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Opinionista

A trip to pretty but ugly Cape Town will leave you thinking and feeling all sorts of strange

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Mfuneko Toyana is an associate editor at Business Maverick.

A pair of old white women in sundresses, a crutch across the table, pick at baked delicacies, bicker with the staff and serve each other anecdotes salt-and-peppered with “Ndebeles are supposed to be very clever” variety of anachronisms commonplace enough in our battered, divided, angst-heavy society.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Across the room, two round men shoo away a lawyer whose suit sleeves are kissing his knuckles while he attempts to kiss something more plump and profitable. The round men have more urgent matters to conclude. The icebergs peeking out from their noontime whiskies are disappearing fast.  

Am I wrong to feel, when the plane gurgles and coughs into descent, that this cloudless hothouse is steamed pink with the worst and best aspects of our tribe, marooned here at the barrel-tip of this revolver-shaped continent? Easy targets for some gruesome, industrial-scale cataclysm. Some grand, god-like gesture. “He says the government should give the many houses it owns to the residents of Khayelitsha. Then they (the people) can rent them back to the government,” I overhear the old lady telling her lunch partner.

The scheme makes economic sense to me. It’s the kind of casino/crisis capitalism that has carried us to this point of perpetual collapse and inequality, and it appeals to the burlesque sense of doom buried somewhere prominently in my cynicism. And, isn’t it bad manners to argue with your elders?   

“But what if they (the people?) decide to sell it,” one of the elderly ladies points out to the other while spraying cake crumbs on the faces staring up at her from the obituary section of the newspaper she is reading.

It is hard to keep track of what is genuine gesture of enquiry, and what is begrudging genuflection in the presence of ancient power. And what is grandiose vision. It’s even harder when you’ve been slinging bourbon cocktails on the company’s dime, smarting for a confrontation, like a guerrilla soldier waking up in the crucible of gentrified dystopia, realising that 20 years have passed since the struggle for freedom was supposed to have ended.

Realising that this is what freedom is really like. What it sounds like.

“Go to the west end of Camps Bay. The sunsets there are beautiful,” the old lady prompts, abandoning the socioeconomic treatise she was treating her friend to, as if she sensed my gloomy thoughts; sensed that something fatal was threatening to spill over.

I don’t stay to find out. I fake-search my pockets as the waiter approaches with the black ledger that will transport his 10% cut.

Cape Town is gorgeous, but it has an ugly history and its present isn’t much better. Volumes have been written and spoken about the psychic trauma it burns on to black bodies and brown minds and white souls.

Beneath Table Mountain, the city simmers with racial tension, gang violence, poverty and a looming climate shock. The last, dubbed Day Zero, has somehow, like the other three issues, disappeared, thanks to a combination of mass marketing half-cloaked as governance; analysis paralysis catalysed and radicalised into pure incomprehension by social media; and cognitive compartmentalisation necessary for holidaying. And that is the effect of Cape Town’s overwhelming natural beauty amid life-and-death bleakness of sprawling shack cities.

Places like Blikkiesdorp and Khayelitsha and the 437 other informal settlements around the city.

Cape Town is gorgeous, but it’s ugly.

I stay clear of the poverty-porn tours. Gawking at poor people. Smiling, and fake-searching my pockets every time someone comes close.  

A study by a team of University of Cape Town and German social scientists found that about half of what we call “middle-class” people in SA regularly slip back and forth between poverty and stability, between R1,000 and the paradise that lies beyond it.

More than half of that half often does not make it back to the security of relative prosperity. The effect of these teleportations, the study concludes, is an impaired ability to imagine a better life or to take the daily steps needed to get there. A kind of blindness.

SA’s upper-bound poverty line is R992 per person per month. The line that divides alive from dead, economically speaking. The study also found that one in four South Africans could be classified as stably middle class or elite.

More than 50% are chronically poor. The rest, 20%, are the transients. In and out, in and out. This is the truth of our failing lunge toward prosperity for all. When you’re in Cape Town, you do your best to stay away from this truth. I do, to avoid getting pulled into those dark thoughts. Anyway, I can’t stay too long, either. I can’t afford to. Instinctively, I fake-search my pockets when I think of this truth. It’s soothing.

When you exit Cape Town by train, the view of the mountain quickly disappears, replaced by a sprawling industrial wasteland.

The four days spent gorging yourself on the wonders of the mother of cities blur and fade, and you try to zoom in on details and deeds and piece together some sort of insight or meaning.

The man in the seat in front of you can’t take it. He rolls down the metal window cover on the discordant backdrop. He turns his head away from the non-view, leaning into a slipstream aroma of baby formula, slap chips and sweat, gushing down the aisle between rows of pleather seats. A banquet of bodily emanations, betraying the pulse of patience and parting. I fake-search my pockets. The feeling of certainty and the safety of not wanting to know, beneath the lint and the loathing, is no longer there. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Bristow says:

    Some people think of Cape Town as being a skirt of verdant gentility clustered around the mountain. But stand out on the Cape Flats and look towards the mountain and you see a whole new reality. The regional economy is agriculturally based so the millions arriving hoping for a better life find there is little industrial vigour and consequent employment. Still, as I am wont to point out to anyone who’ll listen, it must be better than from wherever they left.

  • Lee Richardson says:

    Really? Somehow this is worth publishing?

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    When we stop blaming others for our lot and start doing something about it, it will change for the better. The poor are their own worst enemy.

