Monday February 29, 2016
This weekend’s trip into Cape Town was quite eventful and a study in contrasts. I think it goes a long way towards exemplifying some of the contradictions and complexities that are a part of living in South Africa (that was for Meg – I like alliteration too 😉 ).
I took the morning train in yesterday morning. Despite having been sort of vaguely warned about the dangers, it seemed to me that the only real danger being talked about was in taking the train before or after hours, and that riding during the day presents no problems. I was for sure the only white person that I saw on the train the entire journey, and it got me once again thinking about the racial segregation of space. At home I would take this train all the time! It was clean, more or less efficient (it was only half an hour late), and got me dead into the center of the city without having to deal with the ordeals of traffic (read: lunatic drivers) or trying to sort out parking. All for the low low price of CAD $1.75. Seems like a no brainer to me.
I planned this trip into the city expressly to participate in a Township tour. I booked my tour online (for Monday morning – they run a Gospel tour on Sundays, as opposed to the regular tour that runs the rest of the week) and not being familiar with the layout of the city, I looked to the company’s website for guidance as to what part of the city I should find lodgings in. The website advised that they would come and fetch people as far away as Camps Bay, but no further out. I read this as: they come to Camps Bay. So that is where I should stay. This is not the only part of this trip wherein I should have done a better job actually reading what I was getting myself into. I found a great deal on Hot Wire for a room in a villa near the beach (yay! Beach finally!) and took a taxi once I had my fill of wandering around Cape Town (more on that later, maybe – that city is a really wonderful place to explore!).
Turns out I’m not so much Camps Bay people. I thought I was out of place at the university, with all of the willowy blonde giantesses, but now I have officially found the place where the beautiful people congregate. To be fair, it was a little like walking onto the set of Beverly Hills 90210, so that was exciting for me (only I was being played by Gabrielle Carteris). Camps Bay appears to be everything that a wealthy seaside resort ought to be – lots of restaurants and cafes with patios spilling out onto the sidewalks, kids playing drums and dancing on the beach, massive crashing waves (but a wicked riptide, apparently. I didn’t see anyone in the water), and luxury cars cruising up and down the waterfront strip.
This is what it sounds like when you’re walking along the waterfront:
As an aside, Hot Wire is a wonderful thing! Check out this place that I was able to stay at! I’m usually more of a hostel kind of girl. Now, how do you (as me) contend with the reality of that room, knowing that the purpose of my visit is to go to a Township to see how the poor people live, or in travel brochure-speak, see the ‘reality’ of life in the city? Is this not also reality? Or is it less valid as reality because it is a reality available only to a few?
On Monday morning, I was picked up at the villa by the charmingly effervescent Sabrina, who was to be our guide for the day. Sabrina is a former resident of the Township, although she now lives in a different part of the city with her husband. Our tour group eventually grew to 7 as Sabrina navigated the minibus (silently shrieking ‘tourists’ everywhere we went) throughout the various neighoburhoods of the city (turns out, I was staying the farthest outside of the city center). As we drove, Sabrina told us about the history of the Township, which was founded in the 1920s as single men immigrated to the city from the Eastern Cape looking for work. Single room dormitories were constructed and colonial regulations regarding movement, later to be replaced (and made more restrictive) by the apartheid-era Pass Laws, regulated whether or not these men’s families would be able to come and visit with them, as well as when (or whether) they would be able to return home for a visit. Eventually, demand in the city for female domestic workers led to the government permitting wives and children to join the men in the Township. It probably goes without saying that housing facilities were not adapted to meet the changing needs of the community. Eventually, rooms that were originally designed to house one man became home to multiple members of one’s immediate and extended families. Intolerable crowding and an utter lack of privacy (this is the one that struck me as an unanticipated shock – privacy. Imagine never being able to close a door?) led to many families constructing their own habitations from whatever materials available outside the dormitories.Today, most residents commute into the city for work, spending about 25% of their incomes on transportation, although it is estimated that 35% of the population is unemployed*.
The improvised shacks seem to be made of just about anything – the ubiquitous corrugated tin, pressboard, shipping containers, I even saw what looked like an old refrigerated trailer converted into a home. Electrical connections are improvised and are often cited as fire hazards, although I have not seen any evidence of recent fires. In some areas there are blue porta-potties to service the families that have no private facilities. Super gross, and totally inadequate for any person to have to use long term (think about the johns at the end of a weekend festival. Bleh. Then think about only having access to that). That being said, they are provided by the city and are maintained weekly, and can only be an improvement over the holes in the ground that overflowed when it rained that I was used to seeing in Dar es Salaam. And do I think that by making that comparison it somehow makes it okay? The houses that I saw also had municipally supplied garbage bins and the truck comes and empties them weekly. Another luxury that my friends in Dar would have been happy to see.
