A Tale of Two Cape Towns

I have been extremely lucky lately. Instead of the constant rain that usually pummels Cape Town this time of year, we have enjoyed blue skies and sun, and I have had to make little use of my rain jacket so far.

Thursday was another hectic day at work. I had planned to spend the morning at the National Library working on some historical research and return to the museum in the afternoon. On my way to the library, I stopped by the museum just to drop off a disc of images. (The past week or so, I had been compiling pictures to be used in designing a display case for the museum at the Cape Town International Conventional Center, a beautiful building that plays host to a plethora of events and conferences. A good display there could help to drive significant traffic to the museum). Unfortunately, a quick stop turned into a whole day. One errand turned into many more, and before I knew it, it was late afternoon. The good news is that, by the end of the day, we were able to meet with a graphic designer and hammer out a design for the display case.

Friday, the museum staff was away for the day on a midyear retreat. Luckily, I did not have to attend, so I was able to make up for lost time at the library. After hours of pouring through hundreds of pages of Parliamentary transcripts, at about 3pm I called it quits, met up with some of my housemates that work downtown, and took the train to the beach at Muizenburg. It was a nice day, and I had never been to a beach in Cape Town, so I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. It didn’t disappoint. The rocky coastline was beautiful with the mountains in the distance, and it was cool to watch the many surfers hang out in the frigid water.

Saturday was an awesome day. In the morning, I headed to the Old Biscuit Mill in the suburb next to mine. Several of my co-workers had been raving about its Saturday morning food market, and I decided that it was time to pay it a visit and see what all of the fuss was about. When I got there, my jaw dropped. In a beautifully remodeled mill were tables and tables of gourmet food venders—all very reasonably priced. I was in heaven. After making a lap of the venue and seeing all the different types of food available, I settled on a Belgian waffle and a falafel. Both were delicious. The market was very classy, full pretty much of white, well-dressed South Africans. It felt more like New York than Cape Town.

The rest of our day took on a slightly different tone. One of my housemates arranged for his co-worker, Easy (pronounced “Izzy”), to take us on a tour of Guglethu, the township he lives in. The experience was both fun and powerful, and it provided a stark reminder of inequality that exists right here in Cape Town, so close to where I live my daily life. First, Easy took us to the site where Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright Scholar working in South Africa, was killed in 1993 by a group of Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) members implementing their “One Settler, One Bullet Campaign.” (As a liberation organization, the PAC asserted that Africa belonged only to black Africans and advocated an armed struggle to end apartheid.)

What was incredibly powerful about Easy’s story is that he was one the PAC activists that participated in the stoning of Amy Biehl. He was arrested and served time in jail, but he was later granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which forgave acts of political violence committed during apartheid in the interest of national unity. In the years following Amy’s death, her mother met with Easy and forgave him for what he had done. Now, he works for the South African education foundation that bears Amy’s name. It is an amazing story that illustrates not only the power of forgiveness, but also how the evil system of apartheid could bend and distort moral norms and drive fundamentally good people, like Easy, to commit such a heinous act.

Next, we headed to Easy’s parent’s neighborhood to meet his parents and walk around. The houses were pretty substantially built, but they were extremely small, and the roads were made of sand and littered with trash. While we were walking around, about fifteen young children, barefoot and with dirty clothes, ran up to our group. They didn’t speak English and we couldn’t communicate verbally with them. But they stuck out their hands and began to hold our hands. To be honest, I found the situation to be incredibly awkward. I had my reservations about going on the tour to begin with, since I think that so called “township tours” are rather exploitive and designed more to give foreign visitors a “feel good” moment and an “authentic African experience.” I could only imagine what the members of the community thought about a group of wealthy white kids coming into their space and playing with their children.

After that, we headed a “shebeen,” an informal bar in the townships usually based out of somebody’s home. The one we visited, which was named “China,” was located in a family’s garage. Let me say that it was quite an experience. In the hour that I spent there, I was yelled at by a drunk deaf woman who demanded I buy her a drink and hugged incessantly by another drunk woman who was probably sixty years old. From the shebeen, we went to Mzoli’s Meats, the butcher/barbeque restaurant I visited two weekends ago. Being a Saturday evening, it was an extremely lively and quite a good time.

Going from the white, yuppie confines of the Old Biscuit Mill to the poverty of the township, my experience Saturday really demonstrated just how racially and physically separated South Africa continues to be fifteen years after democracy. This country is rife with the scars of apartheid, and unfortunately, I can’t forsee them beginning to heal anytime soon. How do you build adequate homes for the countless families without one, and how do you change the residential segregation that pervades (and in many ways) defines the country? There is no easy answer.

Today the weather turned, and we had out first cloudy day in a while. I pretty much just hung around, watched television, and prepared for the week ahead. And of course, I called my family to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day.

To all the fathers out there, Happy Father’s Day! Have a good week.


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