It doesn’t have a warrant and it doesn’t read your attention its rights, but it arrests it anyway, kicking down the front door of your sensibilities, beating your aesthetics unconscious with a cosh, and helping itself to your last drops of good taste.
It’s entirely appropriate behaviour for something that looks like it was commissioned by the mistress of the despot of a former Soviet republic.
The architect’s brief would have been clear: imagine a Venetian brothel had sex with the headquarters of a cellphone company in Midrand, and that their baby was dressed up as Las Vegas and sent to a reformatory for the criminally tasteless in Dubai.
Even by the standards of Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard it’s a monstrosity, and that’s saying plenty. Camps Bay is where taste goes to die, incinerated by the glare of sun reflected off giant, vacant windows; crushed by slabs of concrete; impaled with a little paper umbrella with the words “The Good Life” printed on it in comic sans.
I felt compelled to stop and take a picture, almost as if I feared it might be a mirage created by light interacting with updrafts of pure kitsch. I got out of my car and pointed my phone – and then a door opened and a man appeared.
He had a pistol on his hip.
I lowered my phone, but he said cheerfully, “It’s amazing, hey?” I replied, truthfully, that it was. “And you should see inside!” he added, shaking his head like a Celtic cave-dweller seeing Rome for the first time. But this was no rube. Even as he put me at my ease, I could feel him scanning me and assessing me as a threat. Once, in a zoo, I was looked at by a wolf. It was the same feeling.
I might have filed that moment away as a peculiar anomaly, but this week it happened again.
My partner and I had pulled over in a leafy Constantia dell to eat a late-night takeaway pudding, as one does. On one side the green belt loomed in the moonlight. On the other, dark mansions slept behind walls. An owl was calling somewhere far away, but otherwise it was completely still. The rich really can buy silence.
The darkness broke into shadows and outlines: a cyclist with a very bright headlamp was weaving up the road towards us. No, not a cyclist. It was moving too slowly. A pedestrian with a military-grade torch. A guard, dispatched from the nearest palace. His meandering approach revealed the awkward position he’d been put in. If we were harmless citizens pausing on a stretch of public road, he was about to look like a draconian douche bag. If we were assassins, he was about to look like a corpse.I didn’t blame him for taking his time.
The torch beam stayed on us long enough to reassure him that the chocolate mousse wasn’t plastic explosive, and he grunted a greeting. For a moment it seemed he would just turn and walk away but this was clearly a more sensitive soul. He was embarrassed. And so he pointed his torch up into the trees. Ah, right. Suddenly it all made sense. He wasn’t here to check us out. No. He’d obviously received reports of a vicious socialistic squirrel that had been offing larnies in these parts and redistributing their acorns to the poor. He was looking for them. Yes, good, all clear overhead. Goodnight, folks.
The valley, carpeted in forests, etched in moonlight, suggested a place of rural tranquility. Perhaps that’s why the rich live there; so that they can believe they live on a country estate in some European neverworld. But as we drove away, the truth showed itself: the darkness is beautiful, but only when kept at a safe distance. Glimpses through gates and over hedges revealed house after house blazing with light. Spotlights lit up driveways and gardens; infra-red cameras stared out into what little remained of the night. These were homes occupied by people living by the fearful mantra of the Game of Thrones witch: the night is dark and full of terrors.
I would love a few million bucks. I’m also not convinced by the self-soothing middle-class view that money can’t buy you happiness: if you’re capable of making your own happiness, I’m pretty sure money buys you the space and time to go on that happy journey.
But when I think of those two guards, sent into a public road to interrogate fellow citizens, I wonder if money also buys you fear. If the boundaries of your anxiety extend beyond your spiked walls; if the world is such a dangerous place that you feel entitled to launch pre-emptive strikes on threats beyond your own property; what kind of life are you living?
First published in The Times and Timeslive