Thursday, 24 April 2008

How the other half lives

Cape Town hit, and I hit Cape Town. Well assisted by my parents I managed to make up for a lack of alcohol and vegetables.. I'm not quite sure if they cancel each other out! Cape Town truly is beautiful and naturally very magnificent, but there is something far less 'real' about it. It's cosmopolitan and European; it's Melbourne, Australia. What makes Cape Town is it's own history; one no more or less palatable than heard all over South Africa, but here, the rate of development is wholly juxtaposed against the sprawling township the Cape Flats which you cannot avoid as you are whisked from the airport. It's pretty uncomfortable viewing. The Cape Flats are inhabited by people who during the Apartheid were forcibly removed from their homes and forced to set up home in the areas away from Table Mountain and the harbour. You cannot quite comprehend how far it goes on for... and when you go from a beautiful and highly enjoyable day of wine tasting in the magnificent Stellenbosch, the alcoholic haze makes you realise in some respects how far there is to go... BUT WAIT!!! As my Western eye full of Western standards glazed over this place I made a judgement, probably like everyone else on how horrendous it was. Some of it is horrendous; the sanitation, the rats.. and this is a bit out of context but after Mum and Dad left I spent 2 nights in Thembisa Township by Joburg. As I waved by to the parents, quite devastated at the thought of being alone for the next year I arranged to meet a friend in Joburg the next day. I spent my final evening in Cape Town at a party in Camps Day (St Tropez in South Africa) at a private party for Camel cigarettes. Thrust into the limelight of South Africa's white, young, rich and very beautiful I did what I always do; drink hideous amounts of gin, dance like I was mental and talk a lot of shit. I got invited back, so I guess I did something right! I had a great time, met some lovely people but part of me felt it was all a smokescreen from what else was going on. I think a lot of the culture of fear is born out of misunderstanding. There are some horrific stories on the news; rape, murder, theft and some of the white and black South Africans I have met seem equally shrouded in fear. I am privileged to access both sides and I think a lot of problems are borne from misunderstanding. So, one day I'm drinking free gin and talking about hedge fund management (like I said, talking a lot of shit.) The next? I'm sitting on a camping chair, eating a goat's leg (shared between 4 and actually pretty good), drinking cider in the middle of a township in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

On arrival to Joburg, I spent the first 1 hour helping a Congolese man, with limited English and a broken leg to carry his hand luggage and collect his actual luggage and sit him to wait for his brother to collect him. I gave up trying to communicate in English and we just reverted to smiling and him pointing out his ENORMOUS bag on the luggage carousel. Only later is dawned on me that they speak French in the Congo, and I could have had a far more effective conversation that I actually did! Shame. When I was collected from the airport I had no real idea where I was going, other than to visit a friend from one of the communities. As we passed the airport, the office blocks and all signs that comfort me by screaming 'civilization' my heart began to beat faster. Entering a township is rather like arriving at Nottinghill Carnival. Music, laughter and people everywhere. It was pointed out to be that during the day you will not find people in their houses. The life of a township is on a street; whereas we go from house to coffee shop to gym; the streets offer everything. Being the only white face in the car, and probably in the whole area I felt more protected than if I was to be with 6 whites and a camera flashing. Still, I was petrified. You really do not hear nice things about these places. Despite frequent assurances from my friends when I arrived at the house of 'Bigboy' (yes, his actual name) my legs really did not want to move out the car. I'm glad they did. Like all communities there are sub communities and it is always the children who makes you feel most welcome. I decided I was with well known and liked locals and that as long as I was careful I would be unlikely to come into any harm. Giving my self this pep talked, and I began to relax. The atmosphere in that place was electric. Sitting drinking cider and discussing world politics with 5 locals, hearing the music and eating the goat leg will be an experience I shall never forget. No one really took any more or less notice of me; I was not a threat and I went about my business. The rats of course, are off putting, not to mention the toilet. Driving at night to a bar (in town, not the township- that was one step too far for all parties) I admit to pulling my cap town as we passed throngs of people; these places truly are 24 hours. The next day we were to attend a wedding in Soweto (South West Township) home to 6-8 million, yes million, people South West of Joburg. The biggest and most well known of all. Filling up at Thembisa gas station the car would not start. The option presented itself that I, the white, blonde, English girl would have to get out of the car and push the fucking thing. The gas station was full. As I stepped out the car there were, at least, 15 camera phones trained on me and the not so subtle sounds of belly laughs. Today, I was the entertainment and the story. Thankfully after my half arsed effort to push it, I was taken pity on and the bloody thing started. I laughed but I think inside I pretty much self combusted.

Do not underestimate it.

The advice I was given, go, enjoy, but do not underestimate the place. As I returned in the small hours, cap on, hood up, face down I saw too many people laying by the side of the road and fought against my natural compulsion to stop the car and race to assistance, to call an Ambulance. I didn't, I didn't speak, my companions didn't mention it – alcohol and drugs had come into play and no one likes a 'have a go' hero. So please, these are not romantic notions of a township, there are lots of wonderful elements but a dark side that runs deeper than anything I have ever known, and ever wish to know.

I'm most definitely going back.

The wedding in Soweto was another experience. After being ushered into the church by the old ladies I was also given the biggest plate of food and the whole ceremony stopped because the pastor had to have a good old stare at the intruder. I felt like a bloody idiot of course and it did not help that I once again became the focus of attention. I kept trying to leave but these people are persistent. You may think all of this is already one step too far; I will say that one step too far arose when I was to have a photo taken with the Bride and Groom who had never seen me in their whole lives. I was friends with their distant cousin; but I'm pretty sure my photo will be taking the pride position in the album. For years to come when asked who the lehora is; they will say 'your cousin!'
After the wedding I took a lift back to Polokwane in a car with no passenger window.

Living the dream.

Girls, I have identified a driver for us in Cape Town, some excellent hostels and checked out the majority of eating and drinking establishments. I'm pretty sure South Africa will shake on your arrival and I for one, cannot wait! There is so much to see, do, eat and drink and whilst we won't be going to a township for an overnight stay I'll give you a real experience too. Pap will be involved; ask Pinda she sampled it.

No comments: