IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

South Africa Letter Home

By students Deepra Yusuf, Wangũi Kamonji, Dan Ladd and Kenneth Kalynchuk

Our initial reaction to seeing Cape Town from the window, after spending twelve hours on two airplanes, was vastly different from our first impression of Sao Paulo. Instead of a sprawling megalopolis, Cape Town seemed small and quaint. The lights of the city twinkled softly and were interspersed with large dark patches.

Arriving in Cape Town

Upon landing, we were transported through the sleek and modern airport terminal built for the 2010 World Cup and greeted by our welcoming committee, Sally and Mia. Immediately, we took a liking to both of them and excitedly boarded the bus to our accommodations for the evening. We drove through the city, disoriented and unclear on what was going on or where we were. Sally tried to elucidate to us many of the major points we were passing, but we would only come to know them much later on. Finally, we stopped at our destination for the night, The Backpack, a lovely little hostel right near downtown Cape Town. We gratefully sank into the soft beds and were all quickly asleep. The next morning we were all sitting in the kitchen when one of our classmates quickly rushed in, "Have you guys been outside yet?" Most of had not, and he quickly rushed us outside. Upon entering into the blinding light we quickly saw what he meant.

I'm sure most people who know something about Cape Town know Table Mountain; it is part of what makes the city so beautiful and such a tourist destination. On almost every postcard the beauty of Table Mountain can be seen. What those pictures don't show, however, is how defining the Mountain truly is. It fills almost your whole field of view and acts as a point of reference while you are in the city. After breakfast many of us left to go to the Old Biscuit Mill, an old mill that has been turned into a craft and local food market on Saturday mornings. Divine does not even begin to express the food there. Moreover, the free samples of almost everything, ranging from Cape Malay style cuisine, to fresh fruits and vegetables, warm waffles, ostrich omelets and more kept us busy for hours. After getting our fill, many of us decided to try and conquer the imposing Table Mountain. Eschewing the easy choice of taking the gondola up, a group decided to hike it up instead. After a refreshing two hour stair-master level climb, we arrived at the plateau. The views were definitely rewarding. Watching the sunset from the mountain will be one of the most pure and beautiful things we will remember about Cape Town, for our studies to come would complicate our views of this city.

Our first homestay in Cape Town was in the Bo Kaap. The Bo Kaap is a unique neighborhood in the city; primarily a Muslim a community, the people of Bo Kaap were one of the only colored communities not forcefully evacuated from the city center during Apartheid. Moreover, most of the residents here have lived here their entire lives. In fact, many inherited their homes from family before them. To say the Bo Kaap is a tight knit community is an understatement. Our host mothers all knew the names of all the other host parents just by looking at an address. Often we would come to class in the morning with gossip to share about one of our peers, spilled from one home stay mother to another. But what we came to love the most about our Bo Kaap families was that they were more than welcoming in accepting us into their lives. They cooked us amazing dishes (their Cape Malay style cuisine is found nowhere else in the world), took us to mosque with them, and even celebrated our birthdays. More than that, they helped orient us in the city, giving us their perspectives and guiding our first explorations into Cape Town.

Cape Town was made for the newcomer: it was an easy city to walk in, we all finally spoke at least one of the native languages, and the locals helped us finally relax a little with their laid back natures. Without too much effort, we came to find our comfort spots in Cape Town. Most of us became regulars at the cafes on Long Street; others frequented the Old Biscuit Mill on the weekends, and some of us even became recognizable customers at the local markets in town. At first as we explored the city we fell in love with almost everything we saw, the beauty of the mountains and the sea, the quaintness of the small shops, and the deep variety of food and drink. But slowly creeping into our psyches was the fact that not everyone in Cape Town could have the experiences we were having, especially those who were not white. Moreover, safety, its perception and its reality was also another issue we dealt with daily, and thinking about the racial component of this was often uncomfortable. But it was refreshing to find that Cape Townians never hesitated to discuss race; it was such a part of their history and lives that tip toeing around the subject would be almost obscene. In the first few weeks we learned to adjust to this raw honesty; later we would come to really hear peoples’ stories.

