South Africa amongst the most beautiful countries I have visited so far, with its rich landscapes of both mountains and beaches, fresh scents of proteas and silvertrees, and temperamental climate allowing visitors to experience all four seasons in the space of a few hours.
However, Cape Town has one of the saddest societal realities I faced throughout my travels. Having studied Apartheid and how it ended I hoped to witness a society which embraced humanity’s myriad of cultures and races. Instead, I saw a city which was divided into separate zones and regions.
Even though different people lived in the same place, you could pick up a thin layer of racism in the air. It wasn’t that the people were unkind or unwelcoming, quite the opposite in fact, but there was a pinch of general mistrust and unease in the air which left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. Locals would instruct me to be careful whenever I walked too far from a crowded place, and Manie, our driver, refused to drive past townships at night, fearing that our car might be stopped.
Such wariness forced me to travel and explore in a new way . Being on the move constantly made me feel safe. Whilst in other places I would dawdle in streets and courtyards, my way of travelling in Cape Town was different. It was a very dynamic kind of travel where I was always on the move and my surroundings changed every few minutes. Cable car rides, tramway journeys, road trips – they force you to rapidly absorb your backdrop before it changes in a matter moments, and add excitement to the journey because you never know what you will catch a brief glimpse of next. It also felt like I was on the run from something, and by avoiding stagnation I was making sure I would not be caught. Such travelling made me feel less confined in a place where I was not free to roam around carelessly.
At the same time, however, the locals who warned me understood that the reason crime was so high in Cape Town was because of widespread unemployment and poverty. And perhaps the most heartwarming thing I witnessed was how people of all skin colours collected money for those less fortunate alongside beaches and gas stations at all times of the day and night, and how radio presenters rallied support for one charity or the other each day.
The houses in the old Bo-Kaap quarter were well kept and painted in the brightest most cheerful colours, perhaps to attract people from other zones to visit and see the creativity their fellow city dwellers were capable of, or perhaps they wanted to make their surroundings look bright to lighten the general atmosphere in the city. In any case, Capetonians made an effort to help each other one way or another and were open to speak about anything. After spending a few days in Cape Town, I recognised that the fearful vigilance I had felt initially was only one layer of the city. Underneath it was a strong current of humane openness and courage to face the problems which plagued the country.
People would strike up conversations on life as easily as striking up matches. Some told me why they came to Cape Town, talking about their struggles in their home countries, and how South Africa was more developed and had more opportunities. Others compared life before and after Apartheid, saying most often that change was slow, that injustice and inequality ran deep, and that racial tensions which had built up for centuries had not yet been released. Many told me that South Africa’s hope lay in the children who had grown up without experiencing Apartheid as an official policy, and were unafraid to walk through different zones because they saw South Africa as a country they owned and could be proud of as a whole.
One woman could not stop smiling when I told her I was half-Russian, half-Dutch, and fervently expressed her wish for there to be more intercultural and interracial marriages in South Africa, which would really help the country to move towards a long-lasting peace in her opinion.
Racism was not a taboo subject in Cape Town, it was a fully acknowledged phenomenon. Most people criticised it openly and often, and comedians joked about it. Humour is one of the best defences to injustice, melancholy, and frustration. It has the power to ridicule the things which make us feel anxious and fearful, breaking down structures we think are permanent, letting us realise that these anxieties can be overcome if we think about them in another way. Laughter and conversation united people of all skin tones. Even when not everyone understood the joke, people ended up laughing at someone else’s laugh, and even when you did not fully understand what the other was saying, you marvelled at their interesting accent and asked where they were from. Perhaps the cautiousness I experienced was a remnant of Apartheid that will soon be replaced by the courage of Cape Town’s younger generations.