Cape Town

Nothing is Black and White


I went to Cape Town a few years ago. The picture above is taken at sundown just behind the Victoria and Alfred Docks -  Yeah, Alfred. Apparently Victoria’s husband, Albert, did not figure in the equation. Alfred was Victoria’s son, and he got the contract to build the docks in the 1860’s. He named one part after his mother and the other, imaginatively, after himself. He no doubt got the contract on his own merits and his connections counted for nought, because life is fair and the British Empire an honourable institution where hard work and application count for more than one’s birth. (I probably have to put in a winky smily here so that the irony challenged can keep up with me;).


The excited lady on the right was spotting the spout of a whale as it passed by. Unfortunately the resolution of the camera does not manage to capture that but as you can see, the sun sets very nicely over the southern ocean. 

I loved Cape Town. What is there not to like about a place that Mark Thatcher calls home and where Hollywood stars hang out for holidays, adopt black babies, house mistresses, lovers, and walk about without any makeup because nobody has a clue who they are? It reminds one of Brighton or Bournemouth, except a lot windier, with a mountainous backdrop, treacherous seas and no foreign exchange students or stag parties and strippers. 

It is a layer cake of history, of races, of communities, and of architecture. Though architecture is perhaps too grand a word, as its newest buildings are unspectacular office blocks and shopping malls, and its oldest are equally unspectacular colonial buildings of the fifties. What was the city centre, the Long Street area, was dreary and run down, though below ground a busy, if equally dreary, shopping mall kept people out of the cold of winter and heat of summer.


Occasionally one had to run the gamut of predatory beggars whose main line was, “I am not a bad man, I just need money for food…” Whenever anyone tells me they are not a bad man in a country obsessed by guns and whose airports have special lines for checking in one’s weaponry, I get a little nervous. Persistent though the beggars were I never saw any violence, which is a far cry from a trip to Paris I had the other year. Every day I saw someone being mugged and police chases. And if I do not witness at least one drunken brawl in London, I feel saddened that England is losing an integral part of its culture. South Africa, with its scary past, was a very peaceful place. Maybe I was just looking the other way. As they say, you never see the bullet that hits you.


Cape Town might be the place where the political forces that created South Africa began, but it is a unique place where nothing is, so to speak, as Black and White, as the rest of the world might see it.

One thing to note is that Cape Town started off as a market garden supplying fresh vegetables to passing ships, which in itself is a unique beginning for a city. Most other colonial cities developed with some intention to create a city, whereas this one just sort of grew. And it grew up as a place where all manner of races mingled, not necessarily of equal status, but in a hodge podge of free man, convict, slave, indentured servant, renegades, pirates, bureaucrats and military men from Europe, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, East Africa, and local Khoi Khoi and Bushmen. And out of it, written initially in Arabic, the Afrikaans language developed; a sort of lingua franca forged in the kitchens and markets of the town, a bastardised Dutch that is not very difficult for an Englishman to grasp when seen written. I would characterise it as African Geordie.


The apartheid government that grew out of the mess of the wars between Boers and English, were at odds with a lot of the spirit of Cape Town. The boers were land hungry Dutch farmers who left Cape Town to occupy what they considered virgin lands and the English were invaders who took over Cape Town to protect the routes to India and, to their credit, abolish slavery. The subtleties between being a slave and an indentured servant might have been lost on a number people, but abolished it was. And interestingly one of the results was the movement of mixed-race settlers throughout south west Africa, organised like the boers, speaking the same language as the boers, and proclaiming the same religion, and eventually coming into conflict with the Germans in what is now Namibia, who ironically supported the boers of South Africa again the British.  Phew! Now there is a sentence that contains a lot of history.


Dry Irony is, I think, the South African style of humour. It’s a product of every section of the community having their own spin on the place and yet, right now, agreeing to be one nation: a rainbow nation. Their TV attests to this with a mix of soaps and talent shows featuring multiple languages and races  all at the same time, all pulling together, joking about relative penis sizes, and if not exactly avoiding portraying conflict, showing that everyone is just folks. And maybe they are. It is a pleasant dream, even though an eye straining facility with subtitling is needed. South Africans are not necessarily known as great readers, but to get through a TV show your eyes and ears have to be nimble. South Africans are great talkers. You cannot order a can of coke without the waiter/waitress enquiring about your health, your children, and adopting you as ersatz grandpa - my white beard seems to have that effect.

The history of the region is full of ironies that make a mockery of the policies that became synonymous with South Africa. In a nutshell the conflict between the Boers and English sprung out of both their ambitions to grab the same gold and diamond rich lands, plus differences in the manner of handling relations between the natives and the white, and not so white, settlers. One can go into many more points of conflict but I think all wars are, as the Afghans say, essentially men squabbling over land, gold and women.


In 1970s Cape Town, to achieve the separation of the races that the boers considered necessary for racial purity, they had to bulldoze “District Six”, which has been described as “notorious” as if it was a den of thieves, or as a “multi-racial community” as if it was all peace, love and harmony. What it certainly was, was a cheap residential area where sixty-thousand descendants of the multitude of races that mixed and got it on, lived. The Cape Coloured, as they became categorised, was a multi-lingual, multi-racial, collection of individuals and families who more than any other community contributed to the culture of Cape Town. One might even say it was the birth place of the Afrikaans language! Consequently there is now a nice big windy gap in the city where not a lot of redevelopment has taken place. It was supposed to be a White Only area but few whites had the heart to take up the opportunity and so now it is in a legal no-man’s land where a trust of the dispossessed is trying to reclaim the members' properties.

