By sharing our stories of how we came to be here, we can start to see how we’re all connected, says Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana.
Cape Town is my favourite South African city. Like many other South African cities, it struggles with its past – a past full of trauma, racial divisions and exclusion, and one that still casts a heavy shadow in the present.
Yet, from the moment I arrived in Cape Town 13 years ago, I have also experienced a city of boundless possibility and creative energy. It is a city that speaks to my heart – a place that has rhythm and balance, and plenty of room for the unexpected. In fact, even within the African continent, Cape Town would rate highly on my list of favourite places.
I realise that these sentiments are atypical. They defy commonly held stereotypes that reduce Cape Town to a city with limited opportunities for black executives and impenetrable barriers to social integration.
Perhaps it’s because I have always abhorred moral absolutism, and I’ve never been one for stereotypes. I believe that they are dangerously simplistic and sadly self-fulfilling. They also imply that things are somehow fixed, whereas cities – Cape Town included – are intrinsically in flux, constantly reinvented by the people who make them.
A Kenyan-born friend and educator recently described Joburg as a city “driven by ambition”, and Cape Town as a “place for actualisation”. I was intrigued by this distinction.
On exploring it further, I discovered a good definition for “actualisation”, namely, “making real”. Certainly, since making the Mother City my home, I have found rewarding work in my chosen field of urban transformation, met passionate people who keep me hopeful, and raised two fantastically free-range kids.
I have also been able to rise to the top of my organisation without having to conform to corporate stereotypes or abandon my non-conformist dress sense. Cape Town, with all its challenges, is in fact the city of my childhood dreams.
Like some Capetonians, I grew up in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. My romance with cities began long before I had actually seen one. Instead, I was introduced to cities via stories.
Some of the most exciting times in the village that I can remember were when the migrant workers returned from the big cities during the holidays. Around the fire at night, they would tell extravagant, terrible tales of city life – probably wildly embellished. As children, we would sit and listen in awe at the drama of it all.
I developed an almost obsessive fascination with cities – how they function, the way they are designed, how they embrace or exclude people and the variety of lifestyles they attract or encourage.
From an early age, I dreamed of not just living or working in the city, but of being part of making a city work. This is the reason I chose town planning as a career.
And so started my journey, from rural Eastern Cape, via a Master’s degree in town planning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, to the city of Cape Town.
Rural Eastern Cape and Cape Town, the start and end points of this trip, might seem like they’re worlds apart. But they’re not so different. Because when you look at it, villages and cities may be very different types of settlements, but they share one very important thing: without people, they lack soul and become purposeless.
There’s something else that, for me, connects my first home with my current home – something that my roots can teach me about my current role.
It comes down to those stories told around the fire. In those moments when we were sharing stories, we were weaving the past with the present, the present with the future. Stories have incredible power over us as humans. They can help tie us to other people and to a sense of place. They can help us feel like we belong.
It strikes me that this is something cities like Cape Town need: a place where people can weave their personal stories together.
There is still a palpable sense of a lack of ownership, a belief that the city belongs to someone else. This is a complex challenge, a harsh reality that faces us daily as Capetonians.
Perhaps, by sharing our personal stories of how we came to be here and hearing the stories of others, we can start to see how we’re all connected and start embracing a path that can lead us to a sense of belonging, tolerance and coexistence.
I am lucky enough to be the CEO of an organisation with a refocused strategy that is dedicated to building bridges between people.
In my day-to-day role, I work with people who are incredibly passionate about cities and being a part of a better future for Cape Town. Their enthusiasm and insight weaves me closer to my work, closer to this human tapestry that makes up my Cape Town.
What does the future of Cape Town look like? What shape would a “liveable” and loveable African Cape Town take?
Honestly, I have to say that I don’t know. We might not have seen its form yet. But what I do know is that its greatest potential is expressed through the participation of all the people who make up the city.
The people of Cape Town are creative and diverse – and they are changing and adapting to their city, through small actions, every single day. I get to be a part of this by looking for connections and other opportunities to amplify their actions.
At the Cape Town Partnership our work is guided by a compelling vision that states that: “This is our home, this is our hope, this is our chance – believing that there is more that connects us than divides us, speaking the language of hope, working together for the common good, sharing the spaces in-between. We can plant our tomorrows and shape our future and heal ourselves. Cape Town… a city with past, a people with a future.”
Whoever you are and whatever your story, if you live and work in Cape Town, through your everyday interactions you make the city of tomorrow.
What is it that we need to do now to secure a positive trajectory? Can we, as Capetonians, co-create the city we want to live in?
Is it possible to see beyond the stereotypes to the life we want our children to live? Is it possible to define our future from a new reality that acknowledges but does not fixate on our deeply divided past?
I believe we can. It’s all in the mindset really!
Talk to me @darksjokolade