Cape-ability

Often I find that people in the UK (London more specifically) have this attitude that they’re at the centre of the world. If you’re anywhere else then you’re not at the centre of the action. You’re missing out. Life revolves around GMT, the FTSE index and people who speak the Queen’s English. But hey, surely the centre depends on how you’re looking at a map of the world?

The picture above was on the back cover of January’s 021 Cape Town monthly events listing magazine. Cape Town may be at the bottom-most tip of the African continent, but like this it’s at the top of the world. The Mother City surveying the Motherland.

I’ve come on a trip to explore South Africa because I’m thinking of moving here.  After 10 years in London I’m contemplating my exit to the hinterlands. So, I have been checking out Cape Town (and Johannesburg – more to come about that later) and their capability to sustain… not just me, but also their residents and support the rest of Southern Africa in developing sustainably.

While I’ve been here, I’ve read a series of short stories about CT called “A City Imagined”, edited by Stephen Watson, a local poet who lives in the more arty environs of town, Kalk Bay. See photo below (taken by Emily, who I’m here with) from the window of the Olympia Café & Deli in Kalk Bay.

A great number of the stories in the book mention Cape Town’s majestic Table Mountain and its remarkable power over the city. In Stephen’s closing chapter ‘Afterword to a City’ he describes the mountain appearing in view from the Waterfront as “a mountain docked like a liner from another planet” and talks about how he feels Capetonians come close to empathizing with American poet Wallace Stevens when he wrote: “the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.”  It’s an elemental place as Emily describes it, especially after experiencing the ‘Cape Doctor’ winds.

But my favourite has to be this description of Cape Town by Stephen:

“It continues to offer something which almost all other cities in the twenty-first century have lost – a home in which human beings do not have to suffer the exile of being a species so dominant they have obliterated all but the signs, the scars, of their own presence. Even in the midst of downtown streets, the stone world has not yet become completely other.”

This inability to escape, or not to be aware of, the physical mass looming over your head in Cape Town I think has implications for Capetonians’ attitudes towards their environment.

Here are some of my very fledgling thoughts on CT’s capability to sustain itself in a changing world:

Safety and security: Compared to SA, in the UK we can pretty much take our security for granted. Gated residences and high security are more for the ostentatious needs of the mega-rich back home. Whereas here, you’ve gotta be a lot more aware of not getting caught up in crime.  Central areas of CT seem to be far safer than they have been because of many more police on the streets and heightened security. But the fear-factor does get hyped: if you talk to locals about all the recent overseas reporting of ‘Kill a Tourist Day’ and gang initiation they will say it’s been sensationalised by the international media. I agree.

Getting about: In the centre of CT, it’s mostly private cars and public minibuses on the roads given the lack of any well-connected mass transit alternatives. The local buses always seemed bereft of passengers – not really living up to their ‘The Bus for Us’ slogan – while the ubiquitous African shuttle minibuses are always jam packed. We saw some fantastic classic cars cruising the streets: VW Beetles and old school Mercedes Benz being used for regular trips round town and some Triumphs and Morris Minors being taken out for a Sunday spin. The commuter trains out of town were good too, albeit crammed in rush hour. Bikes are far from being king of the road; only a few commuter types dodging traffic but mostly lycra-clad speed demons off to flex their thighs on some steep mountain road. I think a lot more could be done to make CT more cycle friendly, but at least now I know I wouldn’t be the only crazy city cyclist!

Consuming stuff: In my mind, Africans are the true masters of the art of re-use and recycling. I’ve always assumed that like people who grew up in war-time Britain, the waste-not-want-not attitude prevails among people here. But maybe not in the bubble-world of affluent Capetonians. However, the vintage vibe in CT seems strong. You can get retro furniture and second-hand clothing at competitive or cheaper-than-new prices, which is not always the case in the UK now it’s got fashionable. Made in South Africa is getting big too with up and coming South African designers and local production. And also lots of delicious local and organic food.

These are just some signs I saw of CT’s sustainable happenings, but I reckon the city’s got a whole lot more that it’s cape-able of creatively doing that isn’t just the preserve of the affluent minority.

So, who needs to be in the centre when you can be at the tip for these exciting and changing times? I think I’ve just talked myself into going… or should that be staying?

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One Response to “Cape-ability”

  1. Eric Sawyer Says:

    You certainly are painting my heart out with your words. I moved to England in early 2008, and have just been looking around for some photographs of Kalk Bay harbour lights, at night. Actually, I am a musician, and wrote a song while sitting in a pub which has a clear view of the harbour, and wrote a song about it, and I was disappointed to find that there were hardly any photographs of the harbour lights. Obviously one has to get high enough up to get a truly awesome shot, but for now I shall just keep dreaming on home. For me that is Simonstown, but for now it’s North Walsham. What a lovely blog, and engaging style of writing, you have. Sinccerely, Eric

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