Stunning

27 01 2010

We’ve been here in Cape Town over a week, and I think the best adjective to describe this place is stunning.

To begin, there’s the physical environment; Table Mountain continues to stun me with its majestic qualities and sheer beauty. We have spent most of the week exploring the city and its environs, and each view or hike seems more impressive than the last. Cape Town is giving San Francisco a run for its money on my list of “Most Beautiful Cities.”

View of Cape Town and Table Mountain from Signal Hill

I’m also quite stunned, maybe naively so, by the segregation of Cape Town. This city has been the slowest in South Africa to diversify its neighborhoods, and it shows, both in look and feel. After ten days, I am only beginning to understand the complexity of apartheid’s legacies, and yet, I also think it’s quite simple. Some people here aren’t ready or willing to share their residential space with other groups. During the day, there is mingling in business or commerce areas, but by nightfall, the city feels much like it might have twenty years ago.

I’ve seen both intense poverty and exorbitant wealth before, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a gap this wide and this close. The historical reasons for the gap are also glaringly evident. I find myself wanting to corner most white people I see and ask, “What were doing you twenty years ago? What was your role? And what are you doing now?”

Cape Town seen from Lion's Head

I know this view might be seen as unfair. There are some days where I look around at the interactions and communities we visit and smile at how far this country has come since the history I’ve only read about. I don’t know all that went into the changes of the last fifteen years and I know the small steps I see represent huge strides for South Africa.

I also can ask the questions above to myself, a white woman of Dutch heritage. As much as I can argue that I’m a Dutch Jew whose family wasn’t even living in Holland during the 1600s, let’s be honest. There are things from which I have benefited that were, intentionally or effectively, at the mercy of someone else’s disadvantage.

Truthfully, this place feels very similar to the U.S., in terms of glaring inequities and a wealthy minority doing seemingly little to address the core issues of the lower class. Of course, there are many middle class South Africans whose life work is to transform their country, but I fear it will not be enough. My worry is that South Africa will become even more like the U.S., where the wealthy construct a worldview that ends up blaming poverty and lack of opportunity heavily on the poor, thus absolving themselves of taking any action or sacrifice to change the economic landscape.

I recently read that one lasting effect of apartheid is ignorance about the other. “People don’t know how much they don’t know,” Catherine Besteman argues in her book, Transforming Cape Town.

Her statement names the frustration I often feel when trying to explain my students’ life situations to friends or when debating why dysfunctional families are not the only ones responsible for unmotivated and unsuccessful youth in American cities.

Her statement could also apply to me, to my time here in South Africa, to my life back home and to my ancestry.

It’s complicated. My mind is racing and I feel stunned. At almost the same time.

On the home front, I’m blessed with a stunning partner, who is eager to talk through and tackle these issues, all the while creating a cozy place to rest and eat. In answer to your inevitable question, neither of us has decided exactly how we’re going to spend our time here. We’re still figuring out where we fit. Stay tuned.

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