GETTING TO KNOW THE CITY

I’ve learned more from walking around the city, taking in all the sensory stimuli and people around me than all the amount of time I’ve spent in the classroom. Hearing someone talk about the problems and dysfunctions happening in a Cape Town isn’t quite real till you see it for yourself. Getting a tour with Andrew around the East End of the city and what used to be District 6 gave me a new feel for the city. He has such a vibrant love and knowledge of the city he grew up in that it becomes contagious. You can’t help but to start to understand why; the diversity, the food, the shopping, the art, you are constantly confronted with the amazing culture that is Cape Town.

Local school wall

Local school wall

At the same time that you are admiring the beauty and life of Cape Town you start to see reminders that at the heart of this city lies some deep dysfunctions and you can see glimpses of the past all around you. You cannot forget the past here, it is a constant reminder. When Andrew was walking us around the Government buildings, you could really get a hard look at the legacy that Apartheid has left behind. The buildings themselves loom over the city as a reminder of what was once there. The architecture is stark, dominating and cut off from the rest of the city. While the rest of Cape Town is bustling and constantly interacting, you get the sense that these buildings were created to segregate that part of the city. The courtyard area behind the buildings we were visiting was completely devoid of all human interaction. Apartheid had left its mark of separation among individuals for total control and it stills looms as a reminder.

Interestingly enough, juxtaposed below these building lies a completely different feel to the city. You start to see more and more people and they are interacting and selling anything you could imagine. The informal and temporary aspect of these people’s livelihood is very apparent. The stands are easily broken down and usually filled with cardboard displays and other small items. The people who run these stands and informal trade are from such a diverse group of backgrounds. You have the Somalians, the Zimbabwean’s, and the boat people from Tanzania. I found these last group of people to be the most fascinating. Their main goal is to explore the world by sea and are willing to stow away on any cargo ship only to land and see where it has brought them. They dress in ship workers hats and clothes so that they can be ready at any moment and easily confused with the other workers on the dock. Although you may not be able to pick them out right away, the evidence of them is everywhere. The graffiti they leave is tagged throughout the city with sayings like ‘hop2c’ which loosely means ‘hope to sea’. The images they leave of boats are probably the most intriguing and detailed.

Learning to read the graffiti and writing on the streets gave me such a different perspective of the city and the people in it. Andrew, our tour guide for the day, had such an interesting knowledge into the gangs and little symbols you see written on the walls and streets of the city. He pointed out different numbers written like 26, 27, and 28 and explained that the numbers indicated different gangs associated with the city. Apparently each number gang specializes in a different area of crime; 26 for example could be a gang involved in prostitution while 28 could be associated with being involved in drugs. Along with the gang tags other people have just chosen to leave their mark with a simple poem, story, or name. It was as if they were leaving a little piece of themselves in a city that is impermanent.

As we were analyzing graffiti left on the walls we were also inching our way closer and closer to what used to be district 6. Perhaps the biggest reminder in the city of the legacy of Apartheid and the damage it left behind. As you move away from the busy East section of the city you walk directly into an empty expanse of land that used to house an entire community of people that were forcibly removed from their homes and moved to different parts of the city while their homes were demolished. Visiting the District 6 Museum was a big eye opener on the scar that apartheid left on this particular group of people. An entire culture and community was lost from history without any hope of ever reclaiming what it once was.

Cape Town is slowly picking up the pieces that were left behind from Apartheid and building up from the past. Much of what is happening in communities and neighborhoods is framed by what has been and was before. Building on an area like District 6 needs special care because of the history and attachment to the area. You can’t just walk away from the past, because the past is helping frame what is happening today. Cape Town is an interesting city to be able to explore shelter because apartheid and the past has formed such a unique layout and dynamic in the city.

Graffiti in District 6

Graffiti in District 6