Last night in Africa
15 July 2006
I have been a week in Cape Town, South Africa and am due to return to Europe tomorrow. This trip has been life-changing in many ways although my initial purpose was as a conference participant and tourist. A week may not be long enough to get a sense of a place, but I’ve experienced enough contrasts to appreciate its diversity.
I don’t know enough about the apartheid era to know whether the sense of openness with which I was greeted somehow emerged from a past that has known the pain of man’s judgement against man. I have never felt so welcome, not even in my home country. Where I come from, the urge to conform into the bland middleground is such that it doesn’t take much to stick out. Where I now live and work, my foreignness singles me out from a distance. While I do not face any hostilty, I am not immune to the glass shutter that comes down across the eyes of even those who are friendly, when I’m at the supermarket checkout, at a pub or even walking down the street — the shutter that widens the chasm between politeness and welcome.
In South Africa, it was different. I am not of the place, but I felt like I had been there forever. I had arranged for a visit to a black township this afternoon, and was initially apprehensive about being the gawking tourist. What I encountered were people actually asking for their pictures to be taken. The third man from the right in the picture above said, ‘Tell people who you met here.’ To me, it was an honest request for recognition and acknowledgement from another, something no amount of police raids and identity passes could have ever granted.
The children, as ever, were the most endearing, not begging for treats or money, as the stereotypes have painted, but wanting simply to become part of a foreigner’s travel memories. Those memories may include the spectacular scenery of the Cape winelands, the majesty of Table Mountain, and the elegant oak-lined streets of the university town of Stellenbosch, but those are pictures you can get on postcards. With these pictures, I honour the request of the children of Kayamandi (‘Pleasant Town’). I met them and they met me.