Rain will eventually come to Cape Town. The water crisis will end, bringing with it lasting infrastructure and policy changes, or not, as the winds of politics and economics blow.
The story that is much older in South Africa and will not blow away any time soon is race and regime.
Statistically, South Africa is considered one of the most economically unequal nations on earth: 10% of the people (nearly all whites, who make up about 10% of the population overall) own 90% of the wealth; 90% of the people (virtually all black or otherwise non-white) own the remaining 10%. Other measures of wealth are similarly skewed.
To us, viewing through the inherent myopia of tourism, inequality along racial lines is, well, pretty black and white. In the upscale restaurants where we eat and the wineries we visit, virtually every customer is white and every server is non-white. Same in museums and most stores and anywhere else that requires discretionary income to enjoy. White patrons, black and other non-white staff; white shift bosses, black workers.
And then there are the townships, the shack-filled slums that sprawl for miles like the one depicted in the piece of local art above. In much the same spirit that America’s all-white leaders established Indian reservations in the 19th century, South Africa’s all-white leaders in the early 20th century passed laws banning non-whites from living anywhere near them and created “locations” where blacks and coloreds were forcibly moved.
Today, nearly 4 of every 5 South Africans still live in a township. Apartheid (which essentially formalized racial segregation that started much earlier) has ended. Separation and inequality live on.
In the face of this disparity and all the social, public and other ills it brings, Jacob Zuma, the nation’s immediate past president, spent eight years enriching himself and his friends and impoverishing the nation. The direct cost of his years in power is estimated at $83 billion (including a soaring national debt). The moral price of an accused rapist as president, incalculable.
By the time we arrived in Cape Town, South Africa had had enough. Two days after we landed, Zuma resigned under pressure from his own party and in the face of what struck us as universal loathing. Amid a public sigh of relief that was almost audible even to our visiting ears, he was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa, his former deputy (vice) president.
Like Nelson Mandela and every South African president since the collapse of apartheid and first democratic elections in 1994, Ramaphosa is a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. He was Nelson’s choice to succeed him but was defeated in his one run for the office, in 1997.
As welcome as he seems, both Ramaphosa and the ANC appear weakened by the eight years of Zuma’s leadership. After all, if the party or the previous vice president really cared about honesty, decency, and the welfare of the nation, a lot of people seem to be asking, wouldn’t they have done something anything about Zuma before now? (Imagine the attitude toward Mike Pence and the GOP after seven more years of closing ranks around Donald Trump whatever investigation, revelation or smarm comes, and you get a sense of the public mood.)
Arriving at such a moment as unreformed newsies, we have been questioning everyone we meet – white and non-white; South African and immigrant; wait staff, museum docents, parking guards, taxi drivers and retail clerks; young and old – how they feel about the change.
Would they describe themselves as “hopeful,” we ask? Or “optimistic”?
Confession: As a teenager when it became South Africa’s official racial policy, Doris struggled to understand apartheid. In east Texas, where her family made regular visits to her father’s hometown, blacks (called “colored” then) were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, water fountains, fast-food order windows or other facilities as whites. Everywhere, Doris saw signs essentially identical to the one at the top of the blog — a relic of apartheid South Africa — minus the Africaaner.
In those days, American blacks rode in the last cars of American trains, sat at the backs of American buses and were widely banned from the schools, hotels, restaurants and other public places whites used. Apartheid seemed to Doris’s teenaged, Beatles-addled brain to be simply the extreme of the racial segregation America itself practiced. Doris eventually sorted the distinctions out, and Brown vs Board of Education Topeka and the Civil Rights Act eventually voided the official bans (like South Africa abolished apartheid). But the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court opened 2018 with three cases on its docket around states redrawing their voter district lines to disenfranchise black voters is just one indication racial equality remains unrealized in America, too. (On the pop culture front, there was the best-picture-nominated horror film Get Out.)
The persistence of issues like these often leaves Doris feeling somewhere between cynical and hopeless about race in America. (Having grown up a Catholic Francophone in a predominantly Protestant Anglophone country where discrimination was rooted more in culture than in race, Quebecois Louis is less discouraged.) If our dozens of conversations in Cape Town are any indication (and we realize they may not be), South Africans are far less jaded.
We asked our guide around Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned along with Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists. And Ruth, a septugenarian grandmother whose family was forcibly removed and scattered along with 60,000 neighbors from Cape Town’s District Six. She now tells its stories to District Six Museum tourists.
We asked Zimbabwian Uber drivers, Xhosan waiters, Africaaners whose people have been here for centuries and Brits whose families have been here nearly as long or for a handful of years. We grilled Alex, the young South African tour guide who led us through Bo-Kapp, the former slave quarter now a trendy hotbed of gentrification, and quizzed Faaera, the grandmother of seven who cooked us a Cape Malaysian meal in her home there.
After a while, we must have looked like human antennae because we could walk into an establishment and literally have someone on the staff start telling us their story and views before we even asked them.
Privately, we wondered what has kept the country from imploding or exploding from impatience and sheer desperation before now. We saw protestors like the ones in the photo below on the streets downtown. There were deadly riots in one township while we were here. A demonstration was announced for Sunday at the harbor immediately below our AirBnB cottage in Hout Bay. When we went for a walk there anyway, a concerned local actually stopped her car, backed up 50 feet to where she had passed us and urged us to leave the area for the day for our own safety. (We kept walking, and the demo turned out to be small and peaceful.)
If we are reading the local news accurately, the drumbeat for radical measures is, in fact, growing. “The time for reconciliation is over,” the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary socialist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party exhorted South Africa’s Parliament last week. “Now is the time for justice.” Less than four years old, the EFF already holds 6% of the seats in Parliament.
Yet, what we heard on the streets was …
- Yes, we still have a long way to go,
- No, racial inequality did not end with apartheid,
- Yes, it could take generations to get there,
- No, we are not optimistic, but …
“We have H*O*P*E” in the words of a guard at the Bo-Kapp Museum, spelling it out. “No matter what, we have democracy. Democracy gives us hope for optimism.”
Nelson Mandela famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Whatever inequality remains, apartheid died and democracy was born. This experience of the improbable possible seems to continue breeding hope in South Africans.
We hope with them, for their sake and for ours, too.
In the rear-view mirror:
Alarm and warnings around Cape Town’s water shortage continue to mount in the absence of rain. Just a few since our blog on the crisis:
- AirBnB sent an email “to help our community to act responsibly during this drought.” It instructs guests to “follow the direction of local officials” (in bold face) and “make every effort to use water sparingly.”
- The Washington Post reported on how the Cape Town water shortage is highlighting inequality between the rich and the poor: Divided by Drought.
- Brookings Institute reported that drought conditions like Cape Town is facing are coming to be seen as the “new normal”: “Day Zero on the Back of Draught in South Africa: Lessons for the Future.”
COMING SOON: When in Cape Town (or, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought and politics)