Brooke Goes Global: South Africa’s Fight for Land

October 29, 2018

For the past few weeks, I have wandered between realms of ignorance and reality. My role as a tourist, as a student, and as a local, has immersed me into one sphere, then forcefully dragged me into another. Each sphere lives its own separate life, yet social and political consequences successfully transcend these borders. As a tourist, I have gasped and awed at the picturesque South Africa. The mountains have been climbed. The restaurants have been visited. The tickets for adventure have been paid for. As a tourist, I have the money and the time to experience the luxurious — and predominately white populated — areas of South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of ignorance.

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The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront — a popular tourist destination.

As a student, I have been awestruck by the powerful history of this powerful country. I learned of the racism, the inequality, the systems of oppression of the past and the present. I listened to lectures on colonialism. I read journal articles on the nation’s economic inequality. “South Africa has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world,” they tell me. It enters one ear and goes out the other. Surface level knowledge and surface level comprehension of a life in South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of awareness.

Living in a homestay, I have been pushed into the life of a local — to a life beyond beautiful pictures. I have lived with families who have very real struggles with gentrification, land rights, and economic opportunity. These struggles are no longer ignored. They are no longer just a written fact. These struggles are real and immediate. As a local, I see how the oppressed overcome hardships to find dignity and humanity. Here, I live in a sphere of reality.

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My homestay mom is on the left, Mama Thembsi, with one of her best friends, Elizabeth.

 

From 1948 to 1991, South African citizens lived under an oppressive Apartheid regime — apartheid literally meaning “apart.” In an attempt to make Cape Town an all-whites city, people were categorized according to their race. These classifications, including Indian/Asian, Colored, Black, or White, determined everything. If you were not white, you were forced to live in the outskirts of the city. If you were not white, your daily movement was restricted and monitored. If you were not white, manual labor jobs were your only economic opportunity. You did not vote. You did not own land. This was the law. And if you did not obey the law, you were subject to brutal whippings or execution. Children included. The oppressive and racist Apartheid government focused on protecting the population minority and repressing the majority.

The African National Congress (ANC), a protest grassroots organization, gained popularity in the latter part of the Apartheid government through promotion of its core principles. After people of color were stripped of their land and homes and herded into segregated areas outside the city, the right for land became a main pillar of their political platform. In 1991, the Apartheid government “peacefully” ceased power after years of protest from the ANC. I simplify this cession that includes stories of brave South Africans, powerful and peaceful protests, violence, and international relations. Instead, I wish to concentrate on a less popular topic — South Africa’s expectation of democracy versus its reality.

In 1994, the African National Congress came to power with something as simple yet as influential as the right to vote. Nelson Mandela, backed by the ANC, was elected President of the newly formed South African democracy. The ANC created a progressive and powerful constitution, granting its citizens the right to health, education, water, and housing. And land — its redistribution was mentioned in the constitution. Though to this day, land redistribution still has no explicit plans for change.

This brings me to where I am today, the rural community of Zweletemba. I went from center city Cape Town, known as the Europe of Africa, to a former blacks only township created during Apartheid. The 200,000 people population in Zweletemba are unique in their stories but not in their struggles.

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A main road in the neighborhood.

In the center of the neighborhood, most roads are paved and houses are constructed in neat, straight lines. Electricity poles stand erect at block corners. Hidden pipes bring water to homes. Children jump rope on the dusty roads. Dogs roam looking for attention. But as you move to the outskirts of the town, electricity poles become more and more rare, eventually going extinct. Public toilets become the street’s only source of sanitary plumbing. And houses take the form of four walls constructed of sheet metal.

Zweletemba is a neighborhood of subsidized housing. People, families move in because they can’t afford housing anywhere else. They construct a house out of the supplies they have, apply for government housing, and wait. After many years and much citizen advocacy, the government finally constructs the housing it so plainly labels as a human right in the nation’s constitution.

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An informal settlement in the outskirts of Zweletemba.

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Zweletemba is in the district of Worcester. Three families own over 70% of the land in Worcester. This land was attained during Apartheid when it was stolen from people of color and distributed to whites for farming. Most of this private property today is unused and vacant. Much of this land surrounds Zweletemba. Families are desperate for land and desperate for houses, so they build informal settlements on this vacant, privately owned land. The desperation of poverty is forgotten by the rich, white land owners. In an attempt to remove families from their unused land, they call the police to enforce eviction. Barbed wire barricades are put up so the land cannot be further infiltrated. And lawsuits are filed against the families.  And so goes another fight for the land, as there are merciless efforts by the rich to push impoverished families out of their homes.  Yet the actions of these families are hardly affecting the everyday lives of the rich.

