Cape Town is not easily known.
Last week this time, I stared across my hotel room, frustrated. But this isn’t what I expected, I thought. To be fair, I’m not quite sure what I expected. Some of my friends back home would jeer when I told them I would be in South Africa for the summer, that I was excited for my feet to finally touch down on the African continent for the first time. South Africa, they told me, is Africa-lite. “It’s not really Africa,” they insisted. Some here – not locals, but expatriates who have settled in here from Zimbabwe, the Congo, etc. – have likewise echoed the same sentiment to me in impromptu conversations in coffee shops and across cashier counters. It begs an entirely different set of questions for me- among them, so what exactly is AFRICA?- that I don’t want to get into. At least not yet.
That aside, South Africa, as I told you belies comprehension in some ways. Even as I so stubbornly want to get to know it. Getting my feet into the community and meeting the people here – from all backgrounds – is really important to me. It is likewise something that is doubly difficult to do in a society that has, in some ways, torn itself apart from the inside only to patch itself together again, and in a city where you could walk through 10 different cultural milieus in just the space of an hour.
From the lovely rainbow-colored houses of the Muslim community in Bo-Kaap, home to peoples from Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, to the upscale beach houses of Camps Bay and the could-have-been-plucked-out-of-Tyson’s Corner V&A waterfront mall, to the townships on the outskirts of town… the diversity in the space of a few miles is vibrant, surprising, phenomenal. A burst of cosmopolitanism that is most unexpected in many ways but understandable all the same. It’s still striking to me; they say here that anyone can find a bit of home in Cape Town. I think they might be right.
One challenge in particular to getting to know the city, as another American here pointed out to me recently, is that “even though we don’t often remember it, slavery for South Africans was just 20 years ago, and reconstruction still continues.” It’s an apt analogy despite its imperfections. The point is this, the memory of apartheid is still fresh here, it’s legacy just as intermingled with that of Nelson Mandela, President de Klerk, and all of those who have tried to carve out what democracy here must look like in the long term. It is amazing to me that a country that was once so divided is whole now. In many ways, South Africa has indeed come a long way. But that is not to say that problems don’t exist. In a series of conversations over meals, in taxi cab rides, and across cashier counters, I’ve heard about fears of reverse discrimination from Afrikaans and English people, feelings of inadequate political representation from ‘Coloreds’ and ‘Cape Coloreds’ (the South African name for people whose parents are either white & black, colored & malay, or some other combination of the four), and the growing economic woes of young people in the black townships just across town. And all of this is just a tiny slice of what I have gleaned about life here even as I still have so much more to learn.
I came here in part because I wanted to see what economic and political reconciliation in the wake of serious domestic upheaval looks like. And so, the social scientist in me naturally delights at the many different sights and sounds and peoples and colors of this rainbow nation. While it is hard to pierce through the surface and see the reality beyond Long Street’s buoyant shops, the pretty Bo-Kaap colored houses, and the scenic views Table Mountain provides, it’s a challenge I want to take on. An outsider in a new place, I’m aware that I might never really know or understand all that South Africa is but I don’t want to leave without trying first. Not yet.
I hope you’ll join me for the ride, friends. Until then, some pictures :)