Cape Town: Beautiful Ugly

In 2008, while living and studying in Cape Town, I heard, over and over, two observations about the city: it was a place of singular beauty, perhaps even the world’s most captivating city. Visitor and local alike seemed incapable of seeing other landscapes than the physical one, and some claimed that the city’s insularity was a result of the mystical, domineering influence of Table Mountain. The second perception, loosely related to the first, was that Cape Town was not an African city or, at least, not a “real African city.”

I too once held these opinions, and had relocated to South Africa from Kenya drawn by the striking terrain, the possibility of anonymity, of going about on foot, and the allure of a Mediterranean sort of life. And yet, in one respect, Cape Town had seemed, even at the outset, an African, even a pan-African city; while walking along Long Street, the city center’s main artery, I was liable to hear spoken Wolof, kiSwahili, Somali, Xhosa.

The city’s beauty quickly became blurry because of the many proofs that Apartheid itself, rather than its legacy, remained in place. In restaurants and cafes, a three-tiered hierarchy endured: proprietors were white, the wait staff colored and the charwomen and busboys black. Over three and a half years, I vacillated between rejection of the words not an African city, and a sneaky sense that this summation was less glib than it sounded. And as I read Beautiful Ugly, South African academic Sarah Nuttall’s critique of the West’s fraught relationship to African art, I was struck by this title as a fitting description for Cape Town itself, a shorthand for its intricate, unsettling cultural aesthetics.

It wasn’t long before I gave up insisting that Cape Town was an African city and instead argued that it was a Creole one, like Santa Domingo, Basse Terre or Rio de Janeiro. Later, I revised this opinion also; sixty percent of its population may be coloured, but Cape Town’s past and its predilections render neat formulations like Creole city and European city equally hollow.

In Latin America and in the Antilles, the Creole was a social intermediary, an embodied middle ground and the object of both “European” and “African” fantasy and aspiration. Whereas Apartheid effectively decreolized South Africa’s colored community, and it became just one among many tribes, useful primarily as a social and geographic buffer between blacks and whites. In Cape Town time and identity politics have further diminished the Creole’s historic raison d’être, and he has been forcibly recast in the role of dacoit, of brute. As the Cape Town poet Rustum Kozain has said: to a large segment of the city, I am a thief; to another segment, I am a racist.

And Kozain’s eloquent claim does not even reckon with the status of blacks in the Western Cape. For a makwerekwere, a foreign black, Cape Town offers no natural constituency. I, on entering a restaurant, became invisible unless in the company of a white person. If, however, my companion happened to be white and female, I became not only visible, but a spectacle. The worst thus, of all worlds: utter oblivion or the stares of voyeurs.


“Reconciliation,” if it even occurred in Cape Town, has failed. For the present, what prevails, in a sort of uneasy social consensus, is a privileging of natural beauty over man-made sorts. Capetonians have consented to revere the mountain but will long disagree on whether straight hair is superior to kinky, or if kwaito trumps techno.

And even as a Eurocentric aesthetic continues to predominate, a frantic, rearguard mood has become apparent among the city’s whites. With every passing summer, Cape Town’s non-whites become more and more visible, assertive and numerous. It’s not difficult to envision the city as it appears through feverish eyes: a citadel under siege, a dwindling outpost of civilization. And there’s no doubt where the ultimate stand in defense of the old life will—must—be made: the slopes of Table Mountain. As one local told a newspaper reporter, “People have come to accept that you can be mugged in town or on the road but the mountain is somehow seen as sacrosanct. For me as a Buddhist it’s my temple, my soul food.”

* Olufemi Terry has written most recently about Afrobeats artists P Square, Cape Verde and Stuttgart. His essays and fiction have been published in Chimurenga, Gutter and Cityscapes. He lives in Germany. Photographer Marco Lachi has shown his work at MAXXI, the Contemporary Art Museum in Rome and Caja Madrid in Barcelona. He’s a participant in the “Documentary Platform” project, a visual archive of documentary photography focused on the Italian landscape. He lives in Italy. Terry and Lachi are working on the project “How does it feel…” (to be a book soon).

Comments

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olufemi terry

Olufemi Terry is a Sierra Leone-born writer. He won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing for his second short story "Stickfighting Days," which was originally published in Chimurenga.

11 Comments
  1. Beautifully written piece! I love the way your words capture the essence pf Cape Town and your title is equally beautiful and speaks volumes!! keep the posts coming.. I’m now following!! :)

