The university towns in Virginia and South Africa are picturesque on the surface. But a closer look reveals another similarity: a sense of ‘genteel denialism’

John Edwin Mason first visited South Africa before Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, and he keeps going back. He is an associate professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, now at the centre of the American conversation about race. Does Charlottesville remind him of anywhere in South Africa? “You kidding?” chuckles Mason, who is African American. “Charlottesville reminds me of Stellenbosch.”

Having lived and worked in South Africa for six years, I get the comparison. Stellenbosch is a charming university town with colonial architecture, fine cuisine and pretty streets and squares, surrounded by mountains and vineyards. “And there’s a certain complacency and self-satisfaction in both towns,” Mason adds. “In both, black people in poverty are hidden away. You can choose not to see it.”

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