After two weeks in the Bo Kaap, which we felt was an introduction to the city and country, we were thrown into the more critical portion of our Cape Town experience. We were welcomed to the Langa neighborhood, where we were to live our last two weeks, by a local percussion group at the Guga S’Thebe community center. Langa, the oldest township in Cape Town, presented us with the realities still faced by many black South Africans after nearly a decade post-Apartheid. The damaging effects of segregation are still present. Langa is located far away from the city center where most people work, a result of the Apartheid government’s desire to create a whites only city. Moreover, the unemployment rate in Langa is much higher than it is for those who live in the city center. Housing is also an issue. Next to the houses in the original neighborhood where we lived was the Joe Slovo informal settlement. Here, many people are living in shacks with sparse access to clean water or sewage. Yet our experience of Langa was not only of the pain we saw, but also of how to overcome these struggles through community and family. Our families were amazing. Most were from the Xhosa community and all knew each other, making us feel connected. Although we were kept on curfew while living there, some families introduced us to the strong night life in the neighborhood. We came to take in Langa with all its sides, but we will remember it with fondness.

Academically, we began the third week with a visit to the Sustainability Institute at Lynedoch Eco Village. Although the visit was about sustainability, the place was unique in that it was not simply addressing this issue in an environmental sense but also a social one. Unlike most of Cape Town, this neighborhood was not divided along color lines. Although there were only a few houses here, the community was mixed income as well as mixed race. It was a spark of hope only an hour away from the city. Upon returning to Cape Town, we began our week long research on various topics of interest concerning the city. These topics included effects of the World Cup in 2010, gentrification, sexual abuse, migration, and informal settlement upgrading. Our research took us across the city and allowed us to understand the realities here in greater depth.  Even getting into the city to do our work provided us with information for critical analysis. Every day we would take the Kombi-Taxi system, a private solution to Cape Town’s public transportation problem. These large white vans could be taken from a van corral in Langa and took us downtown, or anywhere else within the city, for 8 rand ($1) each; to keep us awake, the loud Soweto music and easy small talk of the riders was included. Our week concluded with a series of creative presentations, many of which were intellectually inspirational.

After a week of research and some enjoyment (groups of students went wine tasting, traveled to Cape Point, visited Hout Bay, and went shark cage diving) we dove into our final days of classes in South Africa. We spent a day learning from a panel of NGO leaders and visiting sites where they made an impact on the city. A highlight was Happy Feet, a group located right in Langa that taught kids a form of dance to be performed across the city as a way to keep them out of trouble. We had lectures on crime, mega-event planning, neighborhoods, gentrification, and a wrap-up Q&A session with Edgar Pieterse, a professor at University of Cape Town and renowned for his work on African cities. These last few days were jam-packed and at times stressful to get through, but what we learned here was worth the work.

After four weeks in South Africa and more than half of the program behind us we were all glad for the one week holiday. Not only were we glad for the opportunity to be out of class and have some time to absorb all that we had learned so far, but we were also looking forward to do our own exploring of this vast country. A group of us flew to the well known Kruger National Park near Johannesburg for a few days, while another group took a seven-day planned tour of the region around the Western Cape. A few of us took the hop-on hop-off Baz bus and travelled along the coast of South Africa. Some stayed in Cape Town and continued to explore the city outside of the regular academic schedule, and others, not having had enough of wine country, revisited Stellenbosch and elsewhere. Memorable experiences included riding ostriches, walking with elephants, meeting with groups of well-known artists making social impacts on the city, and visits to the beach. All in all, the week off gave all of us new life and energy to tackle the final part of the program.

While we enjoyed our week of freedom in South Africa, we were also cognizant of the fact that the last leg of our journey was upon us.  We had begun thinking and talking about how we would take our experiences (sometimes, seemingly contradictory, and many times, challenging) back home, and how they would translate into our future lives. But more so, we were excited at the prospect of adding another layer to this complexity, with our last city: Hanoi.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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