AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Anthony Bourdain goes to South Africa
Steffan Horowitz | November 7th, 2013

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In a recent episode of his CNN “Parts Unknown,” the American chef and writer Anthony Bourdain traveled to South Africa. In my mind at least, this episode was long overdue and in fact, I’ve even said so on this blog in the past. The episode focuses on Gauteng Province (Johannesburg and Pretoria), signaling to a desire on the producers’ part to focus on emerging and predominantly urban black South African sensibilities and avoiding the pre-packaged, proto-European sensibilities and more superficially palatable aesthetics of Cape Town and the Western Cape altogether. The result is at once an imperfect and incomplete, yet compelling glimpse into one of the most complicated and confusing places in the world.

Bourdain seems to consciously acknowledge this illogical and indecipherable quality from the very opening sequence, as he stands in Pretoria’s Kruger Square mocking statues of 19th and early 20th century white Afrikaner war heroes (Paul Kruger among them). He harps on the surrealism that these statues haven’t been torn down and what’s more, that the square is filled with black South Africans posing for photographs in front of these monuments of apartheid rule and Afrikaner imperial wet dreams.

Bourdain’s commentary here sets the tone for the rest of the episode: he seems uncharacteristically defeated or confounded by this place and its people. And that is fine.

More than fine–good even. Bourdain has made a name for himself through his cynicism, little ironic quips, and humorously biting zingers. This time however, these signature narrative devices are almost shockingly absent. He appears to be aware that such reporting is inadequate in a place like South Africa. At times, the show on some level almost conveys a collective sense of PTSD that leaves the host and viewer rattled.

He covers all his bases, maneuvering through a variety of issues and locales that typically dominate conversations of the region: African immigrants in Yeoville, Hillbrow’s notoriety, the fundamentally aspirational nature of today’s black urban youth cultures in South Africa, the demands and desires of the ‘born-frees” (the children born after freedom or too young to experience Apartheid), the “Soweto (soccer) Derby” between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, urban revitalization projects (through a visit to the Neighborgoods Market in Braamfontein), the shortcomings of the ruling ANC. Though he does not identify them, members of Julius Malema’s new party the Economic Freedom Fighters (they’re shown protesting) even make an appearance.

Given that the episode was filmed while Nelson Mandela was in hospital and conversations of life after Mandela were at a fever-pitch (well in the western press at least), Bourdain unsurprisingly falls into the trap of equating all of South Africa’s achievements (“the country he freed”) and successes with the former leader. However, in the few instances when Anthony Bourdain asks about what happens when Mandela dies outright, his South African interlocutors (members of BLK JKS and then journalist Percy Mabanda) do a very good job of gently setting him back on the right track. While politely acknowledging the appeal of the tendency to think of the man as representative of South Africans’ collective better intentions as a nation, they all make sure to emphasize that the country and the man are not one in the same. Though his death will be a great loss, the people and the country will go on, they offer.

More than anything else, the episode offers a glimpse into the world of a very specific socioeconomic demographic in South Africa: that of the young, predominantly black, educated, and upwardly-mobile urban middle class. (Bourdain hangs out with eclectic Yeoville-based chef Sanza Sandile, the BLK JKS in a Soweto shebeen, and Mabanda at Maboneng Neighborgoods Market.)

However, there are awkward moments. Aside from two truly bizarre segments where Bourdain hunts eland on the sizable game farm of Prospero Bailey, the descendant of a rich, white Johannesburg family and eats at a very white butcher’s in Pretoria adorned with Apartheid South African flags (which we won’t go into here since it could make for an entire post on its own), the two most awkward interactions in the episode involve individuals that do not fall neatly into the small subset of upwardly mobile black South Africans. Rather, these interactions are with people who could more conceivably be seen as members of the South African “masses.”

The individuals I’m referring to are the Hillbrow-based DJ Les, and the minibus taxi driver, Mdu–both of whom Bourdain struggles to relate to and he therefore comes off as awkward and uncomfortable in these scenes. We get little sense of their world, except disjointed scenes. This is not to say that choosing to focus on the aforementioned demographic was a good or bad thing overall. Such monolithic judgements would be inaccurate, it is simply an interesting aspect of the episode to be aware of.

Anyway, the episode is available to watch for free online (some kind person posted it on YouTube), so view it and decide for yourselves whether or not Anthony Bourdain does an adequate job portraying Gauteng to American (and global) audiences:

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Steffan Horowitz

Writes about film, popular culture urbanism, arts and literature.


