In Cape Town, a girl has a boyfriend, I quit my job, and a man tries to sell me cocaine.
“I have a boyfriend!” She shouted over the loud music. We were both Kenyan in a night club on Long Street, Cape Town, after a long day of conferencing and shaking a million hands. We’d met earlier and decided to hang out later that evening, and that’s what we’d been doing for an hour. Far from home, and yet having a conversation the same way we would have had it in one of our selected, overpriced, middle-class, bars in Westlands, where the beer costs double the recommended price because you also get a free tour of racism.
The statement to which this was the response had been something mundane, and the evening had been going well so far, or so I’d thought.
I am not sure what I’d said to trigger this very Nairobi kind of rejection. If you’ve hit on Nairobi women, then you know this is #1 in their boiler plate responses. It’s taught to beginners in the rejection game, but even weathered professionals will say it instead of “No, and it’s not just because you are ugly.” I was too giddy because of the rum coursing through me, and the fact that I’d, first accidentally and in absolute defiance, and then a few minutes later intentionally and deliberately, quit my job just a few hours before.
I couldn’t even come up with one of my well-worn witty responses to this standard rejection:
“Good to know, does he want to join in?”
“And I have dogs and a truant cat, now that we are exchanging notes on pets.”
“Oh, you should get it checked soon. A friend of mine caught the same thing!”
So I went downstairs to have a ciggie, and to see this racist city at night. Outside, midway through, a man walked right up to me and talked so fast that for a second there I wasn’t sure if I was being robbed, facing the previously mentioned boyfriend, asked for a cigarette, or recruited into a violent gang (I’ve watched the news and the documentaries, South Africans).
The man was trying to sell me drugs, dear reader.
And it was a list!
It helpfully began with what I figure is a fast moving product in that night scene, cocaine.
Later, after I got back to the girl with an invisible boyfriend and now, work colleagues (in the flesh, helpfully), it occurred to me that I could have procured something Escobar would have approved of, and experimented with it now that I was going back to the hotel room alone. Perhaps by using substances that have formal declarations of war made against them, I would have forgotten many things about that day. It was a fleeting thought.
But I was hungry and far from home, and I could solve one of those feelings immediately, because the other was still days away.
The first interesting thing that catches my eye when I land in Cape Town, and after I get fleeced by a cunning taxi driver, is a pigeon. Over the next week, I see many more. And I am fascinated! If it was not for the (black) patrol officers with reflectors standing on almost every street, I’d have tried to cuddle one and ask how its finding its way when the lights go at night- the humans here use the fancy term ‘load shedding’ instead of what it is, Rationing/Darkness.
‘Load shedding’ is what we in the business of living prefer to do in absolute privacy because once the load has been shed, you don’t want anyone seeing the satisfaction or smelling the evidence. And there’s the other kind of load, which often (but not always) requires a partner to help with the process of urrmmm, shedding.
Cape Town is not like many places; it is not a city of contradictions. It owns itself. You could miss its blatant racism, until you walk around and realise that any black or coloured person you see is likely a servant, a visitor, or both, to this lasting edifice of the brutality of colonialism. Here, the black person is more foreigner than the pigeon.
And the pigeon, you see, is not like other birds. Birds generally have good PR as enterprising little airplanes that build marvellous, intricate nests that are warm, safe, and pure works of art. But not the pigeon!
Don’t get me wrong, the pigeon is an incredibly intelligent and lazy bird, which might be why it long figured out that the secret to a long life is a good time, not building even mildly respectable nests. I double dare you to open a new tab and Google images of what pigeons believe to be good nests, then come back and tell me what you think.
See what I mean?
The permanent inhabitants of Cape Town are not much unlike its birds. Their lives are comfortable, especially compared to the rest of South Africa. Luckily, when you steal and occupy land for centuries, you have time to ship in good architecture, and when you have enemies (read the real owners of the land), unlike pigeons, you really want to show you belong. Everything about this city is designed, built, and maintained to feel as unAfrican as possible, so much so that if you were blindfolded and dropped here, the only way you’d know you were still on the continent was that the random, coy look (and nod) all black men know to give each other in foreign lands is missing, mostly.
Later, I learn that South Africa hosts the Million Dollar Pigeon Race whose prize is (obviously) $1 million to the fastest pigeon; good sense tells me the winning pigeon sees little of that money, in typical fashion, and then the next thought in my head is “What if one of those pigeons I saw in the streets were former, now impoverished, champion pigeons?”
