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Good Hopes for Better Life Send Whites to Cape

Province: Many are drawn by economy, lower crime rates. But racial component is hard to ignore.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Back in her Johannesburg neighborhood, Amanda Currie's house was nicknamed the bird cage. Currie thought it more a jail, but the point was the same: The mass of burglar bars was just as intrusive for those trapped inside as for those outside.

In April, Currie was set free. She packed up and moved to Cape Town, one of South Africa's most picturesque cities and, as of late, a favorite destination for whites escaping the country's crime-ridden business capital to the north.

There is no guarantee that Currie, 37, won't face the same miseries here--her Johannesburg house was burglarized three times in two years, and she was carjacked on a busy downtown street. But somehow, she says, the change will do her good.

"I don't think you can go anywhere in South Africa and avoid crime," she said. "But my new job was a promotion, and I just wanted to be in a beautiful setting."

The history of white retreat from colonial Africa has always had two fronts: the northern route back to Europe and the southern route to Africa's holdouts of white minority rule. With the multiracial elections of 1994, South Africa became the last white domino to fall. The white migration, however, continues--this time to the continent's southernmost tip, where the original white settlement was established in 1652 at the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Most whites say they are heading to the Cape of Good Hope for a better life, not because of race or politics. In South Africa, however, those elements always have been difficult to separate.

Not only are blacks and whites of equal numbers in the Western Cape province (whereas nationally, blacks outnumber whites 7 to 1), but it is governed by the "new" National Party, successor to the whites-only party that ruled South Africa under apartheid. The party's support base is now largely people of mixed race, the most populous group in the Western Cape, who fear black dominance by the African National Congress perhaps even more than they do lingering white influence.

"We blame and complain in the Western Cape; I make no apologies for that," said Gerald Morkel, the mixed-race premier and provincial leader of the National Party. "We are the only province that has the guts to confront the ANC."

The Western Cape is considered one of South Africa's better-off provinces. Public schools have the country's highest passing rate on national matriculation exams. Unemployment is about half the national average, and economic growth is 1 percentage point ahead of the national rate. Even most crime statistics, although among the worst in the country, have been slightly lower than those in Johannesburg for most of the past five years.

Morkel, who served in an apartheid-era legislature for people of mixed race, explains the province's success in one word: experience. "We have the ability to govern," he said.

At the waterfront offices of Pam Golding Properties, one of South Africa's biggest real estate firms, the books show that between 25% and 35% of sales in recent years have been to residents of Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and its suburbs.

Many of the Cape Town homes are purchased as a second residence: The family breadwinner works in Johannesburg, taking the two-hour flight to join the household in Cape Town on weekends and some evenings.

The rush of white homeowners to the Western Cape was foreshadowed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the shift of holiday-makers from Durban, on the Natal coast, 800 miles to the northeast. The Durban area had always been the favorite seaside playground for whites, but that changed after the repeal of apartheid-era laws restricting black access to beaches.

After being robbed last year in suburban Johannesburg, Dale Ellis-Cole was so desperate to move that she quit her public relations job and headed to Cape Town even before selling her house or lining up work. Like many women living alone in South Africa, going to bed at night had become the most frightening part of the day.

"I would hate to tell you about the fear and sleepless nights and knots in my stomach," Ellis-Cole said. "I had had enough."

A year later, the 48-year-old divorcee heads a thriving loan company that specializes in helping borrowers who don't qualify at banks.

"I had only been to Cape Town two times before moving here, but it has a different feel about it," Ellis-Cole said. "There are problems, but they seem more solvable."

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