The view from my writing room is of a crouching lion ready to spring through the morning mist into the blue skies above. The beast is a Precambrian rock formation, as majestic as the ruler-straight Table Mountain behind him. He guards the city of Cape Town and looks out across the Cape—home to one of the most diverse collections of plants, animals and people anywhere on the planet.
As a South African who has lived abroad most of his life, it’s good to be home—at least for a while. I have been here four months, and next week I must go. I am heartbroken and already plotting my return. I came to the Cape to escape the traffic jams of London and New York. To recuperate from the strain of constant travel and the tyranny of my smartphone. I’ve been writing a screenplay, reveling in the beauty of the natural world, the adventurous life swirling in the streets, the glorious vineyards, the rivers and the ocean.
If you’re reading this, you have a charge card with a concierge service. That means I can confess certain preferences without sounding too spoiled. Like you, I appreciate good service. I have strong feelings about the correct pressure of a shoulder massage. I am happy with simplicity, but when I choose luxury, I expect it to honor its promises. It’s no coincidence that my last novel was called History of a Pleasure Seeker. Drinking a hot chocolate on the terrace of Mount Nelson Hotel, looking into its palm-tree-fringed garden with the mountain rising behind, you feel truly blessed. And you are. Go out in Cape Town on a Saturday night and you’ll find bars as chic as any in Paris. Start at Orphanage Cocktail Emporium, then wander down to Long Street and explore. An hour’s drive away on an exceptionally smooth road (far better than any in England) are vineyards and more mountains; beyond them, country towns where life has stood still for decades, gabled houses of the 17th century, rivers teeming with fish.
For the writer, the fusion of cultures is a treasure trove of stories—and in South Africa, people will tell you their stories. Sometimes heartbreaking, often cut with great wit, usually told with an acceptance of suffering that is deeply humbling, they give you a context for your own troubles and inspire you to make a difference in this magical land.
In this world of contrasts, where poverty and great wealth exist side by side, it is possible to combine indulgence with activism, to drink the cup of pleasure deep while making an impact in a nation still healing from a brutally unequal past.
When my first novel, The Drowning People, was published in 1999, I decided to help four children go to first-rate schools—the kind of schools their parents were barred from and to this day could not possibly afford. Helping exceptional individuals become educated, effective leaders is the best way to safeguard the miracle of South Africa’s nonviolent transformation. I named the charity the Kay Mason Foundation, in memory of my sister, and since then 150 kids have unlocked their potential.
While enjoying a 90-minute massage, or the endorphin rush of a workout session with a truly gifted trainer, or a beef fillet cooked to perfection, there’s a strong temptation to spend money on other people, too. Finding the best place to spend it is a challenge worth rising to. A year ago the kids of the Kay Mason Foundation came to me and said they wanted to give back. They were determined to raise the money for a new generation of scholars themselves. In July they launched Generation 2018, a nonprofit fund they’ve set up to raise the money needed to pay for school fees, transport, textbooks and a host of support services that make all the difference to young people struggling against the odds. With help from the foundation’s staff, the scholars run the show. They host events, present to investors, pitch for corporate sponsorships—and all the while they build the confidence they need to succeed.
Their launch event was one of the happiest nights of my life. As they gave passionate speeches without notes, I nearly burst with pride. Ask for a presentation yourself when you visit the Cape, and you’ll come away beaming. The KMF gives me hope that we’ll build in South Africa a civil society worthy of the Cape’s natural glories.
Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker was published by Vintage in 2011. To learn more about the Kay Mason Foundation, go to kmf.org.za.