When you would hike through the magnificent Table Mountain National Park around Cape Town, and you would look over the city from one of the three surrounding mountain peaks, you will be able to see two things. The first thing that everyone will notice is how beautiful this part of the world is: it is not only fascinating to see Cape Town from a 1000 meters high, but you also face the other two peaks that enclose the “Mother City”. In the far distance one can also see all the other beautiful nature reserves of the Western Cape, and the blue Atlantic ocean and the bright African sun give the finishing touch. There are probably not many places in the world where one can find such amazing views, which is probably why South Africa, and especially Cape Town, is one of the most touristic places in Africa.

To notice the second thing, you would have to look closer at the different neighbourhoods that one can spot along the hike, starting at Lion’s Head. The white rooftops and the big swimming pools of Green Point, Champs Bay or Gardens are easy to find, and it is clear to see that these houses are not for those working in factories or on the farmlands. When you would take a walk through the mostly empty streets of these neighborhoods, they will seem like one big, fenced compound where the rich live safely behind closed, armored doors with signs stating “24h Armed Response” (thus not the police – private, quickly on site and armed security is big business in South Africa). The only thing that you will notice on these fancy lanes are the excessively expensive cars, which explains how a country with one of the poorest populations on earth can have the most luxury car dealers at the same time.

Looking at the city centre from the top of Table Mountain, Cape Town looks a lot like the typical metropolitan, with some semi-skyscrapers and many other large buildings that hold the big corporations and multinationals. When going on a city day trip, it would probably feel like a relative ordinary city, though probably with more homeless people and beggars than you are used too, especially if you’re from Europe. Yet, after visiting the tourist attraction called VA Waterfront, with all its fancy restaurants, shopping malls and cinemas, one would rather feel like being in the US than in Africa. This is probably why many people will tell you after visiting Cape Town you haven’t really been to the ‘real Africa’ (whatever that may be).

When you would hike further towards Devil’s Peak and look more to the right, the image slowly starts to change. Just right to District 6 – the neighborhood for which black people were forced to leave their land and belongings under strict apartheid laws -, the suburbs of the cities appear, such as Woodstock, Observatory or, a bit further, Claremont. These areas could be called middle-class neighborhoods, including local students who study at the University of Cape Town and international students and volunteers who  often do internships in the townships (another point of discussion). Yet, already in these neighborhoods, the first signs of poverty show up, and at night, it is strongly recommended to stay indoors or take a taxi for wherever you need to go. Still, in general, these are nice neighborhoods and they can offer a good living experience.  

However, when you would look further away from Cape Town and its suburbs, the so called ‘informal settlements‘ show up, or in other words, the townships or slums. These are neighborhoods where the poorest people are living, with low employment opportunities and high (gang) violence rates. These are the neighborhoods that most people in Europe only know from television; those neighborhoods which photographs are used to raise money for the poor.

But, even more alarming, these are the neighborhoods where only black people or coloured people are living. Because this is the most astonishing fact behind those beautiful, colorful views from Table Mountain: the more you look away from the city center, the darker the skin color gets. In those rich, fenced neighborhoods like Green Point, you would have to search for a long time to find a black person living there. Most black people that you will find are the workers who fix the fences or build the swimming pools, or some Uber drivers who drive tourists or residents to the famous beaches at the shores of Table Mountain park. Among these workers and taxi drivers, white people are almost just as scarce as black people living there.

On the other side, in Khayelitsha, Mitchell’s Plain or Delft, you will find no white people living in the improvised shags (fact: only 0.1% of the 152.000 people in Delft are white). The overwhelming black and coloured populations in these areas are the direct consequence of the separation policies that emerged during the apartheid era, where black and coloured people were forced of their homelands by the white government. They were moved into these improvised areas without inadequate housing and municipal services, and until today there is still a shocking lack of basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity in all townships throughout South Africa. As the UNHRC put it in a report on these informal settlements:

“Despite constitutionally mandated land reform measures, the post-apartheid state has not yet been able to address the legacy of apartheid spatial planning. Black South Africans are disproportionately confined to urban peripheries in dense and poorly serviced settlements, have very low rates of home ownership and sometimes live in extremely peripheral peri-urban areas which, without the apartheid context, makes no sense at all.”

