It struck me a while ago that I knew absolutely nothing about Cape Town before I moved here. I’d come here for the weekend once or twice during University, and before that for a family holiday in primary school. As I was getting ready to leave University it seemed like it would be a nice place to live, and when I made my selections for my internship placements I picked a bunch of hospitals in the city, and was ultimately placed at GF Jooste Hospital in Manenberg. I didn’t know where Manenberg was. To be fair, the friend I was moving in with had found us a flat in Rondebosch, and I didn’t actually know where that was either. I was clueless.
Why was I so clueless? I’m not sure, and maybe we can unpack that some other time, but it probably it had a lot to do with self-centredness, a reluctance to meaningfully engage with people who were different to me, and a dislike of reading the news. I hope I’ve grown up a bit since then.
Anyway, my ignorance about Cape Town was more than just a geographic blank. I really knew nothing at all about the people. Before I left Pretoria, most people told me that Capetonians were cliquey, but that is neither here nor there. What does that even mean? They already have their own friends? They prefer socialising with people similar to themselves? Just over a decade ago, Pretoria wasn’t exactly a melting pot itself. The golfing estates in the Eastern Suburbs were not mini-rainbow nations, and the residents of Sunnyside and Atteridgeville were not attending the NG Kerk on a Sunday, if you know what I mean. The fact that people ‘moved in their own circles’ did not seem that strange.
In any case, when white people were talking about the cliques, they were talking about the whites, and maybe Cape Town whites are a bit different to Pretoria whites but these differences are subtle. When I say I knew nothing about the people, I mean I knew nothing about the people who were not white. I’m talking about really basic stuff here. I didn’t know what Ramadan was, or about mosque on Friday afternoon. I didn’t know about surnames that were calendar months and how those people had got those surnames. I didn’t know about Number gangs, or gangsterism in general. I didn’t know that the black people would mostly be Xhosa and that many wouldn’t really consider Cape Town their home, and that they would return to their true homes in the Eastern Cape to bury their dead and for family celebrations. I remember that, on hearing I was going to Jooste, somebody said, ‘If a patient says, “Ek gat jou stiek”, you must run!’ and then started laughing his head off. Now I know that person was trying to make a joke based on a racist stereotype, but I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about then. I looked at him blankly and smiled uncertainly. Like I said, totally clueless.
I feel like I’m losing my track here a bit, digressing from what this post was meant to be, which is my thoughts on just over a decade lived in Cape Town, written on the eve of leaving. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to write this post. A while ago I sat down to make a list of ten thoughts about ten years in Cape Town, and it sort of went along the lines of ‘1. This City Works For A Few; 2. The Mountain is Great, The Wind is Kak; 3. The Festivals Are Overrated; 4. So Are The Markets’ and by the time I got to ‘5’ I was like what the fuck am I even talking about, markets and the mountain like some travel blogger, with a few notes on the inequality situation thrown in to make it clear that I’m not blind.
So let me get back to get back to my original plan, which was to reflect on Cape Town as a white person who came here as a student and young adult and left as an (almost) middle-aged professional and a parent (who is white).
The easiest way for me to do this is to say that Cape Town, for me, exists almost as two separate cities: the one I went to work in, and which I only accessed via the hospitals and clinics of the Cape Flats. The second city was the one where I conducted my family and social life. I know this is very simplistic. I know it’s also an awful way to think. But there is no way to wrap up such a diverse and unequal city with one big bow. There is no way I can discuss my time in Cape Town without acknowledging the fact that my experience, as a person who moved from Pretoria to Rondebosch with resources at hand and a job to go to, has probably been vastly different to that of a person who moved from Mount Frere to Khayelitsha with none of these things.
And so: my two cities. In the first , I am at best a service-provider and at worst an observer, and I try to do my job with as much empathy and insight as I can find. This city looks like a very, very difficult place to live. It is mostly informal settlements and is hideously underserviced. Sewerage systems are few and far between, and many households still only have access to running water via communal standpipes. They are remote from the economic hubs of the city, and residents must make lengthy commutes to work using erratic, expensive and often unsafe public transport. The South African Police Service in these areas is so dysfunctional that there are Commissions of Enquiry into exactly what the hell is going on. These settlements get flooded in winter and catch fire when the rain stops. The children are at high risk of being hit by passing cars, of being caught in stray gunfire, and of being, as we say in medical parlance, ‘non-accidentally injured’. The women are unsafe, and are sometimes found raped and murdered in portable toilets. The men don’t seem particularly safe either, and come to hospital riddled with gunshots and stab wounds. Actually, when you look properly at the stats, this city has the highest murder rate in South Africa. I know I’m getting a very skewed view of this city, as it delivers to me only its citizens who are well and truly in a bad way. This city is full of good things too: friendships and love, homes painstakingly built year by year, children coaxed through school and into content adulthood. I am never invited into this part of the city though. Occasionally I get glance of it through a window opened to me when a patient comes back to see me once their illness is gone, or through the people who work in the second city: the baristas who sell me coffee, the lady who helps care for my children.
This second city, which I return to once my work day is done, is mostly a pleasure to live in. Property prices are exorbitant but we find a way to manage. We eat at wonderful restaurants: the food is truly excellent, and so is the wine, and neither of these are unaffordable to us, as I have been told they are in other major international cities. The weekends are the best. You can climb a mountain ten minutes from your front door, or you can pack your car and drive two hours to some magical getaway. In summer you can take your pick of sparkly tidal pools and mountain dams to swim in, and in winter you can curl up in front of a fire on a wine farm. We take Ubers everywhere. We run on the promenade and we cycle to work, because it is so close by. Some things are confusing, such as the devotion to festivals mostly celebrating booze (gin, beer, wine) which mostly aren’t that fun. The queues are endless and there’s never enough place to sit. I understand that there are plenty of, for want of a better word, cliques that I’ll never be a part of: the bloggers Instagramming their way down Bree Street, promoting online retailers and beauty products and new places to hang out (I am never offered free stuff), the young parents who drop off their kids at grandparents and then spend weekends taking drugs at destination weddings and music festivals (I am never offered drugs). I have never, ever gotten used to the wind, and in the early years I complained about how wet the winters were. I really regret that now. I’m sorry, Rain, please come back. We miss you so much. In general though, this is as good a life as anyone could hope for anywhere in the world, and we are privileged beyond measure to live it.
I love my life in Cape Town but it is difficult to wax lyrical about a city that treats its citizens so differently. I recognise that there are many people doing their very best to create a city that is more fair and inclusive and modern. I know that none of these problems are unique to Cape Town, and mirror a huge problem in South Africa as a whole. I realise that I’m probably part of the problem and I don’t really know what to do about that. I know that saying that probably reveals a lack of imagination or perhaps an excess of laziness. It is hard though, in a country and a city that is so very, very divided, to step out of your bubble: not only because it’s scary to leave your bubble, but also because other people don’t really want you in theirs. Through social media we’ve had the privilege of meeting people who are 100% free of that bubble life, and I really applaud the time and effort they put in to their social circle, and tell myself that one day, when I have just a few more spare hours each week, I’ll try to be more like them.
We are now off to another city for a few years. I like to think that maybe I know more about it than I did about Cape Town before I came here, but in reality I probably know far less. We are not going to stay there for long, and will move to another big South African city once we’re done, and I have never lived there before either, and life there will be a learning curve of its own.
I think, in the end, Cape Town taught me more about myself than it did about itself. It was a decade that was both wonderful and hard. So long, Cape Town, and thanks for the memories.