Thursday, 12 December 2013

Cape Town: Beauty, inequality, and a goodbye to Mandela

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Last week I went to Cape Town. This is a place I had never expected to visit, and knew very little about apart from the obvious things. I chose not to learn very much more before I went, not because I wasn’t intrigued, but because I wanted as much as possible to see Cape Town through the eyes of the people I was going to stay with, to understand from them what it is like to live there. I wanted to avoid any preconceptions. It is, after all, a complicated place.

Of course, it turned out to be a strange and special time to be in South Africa. When I was woken with news of Mandela’s death, it was in a room that looked out across Cape Town to Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for so long. Being in South Africa was an unexpectedly emotional experience, and I often felt overwhelmed by what I learned and saw, the strange combinations of beauty, pleasure, poverty and inequality. I found it strange to be in a place where I could not walk around even a ‘nice’ neighbourhood alone after dark, and in the day was under instruction to carry no valuables. On the other hand, this kind of restriction on how one lives is nothing compared to the restrictions experienced by people living in places like Khayelitsha and the other townships.

I was surprised by how far away the townships were from central Cape Town, but then heard how the government had tried to eradicate the one nearest the airport when South Africa hosted the World Cup, hoping to tuck the ‘problem’ out of sight. A local bus service was only introduced to Cape Town in November 2013; lack of public transport had been one way of keeping the poorest people out of the town, out of sight, and for many out of mind.

The week before I left on this trip I had been shocked by various statistics about the borough where I work and live in London. At least 30% of children in Islington live in poverty, as defined by the government, cheek by jowl with people whose homes are worth £5m, £8m, who can make tens of thousands of pounds a year just by not moving house. I was incensed; having lived in Walthamstow previously, Islington has always felt wealthy to me, but the conspicuous consumption hides profound inequality. However, this is nothing compared to the extremity and scale of the inequality in Cape Town.

Millions of people live in Khayelitsha and the other townships. There is 80% unemployment (that is not a typo), and 30% of people are HIV positive (again, not a typo). Living conditions and HIV levels contribute to an extremely high rate of tuberculosis. Some people who live in the city centre will never go to the townships, and live as if they are not even there. Thankfully, there are exceptions.

I went to South Africa because my partner was travelling there to take part in the ICASA conference on HIV in Africa. He lived in Cape Town for many years whilst working for Medecins Sans Frontieres, and we stayed with a man whom he describes as his hero. Eric Goemaere started the first HIV treatment programme in Khayelitsha, and he and his wife Katherine Hildebrand have lived in Cape Town for 15 years, bringing up children there whilst both working to prevent and treat HIV in Africa. Eric received many death threats during the setting up of treatment centres, from politicians who wanted to pretend that HIV did not exist. Mandela supported his work, and on the day that Cape Town absorbed and responded to news of Mandela’s death, Eric was bombarded with phone calls from radio stations and newspapers asking for comments.

Staying with people who live in the city but work in the townships gave me insights into Cape Town life and how people come to terms with it. Katherine admitted she had found the inequality and the perceived danger too much at first, that it took her years to accept the place and a couple more to love it. As a white Swiss woman, despite the work she was doing, she also admitted it took her four years before she felt comfortable inviting black friends from Khayelitsha back to her home in the city. She had felt guilty about what she had, she said, while her husband had suggested it was better to share what you have. Now it is not an issue, but it is telling that even for someone as generous and passionate about her work as Katherine, it took some time for her to break down the social barriers that were presented to her. 

There is a constant tension in the air in Cape Town, but what I realised was that the tension is different for each individual. For me, there was the intense strangeness of driving through Khayelitsha, where people live in corrugated-iron rooms at the roadside, straight into the lush, oak-shaded vineyards of Franschhoek with its white table cloths and European menus. There was the less intense but unavoidable fact that almost everybody serving the wine and bringing the food was a black person, doing the bidding of a white person. We are only twenty years away from the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and as a result these facts sting. 

I was glad to have been in South Africa on the day Mandela died, if only for the selfish reason that his passing served to crystallize some of the confusing emotions I felt while I was there. I have been disappointed by the cynicism that has crept into the British coverage of his death, because I doubt that anybody in the UK understands just how important it is for many (not all) South Africans to feel they can embrace and carry his legacy. His life was as complicated as the history of that country has been over the last 95 years, but he needs to stand for something. Forgiveness and strength are part of this, but there are so many other aspects that I doubt most British people, including me, are aware of. 

I read a book while I was there that gathered together the thoughts of South African children in response to questions about Mandela. One child, Tebang, wrote, “We can help Mr Mandela a lot by sending the children to school and give them a education so we can have our own Mandela in the future”. He is right, but it is not only the education of South African children that matters. I for one should not have grown up in the UK during Apartheid and its end with so little understanding of it. South Africa has lost Mandela, but we can all do something to improve the education of this and future generations so that there is no need for anybody to suffer and fight in the same way again.

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