Thursday, October 27, 2011

Riding the train to Stellenbosch

I have been driving up and down the country around Cape Town since I moved here from Egoli in February. And indeed, a divided country it was and still is. It understand now why all the political analysts from the Cape region state that little has changed since democracy. More than ever, the view from Jozi is different. And the lieu commun, that black people in Cape Town need to go back to Jozi from time to time to remind themselves that they are black, also seems to make more sense now.

Usually I drive about three times a week from Cape Town via the University of the Western Cape in Bellville to Stellenbosch - the 60km ride is about a lifetime in social distance, to use the metaphor David Coplan uses to describe how communities are segregated.

The city centre of Cape Town must be about the most surveilled place in the Western Cape. Cameras and special guards are everywhere for 24hrs. And they frisk any black person who does not appear to work in the city. So usually young and black unemployed are their target for harassment and detention. True, beggars on Long Stree can be quite aggressive but turning a city centre into basically a no-go area for young black people who are not hell bent on indulging and spending their money smacks of racism, not to mention that it negates the achievement of a common democracy and any serious effort towards non-racialism. To add insult to injury, the Long Stree area is full of agencies who cater to young and hip Europeans, Northerners, or others, as long as they have the money, to come to South Africa for fun and work. Development work that is and they even pay for having the opportunity to volunteer and improve the lot of South Africans. Instead of giving opportunities to young black South Africans to get educated and earn a living, the city caters to foreigners to come here and work and help the "poor". One of the contradictions of global capitalism and in whose flow of money and people, Cape Town seems to have found its niche.

Cape Town has wonderful suburbs but they remain largely segregated. I wonder how a mixed family would want to live in this city. It seems impossible.

And Stellenbosch is about an island as it can be. The first few days I stayed there I always thought I was in my home country, Switzerland, so cleaned up, tidied up, so middle-class and so overflowing with young, rich white kids it was that I had to get used to it and understand that this is also a part of South Africa, and not another country.

So I was glad to take the opportunity last Friday morning to take a train to Stellenbosch, as I did for the last time about ten years ago when I stayed in Wynberg for 6 months. The train departed Cape Town station only 10 mins late and it took me 2 hrs from my home to my office. Not bad. The car ride usually takes 45 mins. Of course, there was also a sense of danger, as always when you are in public space in South Africa. And public transport also has a reputation of attracting dubious characters. So that was also the perverse thrill of taking the train, the excitement that comes with a feel, albeit limited and controlled, of danger. But what I enjoyed the most was that I could share the space, even for only a train ride, with a diverse crowd of people. An experience that is too seldom these days. On the way back, the train was delayed by about 90 mins. That was really a bummer. And I think it will take quite a while until I tak the train again.

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