Africa Lite

  Welcome to Cape Town

Cape Town is disdainfully dubbed Africa Lite, intended to separate its European ambience from the real Africa of out-of-control cities such as Dakar or destroyed cities like Kinshasa. It is true; Cape Town is surely one of the most delightful cities in the world but the fact that it shares a continent with Mogadishu does not make it less authentically African…does it? Cape Town proper is in the process of getting its best foot beautifully shod and putting it way forward in June for the World Cup. You cannot not sense what this means to all of Africa—a place on the world stage of important game-worthy, tourist-worthy continents. And South Africa, former pariah of the sports world—hosting the cup. Makes Africa-aficionado hearts beat just a little faster whether you care about soccer or not!

I try to figure out my fascination with this country—where I am about to spend over a month, a few days of that traveling by bus just to feel what the non-urban South Africa is like. Of course I am drawn to every corner of this continent with some old-fashioned desire to explore or maybe explore-lite is a more apt term since I’m not exactly sleeping in the bush. But South Africa is unique; it is the country in the world with which we share the most history. We (the US and South Africa) are so alike, almost mirror images of each other in some ways with the colors reversed like one of those old negatives. It’s true that the black minority has never dominated in politics or finance in the US while the white minority in South Africa did for a very long time. But the history of apartheid is similar in both of our countries and white power has never been anything except harsh in either.  Now it’s a new day…and we look at what might be. It feels like both countries could get it right with Barack Obama in our present and Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s past and, hopefully, Joseph Zuma up to the task of South Africa’s future.

I left the US, happy to be gone from endless news of the American fundamentalist forays onto the political battlefield from every ditch and cave. I come here to a society in big economic trouble with a president who is on the verge of becoming a stereotype for bad boy behavior but nevertheless a country that in many ways feels more eager and open than us to discussing the BIG issue which is how to move past race and get on with the work of the nation. Americans said on election night November 2008 we had done that. Wrong. Nelson Mandela hoped it would happen here when apartheid ended. Wrong. Still, considering the relative newness of both countries attempts at color-blind societies, it is amazing that the US has a black president and that South Africa, a country whose leaders once considered Adolph Hitler their political guru, is witnessing a multi-racial society pretty close to working pretty well.

My airline seatmate on the flight from Dakar, a pleasant and successful young white South African who markets expensive liquors and other high-end products in West Africa—what could the Congo possibly need more than high-class gin and vodka—says of course apartheid was terrible but, he also says, instead of simply replacing whites with blacks in as many positions as possible couldn’t there have been some thought given to training and education first.  Of course he’s right in a way, but how does any new leader say to a people who have been hugely repressed and discriminated against for their entire lives that now you must somehow spend the next many years getting educated (as though the facilities existed to do that) before you can have a position that pays you a living wage. Impossible. So the alternative is sometimes putting people in jobs they’re not qualified for but will grow into, and watching the country slip a notch or two on the efficiency ladder. It can right itself, and in fact is, with the government hopefully sincere about paying extra attention to education. While the problem is bigger in South Africa, the US has a ways to go before we reach an educational high ground that includes every kid of every race and ethnicity. More similarities.

My taxi driver from the airport, a black South African, said “Yes, the President is doing some good maybe, but he’s a joke with all those kids and wives and girlfriends.”  (President Zuma just took a new wife, his third, and the news just broke that he has fathered a new baby with the daughter of one of his government officials. “And” says the driver, “Now the blacks are treating the whites just like the whites did the blacks before.” He doesn’t seem to think that ‘turnabout being fair play’ is going to get the country anywhere. But did I know that Thursday was the 20th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison? “We’ve come a long way,” he says.


I was in Cape Town for more than a week and it is a lovely low-key city. Beautiful old buildings, Table Mountain looming above, the Atlantic right at the city’s edge, full of restaurants and stores and prosperous looking people of all hues. I have been describing it as San Diego with character. But San Diego doesn’t have townships? And on the edge of Cape Town, everyone’s-favorite-city, lies the Cape Flats…where the black, coloured and Asian populations were forcibly moved during apartheid, in fact moved into separate neighborhoods even in the Flats. Now downtown and the ‘good’ suburbs are increasingly home to coloureds and Asians but still not so many blacks. The mythical color-blind society is still a long ways in the future. But, admittedly knowing little of New Orleans, I understand that it is a city of neighborhoods approaching the intensity and color concentration of the townships of South Africa. Am I wrong?

It seems to me from my various conversations that one difference does stand out as the races reconsider who they are. In the US, people of mixed parentage typically identify with the race of color or the “minority” race that makes up some part of their heritage. Two of my grandchildren are half-Filipino and they very much identify as Asian. Barack Obama has described his path to becoming African/African-American. In South Africa, with apartheid’s divide and conquer strategy always in play, the divisions between white, coloured, Asian and black were so clearly marked and so programmed into the minds of the population that the divisions still exist although one would never know it in downtown Cape Town. More complicated than simply being a ‘person of color.’

