I don’t know whether to blame my underlying stupidity, refusal to plan, or stubborn outlook on life for believing that winter in South Africa was a myth. But I did. And it wasn’t. Completely unprepared with shorts and summer attire, ready to surf the Cape Town waves, frolic on the beaches, and leave myself to a wild tribe of African tigers (they live in Asia, I have recently been informed), I was pent up in a beautiful 18th century African bed and breakfast (Villa Rosa), run by what could only be Nelson Mandela’s daughters, with fits of cold wind and rain pelting against my glass windows.
I had arrived in Cape Town two days ago with no clue as to what time zone, time period, or day it was, feeling like I had just battled through 3 world wars in 17 different countries. I’d slept for maybe an hour over the course of 27 hours on 3 different planes in 3 different countries, and by the time transport spit me out at Cape Town International, saying goodbye to Meg in Athens’ airport the day prior felt like a distant dream covered in a foggy haze.
From what I remember, those 27 hours were comprised of (but not limited to) the following: 3 different types of drunk, 3 rare form hang overs, tearful fits during 3 different movies including the god damn Lego movie, a 9 hour layover in Turkey spent in an air lounge with (who I can’t be certain, but am absolutely positive was) Lock from the TV show, “Lost,” 9 glasses of wine, copious amounts of different language barriers, some terrible make shift homemade Irish coffees, and a chain smoking cage box in Istanbul. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I almost got involved in a possible drug smuggling business carrying packages into different countries in exchange for free flights and 400 USD.
A stranger to myself, as if waking from a head injury, I am left wondering what the shit just happened in the past 27 hours … not to mention, for the love of God, why am I in Africa? And why have I chosen the furthest place possibly south in this giant continent. Also, I’ve just found out it’s winter here so that’s unfortunate.
I stand at baggage claim watching the backpacks and suitcases spin hypnotically by me and I’m almost certain I’m a figment of my own imagination. I think that my bag is probably lost and I hope that it is. Unfortunately, the bastard comes rolling through, the last on the line.
Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a faint and vacant hole where once headed African advice had been, but I can’t locate it so I get into the first taxi I find. Being the travel extraordinaire that I am, I shortly realize I have no clue about social customs or norms here, nor did I even think to look into them prior. Do they tip? How much should a taxi be so I know I’m not being ripped off? What the hell is a Rand and how many USD does 1 equal? Am I going to be driven off the grid and sold into slavery? No one knows and no one cares.
The taxi driver’s voice drones in and out of my consciousness as he talks about Table Mountain and such. He asks me what I think of South Africa and so far it looks pretty much like any other place in the States I’ve ever been. We drive down a regular looking highway towards the city with regular looking land on either side and he nonchalantly points out a “township” that we pass being the largest in Cape Town. I follow his arm motion and squint out my window. I’m not sure what a township is but I can’t make it out with this massive heap of trash in front of me. Some sort of dump or landfill, I presume.
“What’s a township? I ask sleepily, “I don’t see it.”
“Right there,” he says motioning to the heap of trash and scrap metal on the side of the road, “Townships are very poor towns here in Africa.”
“That right there??” I ask, bewildered, “That’s a town? People live there?”
“Sure do,” he says with nothing but normalcy in his tone, “gets awful hot in the summer and dreadfully cold in the winter, what with those dirt floors, ya know.”
I stared out of the window with my jaw dragging on the concrete behind our tires. It looked like a stretch of land covered in cardboard boxes, scraps of metal, sheets, and trash, all piled on top of one another. I ripped my gaze from the place and looked over the back seat. I could still see the airport and Victoria Wharf, the sophisticated and exquisite set of shopping centers, restaurants, and high-class condos. How was this possible? These people lived next door to each other, in neighboring towns. How did people pass this everyday, leaving their fancy homes on their way to their fancy jobs?
That was the day I first saw the expansive gap of inequality between rich and poor in Africa that everyone speaks about. A third world country and a first world country living side by side, and often in adjacent neighborhoods. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, the past 27 hours were irrelevant, shamefully miniscule. Now I was fully awake.
I would quickly find over the following weeks, that these townships sprung up everywhere, all clustered together climbing up hills, and squeezing between mansions, anywhere they could find and they grew almost overnight. Depreciating wealthy neighborhoods in a matter of days, turning their backyards into places of crime and fear. Unlike anything I had ever seen, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. We had poor areas back home, sure, but this stark contrast living next to and on top of each other was staggering. And furthermore, who had let this happen??
This starch contrast in quality of living is an epidemic in South Africa and no one knows what to do about it. Men sit out on every street corner waiting for construction work or anything to compensate their labor, but there aren’t enough jobs for the poor, so after all attempts at making money fail, they take it, turning their wealthy next-door neighbor’s world upside down. Women walk the streets in ragged skirts with babies tied to their backs in sheets while they carry an even smaller one on their hip or shoulders. Babies are everywhere. The crime has reached hideous levels where driving out of your two door garage and three story house, down the road is no longer safe. Last week, an elderly man was dragged from his car and beaten almost to death with a bat for his cell phone. The week before another infant was found in a dumpster. This happens everyday. Trash cans, gutters, lakes, fields. Live, breathing, newborn babies are abandoned and left for trash. And no one is doing anything about it.
The government pays these township people a stipend (about $300) for each baby they have, in attempts to help them, but instead of providing them help, they’ve provided them with a perceived way out, a means to live. Keep birthing children and then trash them when the small amount of money comes in. I feel physically ill when I learn this, passing two women carrying at least 3 children each. Wondering how many more they had and discarded.
Frequent rants and complaints from the President are aired daily on the radio. He’s angry that the government cut his budget for his mansion renovation. One of his 6 wives or 23 children aren’t happy or aren’t well. This is a man who, prior to his election, raped a HIV infected woman, and responded only with a public statement about the impossibility of him contracting aids because he had showered after the encounter. This man is not only running this country, but somehow got put in the highest position of power by the people themselves. Contrary to American politicians who sweet talk and maneuver their way through elections, politically correct at every turn … this man’s flaws and injustices were not unknown to the public, nor were they hidden. And by the sound of it, solely due to his lack of intelligence or regard for anyone else. So how did he get here? Who voted for him?
Easy. By offering a glimmering promise of hope to the people of these townships, the lowest levels of poverty who make up the majority of the population. Promising them housing, a future, and a chance at a better life. If the votes are in the numbers and the numbers can be found in the most desperate and broken people, than the victory is as good as given. They will soon forget that this man did not deliver on any of his offers, nor make a slight attempt at pretending to do so, and they will grasp at the chance when the next candidate comes along, failing them again.
The radio announcer reads off a list of current news and I can make out just enough through the static. Another infant found in a nearby lake; two found in the underground gutter system by construction workers, an old couple pulled from their car and beaten – their phones and wallets the only things missing, a single mother lie bleeding in an alleyway after someone caught a glimpse of her iPhone, a neighbor’s car window smashed in – a laptop gone.
I feel sick again and look out the window past the woman draped in sheets with a toddler strapped to her back with a tied blanket, his back arched unnaturally, drooping in the makeshift sack with his cheek pressed firmly against the woman’s middle back and his eyes wide, seemingly lifeless. I force my gaze past them to the victorious mountains behind them, surviving wildfire after wildfire, covered in yellow shrubbery and the bright blue ocean glistening from around every corner. How could a place this beautiful be so broken?
(Epilogue: it wasn’t until I met a few of these township folk, that my world was irrevocably shaken….)
^See subsequent Blog post “Elma & Me”