Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Seeing inequality everywhere else

What is it about Cape Town that brings out the social activist in everyone? I recently shared the experience of Cape Town with several (non-Capetonian) friends. I may not live there now, but a part of my heart is aways with the city I loved for so many years. Yet, other people, particularly enlightened, educated, young white South Africans, find it uncomfortable. Over and over I hear a refrain that Cape Town's beauty hides massive inequality. Cape Town is unequal. The inequality is glaringly obvious, spatially, materially and, yes, still, racially. I'm just not sure I understand what it is about Cape Town, in particular, that makes people feel that inequality is somehow more problematic there than in Kimberley or East London or Ekurhuleni.

A friend commented that white people walk in Cape Town. In Johannesburg, white (and/or rich) people don't walk around the streets. One of the strongest markers for me of the invisibility of inequality in South Africa is the furore over pot holes in Johannesburg. The media coverage honestly suggests that pot holes are the greatest problem of the city. But I lived in Joburg. I lived in rich, white Joburg. My flat was barely 10 minutes from work, so I walked. In all the time I was there, apart from the very occasional jogger - in high-fashion gear, studiously avoiding pedestrian - I don't think I ever saw another white person walking. Rich people, white people, people who own cars go to parks and game reserves to walk. The people I shared the pavements with were labourers and 'domestics', messengers and sometimes, occasionally, clerks and secretaries. They were people who couldn't afford to run a private car. Some were heading to the taxi rank - unreliable, expensive public transport. Some would walk home to Alex, the hidden (ignored?) labour pool for Sandton. Potholes really weren't their biggest issue.

Alexandra (Alex) makes me uncomfortable. Alex is a bustling, seething mass of human life squashed into a tiny area near the relatively underpopulated and ridiculously affluent Sandton. Every time I took a cab to the airport and the taxi driver took the road through Alex, I was struck by the incredibly contrast of living. One of the joys of South Africa for me has always been that, even in the worst places, even in the most heavily populated bits of Khayelitsha, there is space to breathe. Alex just looks, from the outside, like an heaving, seething antheap of people on top of people on top of people. Whatever my intellectual position, driving through Alex always filled me with a mixture of relief that it wasn't me and an uneasy sense of the fragility of a system that sustains that kind of inequality.

Perhaps because Cape Town was home for longer and I worked and lived there from early on, the townships of Cape Town are less foreign, less 'other' to me - I have fond memories of schools in Khayelitsha, I've sat through endless meetings at the youth centre in Langa, I always wonder where the guy I worked with in Gugulethu ended up because he was such an awesome entrepreneur. Cape Town doesn't make me see inequality everywhere, I think because the city - including some of the poorer, more spatially disadvantaged areas - is disaggregated into individuals and experiences. The same is true, for me, of Colesberg or Mawhelereng/Mokopane.

Not Durban, though. Durban is completely unfamiliar to me and always feels like this threatening, insurmountable mess of inequality. How do ordinary people get around Durban? I always feel like it must be a public transport nightmare. And Joburg. The racial association with inequality, which is not uniquely but particularly strongly South African, isn't that significant for me in Cape Town because I see with an insiders view, mediated by who I know and remember, not in any way objectively. Joburg feels way more racially unequal - white people don't walk; there are black people in cars but no white people at the bottom; the people who sell the newspapers are black, the people who write newspapers are white; the petrol attendants are black, the merc drivers are white; the CEOs are black, the receptionists are white...

At which point my stereotypes break down because the association is not absolutely true in Joburg any more than it is anywhere else. In Cape Town, I'm one of a racially-mixed group on any train, at any time of day, going pretty much anywhere. In Joburg, I'm the one white person walking or taking the bus. In both cases, this isn't empirically true. Experiences are mediated by one's own fear and expectations. I'm not scared on Cape Town trains, so I notice the other(s) as individuals. I am nervous in Joburg, so I see all others as overwhelmingly the majority and overwhelmingly different. I'm an outsider, unfamiliar, insecure, so I aggregate and categorise in a way that makes me suddenly aware of very real and very large inequality.

I don't think Cape Town is visibly or demonstrably more unequal than any other city. Nor do I think Cape Town thinks it is less unequal than other cities (although I'm open to correction on both counts). Perhaps the thing that triggers the revulsion or uncomfortableness is the fact that it is a tourist city, so there are efforts to make things easier for the wealthy visitors, which appear to some as unconscionable diversion of funds from fixing poverty (with a whole set of questionable assumptions about immediate assistance vs long-term poverty alleviation). Perhaps it is that Cape Town, as an opposition-run city, represents for many some sort last, outstanding bastion of white domination. I don't, for the record, buy that this is the real, lived experience of most Capetonians. Perhaps it is just that, with an outsider's eye it is far easier to notice and perhaps magnify the inequality. There or anywhere else. I'm sure Durban is a lot more complex than my knee-jerk shock at massive inequality wants to believe. I know Joburg does far more than the knot of anxiety at the coming uprisings every-time I drive through Alex suggests.

Inequality remains a huge problem in every city in South Africa. But that is the point: it is a huge problem for every city. Relegating it to the category of "Cape Town problems" denies the reality that it remains a problem in Joburg, Durban, Bloemfontein, PE. If I see inequality in Durban, and I refuse to pretend it is a problem of some other group, some other place, that means I need to take it home and recognise that being removed from my own situation has allowed me to be reminded of how widespread it is everywhere, including here.

This is not intended to be an unsophisticated defense of Cape Town - saying that Cape Town's inequality is not a problem because other places are unequal, too. That is absolutely not my point. Cape Town remains as unequal and as inactive about it as all the other cities. But the things that make inequality so hard to stomach in Cape Town, especially for those who are not from Cape Town, are not unique to Cape Town and if any opportunity is created by becoming uncomfortably aware of inequality, whether in Cape Town or somewhere else, it should be, to my mind, that inequality is everywhere in South Africa and no city (or town) is doing enough to fix it.

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