If Johannesburg is L.A. and East London is Detroit, Cape Town is San Francisco: naturally beautiful, diverse, and colourful.
Craig’s friend Mike lives in the Cape Town Central Business District (CBD) and has generously offered to show me around for the weekend; Craig will join us on Sunday. Mike begins his tour on the way home from the airport. “This is called Cape Flats, because, well, it’s flat.” He gestures to a plain cascading out from under the skirt of Table Mountain. For 15 years I lived in B.C. – I know mountains (mossy rainforest mountains laced with ropey roots; great soft giant hills like slumbering elephants in the desert; alpine mountains crashing together in hectic ranges), but Table Mountain is something else. Table Mountain juts like Dick Tracy’s jaw, solo and masculine. A company of pines stand at attention on the base, shadow off a comic artist’s pencil. Deep canyons slash the sides, fingersful of clay dug out and pushed into the sea, and then the top, capped suddenly. A ledge, a lookout, a tabletop. I want to go up there.
Mike is pointing out the window to a barren stretch flanked by the bustle of industry and commerce. “To your right is District 6. It used to be a mixed area and when the Group Areas Act came into effect they tore everything down. It’s prime real estate, but no developer has touched it since. Nobody wants it – the ground is toxic with human blood.”
The next day, Mike takes me to lunch at a friend’s. On the drive over he tells me a bit of our host’s story: her husband was shot to death during a break-in and robbery a few years ago. One of the best travel tips I ever received was to read fiction of a place while in a place, and so I have been engrossed in Lewis DeSoto’s A Blade of Grass. It’s a serious read (and one I can recommend), but there is something old fashioned about it. Now that I have been here for awhile, stories about violence against whites seem antiquated, paranoid even. Listening to Mike speak, I realize I still don’t know anything about this country.
We arrive and I immediately fall into a conversation with Mike’s friend, Laurie. Laurie is a priest who has helped set up and administer a safe house for gays and lesbians in the townships. As we sip wine and our host prepares a three course meal of salad, vegetables, and coq au vin, we discuss the relationship of homosexuality and the church, gender politics and Caster Semenya, and the repulsive and savage practice of “corrective” rape. By the time we’ve set the table Laurie and I have made a plan for him to drive me to Gugulethu to see the facility and meet the staff.
The meal is excellent and the conversation lively, engaging, varied and passionate. And then one of the guests begins to speak about the hardships he faces as a white man in this country. It is an argument against what we in Canada know as “affirmative action”, and there is a collective contraction: shoulders tense, breath is held. This sensation of tightwire suspense is becoming familiar to me. I am beginning to see that it coats everything; it takes only the hint of a sympathetic ear to puncture the protective membrane and let it all come spilling out. Voices are raised; cheeks flush. We leave hurriedly, our feelings gushing forth in flustered exhalations unable to be held one moment beyond the latching of the front gate.
Africa is a demanding place. The vast African sky, the endlessness of the horizon, the playfulness and diversity of the wildlife… I can’t just look; I work to see, to understand. I chew on it. Africa is biltong for my brain, and the difficult things are as dizzying as the divine. It’s my fourth week here and if anything I feel even more bewildered by the politics of race and class that leave their imprint with such certitude on this country.
As a traveller here I am constantly buffeted between conflicting impulses. Dare I judge a South African who says things to me that are racist? Or do I do as the Romans, when in Rome?
The best answer that I have come up with is to listen rather than speak. I am here to learn and I can’t do that with my mouth open. I find this path enormously challenging. In South Africa, the topic of race (and by extension, class) arises in nearly every conversation. I am often offended, saddened, frustrated, appalled – and ultimately, I am exhausted. For the good and the bad, this mother country can be a mother of a country.