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14 August 2000

Heaven and hell on South African soil

Hout Bay has racial tensions, crime, poverty and beauty - a microcosm of South Africa

By Bryan Rostron

Hout Bay: a little bit of paradise, murmur local tourist brochures seductively. And, yes, out of my study window I see a magnificent panorama, a foam-fringed bay surrounded by a towering amphitheatre of mountains. Puffs of cloud drift lazily, due south, somewhere beyond Cape Point. The scene is sun-flecked, soft.

But what happens when I alter my angle of vision slightly?

Straight ahead, over the crest of a ridge, is the harbour and Hout Bay Heights. This is where the “coloured” residents live. It is tucked away, out of sight, by the jagged slopes of Karbonkelberg mountain; but it is not paradise. I glimpse the little fishing boats as they steam out into the bay, before they turn towards the heavy swell of the Atlantic.

Due east, out of my other window, is the black, sprawling, shack encampment of Imizamo Yethu, clinging precariously to the side of Skoorsteenkop mountain. From here drifts an unruly mix of sounds: donkeys braying, jiving weekend shebeen revelry, Sunday hallelujah revivalist meetings and sporadic gunfire.

I am spellbound by this view. Our small valley embraces three separate communities within the folds of its looming mountains, each living in its isolated enclosure, eyeing the others warily. And if that first view, pretty as a picture postcard, is promoted as paradise, must we then also admit that – only 23 kilometres from Cape Town – we still boast our local manifestations of limbo and inferno?

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The first thing that struck me when I came to live here two years ago, after a 28-year absence from South Africa, was how separate the white, coloured and black communities remained – even four years after our transition to democracy, and despite living in such proximity to one another. It is as if, after so long, we simply don’t know how to talk to each other. The second thing that struck me was the prevailing talent of most of the white population to erase from their minds what they don’t want to see.

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Imizamo Yethu, popularly known as Mandela Park, still engenders fierce passions ten years after its creation. Many whites in Hout Bay, I often feel, hope to wake up one morning and find that, overnight, a UFO has hovered over Skoorsteenkop and magically vacuumed up that vast encampment, leaving behind a bare mountainside.

It’s not as simple as that; South Africa never is. But like the winds that gust here in summer and winter, all the racial tensions and uncertainties swirl and eddy through this small valley. Whites fear blacks, blacks are suspicious of whites, and coloureds resent blacks.

As I gaze out at these vastly differing prospects, I often feel that there, laid out before me, is the whole tangled panorama of South Africa’s enduring human comedy.

Even so, there remains an odd feeling of remoteness from the rest of Africa. Perhaps it is the psychological effect created by the huge bulk of Table Mountain, the inter- vening sandy wastes of the Cape Flats, then the ramparts-like barrier range that the early Dutch settlers called, tellingly, “The Mountains of Africa”.

Thus, in the white psyche, a myth of paradise persists. Although the valley is rapidly filling up, farms hastily subdivided into small plots for mock-Cape Dutch suburbia, there is still a nostalgic settler dream of the Lost Valley, some kind of Shangri-La. At least a couple of homes have this very name on the gate.

But one glance out of my study window dispels the illusion.

This view has rapidly filled up with houses. Even the sand dune, once a great scar of white across the lower eastern slope of the Karbonkelberg, is being built on. Some of these new houses are behind a barrier that announces “Cape Peninsula Nature Reserve”. Recently, I saw a small buck up there, at dusk, on a half-completed site.

But even these new developments wish to pretend that they are not in Africa. The walled estate of identical, boxy, yellow brick town houses that I can see out of my window is called, in Italian, Villa di Legno (Villa of Wood), and the advertising billboard that points the way there promises, ludicrously, “A Touch of Tuscany . . .” Nearby is a condominium block called “St Tropez”, while a new, uncompleted speculation close to the beach is marketing itself as “La Mer“.

Quite a few local whites (and wealthy foreigners who buy holiday homes here) don’t really want to live in Africa at all. They just want to live in a sunny suburb, some kind of ersatz Europe, but with the benefit of cheap domestic labour.

While there are whites who longed for democracy in South Africa, there are many others for whom it is – at best – an irritation, or just very, very baffling. Perhaps it is the deadening force of apartheid-induced habit: often, they just don’t seem to see what is right in front of their eyes. My Californian wife is still constantly, freshly, shocked how so many whites here still look right through black people, fail to show any sign of registering their presence if they enter a room, and simply can’t be bothered to pronounce the simplest Xhosa names correctly.

From dawn every day, along the nearby Valley Road, unemployed black men wait around in the hope of casual work, sometimes 40 or 50 of them. Many are still there hours later, and again the next day, and the next.

Yesterday, Sunny came home quite angry. “I watched a group of these women politely asking car after car for a lift,” she said. “The white women inside didn’t even acknow-ledge their presence. They just stared straight ahead, with stern faces.”

