Sunday, 8 December 2013

An accidental witness in South Africa

There are a handful of moments in life which are always introduced by a discussion about where you were when they happened. Where were you when you heard about 9/11 and watched those two planes crash over and over into the World Trade Center? Where were you when you heard that Princess Diana had died? Where were you when your country declared itself at war? This week another such event surely happened, as one extraordinary man died, and a world united in sadness.  Where were you when you heard that Nelson Mandela had died?

I was (and still am) here, in South Africa, the country Mandela fought so hard to change. I am surrounded by those to whom he meant the most, and undoubtedly those who are feeling his loss most keenly. Asleep as Jacob Zuma announced Mandela's death to the awaiting news cameras, I awoke early yesterday to anguished sobbing coming from the hotel room next door; the kind of moaning, animal keening of public displays of grief, not the quiet weeping of personal trauma.  As I waited for the elevator a little while later, a South African with tears in his eyes shook his head, and simply said "This is a very sad day for South Africa. A very sad day."  By 9am across the city every flag was fluttering at half-mast. The city centre of Cape Town was peaceful, with people going about their daily lives as usual, but without making any unnecessary noise. A colleague reported driving past a group of road-repairers who were singing struggle songs as they worked. Our meetings for the day collapsed somewhat, as a cancellation was followed by a session entirely distracted by all that was going on. Later, back in the office, staff members gathered and wept before a presentation on Mandela, as Johnny Clegg played in the background. 

I feel like a fraud, a hapless spectator who happened to find herself in an opportune spot to witness history, through no design or right to be there. I am an accidental observer of this extraordinary time. As South Africans around the world pine for home, I wish I could swap places with someone who should be here to witness this instead of me; a someone in particular, who right now is back in London, missing his country very much.  As an outsider, an alien, I cannot presume to imagine the effect of a loss of someone who provided such strong moral guidance for such a mixed-up, angry and confused country. He must have provided immense comfort and strength, and hope when all hope seemed impossible. And hope is something of which this country (hell, this world) seems always in need. 

It has been an emotional week. Coming into any new city, and working to define its identity and ways of life in order to understand how it works (or doesn't, for that matter) is an immense challenge. To encounter a city so fragmented and schizophrenic as Cape Town, in a country as complicated as South Africa, and to begin to patch conversations and sights together into a comprehensive urban picture is one of the hardest tasks I have faced in my work. I thought I struggled to make sense of New Orleans, but Cape Town is something else. 
To the average visitor, the city of Cape Town could be almost anywhere. The very African-ness of the city, and its brutal, complex history, is neatly concealed behind a fa├žade of sleek, air-conditioned shopping malls and fancy hotels, and charming coffee shops and sunny vistas. And it's impressive, it really is. The city has ambitious plans for sustainable energy projects and integrated transport systems of which many a city in Western Europe or the USA would be proud. But as one interesting and intelligent person I interviewed last week described it, it's as if the city has a veneer, all shiny and beautiful, but underneath the wood is rotten.

The media, print and online, is full of Mandela quotes right now; from the inspirational to those that give you a glimpse of the man behind the name. But one, much darker than many in circulation right now, has stuck with me. "When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw." And this is a side of life in Cape Town I have glimpsed this week; here, Mandela's prophecy has been fulfilled, and there are real outlaws fighting for the lives they feel they are owed. Inside a skills centre for women, in a neighbourhood in Mitchells Plain, I asked a group of locals to tell me about their homes and what it was like to live there. "It is very, very bad." came back the immediate response. With a piece of pink string securing the door, and a car waiting to whisk us back to the safety of our shiny office on the Waterfront in town, these South African women described a daily life of fear, death, unspeakable crime and desperation that could have been lifted out of the bleakest of dystopian film plots. Children as young as four or five years old are vanishing, others are being shot, caught in the cross-fire of gang violence and the struggle for territory to peddle drugs. Grandmothers are supplementing their meagre pensions by earning a few rand a day stashing guns and crystal meth for their wayward children. Babies are being physically abused and used as drug mules, public spaces are feared and avoided, and future opportunities and options are simply evaporating.  

Yet here are these women, telling me their stories, seeing it all for themselves, and finding the strength to get up every morning and face it. They do their jobs, care for their own families, and then they work and volunteer for the benefit of their communities; the communities who repay them by killing themselves. They counsel widows, and arrange funerals. They forensically secure scenes of shootings and domestic abuse. In the middle of the night they answer the banging on their doors and go and save a life or deliver a baby. They escort victims to court and help them divorce their attackers. They support one another to continue making a difference. And they are more inspiring and impressive than any multi-billion rand property development or brand new bus service in the city. 
A wise and wonderful woman, the founder of the London charity, Kids Company, Camilla Batmanghelidjh, once said, if you knew everyone's story, you would love them. So it is for me with cities. If you take the time to truly examine a place, to talk to everyone, to look beyond the things a city wants you to see, you can start to understand why it is the way it is. It is not always a heart-warming, joyous process. Sometimes it is painful, uncomfortable, awkward, depressing, simply heart-breaking. But nowhere and no one is perfect, not even London or Cape Town or Paris or New Orleans. As he himself recognised, not even Mandela. But where there is hope and hard work there is something wonderful. May this country go peacefully with its lost father.    

* Given that I experienced much of the above whilst undertaking fieldwork research for my full-time job, I should clarify that the thoughts above are mine alone, and do not represent any views held by my employers, our partners or clients.


  1. What an emotional moment! I think that everybody knew that this day would happen, but we hadn't really prepared ourselves, right? Just like you, I hope that South Africa will go peacefully without Madiba, and that they will use its great legacy to make things better.

    1. It's true, so many people were saying that him having been so ill for so long had given the country a chance to deal with losing him before it actually happened. Just hoping that this moment can be a force for positive change rather than a trigger for more frustration and anger.

  2. Dark indeed as you say, but hope can be such a powerful thing. An interesting time to be in South Africa for sure. What a privilege to have some insight in to the mood there. We are constantly fed the idea of beauty as perfection - well that isn't real and I love your eagerness to scratch underneath the surface of the places you go, what a wonderful traveller you are! X P.s. Paris awaits you with all her imperfections :) Hopefully the wine and macarons will make up for all the dog poop on the streets!

    1. I met so many British people who had moved out to Cape Town for work but who couldn't quite handle this facade of perfection and this ignorance about the realities of life for so many of the city's inhabitants - many of them are choosing to return back to the UK, where it may be colder and greyer but life seems a lot more real. Cannot wait for Paris, beautiful, grubby, lively, grumpy place that she is! SOOO looking forward to our long overdue catch up! x


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