In Cape Town, we drive through neighborhoods with funny Dutch-sounding names like Tamboerskloof and Hout Bay, and capture the brightly colored homes of the Malay district when the sun shines.
We walk through the gardens along Government Avenue and past huge posters that say “Thank You Madiba” and learn that Madiba is Mandela’s Xhosa clan name, used in reverence. Mandela is sick and will die soon.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens grows only proteas and other plants indigenous to South Africa. There we see the yellow bird of paradise developed to honor Mandela.
On our drive back from from the beautiful Cape Point, we pass the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, final imprisonment location for Mandela before his freedom.
Nearing Cape Town, we see mile after mile of squalid shantytowns – “a Black Township,” we’re told, or “a Colored Township.” Some of these communities hold as many as 100,000 residents. Chris points out a development of new homes––unoccupied––and says:
“Some guy built those for the Blacks, but why would anyone want to live there? We can live wherever we want, now.”
We cringe a bit when we hear “Black” or “Colored,” but gradually we see that locals attach no stigma to those labels. It’s a fact of life here, where hospital nurses label newborn babies as Black, Colored, or White, based on how the parents look.
On another day, three of us sign up for a Township Tour with a man named Khotso, who proudly and matter-of-factly states, “I am Black. Chris is Colored.” More labels. He wants to make sure we understand the difference.
He drives us past tacked-together huts made with scraps of metal and cardboard, barely more than lean-tos without water or sewage services, then turns the corner and shows us a home with three Mercedes in the driveway. Khotso tells us that the homeowner is a millionaire who owns a bussing company, but wants to stay in his old neighborhood.
In Gugulethu, one of three Black townships in Cape Town, we see where Amy Biehl, the Stanford-educated anti-apartheid activist and Rhodes scholar, was stoned to death. Khotso relates how, at the end of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed by Mandela and led by Desmond Tutu, forgave this this political act, with the concurrence of Amy’s family.
Khotso takes us to a workshop where young people are selling their art and handicrafts.
I buy a pair of earrings that I will wear only this day; Irving buys a small plate with an African design that I love more every day. We sense a lot of pride, in their art and in themselves. Pride that they are working at something; the unemployment rate in the townships is close to 40%.
Gradually, too, we are seeing a pride in this curious classification scheme. When I get home, I look up the spelling of Gugulethu and learn that the name is a contraction of igugu lethu, which means “our pride” in the native language of Xhosa. Looks like a complicated language, doesn’t it? Fun to listen to, though: Hear it here or listen to the delightful Trevor Noah. (I loved reading his memoir, Born a Crime.)
Khotso drives down a squalid alley, or maybe it is a road. Trash and broken glass litter the dirt under clotheslines with laundry hanging in the rain. He is looking, he says, for a “boy” to show us around, telling us that the young men in this area work for tips, showing tourists around and honing their skills as guides. Khotso himself started like that, then went to college and is now a full-fledged guide for a reputable tour company. A young man comes out in the rain to guide us through the mud and into a tenement building.
The dormitory-type building, originally for single working men, now houses whole families in small rooms with a shared kitchen down the hall. We walk into the kitchen which contains a single sink and short metal counter, a picnic table, a refrigerator, and a couple of mattresses leaning against the wall. Some residents sleep in the kitchen. We peek in a room with a two single beds with a rack like a bunk bed above, holding personal belongings. A woman and child snuggle on one of the beds – this room is their home shared with another family who uses the other bed.
Everything is tidy, but old and decrepit. We buy a painting from a man named Simon who has his wares spread on an outside table, kept dry under a blue tarp. The young man does a good job as a guide; we give him a few dollars.
As he’s driving, Khotso tells us that in the days of apartheid, if police weren’t sure whether a person was Black or Colored, they put a pencil in the person’s hair, asked the person to shake their head, and if the pencil stayed put and didn’t fly out, they were “Black.” He freely admits that Coloreds have historically been ranked above Blacks in their rights, but he is proud to be Black, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
We visit a museum dedicated to District 6, which had originally been created for freed slaves and persons of color. When apartheid became official in 1950, District 6 was designated a white area. The Apartheid Act prohibited interracial marriage, immoral acts between races, and living in the same area; the homes in this premium living space were leveled. All that remained were a few churches and a row of apartment buildings inhabited by Jews, considered, I guess, white enough to remain in this desirable area. Blacks and Coloreds were forced to move to designated areas now known as Townships.
The museum chronicles the names and lives of those displaced, while local politicians wrangle over who should be allowed to move back into the area. One display talks about the jazz clubs, a culture where color didn’t matter. Perhaps the governing whites felt threatened––the lively jazz scene ended with apartheid and never came back.
Interestingly, though, no whites moved in, and to this day, District 6 remains green fields with only the churches and those few Jewish apartment buildings still standing.
On our last evening, our group braves the rain again and goes for dinner at two middle-class family homes––Colored homes. In one, Chris participates in a heated discussion about the Colored designation, which implies an historical longevity, unlike, say, a person of color from Malaysia or India. In the home hosting my husband, me, and several others, the family laughs easily and regales us with tales of brass doorknobs being stolen during the night. They tell us that, every day, they must check a nearby vacant lot for squatters. Police will come only if someone calls, and if the squatter is there for 48 hours without a police notification, then they don’t have to move. Others move in, and it becomes a shantytown, reducing the value of neighborhood homes. The family is proud of home ownership and makes sure someone is always there to check the area. The dinner is delicious.
This is a land filled with contradictions: where oceans meet, and people labeled as to color can live anywhere, but most often live with their own kind. Where the men responsible for murdering young, white Amy Biehl years ago, now head the Amy Biehl Foundation and welcome her family’s annual visits. A land with 11 official languages, where only twenty years ago a Black person would never learn to speak Africaans, the language then of only Whites and Coloreds. The land has a unique history and holds bits and pieces of many cultures: Bushmen and Hottentot tribes, early Dutch and Portuguese explorers, Indonesians and Malaysians originally brought as slaves, and settlers from England, France, Germany. Some people contain bits and pieces of all those cultures too––they are the Cape Colored.
It has rained every day, off and on. We leave on the fourth day, when the sun shines warm. We love Cape Town and want to return – too bad it is on the other side of the world.
Date of travel: September 2013.