Still most segregated city I’ve seen
Lindsay Johns is staggered by Cape Town’s continued social, racial inequality 20 years after democracy.
London - Dear Cape Town, I have just returned home to London after a month in your gracious bosom, visiting my family in Grassy Park. Even though I’ve just left, I miss you already.
And not just the regal, imposing edifice that is Table Mountain or the caress of Cape sunshine on my cheeks. I miss the unmistakeable accent when my cousins talk; I miss the south-easter, the wit of the gaatjies, the masala steak gatsbys, the lekker snoek and the chorus of “howzit, my bru?”
I would never claim to be Capetonian, but my family are, and having visited you (and them) many times over the years, I sincerely hope that you will accept the following reflections on my time spent with you in the spirit of love and goodwill with which they are intended.
You are by far the most beautiful city in Africa, and without doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world, yet you possess the ugliest, most ignoble and most tragic history of them all.
The pernicious, indelible scars of apartheid still ravage your brow and mark your features.
You are sadly still the most segregated city I have ever been to.
For a month living in Grassy Park and Kensington, I only see coloured people.
Driving through Gugulethu or Langa, I see only Africans.
In Constantia Village Mall, I see only white customers (but black and brown shop attendants).
So much for the variegated, harmonious Rainbow Nation you are now meant to be.
You are a city with so many divergent yet hideously juxtaposed realities. Sitting in a café in Vredehoek is still a painfully pallid experience, whereas travelling third class on a commuter rush-hour train is almost wholly devoid of white faces. For good or for bad, that can’t be right.
Apartheid ended 20 years ago. I know change takes time, but you need to speed it up a bit.
Your staggering level of social and racial inequality makes me nauseous. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots is not only bewilderingly colossal but borders on the flagrantly immoral.
Even if race is often the prism through which class is seen, the segregation nowadays is still as much racial as economic, and even if it will take at least another 50 years for old enmities to die, you still need to try harder.
Coloureds are the nearest thing you have to an indigenous people. You need to treat them far better. They comprise over 60 percent of your population and their culture is synonymous with your very essence, be it in terms of food, music or literature.
Having once been white-washed, they are now seemingly being discriminated against all over again, at the behest of blatantly unfair national political imperatives.
It breaks my heart that coloured people feel they are being marginalised and even ostracised in their own city. Speak to them – a lot of them are seriously unhappy with how they are being treated in the new South Africa.
If you don’t do something soon to quell their often wholly justifiable anger, you will be in for a rude awakening.
Even more worryingly, thanks to irresponsibly high levels of unchecked west, east and central African immigration (much of it illegal), you are visibly changing at an alarming pace.
I understand that we now live in a global economy, that change is the only constant in life and that immigration is inevitable as populations migrate and seek a better standard of living, but I think you should try and focus on eradicating local poverty and suffering here first. It remains to be seen if the two are mutually exclusive.
Walking the taxi deck above the station in town, or on Voortrekker Road as it passes through Maitland, feels as if I am in downtown Lagos. Strolling down Adderley Street, where once I heard Cape Afrikaans, I now hear Yoruba, French and a host of other African languages.
I’m all for linguistic and cultural diversity and naturally abhor xenophobia, but if this seemingly unregulated influx of (often illegal) foreigners continues unabated I sadly predict increased social and racial tensions – something clearly no one wants to see.
You should be mindful that the priceless cultural fabric of your city is in danger of being substantially eroded.
Do you really want to wilfully discard an utterly unique, rich and distinctive cultural melange as you have here – created over centuries and only to be found in the Cape?
By the way, fair Mother City, where do you hide your white people (the ones who are not over here earning pounds in London)? Living in expensive compounds in Camps Bay, Clifton or at the Old Biscuit Mill on a Saturday morning?
They are sadly becoming a rare breed on the streets, which is a shame. They, too, have their part to play, and not just from within the comfort of gated communities with armed response signs.
Talking of which, you have a heinous crime problem. Please make more effort to sort it out. Not because it’ll scare away the tourists and have an adverse effect on the local economy (which it will), but because it’s simply the right thing to do – for the protection of your own citizens.
Everyone I know has been mugged, robbed or assaulted, knows someone in their immediate circle who has been or lives in fear of it happening to them. And that’s in Grassy Park and Kensington, not Constantia or Manenberg. Life – especially on the Cape Flats – is a disgustingly cheap commodity.
Need I remind you that black and brown lives are worth just as much as white ones? They are not mere statistics and deserve to be treated with sanctity, too.
If you really wish to compete with other major international cities, you need to stem the brazen robberies, the pandemic lawlessness and the senseless killings. From the Canal Walk robbery in broad daylight to the habitual internecine gang warfare on the Cape Flats, every day reveals another litany of slaughter and destruction.
Try going into Hanover Park, Lavender Hill, Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Delft and Mitchells Plain. Give the people education, employment and some positive role models.
Give them back their pride, their dignity and their self-worth which apartheid and poverty stole from them.
Maybe then there would be less drug dealing, less need for gangs and less wanton murder.
Your public transport system – for a city this size – is abysmal and risible. Metrofail just about sums it up. Try having some indicator boards on station platforms with the times of the trains. How about making the trains themselves safe?
And please, can you get rid of those ghastly stickers advertising con-artist mediums, solutions to love problems and backstreet abortion services which litter every carriage?
I know everyone loves coffee, but do you really need any more hideously cute coffee shops? Be it in Bree Street or Buitkenkant Street, the mocha-choca-skinny latte hipster brigade are taking over.
At R25 a pop for a cup of “liquid gold”, not only is it daylight robbery, but it is shamelessly pandering to the tourist market.
Although admittedly great business acumen and providing jobs, it is transforming the city into an identikit image of Melbourne, Brooklyn or Seattle. However great the coffee, gentrification results in paying an all too human price, which you can ill afford.
On the subject of brain food, your libraries are fantastic. The National Library in the Gardens and the City Library on the Parade are great bastions of learning, culture and civilisation, incredible repositories of wisdom, erudition and knowledge (even if the wi-fi is erratic), which deserve to be applauded for the wonderful civic and humanising role they play.
Don’t cut their funding. They are a vital vessel of enlightenment and betterment open to all and promote life-affirming values.
The Capetonian work ethic is formidable and inspiring. Your citizens get up painfully early and work hard all day long, often for offensively low wages.
Be it the vendors on the train hustling to make ends meet, the shop assistants, the check-out women at Shoprite, or the office workers in town, your people are imbued with an impressive desire and ability to work.
Your people, not your breathtaking mountain and coastal scenery, are your greatest asset.
Capetonians of all hues possess a truly humbling resilience in the face of oppression, a genuineness, an honesty and an integrity, not to mention street smarts, which I have rarely encountered anywhere else in the world.
I am hugely proud to be descended from them.
But there is something very wrong when so many of your brightest sons and daughters yearn to emigrate to the US, Australia, Canada or the UK for greater opportunity and a better life.
I’m all for economic improvement, but you need to stymie this brain drain and give your children tangible reasons to stay.
Lastly, you really do need a statue to commemorate your greatest novelist Alex La Guma. Somewhere nice and prominent, as befits his stature. Can I suggest the Gardens?
But hey, what do I know? I’m just a guy from London visiting his family on the Cape Flats.
With much love, your devoted friend and son. – Lindsay.
* Lindsay Johns is a writer and broadcaster from London.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.