Beneath this veneer of order, outwardly but invisible unless you look for and at it, is the truth about its power and economic structures. Almost every black person you meet is doing the menial and service labours that the true owners of this city find beneath them. The cabs, the shops, the roadside stands, room service, hawking —basically any activity that the owners of this city deem too low for their kind, but essential nonetheless, is an army of people fortunate enough to have gained their independence proper, only to (also) end up with absolute monsters as leaders.
I met three Malawians, the first a young student on a part-time gig who used my ask for directions as a chance to experiment with dereliction of duty. The next two, cab drivers.
I openly asked two different shop owners whether they were Somali, because of course they were. One important thing about good, sometimes acrimonious, sometimes we-will-invade-your-country and you will-attack-our-malls, neighbourliness is that you know how to pick out their offspring anywhere. After all, it is your neighbour who will call to tell you that your wife has been hosting menacing eager-to-please male visitors after you leave for work.
Buhle, a lightskin but very black South African who drives a Mercedes in this city, complains to me in a loud beachfront, casually segregated, bar that in this city, white capitalism rules the day and the night.
A Zimbabwean cab driver told me, in intricate detail that made little sense to me, about his bus route back home.
A dreadlocked Tanzanian hawker immediately demands that we switch to Kiswahili when he realises we are neighbours. He offers me such a huge discount for a trinket that I suspect he’s ripping himself off, before smiling about the better thought that what he had first quoted included a premium for our former colonisers and their peers.
The only white people openly in service here are covertly racist about it, and are clearly in positions of some power. Giving orders that is, not tossing the garbage. Looking at me suspiciously in the lift, as if I don’t belong, while they are in full uniform.
Cape Town then, I tell one of my cab drivers, a Nigerian who has lived through the harrowing experience of being attacked when he was a lorry driver (remember that?), are not like the rest of us who chased away our white ‘visitors’ with every tool on the table. Including putting all differences aside, introducing poison, the machete, diplomacy, and camaraderie, into the war for diabolical leaders with a skin colour closer to home.
We succeeded, and the fruits of that success include lorry-swallowing potholes, mountains of garbage, rivers that double up as sewer lines, and filthy, pulsing, downtowns where you can buy cheap, quality clothes that might or might not have been discarded because their previous owner did not believe in vaccinations.
Cape Town owns its identity. It does not need to insist on itself, because everyone knows that while it might physically be in Africa, its owners react to our sunshine visibly differently. There’s something almost aspirational about the imbalance and (lack of) contradictions in this particular city, and they are clear to me when I explore it on foot, on different days and times, and try to understand why my basic feeling is absolute discomfort.
This is a city that would have been, as was the dream of a white Africa, every other major city that exists on the continent today. But there’s this lasting reminder of one of the earliest beachheads of colonialism and all its sins, and then there’s also the other racist enclaves in the North. But unlike our peers in victimhood in the Americas, we had food, time, and a bit of God, on our side. We multiplied faster than they could possibly wipe us out— and they actively tried to. And the massacres and genocides are the better parts of the story, because it is like the impossible decision of whether it is better to die quietly and know its done, or to accept a slow death and hope that something will save you.
But my heavens, can this city hold a bloody good party!
So I got back home with a disturbed spirit, the risk of poverty, and a Nairobi-like rejection competing for my emotions. I was not even angry at Rwanda Air for moving my flight by two days without any notice, or at the airport guards in Kigali who singled me out for further checks at 3 am. As Nairobi came into view from my window seat, I felt an incredible love for this city that was once green, and in the sun. It was a fleeting feeling, I knew, but I had just spent 10 days questioning many things.
The feeling quickly vanished soon after my feet touched the ground. In the cold breeze of dawn, as I headed out of the terminal, I saw two cops casually sneak someone and his red bags past the KRA Customs post. This is home then, a city of many contradictions except that those who can rob the people in any way, feel compelled to do so any chance they get.
Later, after I corner the intrepid traveller Just Rioba at a wedding, and helpfully introduce myself, I ask that she takes me back to Cape Town soon, this time as a pampered tourist.
Then I flee before she also starts introducing imaginary boyfriends over the loud music.
One Story is good,
till Another is told.
Last modified: April 14, 2023