Last week I saw Cape Town die. A vast column of smoke was rising on the other side of the bay, an impossibly high V climbing into the sky.
Whatever lay at the point of that V was not merely burning, it was being incinerated. This was a conflagration, a holocaust. And then the reality of what I was seeing hit me, hard enough that I felt a little sick.
Koeberg, a nuclear power station, was on fire. The city was dead. I needed to leave. Right now.
A light-headed, hard-swallowing moment later my eyes tried again and this time the message got through. The fire was a little way north of Koeberg. Just a veld fire. All was well. A summer day like any other. But the ease with which I calmed down and slipped back into my routine startled me. It reminded me of how eagerly we unthink upsetting thoughts once we have survived a scare, as if the threat, once dodged, was never real.
Most South Africans seem to agree that Eskom couldn’t plan its way out of a paper bag, even if that paper bag had got soggy in unseasonable rain or had been ripped up by a collapsing coal silo. Our government, too, comes in for ferocious and often deserved abuse. And yet we trust both Eskom and the government to keep Koeberg safe; entrusting to alleged nitwits and nincompoops the running of a giant concrete death-machine capable of turning Cape Town into a ghost city.
Underlying this surrender is the assumption that the state reserves its best responses for the most important problems. Sure, we tell ourselves, it might not be able to keep the lights on or deliver textbooks or arrest any of the Marikana shooters or fight poverty or crime or corruption but surely it wouldn’t let Koeberg explode?
Perhaps it wouldn’t, but all we have are assumptions. Which is why I found myself looking for details of Cape Town’s nuclear evacuation plan. The good news is that the City has a plan. The bad news is that it involves public transport and citizens leaving by car on unspecified routes. Buses, taxis and Cape Town drivers? Just nuke us now. It’ll be less traumatic and there’ll be a lot less hooting.
Even more bizarre, however, was the instruction for citizens to listen to Cape Town’s two largest commercial radio stations, presumably for updates on the radioactive plume.
I could hear them already: “How whack is this radiation vibe, hey? What’s your worst nuclear disaster story? Tell us! SMSes cost R1. Meanwhile here’s Taylor Swift with Shake It Off’!”
I was aghast at the apparent flimsiness of the plan. I wanted maps with suburb-by-suburb emergency meeting points, and details of the convoys that would evacuate us along highways lined with armoured infantry. I wanted some indication of how the prevailing wind would affect the situation: if it’s a southeaster, carrying the plume out to sea, are we still cooked? What I didn’t want was commercial DJs. I don’t want the end of my world narrated by people who know only two adjectives – “awesome” and “amazeballs” – and use them mainly to describe cronuts and Miley Cyrus’s tongue. I want gravitas. I want intelligence. I want a sombre timbre. And before it all ends, I want someone to find it awesome and amazeballs that I just used two consecutive words ending in “bre”.
Perhaps the reliance on radio worried me because, by making the whole thing sound like a media event, it reminded me that my own grasp of the potential disaster extends no further than the films I’ve seen. All that stands between me and panic is the vague assumption that someone will wake Denzel Washington in the small hours of the morning and that once he gets to Koeberg there will be various protocols he can follow, like phoning Judy Dench so she can provide some instructions in terse British. If that doesn’t work I must have faith that there’s a character actor who is ambivalent enough about his leading man status – perhaps Colin Farrell? – to sacrifice himself by crawling through the ventilation system and sealing the reactor manually from the inside.
Unfortunately that plume of smoke wasn’t a special effect. It was a brush with an appalling possibility and a reminder that if Koeberg burns an entire city ceases to exist. But it was also a reminder of just how deeply ingrained and how powerful our denial is. It is the silver lining to Cape Town’s mushroom cloud and it tells us that we’re going to be okay. After all, we’ve got the southeaster, right? And amazeballs people working at Koeberg, right? And, plus, anyway, I mean, they wouldn’t let it happen, right? Right? Guys? Right?
Originally published in The Times and TimesLive