The past few weeks have brought an array of different experiences, emotions and adventures. Our program director Bill left, and the group welcomed Bob, our director for the latter portion of our stay. We met Denis Goldberg, Desmond Tutu and Tony Ehrenreich. Brandon and I helped orchestrate a Constitutional Literacy Camp for Cape Town’s youth. We’ve been horseback riding, great white shark diving, ridden elephants and walked with lions. And we’re all realizing, I think, that we’re in the final stretch of our time here in Cape Town, and with that realization comes a certain level of anxiety. So I apologize in advance for the stream of consciousness that is this blog post.
Last weekend, Brandon, Ella and I were driving through Hout Bay, a beautiful port town that enjoys both mountain and beach views. Our taxi driver was a white British man who had spent the last ten years living in Hout Bay, and described to us the demographics and landscape of the area. He was pleasant to talk to, and I was excited to learn; so at first I was grateful for his presence. Pointing to the cardboard and tin shacks of an informal settlement, he designated this section of Hout Bay as where Africans (meaning blacks) lived. Across the way by the mountains was the coloured area. And then there were the white homes in the heart of Hout Bay, where he lived. The frankness with which he described this racial separation was chilling. The justification he offered was disgusting. Coloureds, blacks and whites, according to him, preferred their separation because it meant they could keep their communities with their unique traditions and cultures in tact. It also hindered violence, and kept the ‘spirit’ and ‘charm’ of Hout Bay alive.
There, in our cab ride to go beach horseback riding, I received probably my best lesson on the pervasive and inescapable legacy of apartheid. Our driver, I perceived, did not consider himself a racist. And that to me was the saddest part. Here was a man that wasn’t even from Cape Town… who was friendly and helpful and whose company I honestly enjoyed. Yet that same man was propagating and justifying the very same ideals we vilify the apartheid system for creating.
I was reminded of this experience the other day when Brandon and I were working at a Constitutional Camp that District Six was hosting. Twenty-five kids from schools in Cape Town and its surrounding townships came to dissect and learn about constitutional laws dealing with land restitution and dispossession. There, we had ample opportunities to gauge the perspectives and experiences of Capetonian youth who were more than eager to share their political and social views. One in particular, I think, gives voice to what is happening (sadly) in Cape Town today: “I don’t know why we discriminate against black people nowadays even though they gave us what we have. We have to thank so many of them”. That voice belonged to sixteen year old Zainab who, when asked to reflect upon her impressions of a ‘Reversing the Legacy’ exhibit we attended, ended up identifying that, in many ways, the legacy of apartheid has yet to be reversed. Later that afternoon, our group visited Robben Island where we learned more about just how much black people did for South Africa. A day later, President Obama also visited the ex-prison and wrote that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island”. Juxtapose Zainab’s statement to Obama’s and you’ll find yourself unbelievably frustrated. Because the extent of the coloured population’s racism (coupled with the fact that the racial designation of ‘coloured’ is an apartheid-construction) is just that… frustrating. And heartbreaking.
Reading this blog over, I realize that the tone is a bit downtrodden, which is not a fair representation of my experiences on this trip. The general rule of thumb, I’ve found, is that for every tough or sobering encounter I have, two glorious ones follow. Meet Revina. The coffee shop attendant at the District Six Museum, Revina is a resident of the primarily black township Langa. I don’t normally like to exploit people’s stories to achieve emotional or dramatic appeal, but I think Revina’s story is too important to ignore. Revina is the mother to five or six children (I’m sorry I can’t remember which). Her eldest son died in a shelter in Langa that lit on fire. She cares for his surviving daughter. Her other sons left home. She provides the only income for the family as her husband is a pensioner. Yet, it is for the sake of her two ‘baby girls’ (her sixteen year old daughter and her granddaughter) that she works so hard and remains so positive. Last week, Revina asked me, her ‘tall lady’, for help. Her daughter hopes to attend American university and Revina wanted me to talk to her. The next morning, we met and I found a sharp, curious and realistic peer in front of me, questioning financial aid, asking what standardized scores were and what she needed to be doing as a second year high school student. Completely unprepared, I did a sub-par job attempting to explain the conundrum that is the college application process – a process throughout which I had supportive parents, two guidance counselors and countless teachers to help. Revina’s daughter doesn’t have Internet. But she promised to e-mail me once school resumes, and I have a feeling she’ll follow through.
The point I’m trying to make is elementary, but I’ll say it anyway. Cape Town may still be plagued by the legacy of apartheid, which is completely understandable but nonetheless upsetting. But it is also bolstered by an engaged and politically aware youth who spend their winter breaks at constitutional literacy camps and come to their parents’ work to discuss college opportunities with a nameless American student. That’s inspiring and uplifting. With Madiba in the hospital, things in Cape Town are a bit on edge. But as the floor map at the District Six Museum reads:
“Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun”