This last weekend, John and I road tripped the almost two thousand odd kilometers to Cape Town, hitching a lift with Claire – who is unfortunately blogless. I have been to Cape Town before, but for John, it was his first time there since he was knee-high to a garden gnome. Exploring the city again over the four or so days we had there, I was reminded of a protracted argument on the roof of Fatima’s backpackers (the nice one) about which was the better city. I think there was some more subtlety to the actual dialogue than simply betterness, but many of the themes in that discussion seemed to surface and circulate this past trip, occasionally rather uncomfortably.
It’s perpetual, unguided, seething motion. It’s what I have always imagined an African city to be.
To put my cards on the table here, I come from Johannesburg. I grew up in Durban for a fair amount of my childhood, but Johannesburg – the most prosperous city on the content – is the one I came to know best. Its a hustle and bustle kind of place. Everyone always has a plan. Someone is always bending the rules. From the outside it even probably appears slightly aggressive and anarchic. It’s a place where black and white, rich and poor learn to fend for themselves and leap or fall according to their wits and ability. It’s perpetual, unguided, seething motion. It’s what I have always imagined an African city to be.
Cape Town reminds me, every time I return, as though someone had scooped Chicago out of the US, made it a little more aristocratic and dumped it on the end of Africa. It is a beautiful city in ways that Johannesburg could never be, with lush gardens and the splendor of Table Mountain watching over the city no matter where you are. Parts of it feel like a beautiful exercise in living with quality in a manner that Johannesburg’s never ending competition seldom allows. I love that about it.
And then you hit the townships. The poorer areas outside the inner ring of the city. Where two things become obvious.
Johannesburg, for all its mixing and pushing and trying, has become a city where the distance between the filthy, criminally rich and the most dirt poor dispossessed has become something of a spectrum. There are people from all races and classes becoming increasingly distributed across that economic gulf. Yes, Apartheid did its part to ensure that the richest are still largely white and the poorest are still largely black, the dynamic of the city has shuffled that divide well over the years.
Cape Town feels nothing like this. With nightclubs and haunts of the wealthy still overwhelmingly white and the projects and townships overwhelmingly not. It’s a city which feels like those with wealth and power have turned it to keeping themselves to themselves and excluding all others. Like aristocratic England in the past, those on the upper echelons live in a beautiful (and make no mistake, it is beautiful) bubble of entertainment, creativity and beauty, those on the outside are as firmly excluded from that dream as they ever were.
Like aristocratic England in the past, those on the upper echelons live in a beautiful (and make no mistake, it is beautiful) bubble of entertainment, creativity and beauty, those on the outside are as firmly excluded from that dream as they ever were.
And before those of you who live in and love Cape Town come bearing down on me with your sabres and a list of exceptions to this opinion as long as the road between those cities, realise that you know Cape Town better than I ever will. And if you know it different, then perhaps that truth is more correct than how I know it. With the economic and xenophobic riots of last year murmuring in the international press, it was perhaps a bad time to be watching rich European tourists gawk at dancing Africans at the V&A waterfront. It was perhaps a bad time to look around a nightclub and see only marginally more nonwhites there than would have been the case 20 years ago. It was perhaps a bad time to drive through Sea Point and watch maids walking dogs for their rich employers. It was perhaps a bad time. But no less true that it was what I saw.0.
Perhaps on a different visit to different areas, impressions may change. Or perhaps I wouldn’t notice it as much.
Perhaps that would not be a good thing.