed the kinds of homes you normally associate with Beverly Hills,” he said. “Here was the honey-stoned palazzo of a diamond executive. There was the schloss of the most successful boob-job exponent in the neighbourhood.

“Each villa was the size of a country club, and through every set of gates you could see the carob-shaded tennis court or the ultramarine ping of the sunlight on the pool. Every property overtly proclaimed the determination of the haves to resist the depredations of the have-nots.”

I saw plenty of have-nots last week in Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg where people accused Zimbabwean refugees of taking their jobs and stealing from their homes. Witnesses recalled how a day earlier a pregnant Zimbabwean had been turned away from a health clinic and forced to give birth in the street. The baby died, they said. The witnesses pointed to a patch of dirt they had used to cover up the blood.

Only a few kilometres from the patchwork shacks, the windblown dust and the boys kicking a football under a spaghetti web of power cables, the Sandton convention centre was hosting the second Africa fashion week.

African designers from all over the world were in town to showcase their “trans seasonal” 2010 collections. Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, Ghana, Somalia, Tunisia, South Africa, Mozambique, the United States and Britain were all represented.

My fiancée was keen that we both attend the final show, and having never been to one before I agreed on the sole condition that I could first see the end of the World Cup match between Argentina and Germany. For me, the living embodiment of What Not to Wear, it would be an intriguing journey into the canyon of my own ignorance, a sobering reminder that we go to our graves with vast hinterlands unmapped and uncomprehended.

I didn’t know what to expect as I entered the black box auditorium under dozens of spotlights. It turned out to be an intensely theatrical hour, with lighting, sound and performance all given forensic attention.

It began with glittering confetti showering from the ceiling, hastily brushed from the shiny black catwalk lest the models slip and slide.

The producers had chosen a circus theme as the backdrop to a collection by online portal

So on the stage were a giant ringmaster mannequin, a big egg-shaped clown’s face and a model of a horse’s head that might have been seen on a funfair carousel. A ringmistress in black hat and red cape sat like a statue. A jester, wearing a red nose, juggled beside the catwalk and gurned like a doe-eyed Forrest Gump at the passing models.

A harlequin, his black coat sewn with silver sequins, rode the catwalk on a unicycle. A ballerina spun on point before showing off her dress.

All of this was accompanied by a slickly produced musical soundtrack, bouncy and jaunty, blending Mozart and brass bands with folk and pop and familiar songs in foreign languages.

The models, with their studied expressionlessness and peacock strutting, were part of the grand illusion. And the clothes? I’m afraid I’m not the man to ask about cuts and fabrics. Some were clever, some were outrageous, but I had no idea whether they were hits or misses, whether they distinguished an African style or were commodities of the global village.

Sometimes I looked beyond them to watch the smartly dressed, mostly black audience checking their BlackBerries and toying with balloon sausage dogs. And I mused, should we feel guilty about sitting here, watching models parade in cellophane skirts and elongated eyelashes, while just down the road women give birth on the street in Alexandra?

Not really. I don’t think cancelling a fashion show in Johannesburg, or Paris or New York, is going to save any lives. But I wonder if Africa will experience more and more of these uncomfortable collisions between conspicuous affluence and squalor.

Optimists say the continent is enjoying economic growth, greater political stability and fewer wars, which translates into booming cities, multiplex cinemas and showpiece events such as the World Cup.

Africans can have world class fashion and football too.

This is the new African dream. You too can drive a fast car and wear a designer label. But if the American experience is anything to go by, for every winner there will be a lot of Willy Lomans wondering how they missed their share of the cake. –

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