Guest Column

Cape Town: a tale of two cities

2016-12-28 08:01

It is uncomfortable to stay in Cape Town. As much as this city’s bright lights dazzle my imagination, and its awe-inspiring mountains caress my soul, a looming sense of heaviness is carried on the city’s shoulders.

Many have grown so accustomed to it that they’ve become oblivious to the reality. To others it has become part of their daily existence.

Growing up in the rural farming community of Ceres, I always dreamed of living in the Mother City. I imagine that to me Cape Town represents what New York represents to the world: a shining beacon of possibilities just waiting to unfold.

When I was in Grade 11, on a school tour, I photographed the city with my outdated Nokia phone and sms’ed my parents that this is my heart’s desire. Four years later, I struggled to find parking as my father and I battled to carry a stained white couch up a flight of stairs.

As much as there is no moment in which I feel freer than when flying on my bicycle across the promenade, people staring and the sea mist glaring with Hillsong blasting in my ears, the city keeps on holding hostage the weak. What is the cost of the freedom granted to me? How many lives have been trampled on to achieve this beauty we see?

At varsity there was a common understanding between the friends that I shared from Joburg that this city, the Mother City, was still stuck in a segregated past. They called it cosmetic integration with the real racist soul hiding underneath fake smiles and false pretences. Just go a little bit deeper, they said, and you’ll discover a new reality.

At first I disagreed with them, argued with them and told them not to compare corrupt regimes to Cape Town’s transparent government. I guess it was part of my heart’s desire and naive belief that somewhere in South Africa the rainbow project was being accomplished.

The truth is that in the streets of Cape Town roam untouchables. Councillors in Sea Point tell us how difficult it is to deal with their presence while improvement districts seek to educate us on how to “give responsibly” to those who sleep on streets. These people have been relegated to flyers on notice boards while no one asks them, these real human beings, what they actually need.

The untouchables aren’t the problem, for they are merely fruits of a society. They fall within a complex social system that dictates who can speak. A classist structure that tells us which areas of the city is demarcated to whom: a new segregation based on your income-level, beliefs and social well-being. It’s this ridiculousness of a structure where individuals aren’t able to adapt which forces them onto the outskirts.

Just last week I met a Malawian who works from 07:00 till 23:00 serving the rich to feed his family. On Wednesday I met a coloured auntie who spends half her budget on transport to go to work in Sea Point. In Woodstock and Salt River families are torn apart as gentrification starts taking effect. Thousands of these stories populate the city, yet we only manage to pity them, never more, never moving to help those in need.

How can Cape Town then correct past atrocities when its culture intrinsically divides? How can Cape Town truly be an inclusive city for all when it hides away the unsightly spots walking in its utopia? Planting another tree and renaming a street won’t fix things; it starts by changing who we are – fundamentally and radically transforming our hearts.

As I’ve said before, it’s uncomfortable to stay in this city. It’s uncomfortable that greeting your neighbour isn’t the norm and that one is forced to live in your own bubble instead. It’s uncomfortable to see injustice wreak havoc in the streets. But you know what, I rather want be uncomfortable and compelled to make a difference than live ignorantly at peace.

Because when eyes close to the reality beside it and hearts become accustomed to inequality, you know that hopelessness has been achieved.

* James de Villiers is part of News24's editorial team.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    cape town  |  racism
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