There's still crime in the city, but it's good to be free
Before dinner last night I built an appetite by climbing Table Mountain, which is both the symbol of Cape Town and its literal heart: the city encircles the mountain, which rises 1000 steep metres from the sea to an almost perfectly flat top. From the lower cable car station, it's theoretically a 2.5-hour hike: I'm pleased to report that I ascended in just under half that time. There's life in the ol' leg muscles yet, even though they were already battered from cycling 50 hilly, rainy K from Simon's Town to Cape Point and back, a few days ago.
The mountain claims several lives every year, and you're not really supposed to climb alone, but I took a straightforward route up, figuring that if Reinhold Messner could summit Everest solo without oxygen during monsoon season, I could conquer Table Mountain singlehanded. As I reached the tabletop, the clouds that often line it - the mountain's famous tablecloth - were just beginning to arrive, so I only got twenty minutes of the spectacular views.
Just as I attained the top of Platteklip Gorge, I met a South African woman who (like almost everyone else on the mountain) had come up by cable car rather than leg power. "Did you climb up from the bottom?" she asked. "I did," I said. After a moment she asked the inevitable second question:
"And you didn't get mugged?"
Crime, Afrikaans, the Cape Coloured and the townships
South Africa is a violent country. It's not near as bad as it once was, doctors from America no longer go to Soweto to learn how to treat gunshot wounds, but this is still a high-crime nation. Check out the comparative numbers for murder and rape in Toronto, New York, Baltimore, and the Western Cape (the SA province that includes Cape Town). Briefly, New York is thrice as murderous as Toronto, Baltimore six times as murderous as NYC, and the Western Cape half again more murderous yet. South Africa is supposed to be the rape capital of the world, and the statistics bear this out: the Western Cape has more than eight times as many rapes as New York City.
I'm sorry: I mean eight times as many reported rapes. It's an underreported crime everywhere, of course, but trust me, vastly moreso here, especially in the townships. And while it's a rare murder that goes entirely undiscovered and unreported in the USA, I expect it happens daily here. Illegal immigrants, township residents without ID books, unidentified bodies found in the Cape Flats sand dunes - no one knows who they were, or what happened to them.
A friend asked me what the feel of the townships was like, compared to American ghettos. I went on a two-man tour through several of them today, courtesy of another friend, and I now feel semi-qualified to answer. But first I want to talk a bit about Afrikaans and the Cape Coloured, which in turn means I have to start with a bit of oversimplified history. Stop me if I screw it all up.
The Dutch began to seriously settle Cape Town in 1682. It was first intended as only a refuelling station, a place for ships to stock up on fresh produce and water between Holland and the lucrative spice islands of the East Indies. (The reason there's fresh water year-round, incidentally, is Table Mountain: wet air comes from the sea, rises, and forms the "tablecloth", which condenses and runs down the mountainside.) So they imported serfs from Malaysia to work the company gardens: the Cape Malays. Meanwhile, Dutch sailors, as sailors everywhere are wont to do, got busy impregnating the local Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and Malaysians. The resulting 'coloured' generations, neither black nor white, developed a language which was an odd melange of Dutch sprinkled with Malaysian words: and Afrikaans was born.
Afrikaans wound up being highly associated with the white apartheid government - it was the government's attempt to turn it into the national language of school instruction that sparked the countrywide riots in 1976, one of the hinge points in South African history - but it was in fact the coloured community that created it. In the early 1800s, when the British took over the Cape by force (for the second time) and freed the slaves, thousands of Boer settlers, appalled, set out on a fairly incredible migration across the country to settle in a land where they could live free and racist. The famous Voortrek. Along with their wagons, they took a dialect of Afrikaans stripped of as many "coloured" words as possible: but even today, there are more nonwhites than whites who speak Afrikaans at home in the Western Cape. (The coloureds don't really exist in the rest of South Africa.) (Yes, it makes me a little uncomfortable to speak of people purely in terms of racial groupings, but race==ethnicity==culture remains reality here, for the most part.)
The apartheid government classified people as white, Indian, coloured, or black, with decreasing levels of privileges and rights. (Japanese were 'honorary white' because they were rich, black albinos confused the regime no end, and hundreds of people changed classification every year because they passed or failed the "pencil test" or equally bizarre criteria). Townships, in particular, were divided into black and coloured areas. To this day, there's a great deal of tension between the black and coloured communities; and to this day, the coloured community, having gone from a white-run country to a black-run country, remain outsiders. This may be why gangs influence and dominate coloured townships far more than the black ones. And this may explain why by far the scariest and most intimidating (though not most appalling) township we went to today was a coloured township called Mannenberg.
The townships are all different from one another, but if I had to generalize, I'd say they feel like a postapocalyptic American suburb. Imagine a very poor stretch of suburban sprawl. Now imagine it but no one has a car. The townships are incredibly spread-out, in a dizzying and senseless way; a long chain of settlements, connected by (excellent) roads. Everything is low-rise, almost all just one storey and never more than three, and goes on for kilometres. It can easily take an hour to walk from within a township to its taxi park, and another to get into Cape Town.
