Reflections on Cape Town
Having grown up in Australia during South Africa’s apartheid era, I became aware of what was going on there through the South African rugby team’s tour of Australia in 1971.
I can remember, even as a small boy, being aware of the controversy and protests that accompanied the South African team’s trip to Australia and seeing the violence on television. The anti-apartheid movement’s goal of stopping South Africa’s cricket tour of Australia that summer was achieved.
The end of apartheid in 1994 took much longer, but I would always be intrigued about how a system that institutionalised racism could come into power in the twentieth century — let alone stay in power for so long.
I was also astonished at Mandela’s ability to forgive, at how he used his influence over the people in such a way to avoid major bloodshed, and how he handled the granting of universal suffrage and the change of government.
Before our trip, whenever people said to Lara and I that they “loved” Cape Town and we would too, we were both more than a little sceptical, particularly knowing that unemployment was at a steady 25% and having read South Africa’s statistics on rape and violent crime (50,000 rapes and 18,000 murders on average a year in the country), especially in its townships, such as Gugulethu (where 700 people have been murdered since 2007).
Once we arrived in Cape Town, we remained sceptical. How could people fall in love with a place where the white residents lived in relative safety behind high walls topped with barbed wire and where private, armed security firms were doing such sterling business? How could we fall in love with a place where apartheid may have officially ended, but where in many places there was still an unofficial segregation, white people were still so much wealthier than the largely black population, of whom some 4 million live on less than a dollar a day?
The first sign of a possibility that we might become smitten with the place surfaced as we chatted to our driver on the way from the airport to our holiday rental in Camps Bay. His optimism about his country — particularly after the successful World Cup held earlier in the year — was infectious.
The extraordinary actors, musicians, professionals, artists, craftspeople, children, and guides we befriended on our various township tours and other experiences helped change our minds. The spontaneous post-performance song by the actors (and our guides who joined them!) about their allegiance to their country was stirring. Spending time in the townships and seeing the work being done by NGOs was impressive.
After an insightful briefing on the rise and fall of apartheid by the eloquent Faizal Gangat during our township experience, I had to admit I was still uncomfortable with the disparities in terms of quality of life between rich and poor and black and white that we’d seen during our time in Cape Town.
However, like Lara, I began to develop warm and fuzzy feelings about the place. Those emotions had nothing to do with beautiful Camps Bay beach or the spectacular views from Table Mountain, both of which are remarkable. But our fondness for Cape Town was all about the people.
There is clearly plenty of work to be done, the challenges facing South Africa are complex, serious and overwhelming, and while the statistics on unemployment and crime aren’t uplifting to read, the spirit of the people we met most certainly is. If someone asks us how we feel about Cape Town, and we surprise ourselves by using the ‘L’ word, that will be the reason.