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6 August 2001

A world left behind by the rest of South Africa

Despite Archbishop Tutu's talk of a rainbow coalition, Cape Town is still uneasy about its multiraci

By Bryan Rostron

Cape Town, appended like an afterthought on the southern tip of Africa, retains a curiously semi-detached relationship with the continent to which it is, however precariously, attached. The city is currently being heavily promoted in Britain as a “world-class destination”. But in marketing itself for tourism, Cape Town repeats an old colonial illusion: it continues to gaze abroad, still imagining that it is a European outpost.

The city is now run by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official parliamentary opposition, an uneasy coalition of the old liberal Democratic Party and the National Party, perpetrators of apartheid. Struggling to shake off the image of being principally a white-interest party, the DA has staked a great deal on its administration of Cape Town.

Recently, in one of his first big initiatives, the new mayor announced “Operation Shack Attack”, a plan to remove the shambolic shack settlements that are the first sight to greet visitors as they leave the airport. This has been widely criticised as being motivated by a desire to remove an eyesore rather than to deal with the real problem.

The complexity of Cape Town, and its fascination, is that it is indeed a rainbow city: white, black, coloured, Muslim, Indian. But here the array of colours, as opposed to Archbishop Tutu’s intended symbolism, seldom mix.

From the airport, shacks sprawl along both sides of the motorway. Many are built on an old city rubbish dump. After the black township of Langa are the huge twin towers of Athlone power station. Like most local whites, the visitor will almost certainly miss one of the most fascinating sights in the city. In the field next to the power station, in the shadow of those ugly concrete towers, are makeshift plastic huts for the seclusion of abakweta, Xhosa youths undergoing initiation.

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Ahead is Table Mountain. It bears an uncanny resemblance to a description by Dante of terrestrial paradise. Many early travellers described the mountain, and the Cape, as a Garden of Eden. This lyricism is crudely echoed in modern tourist brochures.

Today, however, such elegiac descriptions startlingly deny the evidence of our own eyes. Most of the city’s population still live beyond the European pale: a glinting grey sea of shacks stretches right across the sandy wastes of the Cape Flats, like some huge medieval encampment of a rag-tag army besieging a shining city centre.

And out there in the bay is Robben Island, which for years under apartheid was airbrushed out of postcards and official pictures. But now, when Cape Town markets itself, what is being erased from the picture?

Recently a (white) friend rang, very distressed. The previous evening she had taken her 12-year-old son and his Zimbabwean friend for a meal in the centre of Cape Town, but the owner of the restaurant had stormed out cracking a sjambok (rawhide whip).

“My son had a hood over his head, so this man thought that here were two black street children,” she said. “He hit my son – then was shocked when he realised he was white. The parking attendant told me that they sjambok the street kids regularly.”

Jakes Jacobs, a seasoned worker from an organisation called the Homestead, which operates a network of projects for street children, says he deals with this kind of incident all the time. There is a drive on to smarten up the city centre, to crack down on crime and push the homeless out. Street children are frequently, and wrongly, made the scapegoats for crime.

Cape Town’s new Democratic Alliance mayor, Peter Marais, visited the Homestead’s drop-in centre shortly before the recent city elections and stunned staff by announcing that he was not surprised street kids didn’t necessarily want to go home, because of all the “luxury” at the centre. When challenged to explain what he meant by luxury, the mayor said: “Running water and sewerage. They don’t have that where they come from.”

The feisty director of the Homestead, Annette Cockburn, says: “Frankly, I get a sense in Cape Town that we are going backwards.” She points out the discrepancy between the overwhelming public response to the plight of penguins after a massive oil spill last year, and the often hostile attitude of prosperous Capetonians to street children. “The knee-jerk response is to just chase them out of the business district,” she says.

Ten minutes after leaving the Homestead, I was in a city-centre bookshop. A white man came in to hand out a leaflet. “We represent the victims of human rights abuses,” he said. Then, without a pause, he continued: “Our aim is to move on the vagrants, the illegal immigrants and street children.”

The leaflet claimed his organisation, an “area response elite”, was not a militia or a vigilante group, but added in a sinister tone: “It will, however, do whatever is required . . .”

The mother of the young Zimbabwean boy involved in the sjambok incident was more philosophical than her white friend. A successful professional woman with a PhD, she roars with laughter as she recounts the daily petty humiliations that she has to cope with in Cape Town.

“I can laugh about these things because I wasn’t brought up here,” she says. “In my experience, Cape Town is worse than the other big cities, it’s years behind. Most of my black friends feel the same. Sometimes Cape Town doesn’t even feel part of South Africa. It doesn’t seem able to cope with the fact that things have moved on . . . I go into a smart shop to buy something and the assistant will look at me and ask: do I know how much this costs? They assume that because I’m black, I live in Khayelitsha. Or I go to buy some nice bread in a supermarket, and the assistant tells me that the cheap bread is over there. This doesn’t happen to me in Johannesburg.”

Her son is at one of Cape Town’s top schools. “A real little gentleman,” she laughs proudly. “But at school I was told he made up stories about me – do you know, they said, he actually told us his mum was an engineer! I had to say, ‘Actually, I am.’

“People here live in such separate worlds. Often, whites simply don’t know how to talk to you. I turned up for an important meeting, and the receptionist wouldn’t let me in. She couldn’t believe a black person would be participating at a board meeting. But, you know, I’ve had enough of the problems here. I’m transferring to Jo’burg.”

At the G S Jooste Hospital in Mannenberg, a “coloured” ghetto and one of the most gang-ridden areas in the Cape Flats, Dr Eula Mothibi daily battles with scarce resources against the results of endemic violence – gunshot and stab wounds – as well as the seemingly unstoppable tides of TB and HIV/Aids. “It is a nightmare, all the time we are sending people home too soon just to make another bed free,” she says. “Most of my white colleagues across town have no idea of these conditions. Here you really see the poverty, and you become acutely aware of the huge disparity of wealth in Cape Town.”

The bleak, underfunded wards are packed with chronically ill and dying patients. “I come from a township,” says Dr Mothibi. “But this disparity angers me. Sometimes you wonder – what has changed? Well, the health system has certainly improved in terms of access, and people are more aware of their rights – but all most whites say is, things are getting worse. White doctors, who often have very little idea of this huge disparity in services, will be the first to say that. In fact, they’re looking for things to go wrong. In Cape Town, you can live very nicely without worrying about anything. Most whites do. All the time I hear people saying that whites here haven’t changed.”

The Cape has a long history of separatist dreams. Jan van Riebeeck planted a bitter almond hedge; another early governor planned a canal across the Cape Flats (a proposal revived in the 1950s). The idea was to create an island, Anthony Trollope remarked approvingly after his visit here in 1877, “leaving the rest of Africa to its savagery”. Even now you still meet influential people who talk wistfully in this vein.

Cape Town today remains an oddly semi-detached city. To maintain this illusion, however, the Mother City must present an increasingly deceptive cosmetic facade in a hopeless attempt to keep time – and Africa – at bay, like a proud but jaded old trollop.

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