Just before I left for South Africa, my aunt in California submitted a request. “Bring me back a piece of the motherland,” she said, after we talked about my three-month trip to Cape Town to write my dissertation on a South African artist.
For many older African Americans, visiting Africa is a way of connecting with a history from which they were abruptly disconnected through the trauma of slavery. I knew African history was part of my heritage, but at age 27, it seemed far away. What I knew about South Africa I'd gleaned as a child in the 1980s, when I would hear adults discussing apartheid's injustices at the family dinner table. I also remember the call to “Free Mandela” that was emblazoned on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters in my neighborhood. I was eager to see the places that shaped South African history for myself.
On June 9, I caught my first view of South Africa as my plane flew over the Western Cape. I could see the neatly manicured lawns, dotted with bright blue swimming pools, and the palm-lined streets of Cape Town's predominately white suburbs. Then, in a split second, I saw jumbled masses of corrugated metal, cardboard, and smoke. We were flying over the Cape Flats, Cape Town's townships, the place that most black Capetonians call home. As my taxi drove along the N2 freeway toward my Rondebosch apartment, I got another look at these townships -- apartheid's lasting legacy -- and I knew that no amount of reading could prepare me for the history lesson I was about receive.
In many ways, Cape Town is actually two separate cities. On one hand, many whites live in stately suburban homes and university residences in Rondebosch, Newlands, and Claremont. They can afford to drive into the city and have a cappuccino at the City Bowl downtown. On the other hand, there are the black manual and domestic laborers, who rise as early as 3 a.m. to make the journey from outlying areas into the city every day. Their hourly wage is often less than the cost of a cappuccino. With a so-called official unemployment rate of about 30 percent, which is considered to be low by many experts, South Africans struggle to acquire and maintain food and shelter. The key to understanding Cape Town is to understand the history behind this tale of two cities.
Although South Africa has been plagued by racial conflict for three centuries, apartheid became a legal doctrine in 1948, when the right-wing National Party became the ruling party in the parliament. During the next 40 years, white supremacy justified everything from denying blacks access to education to outlawing sexual relations between races.
Housing segregation formed the backbone of the doctrine. The Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Pass Laws of 1952 ensured that black workers came into the city to work and left immediately afterward. The government laid the foundations for black townships by systematically removing all nonwhite residents from the city center and placing them on the outskirts of Cape Town as early as 1901.
The outside perception of the townships is that they are dilapidated. In fact, there is a wide range of housing. Because all blacks -- regardless of education or financial position -- were prohibited from living outside of areas designated for their race, township housing runs the gamut from makeshift structures of scrap metal to middle-class bungalows with small lawns.
Apartheid's absurdity even extends to the street names. According to the government, black history didn't exist, so naming streets after historical figures was out of the question. When the urban planners grew tired of giving out names like “Oak Street” or “Main Street,” they began naming them things like “Karate Street.” In the Guguletu township, streets are simply given a number with the prefix “NY,” meaning “Native Yard” (yet they aren't numbered consecutively). Soweto, the Johannesburg township, is not an African name. It's an acronym that stands for “South Western Township.”
While many African countries were breaking the chains of European colonialism during the 1970s and '80s, white South Africans tightened their control over the black majority. But by 1985, the regime was falling apart. Scenes of shootings, student protests, and mass funerals held in soccer stadiums filled nightly news programs around the world.
As a black American, I wanted to visit the townships so I could understand Cape Town. I decided to take a tour, and began with a visit to the District Six Museum (1), which was one of the only racially integrated sections before it was bulldozed in 1966 under the Group Areas Act. The act reserved the most desirable land for white habitation and paved the way for moving all nonwhites to the townships. The museum has become a national symbol of the healing process in South Africa.
Here, African hip-hop music filled the air, interspersed with sound bites from South African soap operas (called soappies) broadcast in one of the nation's 11 official languages. In the late afternoon, women began to prepare their evening meals, which usually consist of vegetables, pap (boiled maize similar in consistency to southern grits), and grilled meat, producing a tantalizing aroma that wafted into our van. Meanwhile, street vendors bartered with us to sell local artwork. After purchasing a few souvenirs, we visited an ix-hwele, or traditional herbalist, who explained how to relieve cold symptoms using a mixture of ground snakeskin and plant roots.
Many townships, such as Crossroads, became battlefields during apartheid. I remember watching news reports showing hundreds of black protesters (mostly teenagers) being beaten and shot in the streets for speaking out against the government. As our driver whipped in and out of the maze of muddy roads, artfully dodging goat herds and chicken flocks, he pointed to buildings and parks that had been sites of black resistance during apartheid, including the remnants of a shebeen (a locally owned bar) that had been burned down by students protesting “Bantu” education during the 1976 youth riots. The students burned down the shebeen in order to force their parents to stop drinking alcohol and start paying attention to their children's inferior education. Today, South Africans celebrate Youth Day on June 16 in honor of the 23 black student protesters who died on that day. As many as 200 are said to have been killed, though the real number has never been calculated.
Finally, I visited a street in the Guguletu township where Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl was murdered. A marble plaque marks the place where she fell on August 25, 1993. On that day, she was driving some of her colleagues back to the township where a demonstration against white settlers was taking place. She was stabbed and stoned to death by four black youths. I never met her, but we're both from southern California and we both majored in international relations at Stanford.
Her murderers applied for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, and her parents supported the commission's decision to grant it to them. Her parents have since established the Amy Biehl Foundation (2) which speaks to the extraordinary sense of optimism that the multiracial democracy will succeed.
LaNitra Walker is a doctoral candidate at Duke University.