A sure reflection of such uptight attitudes is our monthly paper, the Chronicle. It is a faithful mirror of much that is ill-informed and ungenerous in white attitudes, with a shrill tone and sour pessimism, clearly convinced that the end of civilisation is nigh. By turns crotchety and petulant, with fretful letters from the likes of “Civic Minded” and “Rule of Law”, there is a pervasive mood of belligerent paranoia. A little while ago, the Chronicle wrote about “our squatters” in Imizamo Yethu, alleging that more families “are bussed in every Friday night”. While there is a constant influx of migrants from the poor, rural Eastern Cape, there is no evidence whatsoever of “bussing”: this is pure swart gevaar (the black horde threat), but widely believed by cosseted, privileged people who are primed to believe the worst.

“Africans were never local to this valley,” resentful whites sometimes complain, forgetting their own recent arrival, foreign ancestry and the reality that their racial exclusivity was maintained, until recently, at gunpoint. The chaotic, sprawling shanty town of Imizamo Yethu has been here less than a decade, yet it now contains at least one-third of the valley’s roughly 30,000 inhabitants. It was born, violently, out of the turmoil of the times. Squatter camps had sprung up all over Hout Bay, causing considerable tension by the late Eighties. There were tense stand-offs. Squatters living on the dunes flew ANC flags; white vigilantes strutted around with dogs and side-arms.

In May 1990, the Cape Argus carried an editorial about Hout Bay, arguing that it reflected the wider political and social crunch facing Cape Town: “White property owners, who thought they had purchased a little corner of paradise, now find squatters – in rickety shelters with no facilities – almost literally camped on their doorsteps.”

Seven months later, in the early hours of Christmas night, the main squatter camp near the beach burned down. Four people died. Many believe it was arson.

As a result, a large tract of state forestry land on the side of Skoorsteenkop, flanked by buffer zones, was designated for the creation of an “informal settlement”. This was fiercely resisted. The Argus later commented on the sustained letter-writing campaign by anxious whites concerned about crime and property values. The Cape Times reported that some even wanted a two-metre wall built around the new settlement.

Originally, there were going to be 541 families in Imizamo Yethu. Ever since, different administrations have procrastinated over granting title to these plots. Only now, nearly a decade later, are the first few deeds being processed. Meanwhile, the shanty town has mushroomed, squalidly. There are now 2,411 shacks perched on the mountainside in a crazed, unplanned, insanitary huddle, with no space for schools or recreation. TB and Aids are rife.

It is a situation replicated all over South Africa, but seldom quite so startlingly as in this exquisite valley, where disparities are nakedly visible.

“You should have been here 30 years ago,” old-timers say. “Hout Bay was unspoilt then.” Actually, I did come here 30 years ago. It was the high noon of apartheid. As a student, I used to trek out with some politically like-minded friends to a tiny wooden shack on a rocky promontory into the Atlantic, on the other side of the Karbonkelberg. This shack belonged to a colossal man called – well, let’s call him “Sam”. Sam used to plunge fearlessly into the crashing waves and emerge with writhing crayfish, upon which we feasted royally. One weekend, we went without Sam, but with dozens of jars of mayonnaise. We were all too scared to plunge our hands under rocks in the roaring surf, and so had to feast on nothing but mayonnaise all weekend.

Like all imagined golden ages, it was an illusion. Sam, for example, was almost certainly a government agent provocateur, if not a spy.

The view from my window, right now, is entrancing. The sun has burnt off the last wisps of haze along the coast. The indigo sea sparkles. What I love most about this view is that it changes constantly.

The same cannot be said, however, for the attitudes of many who live here. Ways of thinking remain deeply entrenched, like a sick habit, through ignorance, fear, suspicion, lack of imagination and the inability to communicate across colour lines.

The discrepancies are vast. Two years ago, celebrating our first New Year’s Eve in our new home, we were startled by a sudden explosion on the stroke of midnight. The gambling magnate Sol Kerzner, who owns a large chunk of the mountain behind us, was throwing his annual party. The rich, beautiful and powerful – old style or new – had been invited to watch a small part of his huge fortune detonate in a loud firework display over Hout Bay.

On the other side of the valley, Imizamo Yethu had a grandstand view of Sol’s extravaganza. How was a poor community to respond to the multimillionaire’s profligate pyrotechnics? Soon, from that side of the valley, we heard the staccato burst of AK-47 fire.

Today, in daylight, Hout Bay appears deceptively tranquil. Over the past few months, however, I have noticed the walls and fences of neighbours creeping higher and higher. Once, I found a graffito scrawled on our front gate in white paint; I quickly scrubbed it off. It read, simply, “DIE”.

Oh no. Perhaps paradise will be like this – competing groups, defined by colour, fighting bitterly, eternally, over scarce resources.

I remember one particular day last summer, so hot that the stunned silence was broken only by cicadas. Outside was a brilliant, searing simplicity of light, as if everything had stopped absolutely still. Inside, shadowed and cool, the murmur of a sea breeze rustled purple bougainvillea petals across the white tiled floor. I wouldn’t – heaven or hell – live anywhere else.