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Disorientation, Cosmopolitan, New Year - Esse Quam Videri...
To Be Rather Than Appear--The Story of Teej
Disorientation, Cosmopolitan, New Year

31 December 2011

Loading Bay Café,

De Waterkant District, Cape Town

                I am currently sitting at a painfully hip café in Cape Town’s young urban professional neighborhood, De Waterkant.  The tables are roughhewn wood slabs with clean granite everywhere, uber-attractive men and women punching in smartphones and pretending as if they hadn’t spent hours making their tight v-necks and designer jeans look carelessly thrown together.  To my left, the café opens up to a panoramic view of the impressively massive Table Mountain, its craggy, surface dominating the vista for miles as puffy white clouds spill over its flat edge, making a sort of atmospheric avalanche amid the crystal blue summer sky.

                I am eight days into my stay in ‘the Mother City,’ and fifteen total into my incredibly self-indulgent vacation.  I’m returning to Durban on 6 January, and I am simultaneously excited and reluctant to go back ‘home.’  But isn’t that always the way with vacations?  You find yourself excited to be traveling somewhere only to also wish that you were back at home soon enough, in routine and order.

                This has been my first trip to Cape Town in seven years; in September of 2004, as a twenty-year old undergraduate on exchange at UC San Diego, I went for a week with friends, and stayed at a backpackers on Long Street, still a bustling hub of foreign transit.  It’s strange to be back here, a changed person occupying space in markedly different ways.  I can at least stumble through conversations in isiXhosa when the occasion demands it, and I can read the frequent Afrikaans language signs I find, although Cape Town’s cosmopolitan posturing makes it still a primary English language city on the surface, it seems.

                I have to admit, however, that in nearly every way, Cape Town is more beautiful, more impressive, more grandiose than Durban.  It’s self-consciously impressive, well-assured of its status as a major ‘cosmopolitan destination’, and it definitely throws me for a loop to walk its many streets, confused if I’m in Europe, Africa, or California sometimes. 

Of course, none of this is neutral, and I keep pounding the pavement, hitting museums, and talking to people, trying to ‘make sense’ of this place.  Granted, making sense is one of the hardest things possible to do.  I get that as a historian of South Africa, part of it is my job to ‘figure out’ this place, and to comprehend, map, understand it.  But that shit is hard, people.  It’s weird, and it’s hard, and it’s a creepy project if you think about it in a certain way.  It is entirely human to want to comprehend something, but those of us tragically overdrilled in postmodernism are painfully aware of the fact that such knowledge searches are not neutral, not objective, and fraught with power relations.  I’m both grateful for and immensely frustrated by the fact that I can’t turn off my ‘grad student brain’—for every second I seek to understand, describe, inscribe, make legible the world around me, I’m aware of my own lack of neutrality here, my own positionality, and my attempts to make sense of things that may not be so simple.  It’s funny, because I didn’t’ feel this way as an undergraduate, as a high school teacher, a master’s student, or even early in my PhD.  It was living in a rural Zulu village in 2009 that showed me most viscerally how my project to ‘make sense’ is fraught in its own way.  And so I seek to humbly understand, process, debate, and learn from the people around me.  I’m grateful for people like Rina and Joe (my landlord), who challenge me to look past simple black/white archetypes; for the history faculty at Howard College, for expat friends helping me deal.

I’m struggling to ‘get’ Cape Town (and South Africa in general), and I usually let people know that early on in our conversations; the results are often pretty interesting.


“But it’s only natural to want to understand people,” sputtered Jon, a twenty-four year old Canadian staying in the Cape for an indeterminate time on funding I don’t really understand.  “How can we understand each other if we don’t try?”

My friend Dane and I, sitting on low couches in another friend’s apartment in the trendy neighborhood of Green Point, talked about Steve Biko, about his chastising of white liberals who wanted to ‘understand’ but never saw that they could never truly grasp/maintain/know certain people’s lives.  “Perhaps what we can hope for is building alliances, knowing, working with, loving people and trying to be in place with them, and never speaking for them, or attempting to ‘know’ them,” I said, thinking hard about my own work and feeling all of the disorientation come creeping back to me in my work and my life.

“This is my home,” Shari said, looking me directly in the eye, sweeping a long, highlighted strand of honey brown hair out of her large hazel eyes as she did so.  She gestured out the window to demonstrate the entirety of Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay/Muslim Quarter that had survived apartheid predations and was in the midst of its gentrification throes in a post-1994 world.  “We live here, we love here, we are here.  You are welcome here.  These are our lives, and we will keep living here.  Tell your friends in America about that.  And don’t stop coming back here.”

