On Sunday morning I took a cab from my home in Mowbray to downtown Cape Town. With no traffic, this is usually about a 15 minute drive. I take taxis all the time and the ride usually goes the same way each time. The driver asks me where I’m going, I tell them. Do you have a meter? No? Set rate? How much? I get in and we start driving. About two minutes into the ride either I or the driver start the usual small talk–weather, how long have I been in Cape Town, where am I from, why am I here. I’ve even gotten better at talking out of my ass when it comes to rugby–Stormers, Cheetahs, Springboks, All Blacks, I can name a few teams and hang with them for 15 minutes as they tell me the latest rugby news. Sometimes we talk about my work, sometimes we don’t talk at all. It just depends on the driver.
On Sunday the drive started the same….but the conversation quickly got serious. How long have you been in Cape Town? Why are you here? Oh, you study politics? You’re doing a project on democracy? What do you think of South Africa’s democracy? Is it fair here? Keep in mind, I’m from here you know–born and raised–so I know about this country. Let me tell you about it….
Before I knew what was happening, my driver took off on a whirlwind explanation of his experiences living as a coloured man in first apartheid and now post-apartheid South Africa. Together we had the most candid, interesting, open 15 minute discussion about South African politics. We pulled up to my destination and he stopped the meter, put the car in park, and kept talking for almost 10 minutes. I encouraged him to keep his passion for democracy and politics alive and he smiled, waved, and told me to do the same. Once I got out of the car I quickly tried to write down as much as possible of what he said so I could share it. While this transcript is not the exact words he used, it is true to his style of speaking and the sentiments he expressed:
On the African National Congress (ANC), which is the current ruling party of South Africa:
You stop any black man on the street anywhere in this country and they will tell you how the ANC has done them wrong. They made promises they didn’t keep. They did this; they did that. They’re fed up with the ANC. Fed up. But mark me– come election time, they will all vote for the ANC to a man. To a man! Because for them, they think only a black can be in charge. To them, this is a black country and the blacks must be in charge. They won’t vote for someone who will actually make the changes that need to happen because they will only vote the color of their skin.
See, that’s why I appreciate the United States. In the U.S. you have Republican and you have Democrat. It’s about the politics. It’s about the issues. It’s not about blacks voting black and whites voting white and coloureds voting coloured. How is that right? How is that progress?
And the thing is, the blacks think this land is black. Look back in the history– the original inhabitants of this land were the Khoisan, a coloured people. Their skin was a shade lighter than mine and a shade darker than yours (pointing at me in the rearview mirror). When the blacks came down from Central Africa with their cattle they were able to overpower the Khoisan and take the land away from they. Wiped them out completely. The blacks are immigrants to this land like all the rest of us. It’s all there in the history. But do they teach that history? No.
On post-apartheid South Africa:
I am a coloured man and I am 50 years old. So I lived through apartheid, I remember it. I lived through the “old” South Africa and I am living now in the “new”. Let me tell you this– the “new” South Africa is NOT better than the “old”. It’s not better. I remember when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I remember it; I was there. He stood there at City Hall (pointing in the direction of City Hall). He stood there and he said, verbatim: “Friends, comrades, and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy, and freedom for all.” Fellow South Africans, he said. See, we are all the same. Freedom for all he said. He said we should look to the future, not to the past, and that we are all one nation. The Rainbow Nation. That’s what he said and that’s what we believed. Where is that South Africa he promised? It’s not here. I will tell you plainly– it is not here.
On democracy in South Africa:
There is no democracy here. Not in South Africa. What does “democracy” mean? Simple. It’s one word. It’s fairness. What is fair here? What is fair for the coloured man? We feel forgotten in this “new” nation. What am I here? A second-class citizen? A third-class citizen? People think the issues are black and white. It’s always black against white and the coloured man gets left out. My son can’t even get a job because he’s not white but he’s not black enough. His skin is fairer than mine, you see. I even tried to get him a job at a factory where I knew the manager personally. Personally! He told me to my face that my son wasn’t black enough. The job had to go to a black boy. Not my son. Not my son with his fair skin and green eyes. Where is the fairness there? Jobs should be given out on merit, not skin color.
On the future of being coloured in South Africa:
Maybe not in my lifetime, but there will be a day when South Africa is ruled by the coloured man. It can’t be any other way. Today, white women are marrying black men. Black men are marrying white women. What is the result? Coloured children. The future of South Africa is a coloured future. The problem is, these mixed couples are not sharing their language and their culture with their mixed children. It’s a shame because so much language and culture is getting lost. I blame the parents. They know this stuff and they do not pass it to their children. We will have a nation of coloured people who don’t know who they are.
You can watch Mandela’s entire speech made from the balcony of City Hall on the day of his release from prison here:
There is a large school group here at UCT today. School groups often come by to take tours of campus and use the facilities. The group today looks to be around middle school age. When I walked up the steps of Jameson Hall to get to the library, they were all assembled on the stairs looking out toward the city. I thought maybe they were getting ready to take a picture, but that wasn’t the case. From the steps of Jameson Hall, you can look out on the University down to where the statue of Rhodes once stood, down past the rugby fields, into the neighborhoods of Rondebosch and Rosebank. Beyond that lies the townships–where thousands of black and coloured families were forced to relocate, and where most still live. In a very real way, from the steps of Jameson Hall you can see the physical manifestation of colonialism, racism, and attempted reconciliation played out on the urban geography of Cape Town.