21 thoughts on “Anthony Bourdain goes to South Africa

  1. Hendrik, didn’t you know? It’s completely acceptible to open your programme by making inaccurate, monolithic judgements that present a disjointed image of an entire demographic (Just make absolutely certain you choose the Right demographic otherwise you’ll get flake). Then, simply add a heaping tablespoon of contempt, a derisive cup of ‘one-liner’ conclusions that appeal to your upper middle-class American audience and, finally, a loving pinch of brash uncritical ignorance. Voila: ‘Bourdain recentering the historical narrative.’ For more information see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greedy_reductionism

  2. The thing I found disappointing was that not enough unique or native south african food was sampled. The part where he goes to Sanza’s cafe is a good example of this, where he dishes up food from other countries for Anthony to sample. I think it’s a shame that you only get a hint of the Cape Malay influence while talking to the SA comedian and his wife. Also it might seem unfashionable to hang out with some Afrikaners these days, but they sure can make a good pootjie and milk tart. But then again, this new CNN format of his show, may be less about food and more about the sociology.

  3. Spot on! Jhb and Cape Town are cliched and Durban continues to remain a “best kept secret”. What a pity but hey! We’ve been voted the friendliest city in South Africa :) Halaala Durban!

  4. So, I am married to “the descendant of a rich, white Johannesburg family”. Yes, this is true, so where’s the awkward? Horowitz (who studied in the US – shock horror) could equally have described Prospero Bailey as the son of Jim Bailey, the founder of Drum magazine, now an African archive of unequalled historical significance. Blood-thirsty I am not, but Bourdain certainly seemed to enjoy himself. All in a day’s work.

  5. When Bourdain visits the restaurant in Yeoville, a keen eye will see a poster for the first Chimurenga Chronic near the door.

  6. Ah… more insights on how to be better South Africans from an American analyst. Just what we need more of, thanks! It fascinates me how these bloggers are so obsessed with pointing out the big bad white man in South Africa but fail to see their own obsession with the colonial gaze (both the author and the documentary maker). America is screwed. Focus on that. We’re getting on fine without your patronising advice.

  7. The same Jim Bailey, son of a Randlord, who paid his black writers less than than the white office typists? That one of his writers, Nxumalo or Nkosi, I can’t remember, called a shit? That Jim Bailey?

  8. Anthony Bourdain is outdated, old school and views South Africa with aged period eyes. South Africa has moved on decades ago. Go back to your own country where arrogance is “your” credo.

  9. Bourdain has left “spectacularly ignorant”. What a disappointing show. If he gets it so wrong on this one (and I know he got it wrong), how much nonsense does he usually speak on his programs? How biased and pre-conceived are his opinions? I’m no longer a fan.

  10. I’ve been absolutely loving Anthony Bourdain’s new show “No Reservations”, especiaLLY as I also love the Orient and Chinese food. So I thought I would look him up on the Internet, perhaps encourage him to visit SA for our delicacies like Bobotie, biltong, milk tart, smoorsnoek, waterblommetjiebredie, braaivleis and biryani. Judge my surprise when I saw that he’d already been here. Not only that, but he was involved in controversy when he insulted Oom Paul and the Kruger monument. I knew about that but didn’t connect it with him. Anthony, very disappointed in your aggressive dismissal of some of the icons of our Boer culture. How would you like it if I went to the big military cemetery in US and insulted General Grant or George Washington? You appear to have a presence on this blog: perhaps you would consider retracting what you said, or even apologizing?

  11. Based on Bourdains undeniable feelings of being uncomfortable with the driver, and basically the way he interacted with him shows, how uncomfortable he is actually with black people! He unfortunately felt the need to ask a cab driver whether he knew where he was going!
    I really feel he would not have asked any other color person this question, especially since he was on a completely different continent from his origin!
    The last scene with a black journalist, shows Bourdaine did feel a measure of comfort in him only because he is also a journalist.

  12. Greetings. Please remember that the USA is the MODEL for apartheid and Nazism via eugenics and human experimentation/exploitation. Since the founding of this country on the blood of 18 MILLION Native Americans killed and dehumanized, a constitution that never mentioned the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and classified me as 3/5 human, further codified in the 1857 supreme court decision of Dred Scott that the black man has no rights which the white man has to respect, Bourdain symbolizes the continuance of white supremacist thinking via his profound ignorance. He could just have easily been in the neighborhood of my youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he would have been MORE uncomfortable. He would not have understood the dialect nor the source of the violence rooted deep in the pathology of”America”. The USA’s solution to its social problems continues to be murder and confinement, now symbolized by a prison/”education” complex that incarcerates over 2.5 MILLION people, tens of thousands of them CHILDREN many serving LIFE SENTENCES without possibility of parole. The present generation of whites in USA continue to ignore and refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for the harm of neo-capitalism’s need for ever expanding markets, and its sociological means of control – white supremacist thinking and superiority complex. Now, with its gaze turned toward the “Middle East” and its establishment of the militarization of Africa, the USA will ensure that, truly, “The World is a Ghetto.”

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