I Heart Cape Town
This piece was commissioned for and published, slightly shortened, in the 2015/6Collector’s Edition of the Big Issue, a magazine that features good journalism (not to be sniffed at these days) and provides homeless and vulnerable vendors with employment. They’re currently looking for regular donors to keep their projects (education, training, housing, health and creche services, and more) going — please help if you can.
Well, this is an awkward topic. Delightful, but awkward. Everyone who hearts Cape Town is also embarrassed by it, unless they’re too medicated or dof to take on board that it’s a racist city with a slave past, and that these elements of its history are embossed on its lines and curves everywhere we look. Some of its most beautiful places hold reminders of a truly vile history. Kirstenbosch has the remnants of the wild almond hedge Van Riebeeck built first to displace, then to repel the local Bushmen; the CBD is bordered by the Castle (a military installation with scary dungeons) at one end and the Slave Lodge (the worst kind of brothel – in which women were available for rape) at the other.
And if that isn’t downer enough, Cape Town has done terrible things not just to humans: what are now halogen-lit streets once teemed with hippos and leopards and proteas and Afromontane forest. I’m old enough to remember when the Cape Flats were a vast marsh bursting with birds and arums, haunted by wild ponies, rather than a massive urban sprawl that’s chronically damp and TB-producing all winter long, and lashed by sand and wind throughout the churning summer.
But I do love Cape Town. Even though, as a friend newly arrived from Joburg said, “What’s with all the white people? It’s freaky.” It has places and moments of such contradictory connection, my emotions are constantly tangled. I drive from town home to Noordhoek via Chapman’s Peak, with the windows down and fynbos warmth blowing around my face, and that moment when I round a corner and see the lighthouse beam at Kommetjie feels like a lover’s arm hooked around my waist. And then I remember that the pass was built by prisoners-of-war.
Thinking about why I love Cape Town, I juggled the topic. What is the heart of Cape Town? Does it have one? Perhaps its real heart is an absence: a ghost we pass every time we head into the city from the south. I’m talking about District Six, a gnarled grassland of scar tissue, its empty roads offering escape from late afternoon traffic jams. We can go to the museum and try to rebuild it in our heads. But pieces of a heart in a room aren’t enough to create that hubbub of voices and dogs barking and children running to the shops that were once characteristic of communities now muted behind walls.
There are other heart-spaces, too. One of them is a small patch of green on the False Bay side of the Rhodes Memorial Parking lot. And right away, there’s that clash: a bloody great granite Herbert Baker monument to Cecil John Rhodes, the imperialist whose statue at the focal point of UCT campus became an abscess that finally burst, prompting the first concerted student protest since I was drifting around campus nearly thirty years ago. I’ve never liked the scrofulous, damp monument, but I’ve always been fond of the dreaming lions that flank the stairs. I sat astride them as a student, admiring the flaring sculpture of horse and man by Preraphaelite artist George Watts. I wrote a thesis on a poet who knew Watts, and I never looked at the flanks of that bronze horse without thinking “the same hands that made this shook her hands, took a teacup from them, perhaps borrowed a pen.” See? Fishnets of stories – affection, horror, private meaning – tugging in different directions.
But alongside the monument and the restaurant that sprawls behind it is a little oasis that’s a favourite spot for wedding photographs on Sundays. It’s free, there’s plenty of parking, and it’s undeniably beautiful. A few steps up and along the paths, and you can see both sides of the peninsula, two oceans with a wall of clouded rock and sunbirds separating them.
And so the wedding parties spill out of polished cars. They take turns, waiting patiently to memorialise the occasion. You can separate them out not only by the colour scheme of the bridesmaids’ dresses, but by religious affiliation.
In the first group, the mother of the bride is wearing a heavily embroidered shalwar kameez and shawl. The bride’s dress is elaborate and covers her from chin to wrist to toes. From the path above, the white caps on the heads of the men look like paper boats.
The next party, joking and posing for each other’s cellphone cameras as they wait, are carrying bibles. The men are in suits, the older women wear corsages, and the bride is a creamy pudding snatching a quick cigarette.
And the cars just pulling in, festooned with white ribbons, have rosaries swinging from the rear-view mirrors. The aunts are wearing lace mantillas, and there are a dozen flowergirls and boys, and released, they run squeaking up the face of the mountain, too young to be daunted by the slope.
In March 2015, I paid a price for my own addiction to living on the slopes of a mountain around whose edges we have crammed a city. My home was threatened by fire. I learned what it was to have the things I valued most on standby for evacuation: my cats and their vaccination certificates, paintings by my parents, books signed by Albertina Sisulu and André Brink. This as Syrians and Libyans fled drought, bombs and tyranny enabled or advanced by human negligence and indifference. The reminder of how quickly and cruelly one can become a refugee, lose home and hearth, made me passionate with gratitude to those whose heroic efforts enabled us to stay. As a thank-you, a friend and I ran a workshop for volunteer firefighters. They told us: “I do this job because I love plants … animals … nature … birds … working outdoors … climbing mountains”.
And that is another kind of heart beating in this city described by the poet Stephen Watson as “more full of sky than streets”. Cape Town is that rare thing: a hot urban mess that has not yet smothered the wild. For better or worse, we cannot escape the force of the mountains and the sea dominating our horizons. And that’s probably why it is the only home I have ever known. I heart Cape Town because it’s home.
Photo credit: The beautiful photograph, taken by Jose Chavarria, comes from an album named “Lebo and Abel’s wedding” on the website of JCH Photography. No copyright infringement or intrusion is intended.