Sunday, January 18, 2009

We didn't start the fire...

…It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it..

Adderley Street is one of the main avenues in Cape Town, running through the centre of the downtown core. Every year about two months before Christmas, a celebration is held to herald the turning on of the holiday lights that bridge the street.

In an attempt to get into the Christmas spirit (no small feat for Canadians who are accustomed to cold weather accompanying the season celebrating Christ’s birth, and for whom 30+ degree weather is generally more closely tied into our nation’s birthday), my housemate and two other Canadian friends headed downtown to scoop it out late last year.

One of the first things I noticed as we approached Adderley was how many coloured people there were. Everywhere we looked, everyone was coloured. It was an interesting experience. As mentioned in previous blogs, despite the ‘end’ of apartheid 14 years ago, people often still remain separated (metaphorically as well as demographically) with certain neighbourhoods being clearly dominated by one race or another. Working in Gugulethu, the primary ethnic group that I associate with is black, whereas living in Cape Town there is a much larger percentage of whites and coloureds. I have been to nightclubs in Athlone – a suburb largely populated by coloureds – where the majority of people there were coloured, and of course on a daily basis interact with coloureds in various capacities. T
his was the first time that I had been in an environment where there were so many coloureds and little else.

To put it into context, according to the newspapers that were out the following day, close to 50 000 people attended the switching-on event. I would wager that about 99% of those in attendance were coloured. During our close to 2 hour time there, I saw about 15 black people and about 5 other white people. I kid you not.

In a later conversation with one of my coloured friends, she explained to me that for many coloureds who live in the Northern suburbs, particularly those who come from working class and poor homes, this night is an event that is looked forward to for much of the year. It’s a chance to engage in a quasi-cultural event with the whole family. As many do not come into the city that often, it is indeed a special occasion.

While I did not at any time feel unsafe during this excursion, for some reason it got me to thinking about my safety.

By far, the most common question people (white Capetonians, many of whom who have never been into a township, equally as much foreigners) ask me when I tell them I am working in a township has to do with whether:
a) it is safe and b) I feel safe.

My answer to both questions is always the same: Yes. That said, I do not drive into the heart of Gugulethu, I do not walk around beyond the school gates, and I do not drive to the townships at night alone. My school is enclosed by an electronic barbed wire-rimmed fence, and those at my school – students and staff alike – always look out for me. Before I had a car and would take public transport, they would never let me walk to the bus station by myself, despite it being a 4 minute walk in a strait line on a wide open road in broad daylight. You can literally see the bus station from the school gates. Regardless, I have been reminded countless times how easy it is to get robbed or worse, and have heard stories of students getting mugged steps from school property and how my white skin makes me an easily visible target.

As with any urban metropolis, it is important to have your wits about you when navigating the streets of Cape Town. I don’t take chances, nor do I believe in being overly-cautious. Crime happens everywhere, all the time. I know of friends here who have been robbed, hijacked, had their cars and homes broken into and held up at knife and gunpoint in every corner of the world. While the frequency of such crimes may not be the same in a city like Toronto, New York, Shanghai or London, the reality is that they still do happen.

The fact that where I work happens to be a black township I believe plays a significant role in people’s questions relating to my safety. There is a common belief, particularly among those Capetonians and South Africans who have never been into a township, that black townships are extraordinarily dangerous. This belief is to a large extent perpetuated by the media and the headlines that are regularly posted on signposts around the city having to do with murders, hijackings and theft in the townships. In no way am I disputing that these are dangerous places, but perhaps more pointing to the importance of contextualizing such incidences. Poverty and decades of oppression, understandably, leads to anger, resentment and desperation. Such emotions and sentiments lend themselves easily to crime and substance abuse as a (albeit extremely misguided) means of attempting to level the playing field and/or escape. Ostracizing a people, forcing them to live in areas away from the city centres, with education, health care facilities and everyday conveniences that are far substandard to those enjoyed by their white and (although to a lesser extent), coloured countrymen, only serves to further stoke the flames lit by this injustice.

All this said however, when I am in and around Cape Town, there are a few times that I have felt my safety may be at risk. Despite holding what I consider to be an extremely liberal ethos in all aspects, I would be lying if I said that I haven’t noticed a trend in the race of those around whom I have at times felt uneasy.

On those few occasions where I have thought I may be in danger, or felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, it has almost always been coloured – not black as many would and do believe – young men and women that have the source of this uneasiness.

This said, I feel it important to clarify that in no way do I feel uncomfortable around all coloureds, only that in these few instances I couldn’t help but notice the common thread. My liberal guilt forces me to question why this may be, and why I don’t feel the same threat around young white or black youth. Working with black youth accounts for the overwhelming majority of my interactions with young people, so perhaps this has made me more comfortable with young blacks than most living in Cape Town may be. I do not interact with white youth very often, aside from in shops, at concerts and out and about around the city. Coloured youth perhaps more so, although not a great deal.

So why the apprehension?

As mentioned in various blogs over the past year, race relations and their according power dynamic are inextricably linked to the history of this country. The apartheid regime indoctrinated a nation with an innate sense of self-worth – ranging from positive to extremely negative – depending on where one is located on the skin colour hierarchy.

To this day, South African blacks, for all intents and purposes, are and continue to be on the lower level of this hierarchy. They have been seen and treated as the lowest class, and kept in oppression through a range of means (an article on the current state of the education system and its continued devastating effect on black youth can be read here:,,186-187_2448315,00.html). Most understand themselves in relation to this powerlessness, and many have accepted it as such. The immediate and undue respect I was accorded by my colleagues, as a white Westerner whom many assumed knew better than them, is perhaps one example of this acceptance. At the top rung are the whites, which will come as no surprise. The coloureds fall somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps similarly to the middle-child syndrome, I believe that the poorer coloureds of this country are the most affected by feelings of inadequacy, as while they are not as disadvantaged as the blacks, they are a far cry from the privileges enjoyed by the whites. For many on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, I believe this has created a deep-seeded resentfulness and sense of unfulfilled entitlement, particularly towards whites.

In no way do I claim to be a sociologist or equipped to make any kind of psychological analysis based on any of what I have written, these are only my thoughts. When a coloured girl swears at me in Afrikaans or a group of young coloured men walk a little too closely to me my heart beats a bit more quickly than usual. And not in a good way.

Am I foolish to think that [my believed theory of poor coloureds’] resentfulness means that I am any more likely to be harmed or have a crime committed against me by a coloured person than by someone who is white or black? Probably. Unsubstantiated fear is indeed a difficult thing to justify and understand.

…We didn’t start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on and on…

- Billy Joel

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