As my plane touches down in Cape Town, the captain gets on the PA to go above and beyond the call of his landing-announcin’ duties and wax lyrical about the city in which we’ve just arrived. “Welcome,” he gushes, “to the most beautiful city in the world.”
It’s late at night by the time I arrive, and all that’s really to be seen from the taxi into the hotel is a whole lot of swanky-looking restaurants and a whopping great football stadium that my driver tells me was refurbished for the 2010 World Cup. I’m staying in the beachside suburb of Green Point, and since all the swanky-looking restaurants are closed by the time I venture out, I only brave a short walk and then go back and crash.
This means that it’s not until the morning that I see what Mr Pilot was talking about: Cape Town is gorgeous. Green Point is a five minute walk from the Atlantic, which crashes into the sea wall alongside a park where happy, healthy residents jog and push prams and stop for their morning coffee. The streets are green and spacious and idyllic, the air is clean, and the scenery is stunning, with Table Mountain a constant dramatic presence beyond the city’s skyline. It’s only the electric fences that are a constant presence along the top of the high brick walls that surround people’s houses, and the signs proclaiming the presence of sophisticated alarm systems and armed response teams, that suggest that maybe not everything is quite as rosy as it seems.
I’ve written several times in these features about the idea of history being very close to the surface in the countries I’ve visited — the legacy of the Derg in Ethiopia, the Mozambican civil war, and of course Egypt, where history is happening right fucking now, as we speak. But even so, there’s nothing to quite compare to the burden of history that South Africa has to bear: the weight of apartheid.
Curiously enough, it doesn’t seem to be a sensitive topic that up until 20 years ago, South Africa lived under a system of institutionalized racism that was enshrined in law discrimination against non-white residents of the country. My taxi driver from the airport discusses it quite openly, but the most extensive and interesting discussion of the topic comes during the most unlikely of sources: a winery tour.
Since this is my last stop in Africa, I decide to treat myself to a half-day tour of Cape Town’s wine country. My tour group consists of me and a young couple who’ve recently moved from Boston to Johannesburg and are visiting the Cape for a break, and the driver is a quiet moustachioed gentleman in his mid-50s by the name of Basil.
Only, the thing is that once we get going, Basil isn’t quiet at all. And once we get out of the center of Cape Town and head out toward the vineyards we’re visiting, it becomes pretty apparent that we’re driving past what could only be politely described as slums. Basil raises the subject before we do: “You can ask me anything,” he says. “It won’t offend me.” It turns out to be the catalyst for a fascinating discussion.
First, though, the more pleasant part of the trip: the wineries! We visit two vineyards, specifically Zevenwacht and Saxenburg, both of which are in the Stellenbosh region east of Cape Town. This is apparently South Africa’s second-oldest wine region, and driving on gently winding roads through gently rolling hills, you could quite happily believe you were somewhere in Tuscany or Bourgogne if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s the occasional zebra grazing on the side of the road.
Your correspondent isn’t by any means a wine expert, but I do know a decent wine when I taste one, and I do know that both these vineyards serve up some pretty impressive wines. Most interesting is a grape called pinotage, which has a distinctive smoky flavor and is apparently unique to South Africa. I’m not entirely sure that I detect the “hints of blackberry and plum” and god only knows what else that I’m supposed to detect in the wine, but it’s pretty tasty nonetheless.
After we’re done with ten different vintages, we’re shovelled back into the car and driven to the town of Stellenbosch itself, which is an idyllic little chocolate box town that’s so picturesque that it’s almost like visiting a theme park or something. The main street is lined with souvenir shops that all sell various African knick-knacks and handicrafts and etc, and there’s a village green that looks like it probably still hosts cricket matches on Saturday mornings. It’s so pretty that you almost forget that to drive here you go past shanty towns full of houses made out of cardboard and driftwood. Almost.
The slums we’re passing are what are called in South African parlance “townships”: settlements created to house blacks and “colored” — mixed-race — people who were moved out of the city under the apartheid regime. There’s neither the time nor the space here to go into the history of how apartheid came to be — click here for an overview, if you’re interested — but suffice it to say that the townships are very much still there, a visible legacy of a regime whose policies would be scarcely believable if they weren’t so depressingly familiar.