  • Pieter Hundersmarck says:

    How was this even worth publishing?

    “Volumes have been written and spoken about the psychic trauma it burns on to black bodies and brown minds and white souls.”

    Really? Which volumes exactly?

    “Sprawling industrial wasteland” has the writer ever been to any other large city and their light industrial areas? (London, Milan, take your pick) Cape Town is nicer I promise.

    “ The study also found that one in four South Africans could be classified as stably middle class or elite.” what study says that 20 million people in this country are doing fine?

  • Andrew Gunn says:

    It’s about “seeing” each other, read “The promise” for another perspective.

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Exquisitely tragic. I LOVE your powerful re-imaginations and writing. A masterpiece Mfuneko.

  • Andrew McWalter says:

    Your writing unwittingly displays the petticoat of your inner turmoils. And whilst writing is a therapeutic exercise, this article is for the benefit of only those souls plagued by like-minded demons. For the rest of us though, sensationalism and embellishment at whatever-the-cost come to mind.

  • Hans Wendt says:

    Here we go again. Another article on mocking Whitey, which just sinks into caricature. Then you get all the statistics. Obviously the writer has never travelled through any big cities, especially in Africa, to get a real perspective on decay, violence and urban sprawl.
    Besides the youthful attempt at hipness I get the impression there is envy.
    Does DM pay for this meaningless sociological analysis?

  • René Naegeli says:

    And now ? ? ? What has it to do with Cape Town ? You’ll find rich people (white, black, yellow, green …) all over the world living in their bubble. Just another young man venting his anger over a unjust world. And now ?

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Gossamer thin racial hatred is nevertheless racial hatred, no matter the style of that gossamer cloak. First you have to learn to deal with the idea of competent administration – that quintessential something about Cape Town in particular and the Western Cape in general that ANC supporters cannot abide. And second, you have to learn to deal with your racial bias against white folk who are self-confident.

  • Bruce Kokkinn says:

    Who is the racialist?

  • Selma Browde Browde says:

    Can the Weekly Maverick be delivered?

  • Son of Man says:

    Somehow I expected this comment section to become a vitriolic attacks of blame culture, and poor being to blame for voting for the ANC and off course, Cape Town being a beacon of governance in South Africa; alas, I was right. In my trips to Cape Town I have always come back knowing this country is going to explode one day, and Cape Town will be one of the first places to feel the heat. Keep hoping the poor stay mum and docile for when day of action comes, we are all screwed.

    • R S says:

      And yet surprisingly the real explosion has actually happened, and actually took place in KZN. The foundations are shaking everywhere, but for what it’s worth, they are most stable here in the WC.

  • R S says:

    “Beneath Table Mountain, the city simmers with racial tension, gang violence, poverty and a looming climate shock.”

    Updated: Beneath any city in South Africa, the city simmers…

    “Cape Town is gorgeous, but it has an ugly history and its present isn’t much better.”

    Updated: South Africa is gorgeous, but…

    “More than 50% are chronically poor. The rest, 20%, are the transients. In and out, in and out. This is the truth of our failing lunge toward prosperity for all. When you’re in Cape Town, you do your best to stay away from this truth.”

    Updated: More than 50% are chronically poor. The rest, 20%, are the transients. In and out, in and out. This is the truth of our failing lunge toward prosperity for all. When you’re in South Africa, you do your best to stay away from this truth.

    “When you exit Cape Town by train, the view of the mountain quickly disappears, replaced by a sprawling industrial wasteland.”

    When you leave any city with a barely function train system in South Africa, the view of [insert sight here] quickly disappears, replaced by…

    Mfuneko, I like your work, but seriously, this piece is probably your weakest so far. As a PoC who lives in Cape Town and has gone from working 6 days a week to just cover his bills to earning a decent living, the problems you describe are visible across SA, not just Cape Town. Unfortunately, many writers such as yourself, take the time to highlight these issues as if they are somehow unique to this city when they are not.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Is this a wannabe younger Mpofu with his high-class English education ? He could certainly takes tips on sensible and intelligible writing from our Tyilo … and it would save him the bother of taking ‘trips’ to Cape Town ! Which raises the question of how he got appointed associate editor ?

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Dear Commenters’. I don’t think this is a comment on all of Cape Town or White Capetonians. It’s a comment on painful aspects of his lived reality and as such is masterfully expressed and processed. What I love from most of the comments is how proud most of you are of your gorgeous city. That’s awesome, but if you take a step back for a moment you won’t need to rise so blindly to its defence as though any criticism of it denies its value. [It pains me to know that my beloved Pretoria is experienced by a great many in this way…]

    • R S says:

      Ya, but every time a writer/journalist pens a piece like this it’s rarely ever other reasonable areas of SA that are in the spotlight. It’s always Cape Town.

      Maybe it’s because it’s the “best place” to live in SA, despite its problems, but a little balance/objectivity would be nice.

    • Anneli Delport says:

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Biff Trotters says:

    When a poor person or a family moves to Cape Town with all they have (very little), hoping for a better life, and erects a small structure in some place that floods in winter, whose duty is it to immediately lay on running water, toilets and refuse removal? Is there such a duty? For me, the primary duty is that of the government and its incumbents to enable, facilitate, and promote the creation of employment opportunities. Do that and everything else falls into place, eventually. Instead, we have THIS.

  • Anneli Delport says:

    Beautifully written. Thank you. It seems that more often than not we of that 25% fake-search our pockets to sooth our conscience

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