We were robbed in broad daylight in one of the safest areas of Cape Town–a stealthy attack that knocked the boys down and made them scream. The scene of the crime was a beach that seemed made of powdered sugar at the southern tip of Africa, the Atlantic Ocean crashing on one side, Indian on the other. Our new friend Lisa was with us, a lovely, tall Canadian we met in Argentina who owns a house in South Africa with her Scottish husband Gordon. Her two little boys were walking ahead with Griff and Ado, sharing a bag of popcorn while I snapped photos from the top of some sun-bleached wooden stairs that led to the sea.
Suddenly, a black blur streaked across the sand; my shutter clicked as a large baboon ambushed the boys,
snatching the popcorn bag with outstretched humanistic hands that convinced me that somewhere along the line we share a common ancestor. The story of St. James Davis, the man nearly mauled to death in 2005 by his pet orangutan flashed through my mind and I began to run, screaming to Ethan. But by the time we reached the crying kids, the baboon was sitting on a sand dune stuffing salty handfuls of popcorn into its mouth. Dozens of his relatives materialized from the stubby shrubs on the hillside, but the popcorn prince bared his teeth and refused to share his booty.
Being less than twenty years away from the end of apartheid, South Africa was to me a place of contrasts as surprising as the badly behaved baboon on the beach. In Constantia, an upscale Cape Town suburb, a white woman in equestrian clothing clip-clopped down the sidewalk on her magnificent bay horse as black waiters, gardeners, and maids scattered into the street to let her pass. In Hout Bay, a lovely, horseshoe-shaped beach colony, a tanned, blonde lady pushed her fat basset hound in a baby stroller while dark skinned children scampered barefoot across jagged-edged sheets of corrugated tin at the entrance of a shanty town. Located next to a waste treatment plant and a police station, this slum spreads like a colorful plague up a parched mountainside. The falling-down
shacks at the top are the most difficult to access, like the end of a complicated maze, but have breathtaking views of the sea. I got out to photograph it, but when I saw a group of white tourists on a guided tour, I felt such shame to be gawking along with them that I jumped back in the car. In this country, the “have-nots” and the “haves” are split clearly into black and white.
“The divide seems so total here,” I said to Ethan, disturbed but not surprised by the hostile eyes I had seen watching from the shanty’s shadows. “America’s not perfect, but at least there’s a lot of in between.” Ethan looked at the raggedy wiring and mish mash building materials that comprise these “informal settlements.”
“We take so much for granted,” he responded. “At home, if a kid plays with a light socket, he’ll probably just trip a circuit breaker. Here, he’ll probably die.” I realize it is not an original idea that inequality can still mean the difference between life and death, but having such obvious examples in front of us was unsettling.
But this kind of real world exposure is one reason we decided to take this journey. Our travels are not only about experiencing beauty—like the South African wine country where lines of grapevines crisscross golden hillsides, alabaster Dutch-inspired buildings scattered like pearls in their midst. It is also about discovering the world’s uglier side—like listening to a restaurant owner’s answer when Ethan asked how it is to run a business here.
“Labor’s cheap,” said the big, ruddy man, a Dutch immigrant whose wife is a descendant of original Dutch settlers. “But you have to hire two of them. And they all steal.” I don’t think he was trying to be unkind—this was his reality—but for me, it showed how far South Africa has to go.
Camps Bay is Cape Town’s quintessential beach hang out, with trendy restaurants, shops and cafés lining a
boulevard that runs along blue-green ocean, its tide pools and soft beach lined with iridescent purple shells. Here we spent a few nights with my American friend Sara and her husband Lance, who was born in Zimbabwe but went to school in South Africa. Sara was the morning news producer for two years at KCBS and we’d been through floods, fires, car chases, and earthquakes together, so I felt comfortable voicing my uneasiness in this historically important and troubled country. Sara, whose intelligence and work experience makes her at least attempt to see both sides of a story, raised another perspective—that of white South Africans, whose ancestors settled here hundreds of years ago.
“Think if it this way,” she said, making an analogy to the Indian Wars that decimated and neutralized Native American tribes, dubbed as “savages” by European settlers. “If the Indians somehow reappeared and began demanding their land back, would you fight for what you have?” For a moment I thought about the barn-red house in the Cupertino, California foothills where I grew up and where my mother still lives. Perched above a canyon, at the edge of a county park I still know by heart, it is a place that frames my memories and defines my girlhood.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I probably would.” This didn’t make me feel better about the inequality that mars South Africa’s magical, unique loveliness, but it did give me another perspective. If I lived here, I wondered, would I always feel guilty about my white skin and accidental privilege of my birth, or would this way of life eventually seem normal?
But as an outsider, I am smart enough to realize how much I do not understand about Africa and its past—and because of that ignorance, trying to judge the present is folly. Bizarre examples of broken political systems kept cropping up during our visit, one more unbelievable than the last. When I googled “Malawi”, one of the world’s least developed, most densely populated countries located northeast of South Africa, I noticed the following headline from January: “Big Stink Over Malawi Farting Ban.” Farting?? I thought it must be a gag from The Onion. But no! Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika apparently believes that crafting a bill criminalizing the fart is a wise use of scarce resources. His bill would also punish those naughty scallywags who challenge others to fight duels or pretend to be fortunetellers. Making any progress with gasbags like this guy in office must take a major miracle.
Despite its own political and racial issues, South Africa does dish up many miracles–most in the form of one geographic wonder after another. The famous, flat-topped Table Mountain caps a skinny, jagged 260-million year old range that splits a section of South African sky and is the defining feature of Cape Town. “The Twelve Apostles”, a dozen moon-scaped mountain peaks that lord over two oceans, and the more solitary Signal Hill, are signature sights which people can climb up, rappel down, or paraglide off. The website for Table Mountain warned of muggers on the path up its nearly vertical rock face, so we skipped
that challenge and rode the big blue and orange cable car with its white “Visa” logo to the top instead. Inside the cabin, which rotates to give everyone an equal chance to experience the astonishing views of city, sea and World Cup Stadium, we brushed shoulders with the future of this country–a group of smiling South African schoolchildren wearing blue and white uniforms. They were so encouragingly lovely in a “We Are The World” kind of way that my heart filled with hope. And, for a moment, all our skin colors blended together, the difference between black and white forgotten in the excitement of a simple field trip.