Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Pot Calls the Kettle

To a lot of people Cape Town must feel wonderful. To me, it felt like the twilight zone.

A lot if had to do with the first 24 hours there. I came in on a very comfortable overnight bus run by the Intercape company with video programming called Intertainment (hardy har har). The video programming stated that it the company was proud to provide quality service and to glorify God. It then went on to advertise Christian feature films as if they were the only feature films in existence, imply that evangelical gatherings could cure HIV/AIDS, and pause to tell any potential advertisers that the company could broadcast their message on Intertainment to an audience that was 65% white and 35% "other." A gentle reminder, we are in Africa. Does anyone else see what is wrong with how that statistic was written?

I got to my first hostel in Cape Town, The Penthouse on Long, and asked them to sell me on the place; to tell me why I should stay longer. They told me that they "had great facilities, clean private showers, a nice bar upstairs and a rooftop terrace, that they didn't allow any locals to stay"-- pausing upon seeing my facial expression to tell me, 'that's a good thing.' I asked why. They said they don't want poor people hanging around long term, not paying their bills, and that they were a security risk.

They then tried to sell me on one of the more popular backpacker establishments in South Africa-- something called the Baz Bus. It's selling point is that it picks you up at your hostel, and drops you off at the next hostel you want to go to. Which is great. If all you want to see is hostels and the inside of a bus full of backpackers. I will admit, the place was very comfortable and had great facilities. I did not stay a second night.

Downtown Cape Town felt like downtown Sydney to me. Buildings were all a similar age and style, and the ethnic breakdown appeared to be about the same. But in Australia, White people make up the vast majority of the population. Most people I ask around here put the white population of South Africa lower than 10%. That first night, I went out with some people I met to a punk rock show at a bar downtown. It was only a few blocks away, but on the hostel staff's advice, we took a private cab to get there and back because "it wasn't safe" otherwise. I still don't know whether that's true. I do know that we were looking around at the show and were only able to spot one non-white person there. He was collecting empty glasses and bottles and cleaning the tables.

Apartheid is over. Isn't it?

The thing that's most striking to me is just how much fear there seems to be in ordinary middle class white people in Cape Town. There are so many things they say that "aren't safe" or are "bad areas" that you don't really know what is and isn't safe anymore. For example, I stayed with a friend in the college suburb of Stellenbosch for a few days, using the train system to get between there and downtown Cape Town. The trains had the irritating habit of leaving about ten minutes ahead of schedule, meaning I would miss them even if I arrived early, but aside from that seemed to comparable to the El in Chicago or the subway in Rome. At one point in downtown Cape Town, one white guy told me I should I only take the trains if I was brave, saying that was a taste of "the real Africa." I don't even know how to start unpacking everything rolled up into that statement.

As far as I can tell, white people live in central Cape Town, and everyone else lives in these settlements called "townships" on the outskirts. A couple of these aren't that bad. But several I saw as we drove by made tiny villages in Tanzania and Malawi look prosperous. Everything was made out of sheets of corrugated metal. I was lucky enough to stay a couple nights with documentary film makers who were shooting a movie about artists in the townships. You could hardly believe they were filming in the same country.

We're in country which seems almost unique in its mixed-race heritage, this large population of colored (once again, that's the polite term here) people, that you don't find in other parts of Africa. I for one would like to learn something about their culture. It's just a tiny bit irritating to be told that the only "safe" way to do this is to go on a tour of a township with white tourists paying money to white tour operators so they can point cameras at locals like they're animals in a zoo.

Right. Enough venting. I will say that the times I've stayed with people here have been great- first with friends which is always good because you're with friends, and second with couch surfing with the filmmakers, which was the closest I felt I could get to what was really happening in town. Both were fantastic hosts and I had a great time with them. I also got to spend a day in Cape Town on bicycle, which I highly recommend-- riding from Observatory across the foot of Signal Hill to the waterfront was a beautiful ride, especially since the day I did it, I was able to sneak back to the Company Gardens for a free concert by the Hip Hop Collective. A great last day in town.

