22. Oct, 2015

I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people

Touch down In Cape Town. 

Links to Township and Robben Island photos https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10208239310168558.1073741923.1476834756&type=1&l=4b9cedf78d

After a long 31 hour flight from Buenos Aires to Cape Town via, RDJ and Dubai we were welcomed at the airport by English speaking people. Yes, at last we could throw our phrase books out of the window and get down with the slang of Cape Town. 

On first impressions Cape Town was loud and proud. Bright colours, fantastic vistas, songs in the air from the people on the streets and vibrancy everywhere. It didn't take us long to notice that we were in a country of 2 halves. Those that have and have the desired lifestyle and those that don't have and are trying to get a desired lifestyle. Those that are black and those that are white lived very different lifestyles. South Africa is a place that I, as a black woman, have resisted coming to, just like I resisted going to Northern Ireland for many years and India; I visited Ireland in 1995 and India in 2011. It wasn't just not looking like your average tourist that had prevented me from booking a flight in the past, it was seeing my brothers and sisters being treated without equality - let's rewind to when you see something that pains your eyes, how do you deal with it? Do you physically and emotionally extricate yourself from it and say it is nothing to do with me or do you get involved? No doubt South Africa was going to teach me something only this land could and I was ready to learn. 

Being mixed race and travelling has its disadvantages as well as its advantages, but whatever it is, it is certainly very different to travelling if you are a white male, how do I know?  because I often travel with a white male. 

Barbed and electrified wires protecting the homes were everywhere in the burbs and people had built their castles to keep those outside out; the fear coming from the homes could be smelt. Signs showing that the family was armed or that there was a vicious and angry dog both with their set button to kill were emblazoned on the 10ft razor wired clad walls. 

I asked if it was safe to walk to the local shops in the first suburb we stayed in anout 1km during the daytime. I never received a straight answer. In Bath or on the streets of Buenos Aires or the city centre of Rio the answer is firmly yes with reasonable precautions. Here in CT the answers were 'um, who are you with? Do you know where you are going? Don't stray off the road etc etc.' I instantly became concerned and the need to protect myself grew stronger. I had already become a victim as they had stolen my  freedom. Now it was time to determine who 'they or it' were. Was it me and my fantasies? Was it the perpetrators I had been told about from the adverts of the high security etc? I think in retrospect it was me and my fantasies and the vision of high security. Nevertheless it felt very real at the time and for a short period my freedom was stolen by my imagination as I feared single black men on my path. It was my own personal fears that were preventing me from enjoying and smiling at everything this city had to offer. A few days in Cape Town city made me realise this. 

We had a delicious meal, one of many greats in CT, of chilli and prawn soup and when we asked for an aperitif of a Martini we were told we couldn't. We knew that there were some premises that could not sell alcohol, yet we could see it on the shelf, so we just thought that  we couldn't have it because it was one of the rules you could own alcohol but you couldn't sell it - maybe you could at certain times or to certain people. Then the waitress said 'If I knew how to make it I would do it.' We pointed to the dusty bottle on the shelf. It still took her quite a while for her to find it. She then asked how we would like it. We said just with ice. She then proceeded to crush ice, half strawberries, prepare the cocktail glasses and then poured and served. We were very thankful for this attention to detail and to offer the best of herself however, the Martini was one of the worst tasting I had ever had, but it was served with such love so had could I refuse; the service we were given in CT was always fantastic. The next few days would teach me a lot about myself and the world in which I live and love. 

Cape Town first and foremost is trying so hard to be and do better. There is a lot of passion and anger here and sometimes this is seen on the streets, but it is is often subtle and quiet, but making a positive difference. Ever watched Ghostbusters II? In the film there is a river of pubk slime under the city which multiplies as the anger in the city grows, but as the city shows love the pink clime diminishes. This to me is SA. It's bubbling anger and inequality and could go one way or the other. Let's show more love to our brethren nd God willing the city will prosper for all. 

We often saw small groups of blacks parade around dancing, jogging and singing in harmony, about what, I do not know, just this sight alone was enough to move me tears. Not like in Buenos Aires where huge groups openly bang their drums and bring out their painted banners. Passion and anger, in sometimes equal measures, are shown here in abundance. 