I love Bo-Kaap best of all the places I see in cape Town, with its brightly painted houses, its well worn pavements, the sounds that call the faithful to prayer five times a day from its many mosques, and its palpable sense of place and community.  I want to live here one day, but I keep remembering as well that there are plenty of people before me who have ‘fallen in love’ with parts of Africa and want to make it their own, to live in it, to claim it.  I don’t want to be one of those people, but I do want to be part of this in an increasingly meaningful way.  “I would give my eye-teeth to get a decent professor job in the Cape,” I say after too many drinks with a friend.  “Well you’d blend in more, missing those teeth,” he snarks back, referring to the prevalent image of the Cape Coloured with missing teeth.  I swipe at him with a mix of amusement and irritation and miss.

“WHERE AM I FROM?” thunders the Coloured cab driver in response to the question. “I AM FROM HERE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? I AM INDIGENOUS. DO YOU KNOW THAT WORD? IN-DIDJ-EE-NUSSS.” I blink back in surprise, both at the volume of this delivery as well as the opinion expressed wherein—what is indigeneity in a Cape context?  Is this man a pure Khoisan? Is he a Cape Coloured in a different way?  Should I even ask? “NOWADAYS, THERE ARE SO MANY BLACKS HERE,” he booms dismissively. “I SHOULD ASK HIM WHERE HE’S FROM, HAH! I’M INNNDIIIIIIGEEEEEENUUUUUS.”

Like the rest of South Africa, Cape Town is a mass of very particular realities and a larger history of raced and gendered collisions all over the damn place.  To be ‘Coloured’ means generally to be descended from the Dutch and initial Khoi-san inhabitants of the Cape, or perhaps mixed with some of the many slave people the Dutch brought in from 1652-1808, people from as far away as India, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mozambique.  These slaves built the infrastructure of the Cape, and their descendants toiled in unequal discriminatory worlds for centuries after.  Sometimes South Africa sounds very familiar to my American ears.

Yet despite government attempts over the centuries, people do not stay put.  They move.  isiXhosa speakers, Indian immigrants, British adventurers,  Jewish refugees, all move through, claim a space of the Cape.  And in some way, the Cape is right to call itself cosmopolitan, or international and even ‘global’.  But what is obscured by calling oneself ‘cosmopolitan’?  What local connections vanish?  I bristle every time I hear a Capetonian tell me that “real Africa” extends beyond the metropolitan confines, and continues somewhere beyond.  It sounds to much like this place is still a colony, or a colony within a country, of European internationalism and modernity while the rest of the land must stretch on, traditional, unchanging.  Perhaps I’m overthinking it, as usual.

                “This is a place unlike any other,” Blue agrees as we sip our second beers in a small café off the tourist mecca of Long Street.  A fire has flared up and been quickly extinguished next door, and white smoke billows everywhere.  People scurry like ants, and sirens wail.  We do not move.  Nor does anyone else.  Blue runs his hands over his knit cap and smiles as he talks, relating twelve years of life in Cape Town after a childhood in Polokwane, in the far distant Limpopo province. “This place is full of bullshit, but it is great.”  We talk for hours about being labeled an ‘angry young man’ by well-intentioned white liberals that don’t want us to raise our voices too loudly, about living in new cities, about interracial boundaries, and lines that still exist, about being told by the police that we don’t belong in certain neighborhoods.  I leave grateful to be alive, to be in a city that I don’t’ ‘get’, that I feel uncomfortable in, and that I feel thankful for.  We pay and leave. The people are still milling about, aimless, and looking a bit cheated by the end of the fire.  The police have long since left.


                2011 has been a very strange year.  I helped bury my grandfather, deeply developed my intellectual and personal work, spent a tremendous amount of time in Los Angeles, ran three conferences, turned twenty-seven, obtained a monocle, and moved back to the country that challenges me so deeply.  I ended long-term friendships with people I never thought I’d stop knowing or loving. I’ve met fantastic new people who challenge me differently.  I’ve traveled to Lesotho and Swaziland and Mozambique; I’ve spoken a ton of languages, I’ve pushed myself, and plan to keep doing so.  And I’m grateful for knowing you guys this year and into the next.   If there is a theme for this year, it is disorientation, confusion, and feeling out of place—these can be wonderful things I’m discovering, and not the horrible things I‘m frequently afraid they are.  “All the mental confusion is absolutely excellent, it means that SA is unsettling your certainties,” a professor and good friend told me via email last week.  “And what could be better than that! It means you are letting go of the things you need to let go of in order to see where you are going and what is around you.”  Here’s to hoping that 2012 brings more confusion, and more ‘letting go’ in order to see and study and humbly describe the world around me.

Happy New Year// Unyaka omusha omuhle//Voorspoedige Nuwe Jaar

Pick up the pen