In this first part of the tour we drove around the community and peered through our windows at the vocational school, the youth center, and people’s homes. I felt like a real creep – totally conspicuous in the air conditioned front seat of the big white van with the tour company’s logo emblazoned on the side. Like we didn’t want to get our hands dirty or sully our clothes by stepping beyond the glass.
We finally stopped and got out of the van to join Joshua, a young man from the community who was taking over the next part of the tour. Incredibly, it actually got worse from there.
The first stop on our walking tour was a lovely preschool. About 20 children between the ages of 3-5 were sitting on a carpet as Joshua explained that the teacher had identified a need for preschool education as well as English instruction in the community. Joshua had all the children stand and come to the front of the carpet. As we tourists stood in a semi-circle around them, the children were made to sing 6 or 7 songs for us, complete with hand gestures. This to me felt so exploitative and abusive that I felt my eyes welling with tears (which anyone who knows me will tell you is not so unusual an event – I’ve been known to cry in movie trailers. But still), and I had to move to hide my face from the children. Here we are, interrupting their school day, and they are being made to perform for us like little trained seals. What lessons are these kids learning from this? Do their parents know about this, and if so, what must they think? I can’t imagine any of the parents that I know back in Canada would be happy to hear that this was happening in their child’s classroom.
Just when I think it is finally over and we can get the hell out of there, Joshua tells us to brace ourselves because now he is going to tell the kids to hug us. As soon as he says the word, all the kids rush forward and clamber into our arms and laps. What the actual fuck? Some kids were even shoving one another to get closer. One little boy repeatedly tried to kiss me on the lips, a little girl kept touching my face, my nose, my eyelashes. This went on for way too long – at least 10 minutes. Did the other tourists know that this was going to happen? Is this part of the appeal of this particular tour?
Before going inside, Joshua told us it was perfectly okay to take photos of the children. This is something I had not thought twice about in the past, but now makes me deeply uncomfortable and is something I would prefer not to do unless asked. He did say that it was important not to take photos of people in the community without first asking their permission. He also advised one of the tourists who asked about contributing to the community that is was important not to give anything to children in order that kids not learn that they may be given things by white people, potentially leading to paternalism, dependence, and begging, and instead to make a donation to an NGO or a social service agency in the community.
After the preschool we walked through the community and saw a wide range of living conditions. The community has advocated that no one should be moved out of an inadequate living situation without being moved into something more suitable, and there are a number of new housing developments where families have been relocated. There are also a number of really lovely homes, in an area known as the Beverly Hills of the Township, where people have been successful and have chosen to remain in their home community. There is no denying that there are too many people living in truly abhorrent living conditions, but it is also true that a significant number of families in this community have done very well for themselves and have chosen to remain in their home community, a part of the narrative of life in the Townships that I think may be often overlooked by the tourists who visit there.
One of the other tourists noticed that the words ‘Real Phandaz’ were spray painted throughout the community. Joshua explained that Real Phandaz means taking action to improve your situation, showing entrepreneurial spirit, moxie if you will, and not sitting around waiting for the government to solve your problems or give you a job. Everywhere in the community there is evidence of Real Phandaz – car washes that consist of a few buckets of water and a little home vacuum, grill on the side of the road featuring all kinds of meat, and convenience shops and beauty parlours operating out of shipping containers.
On our way back into the city, we made a quick stop at a monument dedicated to 7 anti-apartheid protesters shot and killed by police in 1986 (known as the Gugulethu Seven). I am left wondering about the actual changes that have been felt here since these young men lost their lives. Apartheid, the Pass Laws, and the Bantu System have all been repealed. But ethnic segregation is still alive and well in people’s living environments, and some of these homes do not seem fit for human habitation. From what little I have seen, recent governments have made substantial efforts to provide decent and affordable housing for people. But there seems to be little movement towards the dissolution of physical racial divides. People work together and share space in that sense, but how can people come to know and understand one another when their living worlds are so far apart?
Also, I have to say that I did not see any evidence of this tour benefiting the community. There were jobs created for Sabrina and for Joshua, and surely for other guides, but no mention was made of reinvestment back into the community. I took it for granted that that was a central component of all of such tour operations, but perhaps that is not the case.
Interested to read more about my reflections on the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out my subsequent posts, Reflections on township tourism II and Reflections on township tourism III. Thanks!
*Can we all please acknowledge the grossly inadequate historical reckoning of the establishment of the Townships presented here, due (in part) to the constraints of this form of communication and not from any lack of concern or caring on my part about the importance of all of the nuances related to this history?