Top tourist attractions in Africa

3. Table Mountain in Cape Town 2. Pyramids in Cairo 1. Shopping at the Victoria and Albert Harbourside

These top attractions alone illustrate the changing picture of South Africa. The country was growing its GDP faster than most other African countries, but it didn't always seem to be keeping the necessary infrastructure up together to ensure the have nots can equally benefit from the economic boom, so as a consequence crime in places is high. But once out of the burbs I felt safer. Close to crack users on the street corners the synagogue and near alocohol suppliers the energy felt uncomfortable. We steered clear of these during the evenings. If a Jewish service was in process there was high security with many guards and concrete posts in situ.  

Much sound education and opportunities for the poorest groups are necessary so that all people can be socially mobile or live freely as they choose without having to live the life of a criminal. I am not just referring to education in the schools - police, hospitals, health centres, multi national employers etc. everyone needs to better understand how they can work together to benefit each other. Some places and people are doing it better than others, but I think South Africa is leading the way through Mandela's principles of education 'each one teach one'

People wanted to share their country and wanted to share their story, but most importantly they welcomed us with open arms and beamed the whitest and brightest smiles we had seen to date. We loved that. People were undoubtedly more revealing of themselves to me than to John, whether this is because I am a woman and am mixed race I don't know, but it was often very different. It might have been because I asked the questions like - what is it like living here as a black person. 

The whites I saw in CT looked like professionals  and they looked like they had all the ingredients for a good life - food, friends, shelter, freedom and a reflective disposition and remember money brings freedom. Blacks had limited freedom and opportunities for good quality shelter and I saw very few that were in positions of seniority. By freedom I mean access to equality. Education, in the main, is enabling many blacks to access freedom, although I am unsure what education programmes or community projects or opportunities are there for those over 20, remembering apartheid has been unlawful since 1994. 

It is obvious here that children and young people are ambitious for themselves and their families. None wear the Arsenal or La Boca Junior or Barcelona football shirts we saw on the backs of many children and adults in Central and South America. Their ambitions are to be doctors, marine biologists, technicians, engineers, etc in South America, and the like, the only way out of poverty for many in CA and S.Am is through sport as their education does not prepare them well for the professional world, South Africa was different. 

What did I know about SA? I had grown up with the stories and newsreels of the uprising in SA and apartheid and understood from a young age what this meant. I had a white school friend who had spent some time in SA and told me of the horrors of living there. I was mortified. I had heard of stories of living in places like Rawanda as a young child and of the rainforests and the Eco systems, the housing, of the freedom where people happily toiled the land and a of a place where it rained every day. I was fascinated by this and I wanted to go and live there. I wanted to run about in the rain and the rainbows and hunt with a stake. Then came apartheid and the uprising and Band Aid and the like. Black people in Africa, I was taught as a child, are poor. They are the scourge of society and they need our help because they are helpless. The 'send a cow' project to this day annoys me as it often taught in isolation and it still teaches the next generation of children and young people that black people are poor and helpless and only we can 'help them'. I now know the stories I was taught about black people needing the help from the British help is nonsense, many of the problems were caused by a whole host of reasons, quite often involving whites from the west, but this is what most of my white teachers and the media taught me. 

In SA before the apartheid became unlawful in 1994 there were so many rules for people of colour. Blacks, Coloured, Whites, Europeans, and Malays were the commonly used terms in CT to describe people's race.  Blacks, before 1994, were not allowed into the city after dark and all people of colour were forced to carry a validated passport around with them at all times. If not they were beaten and thrown in jail for a minimum of 6 months  - a tiny one at that, even if the passport was out of date. All mixed marriages were unlawful under the morality act and this meant that no two people of different colour could marry and the children were not allowed with the father. I visited a hostel in the townships where single or married men were placed. Tiny hostels made of bricks that housed 3 or 4 men in each. When the apartheid was made unlawful women joined them and many still live there today in families, naturally causing overcrowding. We were told that before the World Cup several additional brick homes were built to house these expanding families and the slums were bulldozed, but these hostels with families in still stand. 

Group area act came into affect in the 60s and you people of colour had to live depending on their race. 2 unscientific tests that were used to identify one's race were the pencil test and the paper bag test. There were others, but these were among the most crude. 