You get the following types of accomodation/street life in a South African township. With the exception of Mannenberg, what a township is like is basically a question of in what combination these elements are found:
Squatter camps. Wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs thrown up anywhere that there's space. Pretty typical in city outskirts anywhere in Africa. The wood is worn and warped; the iron (or tin) roof is rusting, patched with plastic, weighed down against the win with big rocks and old tires. A makeshift clothesline hangs outside. A lot of them are semi-prefab - other people build and stock premade plank walls, doors, and sheets of tin, and when you come into a township from Mpumalunga or the Congo or wherever, you buy all these parts and quickly assemble your single-room shack. Here, unlike anywhere else in Africa, even squatters demarcate their tiny properties with rusting chainlink and barbed-wire fences. Squatter camps are divided by winding, broken roads - paths, actually, gouged and pitted and up-and-down. Electrical cables dangle by the dozen from every street lamp, illegally tapping electricity. (You wouldn't get street lamps in Nairobi.) No running water. Some government-provided Porta-Potties. Weeds and sand (the Cape Flats are sand dunes). Very lively, people all around, going to and from ... somewhere. Awful and squalid, of course, but not as depressing as you might think, because they're lively, and maybe because of their temporary feel.
Hostels. Built by the apartheid government to house male laborers. Long single-story or three-story buildings with dozens if not hundreds of tiny cubicle rooms. Awful places that are home, at least in Soweto, to much of the worst township violence. Many have been razed.
Planned settlements. Rows and rows and rows of small houses, with electricity and maybe running water, along roads with scabbed edges. By "small", think of the smallest bedroom you've ever lived in, and then imagine a family of six living there. (You get more space in coloured areas, or in more recent developments.) Informal businesses beside the road; barefoot children playing soccer on uneven ground littered with debris and broken glass; corrals crowded with sheep; minibus taxis and the occasional private car roving up and down the street; women and men carrying and carting goods of all description to and fro; clothes set out to dry, flapping in the sandy wind. Hustling, bustling, busy, colourful life.
In Khayelitsha, the largest township, these settlements also have huge searchlight streetlamps one hundred feet tall, built by the apartheid military to turn day into night when conducting operations in the township. To this day there's a military base right next door.
Businesses. These in turn can be subdivided. A blanket on the ground, with shoes or produce laid out to sell. One notch up: a braii grilling meat (word of the day: a severed sheep's head is called a "smiley", and is barbequed and eaten in toto) or an open-sided lean-to shack, selling goods, providing haircuts, etc., advertised by an uneven hand-painted sign. Another notch: a shipping container in which goods, phone access, engine oil, etc, are sold. Maybe a bigger, stencil-painted sign. Another: a house that's been turned into a shop, with a big sign decorated with the Coca-Cola logo. (Doesn't mean they sell it: across Africa, Coke gives businesses signs in exchange for the ad space.) Another: a real, recognizable shop, with a counter, and shelves, maybe a chip fryer, etc. Another: a petrol station (owned by a taxi association). Another: a store in a shopping centre. There are a few of those, and their number is growing, although they're weirdly spread out and mostly impossible to get to on foot (see my "postapocalyptic suburb" comment below.).
Most businesses are informal, crowded into space not intended for them. This is just as true in government-planned townships as in squatter camps. ANC housing officials, many of whom are unreconstructed communists, apparently believe that Commerce Is Wrong and try not to encourage it. Instead they build massive endless housing projects unleavened by any market spaces, shopping districts, parks, public squares, etc. Even the soccer fields are improvised. Will this end in disaster and a generation of disaffected, ghettoized, angry youth with political freedom but no economic hope? Ya think?
Community buildings. The government does build multipurpose "community centers" that as far as I can tell go basically unused except for community meetings. Police stations, walled and guarded like wartime military bases. Primary schools (no high schools) which range from big collections of buildings behind barbed wire to tiny ones the size of portables. Both kinds shelter behind barbed wire. Taxi parks. (As I've mentioned before, there's a lot of money in taxis, and the taxi industry is incredibly corrupt and high-crime - although, oddly, taxi associations are apparently independent of the coloured crime gangs.) Bizarrely designed, high-production-values, useless boondoggles (often naively-tourist-oriented - let's build a walkway atop the highest sand dune in Khayelitsha township, and a wacky-architecture restaurant/pottery center below! Surely if we build it, tourists will flood here by the thousand!) used only to swell political egos and fatten the wallets of architects and consultants.
Wasteland. The townships stretch on for miles, and miles, and miles, and many those miles are empty except for weeds. Space is not at a premium in the Cape Flats, there's plenty of shitty land. So many townships abut empty, uneven fields of weedy sand that go on forever, decorated by all imaginable kinds of trash and maybe a few lonely shacks. You wouldn't want to be in most townships come night: you really wouldn't want to be in a wasteland near a township at night. That's where the dead bodies turn up.
Those are the basic components from which townships are formed. But the feel of each is totally different. Mannenberg is almost all permanent housing. And it felt like bombed-out Mostar in Bosnia. Battered, bullet-scarred, little more than a not-yet-abandoned ruin. Most townships are hives of activity: in Mannenberg, gangs of people stood and sat around on the street, doing nothing but stare, sullen and dead-eyed. My street-smarts alarm pinged off the meter. There's a brand-new shopping centre right across the road. It's built and secured like a fucking fortress.
The worst place, though, was neither Mannenberg nor the squatter camps, but Delft, a planned settlement that is nothing - nothing - but rows of little houses surrounded by emptiness. It didn't feel postapocalyptic: it felt like the apocalypse. A barren, horrific wasteland, a pit of bare subsistence survival, poverty with no life, escape, no hope. Despair made urban flesh. Really. My skin crawled.
Nyanga, by contrast, was a bustling little district which could almost have been a pleasant little city in Rwanda or Uganda. And the vast Khayelitsha settlement is a city in and of itself; and like Soweto, it's getting so close to being just a big poor suburb that it's actually rather dull. That's a good sign. Dull, trust me on this one, when you're talking about economic development of poor South Africans, dull is very good.