Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflections of Cape Town, South Africa

My initial trip to Cape Town occurred when I was twenty-years-old. I prepared to set foot on African soil for the first time filled with a lot of questions and uncertainty. I saw the city—one that didn’t look much different from many cities I’d visited in the States—and wasn’t certain what to make of it. I didn’t recognize it as Africa. It wasn’t the Africa I’d learned about in school or saw on television. I saw excess. I saw commercialism. I saw lush vegetation. I saw a mountain that signified power, strength, and longevity. It was a long way from the dirt-covered, fly-infested, safari-filled Africa that the media and my school books shoved in my face. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I supposed to be pleased that Africa was more than what I’d been presented? Or should I have been upset by the one-sidedness that I’d been exposed to?

Cape Town, South Africa is an incredibly beautiful, seemingly fictional place. Located on the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by majestic Table Mountain, it is hard not to be distracted by its breathtaking natural beauty and lush greenery. In addition to its stunning physical allure, the city is filled with an international flare of people. As magnificent as the city and its people are to behold, neither compare to the beauty I’ve found in something far more influential.

I tried to take Cape Town for what it was. I accepted the beauty. I appreciated the sense of familiarity. However, there was something very odd lurking in the seemingly perfect African city. In this picturesque, gorgeous backdrop the remnants of something evil and ugly was hiding that carried about as much weight as Table Mountain. In 1999 apartheid had been over for nine years, and while it was over, the impact was apparent. I’m positive that the residue of apartheid had been lost on some of my fellow classmates, but it was clear to me that I existed in a world that operated differently than what I saw. None of the consumers looked like me. None of the people living near the attractive and charming area that the 600 American students were plopped into looked like me either. I saw people with my complexion, but they were not consumers or residents of the Cape Town I walked around. People who looked like me were behind counters, selling items, or living in areas that required us privileged American students to take a faculty-directed practicum trip in order to see. People who looked like me were not active participants in the economy on Cape Town’s preferred, show-to-company side of town.

I wanted to experience as much of Cape Town as I could, but I wasn’t sure where I fit. Should I shop as the American privileged student and show South Africa that it was possible for someone like me to be an active participant? Should I be ashamed of having the means and more importantly, the audacity to expect that I could walk around in that pristine area with my head held high? What was I to make of the township visits? Were they supposed to show me where my kind belonged? Or should I have looked at it and simply been grateful that I wasn’t born here?

Fast-forward to 2011. I didn’t know how I would feel about Cape Town post-Mandela’s presidential term. Had anything changed? Would I feel as conflicted as I had during my first visit? Once again, I stepped off of the ship filled with uncertainly. I was pulling for Cape Town, though. I was hoping that twelve years had done more for the city than I’d even witnessed at home. I wanted Cape Town to show me that it was serious about revolution. I needed to see what that looked like.

I got off the ship this time and the picture-perfect area that our shipped was docked had expanded. It remained stunning and breathtaking, especially with Table Mountain huddled over it like a proud parent. Economically, I knew that the last twelve years had been good. As I ventured out I looked at the people around me. I looked for the people who looked like me. I saw them. They were behind counters and selling items. Yet they weren’t the only ones behind counters and selling items. Even more encouraging, the people who looked like me were also in line with me. They entered the same stores, ate at the same restaurants. They were a part of Cape Town in a way that I hadn’t seen prior. It made me smile.

I’m not suggesting that all of the work is done or over. There is still a major disparity between rich and poor. Townships still exist. Children from townships still aren’t being educated at the same levels as children who aren’t from townships. However, I can see the progress. In twelve years, improvements have begun. When the manifestation of change is evident it means that the movement has momentum.

I love Cape Town because nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid I can see signs of progress trickle down to the masses. I love Cape Town because it is not afraid to have the difficult, uncomfortable, race-related conversations. I love Cape Town because the student union at the University of Cape Town is named after anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. I love Cape Town because in the twelve years since I visited, I feel improvement. While I am grateful to have some comfort in the ease of navigating the culture, I love its willingness to transform. While I am in awe of Table Mountain, I love the strength of the people it oversees. While I appreciate its beauty, I love Cape Town so much more for modeling forgiveness, restoration, love, humility, and humanity.

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