Sunday, March 22, 2009

South Africa: A Country of Contradictions

I recently returned from a 10-day intensive trip to Cape Town, South Africa. I was really excited because I had never traveled to South Africa before. I remember hearing and reading about Apartheid growing up, so I was eager to see how much progress had been made since the end of Apartheid in 1994.

A group of us from Franklin & Marshall College were going to see if we could set up a community-based learning program linked to our artificial soccer turf field in one of the largest and poorest townships in Cape Town, Khayelitsha. Having traveled throughout Sub-Saharan Africa in the past, I was prepared for poverty, and all the other issues that afflict developing countries. What I was not prepared for was the astounding contradictions and contrasts that make up 21st century South Africa.
Take the World Cup Soccer stadium for example. Or the impressive motorways and airport. The opulent restaurants and mansions hugging the rugged cliffs, making way to beautiful beaches. Beautiful beaches with beautiful people. After all, the New York Times Magazine just featured Cape Town as the place to be. What they didn't show was the other side of Cape Town. The side that people would like to ignore -- to pretend no longer exists with the end of apartheid.

That's the side that we focused on. The shacks of Khayelitsha where children still die from playing with live wires knocked over by oversized trucks -- or where women and children line up at boreholes to pump water for their daily meals. No bottles of "still or sparkling water" here. Here in Khayelitsha where the delicassay is "smilie" -- sheeps head -- not cavier -- although I personally don't know which is worse.

Cape Town is a place of hope and possibilities -- wealth and extravagence. Khayelitsha is a place where you are lucky if you are not shot and killed, or if you are a woman, raped and abused.
When you visit Cape Town and Khayelitsha, you have to exercise cognitive dissonance -- how else can you make sense of the two realities? I remember spending the better part of the afternoon walking through Khayelitsha (with protection from local residents of course) and then going for lunch at the waterfront in Cape Town. We strolled through a mall with Gucci stores, Tag Heur, and Channel. The latest colgnes and perfumes floated from the inviting stores. An hour earlier, we passed open air stalls with beef entrails, sheep's heads, and other animal body parts. The stores were pieced together scraps of corrugated iron and cardboard. Dried piss, charcoal and exhaust fumes scented our journey.

I still don't know what to make of my trip to Cape Town. It made me feel dirty inside. Not being in Khayelitsha -- but being in downtown Cape Town -- enjoying all the conveniences of home -- knowing that only a few miles away, people were struggling to stay alive. So if you go to Cape Town to enjoy the World Cup or some of the beautiful beaches and shops -- be sure to extend your visit to the townships -- that is of course, if you really want to see the real South Africa.