The scars of apartheid are tangible today, in the faces of the Black people, the ambitions of those over 20, of the way that millions of blacks live in townships, ghettos, slums etc. Of the way that I saw no black person driving a BMW or owning a house in the burbs (it is not about the money, it is about the freedom of choice or of opportunities and equality) of the way some white men and women behave - on this I felt it occasionally, particularly if white men didn't see me with me John and didn't hear my accent and this angered me because they are living lie. Not that I agree with blatant racism either. Education for those aged over 25 was either limited or non existent so you have a generation of Black people who are uneducated and do not necessarily value education for their children; there are limited adult education programmes for adults today.  This will take several generations to change this as it is firmly my belief the main way out of poverty is through education. 

When in Cambodia in 99-00 I also heard first hand stories of the strife and choices the people had lived with during the Khmer regime and these will haunt me forever - heartbreaking stories of trying to survive on unsavoury foods because they were only given rice and of watching friends and family being murdered and beheaded before their very eyes. These were a very damaged and haunted group of people who, because of their history, found it difficult to trust anyone and difficult to find contentment in their life. It would take the next generation to rebuild their country and have faith in humanity as many of their parents' will to live on had been stolen. Just one of the long term effects of war. 

There were so many scars in SA from apartheid, but the best way to heal those scars is be honest about the history and rise up against it gently and subtly, just like their hero and mentor Nelson Mandela taught them to do. I believe Cape Town is doing just that. We were told of the time when NM, having been released from Prison, blacks and whites united to hear him give his speech and waited in 90 degree heat for over 6 hours. No-one expected to hear him say - forgive them. He preached  to all the words of Jesus Christ or of Mahatma Ghandi or of Martin Luther King and now of his own because he knew that forgiveness would help heal those scars and change the feelings of oppression to ones of hope. Cue NM speech. On hearing this it reminds me of a powerful book I read called The Dharma Brothers, tales of forgiveness from young black men who had been incarcerated and are on death row for crimes they committed during their late teens; an incredible read. 

We moved to our second 7 day home on this holiday complete with self catering facilities; the first time we would cook for ourselves in 80 days! Seapoint was on the coast and a space, up until 1994, was by law for whites to live in only. The stories we were told again by the inhabitants of what living in CT was like brought tears to my eyes in the quiet moments. I know in the main, apartheid is over now and many are gaining strength through what is on offer today, and it was easy to ignore the history as this was a city that was thriving and quite safe for tourists, but it is upsetting to know that my brethren have suffered so and many still do; it takes several generations to change the tide. 

I wrote this blog also because I know in a few years time when I reflect on my travels I will see how much I have learnt; I can only hope to grow wiser. 

Whatever my views are on race,  ie equality and relationships between people, they are simple and therefore some thoughts are not always appropriate, because understanding racism isn't simple, but I would rather write something about the behaviours I see in SA I feel so strongly about, than write nothing. 

As a mixed race or if you like black woman who lives in the UK, born in the 60s and lives in a society where racism, inequality and injustice against human rights are rife, I feel I have some qualification to speak. I deal with it like millions of others who may be pitted against on a daily basis, I try to rise above it. Moaning and worrying doesn't always work, being positive and affirming your principles does. 

We firstly stayed in a guesthouse on the edge of the city near to the international airport and I had already decided that we would not move for 48 hrs so that we could organise ourselves and get ready for the next 16 days in and around CT. The guest house was cute, but during that 48 hrs I saw and heard too many references about personal safety,  threats, both to blacks and whites and an oppression coming from some of the white employers. I appreciate SA is a complex country, although some would say it is not, it is. This belief would be validated time and time again by the numerous people we talked with. 

The Black people in CT that we met were amongst the most humble and beautiful people I have ever met and I am so sorry that I doubted them and I hope they can forgive me. Many Black and Asian peolple in Britain could learn a lot from them. 

When we were near to the favelas in Rio recently one of the Jewish tourists said 'why doesn't the government just bulldoze the favelas if they are causing too many problems and misplace the people'. That to me was like saying why don't you just give some land to the Palestinians and some to the Jews in Gaza. Such a simple solution to such a complex problem and one that shows little insight into the struggles and the ambitions of all of the people, including the inhabitants and its leaders. It would never be appropriate to offer any simple solutions to the divisions that are apparent in SA, but people are beginning to come together and plan what they want for the next generations.