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Postcards From Cape Town | The Nation

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Postcards From Cape Town

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 In a minibus to the spiffy new Waterfront, I meet 18-year-old Hedda from Norway, who has taken a semester off to volunteer in a township daycare center. The center has seventy children ranging from 6 months to 5 years, she tells me, and only four teachers. How on earth do they manage? "Through violence," she says sadly. "They hit the children all the time." Although everyone I meet says early childhood development is key to improving South Africa's dismal school results, the center has no books, puzzles or educational toys. Are they glad to have you working with them? "Not really," she says. "I think I just get in the way." Hedda seems amazingly resilient and mature and good-hearted, but I can't help wondering how much good she can possibly be doing. Wouldn't it make more sense for NGOs to skill up the daycare staff so they don't have to keep order with blows, and (especially considering South Africa's staggering rates of unemployment) fund the hiring of local helpers instead of importing one from Norway?

About the Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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 It hasn't rained in months, but a sudden downpour sends us scurrying into St. George's Cathedral just as a ceremony commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the demolition of St. John the Evangelist church on Waterkant Street is about to begin. St. John's was the heart of the colored community of District One, where the upscale Waterfront development is now. When in the 1960s the apartheid government forced the removal of the residents to the outskirts of town, the congregation kept coming back by train to worship. Now, some 150 to 200 mostly middle-aged to elderly people are gathered in their Sunday best to recall how church authorities sold the church out from under them as part of a complex real estate deal. "It was divide and rule," Terry Lester, subdean of the cathedral, tells me. "Today the most gentrified streets are called the Cape Quarter—but how can you have a Cape Quarter without brown people?"

Dr. Terence Fredericks, a white-bearded former resident, gives a rousing speech accusing the Anglican Church of collaborating with apartheid: "The church said it needed money to build churches in the townships"—perhaps not coincidentally, this would also keep people of color out of their old neighborhood. Several speeches later, the archbishop, Thabo Makgoba, a tall, handsome black man, takes the podium and apologizes graciously on behalf of those now-deceased apartheid-era white clerics. In South Africa, as in America, there's an awful lot of belated apologizing.

 In a week of intense conversation—the great thing about South Africa, my husband likes to say, is that no one engages in small talk—I heard the full spectrum of views about the new dispensation. At one extreme there's the gloom of journalist Bill Johnson, who sees the country sinking into incompetence, corruption and kleptocracy under ANC leadership, with whites, because of affirmative action and staggering rates of violent crime, leaving in droves, taking their skills with them. At the other is the hopefulness of economist Francis Wilson, who argues that young whites, no longer able to waltz into government jobs as they did under apartheid, are turning to entrepreneurship and good works, in his view a much better use of their skills. What struck me most, though, was the bizarre nature of the still intensely racialized society. There may be black millionaires now, but most blacks are still desperately poor—uneducated, unskilled, unemployed. Whole extended families survive on one old lady's tiny pension (1,000 rand, or around $140 a month) or one street seller's meager earnings. Every security guard, every maid, is supporting a small crowd of relatives their white employers never see.

 Our friend Barbara drives us an hour or so out to Franschhoek, the wine-growing region originally settled by Huguenots. It's almost too beautiful—Santa Barbara crossed with Provence, only more pristine, with big pastel houses surrounded by pink rosebushes and set in immense vineyards. To tell the truth, it looks a bit like a stage set. We stop at Solms-Delta, a farm and vineyard that the brilliant and astonishingly energetic Mark Solms (besides being a farmer and vintner he's a world-class neuroscientist, a psychoanalyst and an amateur ethnomusicologist) has turned into a workers' co-op, with a panoply of benefits and much-needed social services (alcoholism among vineyard workers is extremely high, the legacy of the old custom of paying them in wine). After a visit to the farm's fascinating slavery museum (did you know that Cape slaves were mostly Asian?) Barbara takes us to the township to visit her Zimbabwean friends Tonderai and Rebecca, who is due to give birth any day. This young couple, economic refugees from Mugabe's collapsing regime, have a lot to despair about—they live in a tiny, flimsy shack in a squalid slum full of people who only recently were on the verge of murdering any Zimbabweans they could get their hands on and who still, says Tonderai, "have violence in their hearts." Imagine bringing a baby into this situation! And yet they cheerfully welcome us inside to visit with them.

Black South Africans deeply resent as job stealers the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have flooded into the country from elsewhere in Africa. While plenty of Zimbabweans are without work and destitute, eking out a living selling beaded trinkets to drivers stopped at red lights, both Tonderai and Rebecca have indeed found work—he's a cook; she does her neighbors' hair. From their perspective, Zimbabweans get jobs because they are better educated, more enterprising and speak better English. In fact, despite their discouraging circumstances, the two of them seem full of vitality and hope. They may not have a kitchen or a bathroom, but they have a computer, with Internet. And just before we leave for the United States, Barbara calls to tell us Rebecca has given birth. Mother and tiny son are doing well.

Image courtesy of Joonas Lyytinen.

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