THE OTHER CAPE TOWN
“A number of leading figures in the Cape Province – both black and white -advocated a federal union to ensure preservation of the Cape franchise. But the Convention (1910) chose a unitary state, centrally administered. One consequence of this was that the traditional racial attitudes of the Afrikaner republics eventually prevailed nationwide, over the liberal outlook of the Cape Province. What Abraham Lincoln had predicted of America’s “house divided” in 1858 –“It will become all one thing, or all the other” – was borne out in South Africa’s case in 1948 when, fearing domination by the black majority, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party introduced the policy of “separate development” that was to become widely known as apartheid – the Afrikaans term for separateness.”
Distinguished University Professor
Western Michigan University
In: Introduction to Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton (1948 Edition)
My letters about Cape Town have highlighted its fascinating history, vitality, diversity, rapid growth, unique and special architecture, exuberance, diverse cultural mix, epicurean treats, and unmatched beauty, surely the most beautiful city in the world. But every coin has two sides. It is with mixed emotion that I present this month’s newsletter, indeed as I felt when researching this other world.
At the outset let me emphasize that I present precisely what I saw and heard and offer no opinion or editorialization. You are free to make of this what you will. I show how the majority of the population live, but space precluded describing services like health and education. These essentially parallel the quality of housing.
One cannot miss, after landing at Cape Town Airport and traveling on the Settlers Way freeway to the city, the miles of dense shacks on both sides of the road. Visitors are usually hypnotized by the view straight ahead as the dramatic mountains draw closer. Some certainly are intrigued by what they see, but pitifully few tourists ever get into these areas or speak with the people living in them. In truth, neither do most Cape Town residents themselves. Yet the majority of Cape Townians live in these settlements of Langa, Nyanga, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain and the rest. Some are middle class, but the bulk live in extreme poverty.
It was some years since I last went into any of these areas, so just a couple of weeks ago I engaged the services of a personal guide/bodyguard, and had him take me in. Abdul is a big man with a large personality and as soon as we met to plot the day’s activities, he told me all about himself. He is a proud Muslim whose family goes back generations living in District 6, close to downtown Cape Town, until the Apartheid government under their Group Areas Act forcibly removed the mostly colored population into new settlements on the sandy and windblown flats miles away from the center city. His family chose to rent closer to home in a suburb called Woodstock. To start our day, he insisted on taking me into town, first to what was called the Malay Quarter and now named Bo-Kaap, and then to District 6. A couple of pointers for my non-South African readers. Malay is considered an offensive apartheid term and disliked by the locals. They do proudly identify and call themselves Coloreds, although I know this would not go down well outside South Africa. Much of this letter results from that day, although not completely.
Our first stop was Bo-Kaap which is in the city center and is seen by all who pass on the adjacent road. Its origins go back to the 1760s when small houses were built as rentals for the slaves who had been brought in from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the rest of Africa, to work in the Cape. Originally painted white, after emancipation popular legend has it that the new homeowners painted them vivid colors to express their newfound freedom, and they continue to be painted annually since then. An Anglican church in the district was acquired by a Mosque because of the religion of the majority of homeowners. Their Bo-Kaap culture has survived for centuries, but that is rapidly coming to an end. The tourist fascination for the place and its convenient proximity to downtown has resulted in many being purchased for conversion into Airbnb’s, usually by foreign owners for outlandish prices. And so, Bo-Kaap is losing its distinctive traditional cultural flavor and becoming Bo-Kaap Disneyland as tourists gawk at tourists.
Next, we went to District 6, a name that goes down in infamy in the history of South Africa. I first became acquainted with this area after Moira and I arrived in Cape Town at the end of 1965 for me to complete my residency in OB/GYN. The first University of Cape Town obstetric teaching hospital that I was assigned to, the Peninsula Maternity Hospital, lay right in the heart of the district. I could relate dozens of stories of my time working there. Just weeks after my assignment, to be precise on 11 February 1966, the government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act. Forced removals began in 1968, including Abdul’s family. The Nationalist Government could not tolerate a mixed-race community and around 30,000 residents were forced out. The Apartheid Government stated they had a 10-year redevelopment plan and bulldozed everything except the Mosque and the Hospital into a scar on the mountain. Going nigh on 60 years later the area is still mired in controversy about ownership and development. Hats off to local Cape Townians who refused to build on what they considered desecrated land. This background may explain what Abdul described to me.
Abdul then took me into old Woodstock, a community about 3 miles from downtown, where his family had moved to. A large part of it is being gentrified and land values are escalating.
Let me now take you into the townships, miles away from all of this, to which the non-white populations were forcibly removed. I explored 3 places, Langa, Guguletu and Khayelitsha, each remarkably different, and hence my mixed emotions.
First was Langa, “opened in 1927, developed as a result of South Africa’s 1923 Urban Areas Act (more commonly known as the “pass laws”), which was designed to force Africans to move from their homes into segregated locations. Joe Slovo, which was established in 1990, is the largest informal settlement in Langa and one of the largest in the country. It is currently being threatened with forced removals to make way for the N2 Gateway Housing Project. Some parts of the Joe Slovo informal settlement have already been removed and transformed into the N2 Gateway Housing Project (2006), which can be seen when travelling along the N2 highway out of Cape Town.” (Source: Wikipedia).