I'm not in Cape Town anymore. I'm in a place whose actual name is Wilderness. It's a nice little place. The people staying here are great. There is a working farm with a vegetable patch guests can take stuff from for free. There are all kinds of activities in the nearby national park or the beach you can go do. So far, on the hostel grounds, I have seen one black person. She cleans the kitchens. Nobody seems to talk to her, except for one Afrikaaner I overheard asking if she had any family members they could hire to do some cleaning.

The worst part about it all is how familiar it feels.

I went to a college that whose student body and faculty was by the vast majority white, and whose working staff was almost all black. I may complain about people here confusing "different" with "dangerous," but where I went to school was known as a "nice neighborhood" surrounded by "bad neighborhoods." I knew people who would frequently complain that to get to anywhere in the city took forever because you had to take a bus or train across "bad neighborhoods." I myself spent four years in this town, and I can remember walking around these neighborhoods only once, on accident.

I've heard some people say that the faults that annoy us the most in others are the ones we see reflected in ourselves. Maybe, as someone who lived almost fours years in Chicago, that's why these things about Cape Town bother me.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Your point about Chicago is a good one. Brought more home to us with recent visit and drive through Gary Indiana to The Dunes. Gary looks like Chicago "township". I think back to tourist maps in NYC that didn't show anything above Central Park, the warm and puzzled reception on a walk (rather than taking the customary tourist bus) from downtown Atlanta to MLK Jr. memorial, and admonishments not to get lost in certain areas of Philadelphia, WA DC or LA. It's awful and of course the least surprising to those who are on the worst end of the equation. Glad you got in with the film crew. lv, anonymom

  2. You know what's kind of ridiculous?

    Your entry felt very familiar, both in the first paragraph and in the last. And I was thinking about Chicago the whole time. But until I read your last couple of paragraphs, I wasn't thinking about the U of C -- I was thinking about the Athol Fugard mini-festival that's happening this year, with three different shows about the effects of apartheid in South Africa. Fugard being South African...

    When my parents visited me for the first time, they saw it was a mile from the Red Line stop to Hyde Park, and wanted to walk it. They were stopped by strangers -- you know, the local natives -- who told them they were in the wrong place, and they really needed to catch the bus...

  3. Ah, an important topic and of course I think of Detroit and the sad story of how lack of diversity in the city (racial included) brought a rapid demise to a once glittering hotspot. At least here in Atlanta, races are mixed together in one city and not segregated by race into city dwellers and suburbites.

  4. Anonymom- I haven't even been to Gary. Still, I'm willing to bet it's in a better shape than the townships here. To be honest the place I wonder about the most now isn't Chicago, it's southern Seattle. I've never even seen pictures of the place. I don't remember anyone telling me it's a bad place. I don't remember anyone telling me about it at all until a law class in Chicago mentioned a study of the "predominantly black neighborhoods of southern Seattle" and their public schools compared to the "predominantly white neighborhoods of the north" and their public schools.

    Rachel- I'm actually in Athol Fugard's old hometown now-- Port Elizabeth. I'm trying to memorize one Master Harold and the Boys' monologues as a possible audition piece. I hope the festival makes a few Chicagoans think about their lives there.

    Emily- I've never been to either city, but the story makes sense in both cases. We'll see how it works out for each one.

  5. Joel - I just saw Master Harold... last month. Yeah, you would do really well with one of those monologues. Master Harold was very painful in the way that The Island wasn't -- because in The Island, you can sort of say, "but, it's not me, I would have been one of those oppressed." It's the unconscious racism that gets you -- the familiarity of seeing black men genuflect to a younger white man.

    One thing that hasn't been commented on at all in the theater materials, but which I noticed: all three Fugard plays are directed by black men. Really insanely respected directors, who I'd never heard of before...but who I will certainly be following in the future.