Somehow though the spirit of Cape Town did not quite take in the rest of South Africa and everyone I met kept saying, Cape Town is safe, and then with a shudder say, but Jo’burg... And to prove the harmonious nature of Cape Town, my wife and I were taken off for a bit of a PR stunt in one of the townships.


There are of course townships and townships though I don’t think we were taken to one that was particularly high class. One could see that transportation too and from the place was disorganised and that the facilities such as shops and community centres were improvised shacks largely selling haircuts as far as I could work out.  But it was clean, had running water and electricity and was probably no worse than the apartment blocks most Hong Kongers live in. In fact they looked better than what most Hong Kongers lived in. They had fresh air, places to walk, places to bump into friends without having to wander about shopping malls and buy stuff. And the kids could all play in the street and run around and live their own lives without having their parents organising every detail of the daily programme. And none of them were just sat around texting.

It was still a PR job though. We were supposedly helping to plant a garden for Mandela Day. A local women’s co-op, who made eco-friendly bags, greeted us in a small shed. As it was wet and cold, we sorted out the grow-bags inside rather than in the garden. This was not the season to be planting anything and all the dirt swashing about their workspace would have had to be cleaned up by the women, but they sang and made a party of the situation. A couple of trendy student/social worker types, one black with a very London accent, and one white, with a South African accent, clipboards in hand, Mceed the event. And a couple of the women, tough and reminiscent of some old British Trade Union hacks, bullied and pushed the shy and reluctant into going through with what I suspect to most of them was a very shallow ritual of white guys pretending to donate work and material for their vegetable patch. A few selfies and photographs of ebony and ivory hand in hand were taken and the new myth of the New South African Rainbow Nation, given another nudge.  

Real or feigned, it at least produced a notion of South Africanness that the present generation want to promote and it raises the question of how much history do we actually need? Is it best to forgive and forget? Nelson Mandela made a decision that we can all believe to be saintly and wise, though I am sure the long history of racial conflict that is South Africa has left a lot of scars on the psyche of everyone. And as someone who is interested in history and its processes, I suspect that such scars can easily become politically active again. I wonder if we really must know where we have come from to stand a chance of improving where we are going? Is it best to forget sometimes? Forgetting is probably easier than forgiving. But if we forget are we destined to repeat it? I have no answers here. I am a natural cynic because of my English experience. And slogans like "Freedom Cannot Be Manacled” always trigger the schoolboy English grammarian in me and a desire to say, “Y’what?" 


So a trip to Robben Island has to be on one’s itinerary. Here Mandela spent eighteen years, along with many others who spent even longer. At Robben Island’s prison gates one is greeted by a guide who spent many years sharing a prison block with the other politicos. And he too was like everyone I met: jolly, joking, full of stories of hardship. Our guide spent ten years there, having been picked up crossing the border from Angola with a group of guerrillas trained by the Cubans. They were supposed to foment revolution but instead got arrested and chucked into prison. 

The casual manner in which ANC members got picked up and throwing in jail does make one suspect that there were as many South African spies among them as there were genuine revolutionaries, or terrorists depending on your terminology. And our guide's prison regime was spent mending roads and trying to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The prison was open to the elements and they were not given too many blankets. President Zuma became a very good chess player while imprisoned and it sounds as if all of the present politicians used the place as a training ground for future office. The celibate experience probably fuelled his desire to have as many wives as possible when he got out. The guide said that whenever they heard that a female nurse was accompanying the doctor on his monthly visit, they all went sick.

If you spent eighteen years breaking rocks and living in a tiny cell, you probably would think it something of a hardship but as our guide portrayed it, it was more of a university campus. People who make light of such circumstances do so because it was the exact opposite. Now, he jokes, he makes light of it, it was his service to the nation. And it made him proud to have been there, making history in some strange way. But he told the story of when he was let out, as part of the deal Mandela brokered, and the first thing he did was go to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Cape Town. This was for him, heaven. He told us he recently re-visited the place, but when he went it seemed small and scruffy and disappointing. It was nothing. And yet, at one point in his life, he had felt that it was the best thing he had ever experienced. Freedom had become mundane.

You could see that now, for him, the prison was insubstantial, no longer solid walls with guards. It was a flimsy place that was hard to envision as somewhere impossible to escape from. And every day he had to take tour groups around without the smells, the un-emptied chamber pots, the bad food, the unshowered men, nervy white warders, sullen black prisoners, and not take himself emotionally back to that moment because to do that every day would just drive a man mad. Here, was the empty space out of which a new history without precedence could be forged. Here was the place of his humiliation and victory, and it was nothing like it was, and in fact it was nothing. And Mandela’s cell was just an empty room. The prison, as ever, is in the mind.


In this next photograph you can see a pile of rocks placed by a re-union of Mandela and other prisoners celebrating the founding of the new South Africa. And that pile of stones was it: the end of Apartheid. 


Cape Town and Robben Island make you think about history, about impossible odds, about the idiocy of most philosophies, theories, religions, and even the whole concept of race and nationhood. And how many other Mandelas disappeared without a trace and were swept away despite their fortitude, their perseverance and talent?


And from the top of the Table Mountain, I take a selfie against a picturesque scene, smiling with the shadow of an island and no sign of anything on that island.


Round the corner at the Cape of Good Hope, named the Cape of Storms originally, one can take more great photographs because the southern sun is low and casts a soft photogenic light. All is wind, sun, waves and rocks and it is time to move on to Namibia. But right now in this blog, here are more photographs of the Cape.