Abdul introduced me to Sugar, who serves as a local guide, to lead me on a walking tour through a large expanse of Langa. She explained that there are several “levels” of homes in Langa. I specifically asked not to be taken on the usual ‘tourist route.’ Our slow and lengthy walk gave me ample opportunity to engage locals and homeowners in conversation.
One of the problems Sugar and Abdul explained to me was that over 90% of the informal stores are owned by foreign nationals, many being illegal immigrants, especially from Somalia, but also from Ethiopia, Malawi, and Nigeria. The Somalis especially have consortiums through which they do bulk buying and are able to offer lower prices than locals who try to compete. The result is resentment and xenophobia, often breaking out in violence.
I asked Sugar how children came out of the poorer dwellings dressed tidily in school uniforms and their parents well groomed for work, if they had it, and brightly ready to start the day. Sugar shrugged. In truth this is a question I have never been able to answer. The people are remarkable. I engaged many in conversation. They were all courteous and warm. My admiration for them is overwhelming. But for many, patience is running thin, and they are wanting better services and homes. Remember, this is the Western Cape under Democratic Alliance governance. The rest of the country under ANC governance is far worse off. Abdul told me that the ANC has been encouraging black Africans from elsewhere in the country to move to the Western Cape to swell the voters rolls towards the ANC. Several of the people I engaged in conversation were Xhosa from the Eastern Cape. I asked directly if they would vote ANC and the instantaneous response was “never!” But when I asked who they would vote for they just smiled. Sugar told me people feel helpless and do not trust any of the political parties.
Another question I asked was about personal security. Most did not want to engage in this conversation. Sugar and Abdul told me gangs are a problem, guns easily available and prevalent, and drug wars the most frequent cause for crime, violence, and deaths. This applies to all the townships.
Gugulethu, about 10 miles out of Cape Town center, was established along with Nyanga in the 1960s to house the overflow from Langa. It is populated mainly by Xhosa. Of the three places I am describing it is the most upscale and at this time apparently has virtually no shacks, and a much stronger infrastructure.
Which brings me to Khayelitsha, one of the largest and fastest growing townships in South Africa, about 98% inhabited by Xhosa, most from the Eastern Cape. Established by the Apartheid Government in 1983, by 1985 it had a population of about 30,000. Today no one has any idea what the population is, but estimates range from 1-3 million, with the latter most likely. Abdul took me to a vast section which he explained had not existed just 6 months ago. Extraordinary is that like an occasional spot on a vast landscape, a modern house can be observed. Abdul assumes these, built without any permission, are homes of local overlords. The place represents one of the most significant challenges to local government because almost all of it is made up shacks stretching for miles in all directions on both sides of the N2 highway beyond the airport towards Somerset West. This was the one area Abdul was nervous about venturing too far into.
I cannot over emphasize – real people live in those flimsy structures, real human beings with families, real hopes, real dreams, real aspirations, real needs, and their chances of achieving them are razor thin.
Finally, Cape Town center itself has a problem of expanding homeless. Shacks are to be seen almost all over the city. I had taken a number of photos, but the pictures resemble those of any major city in the world, and certainly do not reach the extent one can currently see in places like San Francisco or Los Angeles, so I will spare you the sad images, save for a couple, because I simply think it unethical to show people who are down in their luck.
This has been a long and difficult letter to research and to write, and for many of you to read, certainly not your usual travelogue. I am sure many gave up way back. But to appreciate the circumstances, the complexity, the challenges, and the spirit of some remarkable people in an amazing city, I felt this side needed to be shown.
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
William Blake (1757-1827) ‘Holy Thursday’
Cape Town, February 22, 2023
Wulf, Thanks for the letter. Very well written and documented. Very informative. This belongs in a National Geographic magazine. Jeff
You are too kind. All the best.
Hi Dr. Utian,
I read it all feeling anxious about what photos and words were coming. It is quite sad, but the same even in University Circle where there are fine high rise apartment complexes built, but nothing affordable for the locals. But this breaks my heart. I cannot imagine living like that, no water, no AC, no WIFI and on. It looks like a life a misery, one that needed to be shared and I thank you for doing that. A daily reminder of how blessed many of us are.
Be well, be safe!
Thanks Val. Appreciate your comments
Thanks Wulf. Well done but very sad. The level of human suffering is mind boggling and the rich complain about taxes and every minor inconvenience.
Thanks Beno. We should talk some time.
This is a remarkable account, both in its heartfelt nature and granular detail. Thank you for writing and sharing.
Appreciate your commens. All the best
Thanks Wulf , very interesting and some sadness at the same time . My best to Moira . Marty
And our best to you, Marty
As usual you captured our attention. In the past not only did you share photos of beauty that words could not describe but now you opened our eyes to sights that make most of us uncomfortable. It requires courage on your part, sensitivity, and compassion. I learned more from this letter than typical articles that come from South Africa.