Due to security issues, these townships are often considered ‘no-go areas’ for a majority of the white South African population or tourists, although they often visit them by taking a township tour: some sort of safari through the black people’s neighborhoods. While it is claimed that this helps the struggling but lively economy in the townships, the image of a minivan filled with photo- and selfie-taking tourists, whose plane tickets can equal the yearly income of an average Khayelitsha family, is quite unpleasant (fact: yearly average family income in Khayelitsha is only 1,872 dollars).

Inequality is one of the greatest global challenges of contemporary times, but nowhere in the world it is as present and visible as in South Africa. It is however even more confronting because it is not just economic inequality; it is economic inequality divided by race. As I already pointed out, many black people still live in poverty in the townships, while white people live in all white neighbourhoods and often have a luxury live. Furthermore, most land and assets are in the hands of a predominantly white elite, comparable to apartheid distributions, and even though the government built new housing for black South Africans, they concentrated them in the townships, keeping the geographic structures of apartheid in place. Ten percent of all South Africans, of which the majority is white, owns more than 90 percent of national wealth, while at the same time, about 80 percent of the population, mostly black, owns nothing at all.

Because of all this, it is often claimed that even though apartheid has ended, it did not end from an economical perspective. It is therefore that if I imagine myself being a black person living in one of those townships (which is almost impossible having the complete opposite, privileged European background), I would find it incredibly difficult not to look at white people without thinking that those are the people who have put me in that position. After all, those are the people who have terrorized South Africa for hundreds of years, enslaved her people and chased them away from their land and properties. And, when they finally gave up their suppressing, authoritarian system, they still held onto power with their domination over national wealth and economic resources. While a black person has the same opportunities as a white person on paper, in reality, it is still incredibly difficult to find a way out of the townships (which is why the student demonstrations against high university fees are so important to take seriously, but also, another point of discussion).

Yet, during the times that I have been in Cape Town for longer periods, I have not experienced the hatred or aversion that I would expect considering the above. Being a white, relatively wealthy male with the nationality of one of South Africa’s biggest colonizers (‘apartheid is one of the few Dutch words in the English dictionary), I would assume at least some reluctance towards me, but in reality, I rather experienced the complete opposite.

I have met coloured and black friends from many of the earlier mentioned neighborhoods that only offered me extraordinary friendliness, openness and honesty. Not only in personal relationships I have came across this attitude; it is throughout South Africa’s daily life that one will be surprised time after time that the only unkind moments that one encounters are not more frequent than in any other city; rather less. Of course I keep into account that in some occasions the friendliness might be (understandably) opportunistic, like in every other place where tourists or foreigners bring money in the drawer, but in most situations the attitude is more than sincere. South African people are simply extremely warm and kind towards everyone, and I strongly believe that many white people who live, have lived or have visited South Africa will confirm my experience.

While this surprised me in first instance, it is actually exactly the experience that one would expect if he or she reads about how South Africa dealt with the transition from apartheid to democracy. It is in this time, the early 90’s, that the black population followed a man who pleaded for one South Africa for all, thus including the white people who had been suppressing the country (and the rest of the continent) for so long. While revenge would be the logical response to the apartheid system, Nelson Mandela – ‘Father of South Africa‘ – made an appeal on forgiveness, reconciliation and a humane approach during South Africa’s transformation process. Although his method also entailed a pragmatic aspect in order to avoid bloodshed, one would only have to read John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy” to understand that it mostly resulted from the sincere belief that a bad individual is only formed in that way through bad circumstances and ignorance.

Being in South Africa and interacting with all those different people that still endure the hardships of the apartheid heritage, it seems that they have continued following Mandela’s legacy. Some might say that this is how people in a democratic society should act, but I doubt if I would be able to do that only 26 years after the end of a white, racist system that denied any rights for black people and systematically harassed them in the most horrific ways, and that still has huge influence on the daily life of black and coloured people. Although South Africa will remain an incredibly complicated country for probably another long period – fighting crime, racism, rising xenophobia, corruption and poverty – this country and its people have a strength and beauty that offer an admirable continuation of the path that Mandela chose to take.

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1 Comment

Vincent van Grondelle · May 15, 2019 at 8:51 am

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