Thoughts on Leaving Cape Town

It’s 6 AM.  I got up to use the toilet a few minutes ago and my mind won’t shut down with thoughts and images of South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation.”  It was an intense and engaging three days.

There a lot of physical images that represent this rainbow, post-apartheid, nation, sculptures of rainbows, the flag, architecture and art exhibits reflecting the new South Africa.  The giant Ferris wheel at the V&A Waterfront with the slogan “Turn for Good.”   On Long Street there is a sculpture of a house made of red corrugated metal with open windows and doors signifying an open house for democracy.

But in this rainbow nation race does not seem far from many people’s minds.  Under Apartheid folks were classified as Black, Colored and White.  A Chinese Friend who worked in the Taiwanese embassy in South Africa during Apartheid was accorded “Honorary White” status.  He was too much of a diplomat to be publically offended but not to be wryly sarcastic when he spoke with me.

In this post I write about conversations I had.  They are not representative of South Africa.  They are some of the folks I spoke with.  With one exception I will not use their names.  They didn’t know I was a blogger when we spoke.  Fair is fair.

One cab driver proudly told us he was Xhosa, a black.  As we drove past neighborhoods he pointed out one upscale gated neighborhood and said that under Apartheid a black could not even walk along the street outside the fence of this neighborhood.  Now blacks could walk, and, he said proudly, live there. Just across the road, on the land side was a “colored” neighborhood.  I asked him if any blacks or whiles lived in this neighborhood.  He scoffed at “colored”.  They’re mixed race decedents, many of Malay slaves and Indian indentured workers.  He was a proud black man whose ancestors had not been slaves.

Then we passed a black township, which had more rundown houses than the “Colored” neighborhood.  I asked him if any whites lived in townships.  He answered as if I were crazy, “no.”  I asked if he lived in a township.  He did, but he was paying money to send his kids to an integrated school so they could live the rainbow nation and perhaps move into one of the formally white neighborhoods.

The next day on a tour our guide and bus driver were both Afrikaner (descendants of the Dutch who speak Afrikaans.)  Our guide was also proud of her rainbow nation and was very fond of Nelson Mandela. She pointed out townships, some of them looking like shanty towns (The distinctive feature is power poles, they are part of much of the art sold depicting townships) and some being rebuilt as modern low income housing estates.  She was proud that the government was providing new housing for the townships, but admitted it was a slow process.  If you make of less than 8000 Rand a month (just under $800) you can get a house rent free.  The new houses have solar hot water and several have solar electric panels.  She was proud of that too.

Here are shots of the old townships

And pictures of the new ones.

I told her that our driver of the day before was living in a township and making the sacrifice to get the money to send his kids to an integrated school.  She was impressed, “Private schools are expensive.”  But then she said, “But he’s black and used to living in those conditions.”  Those conditions may include no indoor plumbing and outdoor privies.

An illustration of this difference in attitudes is that during the water shortage people are limited to 50 liters of water a day.  The black driver said “50 liters is no hardship.”  The Afrikaner guide thought it was a terrible hardship.   To put this in perspective the average American uses between around 350 liters a day for household use, depending on location.  Most of that is for flush toilets.

Watering lawns and washing cars are banned for the duration of the drought.  We passed lakes and ponds with low water levels and some dry golf courses.  We also saw some very green courses.  They had big signs saying “Bore Hole Water.”  How does that makes a difference?  It the water is potable it can be used for more important purposes.  Depleting an aquifer in a drought makes no sense.  There were also signs saying “watered with non-potable water”.  And one sign reading “This yacht uses non-potable water for cleaning.”  I noticed our cabs and tour buses were nice and clean.

The next day we had two “colored” cab drivers.  The first railed against Uber, pointing out that most Uber drivers were “Black.”  She paused and said “Not our blacks but blacks from Zimbabwe and Congo.”  She told us a person would buy a new car and hire two drivers to operate it.  He took his big cut, Uber took its cut and the drivers got the remainder.  Each has to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.  “They know Cape Town and were not very good drivers.”  She paused, she felt sorry for them.

Our last cab driver who told us he was “Cape Colored” a mixed race descendant of Malay and other races.  I asked him in this “rainbow nation” why everyone seemed so conscious of their own racial status and told me about it.  He laughed, and here I will use his name because it is important to the story.  He said “Look, my surname is Rosenberg; I descend from a Jewish family married into Malay, which is Moslem.  I was raised Episcopalian, married to a Catholic, my brother is Moslem, with the name Rosenberg.”  He laughed.  “Brother married a Moslem woman and converted.  I am the rainbow nation.  It’s important for us to remember who we come from and tell our kids their stories as they create the new rainbow nation.”

He talked about the “Love Jihad.”  “Moslems seldom convert to Christianity.  But Christians will convert to Islam to marry.  Moslems are waging a ‘Love Jihad.’”  He laughed.

I asked him if he lived in an integrated neighborhood.  He did not and spoke sadly of Cape Town’s District 6 that had historically been integrated.  The Apartheid government moved all the people out and bulldozed it to create a white only neighborhood.  But his kids also go to an integrated school.  He drove us through a primarily “Cape Colored” neighborhood “Bo Kaap.”  It has brightly colored houses and a mosque on almost every corner along with a halal butcher shop.

On our walk we encountered beggars, but no more than in many other cities, including in the US.  They are polite when they approach you.  At one point I said I didn’t have any small change. He smiled and said “Oh you are a tourist, well welcome to Cape Town and Have a good day.”  The next man who he approached barked “get a job.” and turned his head.  That’s not so easy with an almost 27% unemployment rate.

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