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Confessions of a not-so-proud Capetonian

By Nicola Soekoe

Okay, I said it. I’m from Cape Town and, sure, I love the place, but still my reply to the come-from question usually takes the form of: “My family is from Joburg, but I live in Cape Town.” Four years ago when I first went abroad alone Cape Town wasn’t the sexy place it is today and I would take any opportunity to tell people boast about the incredible city I got to call my home. Nowadays one just needs to mention South Africa and the questions about Cape Town come flying. Sometimes they’ve been and loved it; it is one of their all-time favourite cities. Most times they haven’t visited yet but are dying to (they’ve seen photos). And while we all hate to see our usual spots swarming with tourists who’ve read the “How to eat like a local” section of their tour guide, it is not the influx of tourists that has spurred my change in feelings. Rather, it is what this signifies.

Firstly, and more broadly, the increased attention Cape Town is receiving is a sign that the world believes we are doing something right. The tourists and the accolades (World Design Capital, New York Time’s Number 1 place to visit in 2014, etc etc) seems to provide impetus for our city — its planners and its residents – to keep doing what we’re doing. The problem is that Cape Town’s “transition” isn’t really a transition at all. Rather the wealthy European-like City Bowl, Atlantic Seaboard and Southern Suburbs are just getting richer, while the rest of Cape Town once again loses out (please don’t point to the gentrification of Woodstock as an example of our city’s “pro-poor” development).

I’m not trying to say that designer shopping malls and hip cafes can’t be truly South African: they can and they are and they are just as much a part of our city as the townships are. But the townships — and the hundreds of seemingly forgotten poor-but-not-quite-township-poor areas — are still there and thus are still a part of our city. It’s not only the tourists that just see our city’s highlights; many of Cape Town’s upper class forget that the rest of the city even exists.

A quick look at the City of Cape Town’s statistics site shows that the population of the Capetonian suburb of Bonteheuwel, for example, is bigger than that of Camps Bay, Clifton, Sea Point, Green Point, Bishopscourt, Newlands and Constantia combined, yet until a few minutes ago I couldn’t tell you where it was. And we’re still racially segregated, too. In the book “Growing up in the new South Africa; Childhood and adolescence in post-apartheid Cape Town” research done among Capetonian youth found that not only are our suburbs still almost completely segregated (even in the few mixed suburbs, members of one race are rarely friends with those of another) but most youth show inexperience with and prejudice towards those of a different race living just a few kilometres down the road in neighbouring suburbs. But we didn’t need research to tell us that we live in different worlds. When I say I’m from Cape Town many people see only the side of Cape Town that is presented to them, and that Cape Town is, undeniably, a side that ignores the rest. It is that Cape Town of which I am not so proud to be a part.

It might seem like I am looking into this too deeply but my ability to speak about South Africa’s socio-economic position when abroad with at least a little bit of authority (as I am from there) is hampered when I say I am Capetonian and immediately those around me think: “Okay so she doesn’t really understand the situation in South Africa at large.” I’ve been told, sometimes explicitly, that my opinion isn’t representative of my country’s and a lot of the time (though I try to get around it) it’s true.

So I say I’m from Joburg and suddenly I feel more justified to give the South African perspective. Not because Joburg is less unequal than Cape Town, but because the Joburg the world sees is slightly more comprehensive (the not-so-nice parts aren’t hidden as well, and the fancy restaurants host rich people of all colours) and, therefore, it seems like citizens of Joburg might, maybe, have a better understanding of what it means to be South African. Again, I don’t think this is necessarily true, but the way Cape Town is marketed means that to the rest of the world being proud to be from Cape Town means something totally different to being proud to be from South Africa, which I am, overwhelmingly.

Someone has adapted the City of Cape Town’s slogan “This City Works for You” and, on a high wall hiding a township from the highway, has instead written “This City Works for a Few”. There are so many things I love about Cape Town but there’s a lot about the way we share this city that is embarrassing. So when people tell me how much they adore Cape Town I am happy, yes, but also frustrated that the city’s development is happening in such a way that they probably know only one, highly polished, version of it. And I don’t want to be that city’s ambassador.

Nicola Soekoe is a 21-year-old South African studying ethics, politics and economics at Yale University. She runs an educational non-profit in Cape Town and is currently interning at Unesco’s International Institute for Education Planning in Paris, France.