As I walked up the steps, I heard the teacher ask the young students to discuss the Rhodes statue. He asked them: “What does the statute represent to YOU?” Some of the students slowly raised their hands and I paused on the steps as I heard them say in small, strong voices words like: apartheid, racism, hate, power, anger. Symbols are powerful. Some legacies carry long shadows that can morph and change over time. Did Rhodes really “fall” with the removal of his statue? The answer is very clearly no. In fact, even though his statue is removed, the shadow of Rhodes is still felt and seen by all. Literally. Someone painted this on the steps where his statue once stood. It is a powerful reminder that even though the statue is gone, Rhodes is not forgotten.
What do you think about the legacy of CJ Rhodes?
I live in the Mowbray neighborhood of Cape Town, which sits between Rondebosch (University of Cape Town) and Observatory (fun nightlife area, popular with college kids). My house sits a stones throw away from the Mowbray Station, which consists of two parts: 1) major bus interchange and 2) metro station. While I have never had occasion to take the bus, I frequently take the metro train from Mowbray Station to Cape Town Civic Station downtown. Mowbray sits on the Southern Line, which runs from Cape Town down along the shores of False Bay to Simon’s Town and back again. The train tracks are built right into the beach. I got to see them last weekend when I went down to Simon’s Town. Check out that view!
I’ve received varied responses when people find out I take the metro alone. One woman called me adventurous. Another said I was bold. One person even said I was reckless. After pressing some of these people further, I came to find that most had never actually taken the metro themselves; they just knew it to be a dark, dangerous netherworld where the only passengers are “poor” people (let’s get serious, they can couch it in whatever language they want, but they mean black people. Black people take the train). This is the first myth I can now officially bust: all varieties of people take the metro in Cape Town—women with little children, Afrikaner businessmen, school kids in uniforms, young guys wearing big headphones, old men toting fishing gear, families, couples holding hands, individuals, Indians, Blacks, Whites, men, women, and yes, some obviously poor people.
Let me clear the air a bit more for anyone interested in traveling to and around Cape Town. The metro is perfectly safe. I have never once been concerned for my safety and I almost always travel alone. It’s cheap (roughly US$1.00); it’s relatively clean (no better or worse than Paris…. much MUCH worse than Japan), and it’s convenient. I get on at Mowbray and four stops and roughly 12 minutes later I get off at Cape Town. I’ve taken the train in rush hour (where people are packed in and there is standing room only) and I’ve taken it where I am the only passenger in my car. To be completely transparent, I have never taken the metro at night. I only take it during the day. I once flirted with the idea of taking the metro at night from Cape Town back to Mowbray (around 8:30pm), but after only 5 minutes waiting on the platform I was convinced that taking a taxi would be worth it. The crowds at night are heavier and more rowdy on the platform, especially on the weekends. If I hadn’t had some shopping bags I maybe would have chanced it, but why take a chance when a taxi is only about US$7?
There is one thing to keep in mind though if one is considering a journey by train: the train does not always arrive on time…if it arrives at all. For someone like me who is used to commuting every day using the Japanese metro system, the Cape Town system was quite a shock…. to say the absolute least. Trains in Cape Town are often late. If a train timetable says the train will arrive at 11:39, that might mean 11:39, it might mean 11:45, or it might mean 12:20…. and you have NO way to know how late a train will be, so you’ve got to expect it will be on time and just build in enough time to “roll with it” (pun intended). The first time a train was late, a voice came over the intercom and announced the train’s late arrival was due to fog. This made complete sense as you could barely see your hand in front of your face! I remembered taking delayed trains in India when it was exceptionally foggy, so I didn’t mind. And the train arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.
However, sometimes trains are late for no apparent reason! For example, last weekend I ran to catch a train into town that was due to arrive at Mowbray Station at 2:38. It was a clear, cloudless sunny day. At 2:39 a voice came over the intercom, “Very sorry, this train is delayed….. something something something. Very sorry.” No other explanation given. Five minutes go by… then ten… then fifteen. Twenty, are you kidding me?! By now I am annoyed. I stand on “my” end of the platform (all the blacks seem to have an unspoken rule whereby they don’t come close to me on the platform. If I approach them, it’s fine, but they do not approach me, or sit by me on the train if they can help it. Honestly, it’s discomforting. It reminds me of the culturally enforced “bubble” I was trapped in when I commuted in Japan—everyone looks, no on touches or approaches or speaks to you, but I digress). As I paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, I keep waiting. 25 minutes. Wow. I may as well have walked into town! But I’ve already paid for the ticket so I’m now determined to take this damn train. Meanwhile, trains heading to Simon’s Town come and go.
Pacing over to a where a young black man was standing, I leaned in and asked, “Do you think this train is EVER coming?” He shrugged, smiled, and said, “Yes…. maybe?” Just then we heard the sound of a train…. it was coming from the wrong direction!! This train consisted of an engine and two flattop cars toting a heavy cargo of rusty train tracks. Groaning, I watched the tracks go by and said, “They are probably going to build a new track!” The young guy burst out laughing and said, “Precisely. See, this is the problem when you have to rely on other people.” We sighed together and kept waiting. FINALLY, at 3:20 our train arrived, only 44 minutes late. Gotta love Africa time!
Today was an entirely new experience. I ran to catch the 11:39 train to go into town for a bit of exploring. I was running late so clutching my sides I sprinted into the tiny station only to find that both the ticket windows were closed. Looking around frantically, I went to an older black lady and said, “The train is coming, where can I buy a ticket?” She looked at me curiously and said, “The window is open. Go there.” And she pointed to the two obviously closed windows. “No,” I said, “They are closed.” “No,” she said, “Open.” I look again. She looks again. “Huh,” she said and walks away. Huh. Also, the train didn’t come. I just walked home. It’s just was not worth it today.