  2. Accurate observations in this piece. Can I add the observations of a wiser blogger than I?
    “Beautiful” Cape Town owes it all to its natural setting. The actual city itself, the buildings, the infrastructure and amenities are all average at best and for the majority hopelessly inadequate to non-existent. If there is a good life to be lived in this city it is overwhelmingly due to the gifts of nature and owes practically nothing to civic planning, wise investment or vision. This is reflected in property prices in the City Bowl and Atlantic Seaboard which have remained steady even as most other parts have seen their value drop in real terms. The reasons for this are simple: a) These are the nicest, most beautiful areas in terms of scenery and b) barring the kind of forced, non-market based integration we are unlikely to see under a DA premiership, you are geographically guaranteed never, ever to have to live next a poor person.
    “Beautiful” CT is more likely to become an “International City” than an African one, a Green Zone for our burgeoning transnational elites that have more in common with their fellow jet setting movers and shakers than the surplus labour in whatever country their ancestors happened to hail from (think Shanghai circa 1930s). You already have to be doing pretty allright to live in those areas and getting more so thanks to recent record rent increases. Euros and Dollars help and there are more people with those arriving every day (Have a listen at the accents at the Gardens branch of Woolworths) . It really is perfect for that if look at a map and realise how easy the “Beautiful” mountains make it to physically seal the city off from the “ugly” parts. A few km of those Israeli style security barriers and CT Bowl and Atlantic could easily be made into Africa’s largest gated community, free of ugliness and protected from poor Africans.

  3. I disagree with some of the observations made about Cape Town. If you go to many restaurants in the Cape Town, from the waterfront to Camps Bay, many of the waiting staff +are+ black and Table Mountain and Lion’s Head +are+ seen as mugging hotspots.
    I also don’t really get the comment on reconciliation and agreement on hair and music, versus the mountain. I’m the first to agree that it’s a lame mountain. It’s small and flat – nuff said. But I’m not aware of any raging debates on what sort of music is better, techno vs kwaito etc. Basically, I think that you have a very strange view of Capetonians and I wonder where you got them…

    Should we perhaps start acknowledging the differences between a place that is racist and a place where a form of Apartheid exists? I think Cape Town still has some Apartheid left in it. More services for the over serviced areas, even in the form of after hours BRT services to Table View etc, verses very little for the townships. Breaking up peaceful protests with riot police and “hippos”. But I don’t count not being respected in an middle to upper class restaurant as evidence of Apartheid.

    My reasoning is that equal development, or at least services – police, sanitation, transport, entertainment infrastructure – across the board would make Cape Town less “apartheidish”, whereas even if middle class blacks were treated with equal hospitality Cape Town will still be seen as “apartheidish”.

    In “Why race matters”, Michael MacDonald talks about the problems of identifying small parts of a group with the entire group, and in turn identifying the concerns of that small part as the concerns of the entire group. The result then is that what is good for that small part becomes good for the group. If we look at the new black middle class as representing the entire black population, the majority of which are very poor, and the concerns of the black middle class as the concerns of the entire black population, then when we have solved the hospitality issue we have solved the problem of Cape Town’s Apartheid.

    Basically, I take issue with equating middle class concerns with the evils of Apartheid.

  4. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that table mountain has been the site of countless muggings in recent years.

  5. You seem like an incredibly insecure and isolated writer, looking out the window at Table Mountain and making some seriously inaccurate judgements about this city and its people.. Far from a citadel under seige I think your feverish eyes have missed all the hard work the black, white, coloured, green, blue and purple people of Cape Town are putting in to make it an outpost the rest of Africa, the world and its dwindling civilization can look to as an example of a truly cosmopolitan African city, as well as an International city.(note International, not European.) Where, despite their race, EVERYONE can enjoy its natural beauty. I am greatly offended by the implication that white Capetonians view their home as “a citadel under siege”. Even more offensive is the assumption that there will be some last stand to defend the old life (by implication Apartheid) and that this ludicrous drama “must” unfold at the slopes of Table Mountain.
    With such a shallow mindset I doubt you have ever actively tried to interact with Capetonians meaningfully, and as such this piece, in my eyes, is meaningless drivel.

    1. On the contrary, Sebastian, this is another eye-opening piece of note. And rather than being offensive, it serves to educate (and beyond the scope of our limited, self-interests as South Africans) through the experience and observations of one who ‘sees’ the dynamics playing out through different eyes.
      Observations of those who’ve lived in South Africa, but are not South African-born, are always valid in that there’s a more objective and thus accurate perception, as a result of the distance and being an ‘outsider’. And subsequently a clearer understanding of undercurrents.
      As a white, middle-aged, Cape Town born and bred woman, I observe very similarly and can undoubtedly say this city’s ‘citadel under siege’ mentality is alive and well. It is merely a question of where and how you are prepared to view such things; how personally threatening you find them or not.

  6. From the article: “She said concerns about crime in the area had led to the plan to use numberplate recognition cameras.
    “We’ve noticed a displacement of crime into our area. As soon as a CID (central improvement district) gets formed, it displaces crime into the leafy suburbs.”

    Today number plates. Iris scans next.

  7. I read this as the portrayal of a narrow minded individual’s personal experiences which was almost certainly swayed by personality….. I also tend to sneer at foreigners depicting some inherent familiarity with apartheid!

    Olufemi should have a look the post http://africasacountry.com/2012/04/30/the-geo-branding-war/ “Geo-branding is a serious thing. It is particularly serious when people from other geographic areas decide to brand your geographical area and the people in it, the way they see fit and the way that fits their purposes”

  8. The part about colored people acting as a buffer between black and white people is interesting.

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