Currently, the government is trying to buy this privately owned land for its people. The land, after purchase, would be public land. Houses would be built on the government owned land and given to families in need — this of course is an extremely simplified version of the process. One of the main bureaucratic dilemmas is the task of negotiations. The government has very little leverage power. They, the government and the people, are desperate for the land while the rich land owners are not desperate for the sale. The last sale of land, bought for the townspeople of Zweletemba, was valued at 6 million Rand. The government purchased it for 17 times its worth at 102 million Rand. The wealth gap keeps growing. And the profit of stolen land seems to be contributing to this exponentially growing gap.

In 1991, whites were greatly advantaged politically, economically, and socially. They had been given almost everything for over 40 years while the people of color had almost everything taken from them. In 1994, all races were granted political, economic, and social equality. Opportunity was now available to all. But, there is a tragic flaw in this logic. When someone starts a marathon 10 miles ahead of you, how are you expected to finish at the same time, let alone within the same hour? This illustrates the historic effects of inequality that still manifest today in South Africa. Linda Norling, a freelance journalist in Cape Town, writes “although political power has been in the hands of the black majority since the dawn of South African democracy 24 years years ago, economic power remains with white people: white households in 2015 earned 4.5 times as much as black households, and whites hold more than 60% of top management positions, despite accounting for only 10% of the working population. In universities, black people account for not quite 35% of academics, despite making up about 80% of the population.” This is the reality for many. As a tourist, student, and local, I have the privilege to move out of this sphere of reality. With this privilege, it is my responsibility to speak up and make a change.

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Here to make a change for this adorable generation of South African citizens.


Brooke Goes Global: South Africa

October 18, 2018

The birds sang their morning song as I began to wake.  I blinked my eyes continuously and rubbed last night’s sleep from their lids.  I slipped on long pants, a cozy sweatshirt, and some warm socks.  I tiptoed out of the room and headed up the stairs.  I crossed the lawn to the metal staircase, twirling and winding up the side of the building.  Quickly, I ascended the stairs and struggled to catch my breath at the top.  The hostel roof, unmistakably, offers its best views before 6:30am.  I sat close to the edge so as to not miss a single wave produced by the vast blue ocean.  My cheeks burned as the salty ocean breeze brushed them red.  The morning mist dotted my hair in a layer of damp cold.  The weather invited families of clouds to scatter across the sky.  But the waking sun was not to be silenced.  Finding the only break in the clouds, the sun peaked its way into existence.  Sun beams slowly reached their arms out of the dark clouds and spread across the sea.  I smiled and turned my head to what I once ignored.  To my surprise, the green luscious mountain, standing close behind, applauded the performance.  I closed my eyes tightly to fathom this moment, this experience, this life.

Muizenberg, Cape Town sunrises became my first friend on the continent of Africa.  After the third day at the beautiful ocean town, I reluctantly waved goodbye to the hostel and said hello to a new homestay, in a new country, in a new continent.

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The morning’s view from our hostel in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Here I am, in South Africa.

My homestay in Cape Town is in the historic neighborhood of Bo Kaap.  Houses stand side by side in organized, bright, colorful rows.  People are neighbors streets away.  Neighbors are friends and friends are family.  The Bo Kaap is the epitome of a community that cares for one another.

We had just arrived to the Bo Kaap, when we starting following the lead of my homestay mother, Omi Mia.  She led us through the streets, pointing out houses and pairing them with her many friends’ names.  All conversation in that moment was ignored as my brain concentrated on what the eyes were sensing — beautiful, bright rainbow houses.  All connected.  All so inviting and radiating.  My daydream was abruptly ended when Omi stopped us in front of a bright yellow home.  We emerged into a quaint and cozy living room filled with family photos and memorabilia.

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One of the beautiful streets of the Bo Kaap neighborhood. I live in the very last yellow colored house you can see in the photo.