I am most grateful to you for doing this.
Isaac, I always appreciate your insight.
Fantastic articulation of the reality of South Africa and not the game parks and magnificent beaches, restaurants and hotels that so many tourist to South Africa see and post on Facebook!
Beautifully and poignantly written describing the real world that many people live and survive in .
Thank you, Wulf.
Very enlightening. Thank you for providing this much needed understanding of the reality of life in Cape Town. Much appreciated.
Love to you and Moira,
Thank you Sally. Hope you are well. We both send love
Thanks for sharing this. Hard to take it all in!! When do you return to Pt. East?
Pleased to hear from you Jane. We return mid-May although Brett and Michelle will be in our apartment from March 11-23. We both send love to you and Bob.
Wulf, this letter provides us a glimpse of S Africa that many of us suspect; a huge difference in economic living standards; my concern is this disparity at some point will rise to violence again and again. There is sufficient natural and economic resources in S Africa to begin to extend support to those less fortunate.
Good to hear from you Jim. We do indeed live in challenging times. Warm regards, Wulf
Such a moving commentary, Wulf, and how appropriate to end it with that searing poem. Both SA and the US contain 2 very different worlds—those who have and those who have not. We were especially struck by your photo of the neat, though very meager home. Despite the grim conditions you show and describe so well, you’ve beautifully captured the hopes, kindness generosity and pride of the residents. Thank you for this important newsletter….our love to you and Moira …Jan and Bob
I have fond memories of PMH and going out to do deliveries in the “district “, circa 1959.
This was shared with me. It’s an excellent alternative view of South Africa, a place of great disparity between the haves and the have nots, as many others have remarked. I have enjoyed your insights, as a person deeply knowledgeable about the area over a long period of time. I do enjoy the beauty of the flora and scenery, which no one can deny is stunning. The spirit of the people is strong! But the disparity that persists whether under British, National Party, or ANC rule, with so many living without dignity, respect, opportunity…it can’t stand!
Thank you for your comments. It is indeed the tragedy of South Africa to have been so badly administered by all its governments. Unfortunately the current government is bringing the country to its knees with failed infrastructure and corruption.
A very touching, interesting, disturbing and most moving description of life in the real South Africa and as always, magnificent pictures which speak for themselves. A truly wonderful article – thank you.
Love to you and Moira,
Lucille & Philip
A very serious view of South Africa. I recall reading “Cry the Beloved Country ” long ago.
Surely things will explode soon.
Your expert writing and photography deserve a larger audience.
Write a book or at least a magazine article
Well written & accurate description. Your descriptions of Langa, Bo Kaap & district 6 match what Barbara & I saw on our recent tours of these areas.
For those who are interested, district 6 was the place where the first Jewish settlers lived. Until the group areas removals, Jew, Muslims & Christian’s lived in peace & harmony in this area.
Although very difficult to read, greatly appreciate your taking the personal physical and emotional risk to bring us an extraordinarily thoughtful and honest photo essay of this ‘other side’ of life in South Africa. I love reading your travel tales to escape a bit from my computer and gray, cold Boston days. This tale was not an escape, but an important reminder of the impact of poverty and racism on people you clearly respect and care about.
This is a good and accurate description of the situation in the townships. It mirrors is our experience on our recent tour of Langa, Bo Kaap & district 6.
For those of you who are interested, district 6 was where the first Jewish settlers lived. Until the group areas act, Jews, Muslims, and Christians served in peace and harmony.
What a great letter even with all its sadness! Some of the pictures make Soweto look like an upscale suburb. Last week I met a young man that had just moved his family to South Florida from Johannesburg seven weeks ago. In our conversation he remarked that in spite of the strong anti-Israel position of the government he experienced almost no antisemitism in his day to day activities in South Africa. While that wasn’t a total surprise it was still nice to hear.
Looking forward to your next letter and to seeing you back in Cleveland before long. All the best to you and Moira.
Thanks Bill, Hope you and Anita are well.The young South African is absolutely correct. Despite the mafia state ANC government policy on Israel and Ukraine (supports Russia), antisemitism is minimal and Jews here can walk safely out of shul on a Shabbat and not be concerned about being victimized. Look forward to seeing you back home, and maybe you can get me back on the golf course. Wulf
Another vivid piece of writing, describing the immensity of the poverty, and disparity with the opulence in other parts of the country, as you shown in other newsletters. I felt quite overwhelmed by the obvious challenges which the country faces, with a government quite failing in its obligations to the country. It’s very sad. We also saw how the community of Langa has established a memorial of “the struggle”, which show the long history of the bravery of those who tried to fight the pass laws and other restrictions. One of our guides told us how his family were evicted from district 6 and placed in Salt River. Others were not so fortunate ( relatively speaking), and were dumped in the Cape Flats, and so infamous Khayelitsha was developed. Our guide said kayelitsha as not safe to visit. I was amazed that despite the ardors of their existence, the people we had contact with, who work in the thriving tourist industry, were so warm and friendly. Thanks you for showing the underbelly of the country.