Letter Home from Cape Town, South Africa

A Letter Home from the Fall 2014 IHP Cities in the 21st Century Track 1 Program:

Written by IHP Students, edited by Maggie Livingstone, photos by Anselmo Fuentes

Leaving the confines of São Paulo to Cape Town was like stepping away from a concrete jungle into a city seemingly designed for a postcard: the gorgeous view of Table Mountain, the beaches, a gridded city and beautiful waterways greeted us at every corner. But what we would learn about this city only further served our understanding of the problems. Cape Town, though twenty years post-apartheid, is still grappling with the legacy of legislated spatial segregation, a fact we found evident in nearly every classroom session, guest lecture, site visit and interaction with the city.

We first lived for two weeks in the Bo-Kaap, an enclave of Muslim Malay families. The experience of learning about Islam, and in particular of residing there during the Eid festival, was eye-opening for many of us. We were all whole-heartedly embraced by this community, learning about delicious foods, local religious customs, and how to fit into a large extended family. Bo-Kaap sits on a hill overlooking the City Bowl, the central business district of the city, and was kept intact during the years of apartheid—when the city was broken into designated regions for specific racial groups under legislation known as the Group Areas Act.

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Houses on Wale Street, the main thoroughfare of Bo-Kaap, with Table Mountain behind

It felt strange to stay goodbye to our Bo-Kaap homestay families after spending several weeks with them. It was almost like we were packing up, getting ready to leave for our next country destination. In actuality, we were moving from the City Bowl to the Cape Flats region, an expanse of sandy terrain that houses settlements outside the city center. We were headed to Langa, one of the first black townships created under the Apartheid government. We came to understand to uprooting was not simply to experience two sides of Cape Town, but to understand the uprooting of families under the Group Areas Act. Millions were displaced from their homes after their areas were marked as a place for whites only—friends separated and communities torn apart as residents were mandated to relocate. Originally a resettlement area for black laborers, Langa has largely retained a similar residential character and racial profile, but the recognition of freeholder land rights and occupational diversification since the apartheid era have made for greater economic diversity and stability.

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The City Bowl, Cape Town’s historical center, from Table Mountain

In guest lectures and class discussions we were repeatedly told that “apartheid is inscribed into the landscape.” Our time in Langa revealed to us how the structural inequality created by apartheid continues to exist in Cape Town. We saw many of the issues created by this oppressive system, namely in disparities in food access, access to public transportation, provision of electricity and plumbing, and in hearing from our host families about the lack of public school funding and accountability. It was difficult to find fresh produce and accessible eateries in this area. Our mini-bus taxi commute into the city center was always packed with Langa residents trekking to and from work, and commuting into the city center simply felt like a hassle. In these experiences, we saw the lack of resources and economic opportunity in the black and coloured areas outside the City Bowl, once legally classified a whites-only area.

Though the legacy of apartheid lingers in the city’s structure, life in Langa is not defined by deprivation. We found that outsiders’ apprehensive preconceptions about Langa missed most aspects of daily life. The sidewalk vendors of fruit and snacks and Spaza shops—convenience stores run out of homes—are everyday emblems of neighborhood life and economic resilience. Each week, we joined our homestay families in their normal routines: walking to school, commuting to work, praying at home. Church-going and braais, the South African barbeque, are the mainstays of weekends in Langa.

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Entrance to Robben Island prison

Throughout these weeks of learning, we did find time to explore the city independently, something furthered by a five-day vacation at the end of our session. Some of us chose the outdoorsy route and climbed the stunning local mountains, while others relaxed by the scenic Victoria & Alfred Waterfront for people-watching, shopping, and eating. Others tapped into their inner foodies and frequented some of the local food and craft markets—one even held inside the city’s World Cup Stadium. And many of the city’s cultural institutions felt like another classroom we could explore—some of us ventured to the Bo-Kaap Museum, Slave Lodge, District Six Museum, and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for eighteen years.

Our last night with the program brought together host families from both Bo-Kaap and Langa, as well as faculty members and a cohort of young performers. We each got an opportunity to thank everyone who made our experience in Cape Town special and share some of the themes we would be taking with us as we next explored Hanoi. At its conclusion, two students even performed a spoken-word piece about their time in Cape Town, poetry that truly represents our experience in this city. We leave you with their words.

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Youth dancers with Happy Feet, an after school program for students in Langa, at our closing celebration for homestay families


The Mother City

Yuxi Liu & Amy Sit

We came in search of paradise,

whether pristine beach or personal revelation—

we heard it could be found atop the mountain,


protective like a mother with her two outstretched arms caressing the city.


We yearned for that embrace

so we climbed,

stood on her shoulders,

and took in what the guide books couldn’t do justice.


For a moment, we thought we found it.

Paradise was each drop of ocean, each grain of sand,

and the comfort associated with that physical beauty we longed to see.


But it was in looking down at the landscape,

sprawled out beneath us like an extension of that clear blue ocean,

that we realized:


Maybe it’s the grains of sand that we’re truly searching for,

not the beach itself.


It’s the pixels in the landscape postcard picture—the dotted homes and people within them,

that shifted and gave way to accommodate our different

footprints across the sands of understanding,

that caressed and cushioned our feet as they created paths,

questions, and quests towards far away X’s—


X’s of paradise

that we persistently positioned so far away,

out in the blue unknown,

up in the sky.


But paradise lies beneath the feet of our mothers,

The ones who have taken us into their homes for such a fleeting time

yet loved us like their own.


Beneath their feet lies a home,

whether within pastel-colored walls or between sandy streets lined with shabeens.


Beneath their feet lies the place we’ve discovered why

this is the Mother City—


Because where they stand

is where we should’ve been looking for paradise all along.


Here in the Mother City,

maybe it’s her arms that

carried us up the mountain,

her embrace that

marked where our footprints have traveled

and imprinted the reminders of what we have seen.


Here in the Mother City,

paradise is not the distant horizon,


but where we always return.



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