Dinner after dinner, I excitedly sat at the table and listened as Omi shared her life story with us.  Omi is an intelligent, witty, and incredibly caring woman.  She is the oldest of four children.  At 72 years old, she is the hub of social gatherings among her family and friends.  On the night of our arrival, the table was set for seven.  She apologized for the small gathering that night, and I chuckled thinking back to normal family dinners with just my mom and me.

The Omi Mia household is one of 24 other households in the Bo Kaap housing IHP students.  The families hosting us students all know one another.  They adventure together.  They vacation together.  They eat together.  This is a community.  This is a neighborhood that cares for one another.

From 1948 to 1991, the Apartheid government attempted to make the city of Cape Town a whites only city.  This resulted in the Group Areas Act of 1950 forcing the segregation of different ethnic and racial groups.  Families were forced from their homes, told they only had minutes to put their belongings in a truck that would drive them to their new government issued house.  During this era of segregation, the Bo Kaap was, by law, deemed a Muslim only area.  The neighborhood’s history shapes its present.  Today, the Bo Kaap is a community of mostly Muslim families.

Unfortunately, gentrification and greedy politics are forcing families out of their Bo Kaap homes — homes that have been in their families for generations.  With the growing popularity of South African property, the Bo Kaap has become a hotspot for development.  It is in the central part of the city.  The waterfront harbor, museums, and countless amenities are all within a short distance’s walk.  As a result of this perfect storm, the demand for Bo Kaap property has exponentially grown.  This increase in property value causes taxes to soar.  New city regulations require monthly fees never charged to families before but are now deemed required and necessary.  Older generations pass and their children are unable to afford the adjusted finances of the now million dollar homes.  In turn, families who’ve grown up in the area are priced out of the Bo Kaap.

Gentrification is pushing history out of the neighborhood.  People move in for the convenient location while ignoring the community’s culture and individuality.  South Africa’s oldest mosque, over 200 years old, is located on the streets of Bo Kaap.  In practice with the Islam religion, the mosque plays a call to prayer at certain times of the day.  Within the past few years, an individual from Europe bought a house in the Bo Kaap.  Annoyed by the daily 5am wakeup from the call to prayer, he complained at a community meeting.  He demanded for the call to prayer to be stopped.  He believed as a foreigner, an outsider, and a non-Muslim that his needs should come before everyone else’s.  He willingly bought the house in the Bo Kaap.  He willingly moved in to this historically Muslim neighborhood.  But now, he is unwilling to accept the community he moved himself into.  Thankfully, his request was denied.  And at 5am, I happily lay in my bed listening to South Africa’s oldest mosque’s call to prayer.   

Another problem within the Bo Kaap is the consequences of tourism.  The Bo Kaap is deemed a must-see destination for South African vacations.  Tour buses park at the entrance of the neighborhood so their customers can get out and take photos.  Tourists ignore the privacy and property of the street’s natives and climb on their porches to snap the perfect photo.  Tour guides lead groups through the community’s sidewalks, spewing ignorant and downright wrong information about the neighborhood.  Omi has overheard tour guides tell groups the houses were painted different colors as a solution to them not being able to identify their own home when they come home drunk.  Yet, as a predominately Muslim neighborhood, most individuals do not drink in their town.  Tour guides still continue to share inaccurate and disrespectful rumors about real people, living in this very real place.  Tours of the Bo Kaap are advancing tourist companies, the city, and the outsiders.  Those living in the Bo Kaap are not reaping any benefits from tourism.  Instead their reputation is tarnished and their property is trespassed.

Nonetheless, I am thankful to say I am part of the SIT/IHP abroad program.  As a student of IHP, I am contributing to the preservation of the Bo Kaap and its stories.  Our homestays are compensated for housing students.  These working class families are paid generously by our program for kindly inviting strangers into their house.  Students learn from the families.  They learn the truth, the facts, the reality from citizens of the Bo Kaap.  But also we share our experiences, lives, and stories with the families too.  It is important to remember reciprocity when you’re abroad.  As much as we take from a foreign country as American students, it is just as important to leave a compassionate legacy behind.  I am honored to share the stories born and cultivated from Bo Kaap history.  I do not take this task lightly.  To have the opportunity to share someone else’s story, through my eyes, is truly a powerful adventure.  I am grateful to have this platform as an occasion to share the stories of these beautiful people in Bo Kaap, Cape Town.  

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The sea and the mountains — what more could you ask for?


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