There are plenty of countries wherein racial discrimination is institutionalized to varying extents — shit, we in the US don’t have to look further than our own doorstep for examples — but never anywhere else that did it quite with the mechanical brutality that South Africa did. Our driver Basil is what was called Cape colored, and was thus housed in a colored township, where he remains to this day, despite having been a well-respected engineer in the oil industry before he retired and took up running tours. Social mobility is a possibility in South Africa these days, but things don’t change overnight, and the deep divisions left by apartheid will take generations to heal.
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of apartheid, and its most poisonous legacy, is the fact that it denied education to blacks. Basil reels off some of the figures: under apartheid, 70% of the country’s education budget went to white schools, 12% to Indian schools, 10% to colored schools, and only 8% to black schools — despite blacks making up 75% of the country’s population. It’s a statistic that echoes what my (black) taxi driver told me the night before: “They didn’t want us to have education. But we educated ourselves.”
Despite the enduring problems wrought by apartheid, however, the most remarkable aspect of South Africa — in my observation, at least — is the relative absence of bitterness and the degree of genuine forgiveness that people here seem to demonstrate. Basil speaks glowingly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and granted amnesty to those prepared to appear and confess to perpetrating human rights abuses under apartheid. His opinion of the TRC isn’t shared by everyone, but it’s hard to argue with his verdict on the progress that South Africa has made in such a short time: “It’s not even been 20 years since apartheid. We’ve come a long way. I think we’re doing very well.”
The other great story of apartheid in Cape Town is that of District Six. This was a district of Cape Town that was, up until the 1960s, a byword for the city’s racial diversity — it housed blacks, colored people, Indians, Malays, and various others. In the 1970s, it became synonymous with the forced removals of its residents — after it was declared a whites-only area, some 60,000 people were rehoused from District Six to satellite townships, and the entire area was bulldozed to make way for new developments.
But the developments never happened — perhaps uneasy about the area’s brutal history, the predicted wave of white settlers never arrived, and all that was built was a tertiary college called the Cape Technikon. And when the apartheid government fell in 1994, former residents started staking claims for the land that used to belong to them. A resettlement program is in place, with new houses being constructed to replace the ones that were demolished decades ago. As far as a symbol of South Africa’s healing goes, it’s a pretty potent one.
For now, the reason to visit is the District Six Museum, a fascinating and profoundly moving memorial to the area’s history. It contains a wealth of information about the District as it was before it was razed, with street signs, old photos, reconstructions of houses and shops, testimonies from former residents and — perhaps most poignantly — a giant street map that spans the museum’s entire floor space, whereupon people who used to live in District Six can come and mark the location of where their houses used to stand.
Several former residents are actively involved with the museum, including Noor Ebrahim, who’s giving a tour the day I visit. Like many others, he was rehoused during the 1960s, and is on the waiting list for one of the new houses that Again, the most remarkable aspect of Ebrahim’s testimony is the apparently complete lack of bitterness toward the apartheid regime — as with Basil, he speaks openly and forthrightly about the spirit of forgiveness that’s flourished since 1994. I can’t help but wonder whether I’d be able to be so philosophical or forgiving if someone had forced me out of my home and rehoused me to a shanty town in the middle of nowhere. I doubt it. It’s humbling. Humbling.
I head back from the museum to my hotel in a taxi driven by a friendly chap from the Congo, who’s lamenting the fact that someone stole the illuminated “TAXI” sign from the top of his cab while he stopped in to buy cigarettes. “People here,” he sighs, “they’re not like anywhere else.” And despite the rather unfortunate provenance of the phrase, it sticks with me.
I’m reminded of a line from Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram, where he observes that if it was a billion Americans or Britons crammed into the Indian subcontinent, rather than a billion Indians, they’d have wiped each other out long ago. It’s easy to romanticize or idealize this continent, viewing it as an exotic other defined in opposition to ourselves. But at the end of the day, it���s full of people just like you and me. People here, they’re not like anywhere else. But then again, they are. Just like everywhere else.
“Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.” — David Foster Wallace, The Pale King