Welcome to the Western Cape- Please mind the gap

I’ve always harboured the belief that I could live in the Western Cape or in Cape Town, the mother city of South Africa. That aching beautiful coastline where white sandy beaches meet tortoise water. The wine farms, lush and green with abundance. That three hours out of Cape Town in almost any direction is a weekend away. Man, I knew that I could live there and more so I wanted to live there. That was of course, until I did live there for four months this year. It wasn’t that the Western Cape wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t that mother nature didn’t show off often and, in a jaw-dropping fashion. It was beautiful and that was part of the problem. It was challenging to see such beauty and think that it existed for a few, for a wealthy few. Nowhere else in our country has the divide seemed so stark and sickening. I would drive out of the estate I was put up in, the very same estate with private vineyards and stables, and not even a few hundred meters away was an informal settlement. Absolute wealth ran parallel to abject poverty. No sunset, no weekend away, no wine club “member only” benefits could take the taste of discomfort out of my mouth.  It’s one thing to read about the fact that we are the most unequal country in the world, it’s a totally different thing to see that gap manifest. How could I justify a world where the wealthy hide behind a walled, protected estate and the poor build homes of tin with no access to running water and electricity down the road? How could I justify living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, that is actually a place of misery and suffering for a vast majority?

I’d like to pretend that the idea for this blog sprung from some lofty, moral high ground. It didn’t. This post started because of a chocolate, a missing Lunch Bar to be precise. Part of me was trying to settle into being away from home, part of me was trying to find my feet on a new project and all of me felt like I was failing. So, in other words, it was another day at the office. On this particular day I knew that, despite my feeble attempts, I would succumb to the hollow and empty promises that comfort eating would provide. What I didn’t count on was not finding my “emergency” stash when I opened my kitchen cupboard (read hanging onto the cupboard door using my body weight to open it in a manner that was both lazy and satisfying). Upon closer inspection, I found that not only was my chocolate gone, but so too were some of the “just in case” biscuits I had bought earlier in the week. In the weeks that followed, other items, mainly food would go missing. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my initial reaction was one of anger. I guess it was easier to be angry at the person who had taken what belonged to me than it was to first look at myself, and to think about those tin houses walking distance from the estate. Whoever was sneaking away my junk food was actually doing me a favour but all I could focus on was the invasion of privacy I felt. All I could think about was that someone had stolen from me, someone had taken what belonged to me. Someone had gone through my things and had taken what they wanted, with no consideration of repercussions or of the fact that I was fundamentally a “good” person. I was in such a vile mood that honestly, in that moment, to consider the thief’s point of view would have been saintly. To think that someone had taken from me nothing that I needed, that someone who came to clean my apartment probably saw a reminder of life she could not afford didn’t even cross my mind.

It was only driving to work the next day, when I tugged my jacket a bit tighter to fend off the brutal winter wind that I thought about everything I had. I didn’t own the apartment I was living in, but it was paid for by work. I had warmth, I had more food than I could eat, and by many means, I lived a privileged life. When I went running in the afternoons in the estate, I would see Ferraris or people out on their horses, sure they almost always seemed offended to find a brown person in their midst but that’s a story for another blog. All around me there was excess, all around me was wealth and at a level I have never experienced before. And all around me that wealth had a face, it was white. Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither justifying theft nor am I saying that my junk food thief lived in an informal settlement or in abject poverty. But I do wonder what it must have felt like to be her. To show up at my apartment for a meagre wage, find my cupboards stocked with excess and to go home to whatever she had, all the while thinking of everything she didn’t. And to think that I never thought of her empty belly, I never thought of the fact that she might want to eat something when she came to clean my apartment. I had more than I needed and I never thought to share. I know that that scenario is no less valid in Johannesburg, where many of our domestic workers go home to small spaces, barely able to make ends meet, thinking about their children who are often sent away because their parents can’t afford to provide for them. It’s no less painful to think about, but somehow the contrast in the Western Cape was too jarring, too sharp. Somehow those high, guarded walls, the horses, the vineyards are all too much. And maybe it’s because the hands that tended the gardens, cleaned the homes and raised children were black. Maybe it’s because the wealth I was seeing was built off black labour with very little reward in return.

In the area that I lived in, it would be easy to think that the apartheid still existed and that I miraculously passed the pencil test and got in. Harsh, I know, but I don’t really have another way to describe it. Somehow, I had managed to sneak in, but I was never at home, I was always an imposter and I was constantly surrounded by talk of how our country was going to ruin. I’d listen to white women talking about how “things had changed” in the area they grew up in, and when I’d probe, they would look around trying to find a black face in the crowd and say, “you know”. I’d do a Sunday timed run in the estate and find that the only colour in that group would be that of my skin. It made me uneasy. It made me uneasy to see the clear divide between wealth and the help along racial lines. It made me uneasy to hear people talking at a wine farm about the house they’d just bought in Franschhoek and then hear of how there are no opportunities for white people in our country. I longed for the rainbow nation we were meant to be and all I got was angry. I was angry at the smugness of the wealthy, at the overt arrogance in their existence and I was angry to be a part of it. So, as much as I love the Western Cape, it’s really not for me. I cannot bear the beauty side by side with the ugliness of the divide. Nope, I do not think I could live there, my heart would not handle it.

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