The racial criss-crossings and animosities and attractions and the very way history records and defines the relationships creates something of a conundrum. If Cape Town doesn’t feel very “African” because so much of its visible downtown population is white and whites are a tiny minority in SA, then does New Orleans not feel very “American” because much of its visible population is black and only a minority of Americans are black? We think of New Orleans as practically our favorite American city, don’t we? Or another way of saying this. Why do African Americans seem completely American and white Africans not quite African? The latter is a topic of discussion and dissension all over Africa, apparently always has been. I’m sure there’s an easy answer like—whites came willingly to Africa, Africans did not come willingly to North America. But I’m not sure it’s that easy.

I mentioned to my Cape Town friend that actually in South Africa it did feel that whites were South African and I’ve never quite had that feeling elsewhere in Africa. Did that make sense I asked. She said, “Yes of course. Think of it this way, whatever good and bad was to follow when those early Dutchmen arrived they came to stay, not to colonize and return home. They started calling themselves Afrikaners early on whereas the French and the Brits never claimed Africa as their homeland.”

The Township Tour!

 I have always felt a little queasy about poverty tours from the old photos of Bobby Kennedy in Appalachian shacks to the favela tours of Rio and on down to me with some other Europeans taking a van into the Cape Flats. I have now been on two such tours in South Africa, a few years ago to Soweto and now to Langa, Khayelitsha and Crossroads. All in all, I guess if it is done respectfully and it brings business into the township and a bit of understanding of what real poverty looks like to a few more comfortable people, it’s worthwhile?

It really becomes important to read a history of this country in conjunction with being here and before doing this. I had just picked up Dominique Lapierre’s 2008 book, A Rainbow in the Night, and spent a mildly-sick day in bed reading it from cover to cover. It’s as even-handed as one could possibly be when considering apartheid is at the heart of this country’s history, and it was an update for me on details that had been forgotten or never known. For example the story of District 6 and the forced removals of its multi-cultural population into their own compounds/ghettos by race: black, coloured or Asian; then the area was razed so the sinful example of races living peacefully and equitably together could be erased from history. And Crossroads where the march against the bearing of passbooks originated, or Landa, the first township and the home of our guide.

The tour was well done. The guide was matter-of-fact and comfortable,taking the six visitors into all but the “informal” sectors where no services are provided among the shacks truly cobbled together from whatever scrap of material can be nailed to the next. Areas within townships are classified by degree of stability and, in a way, prosperity from the “informal” on up to areas where the shacks have gradually been replaced by tiny concrete structures then by larger concrete homes with several rooms, plumbing and small yards. The single men’s dormitories that housed the thousands of men who came from all over South Africa and the rest of Africa to find work in the cities and who were absolutely restricted to hideous overcrowding with no facilities to maintain any measure of privacy, cleanliness, humanity still exist. Woman and children came to join their men, initially living in the same conditions. Now, very gradually, these structures are being turned into apartment blocks; at the low-end a family of six or so sharing a room with bunk beds climbing the walls, shared cooking facilities, pumps in the yard, miserable outdoor toilets. At the high end and the eventual goal, they become two or three room apartments with proper plumbing, etc. It’s  also true that modern life goes on, hard to maintain but TVs are on with teenagers doing homework while their cell phones charge; the mamas are cooking and shooing the babies about and the men are at work.

We stopped at a dirt-floor dark and claustrophobic Shebeen, shared a pail of traditional beer, all yeasty like bread dough in the process of rising; at a traditional healer’s, nasty skins and tiny heads all about; and visited a bed and breakfast where I will certainly stay for a day or two when I return to Cape Town. It’s in an area of Khayelitsha where the structures have all become concrete houses and the dirt streets are trash-free but it’s still smack in the middle of the Township. It is a lovely B and B really, airy bedrooms, neatly made beds with their traditional quilts; you can tell the house is pieced together over time but all the more character because of it. I’ll publish the name of it when I return home.

Art and Stories

This meandering travel commentary needs lots of editing but I must get it on the blog before it keeps me in blog block any longer. Just to finish with a note. The stories one hears from friends, artists, taxi drivers, hotel staff are endless. Like the US, South Africa subjugated more than one race, treated them brutally and will be dealing with the results for decades to come. The complicated consequences are being explored by everyone and—whether the story is of Native Americans and African Americans raising their voices through theater or the young African choreographer I met yesterday talking about the role the history of this country (Namibia, where I am now, was part of South Africa) plays in his work—it is a rich field of inquiry destined for many art, social and political investigations in the decades to come.

One Comment on “Africa Lite

  1. Marjorie: Your thoughts and descriptions of your travels are quite incredible. It allows me to get a “feel” of your experiences….my….my…life sure is boring in Dover, Delaware! Except for the snow…3 major snowstorms this winter and perhaps one this afternoon. Tom Smith

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