Story and photos by Angelina Hess
In 2016 post-apartheid Cape Town, college students protest for access to decolonized university while women fight for their right to sexual education and contraceptives. Township-born Capetonians drive Ubers, bringing white residents to their beachfront multi-story flats by day, only to go to a one-room shanty they share with three other families by night. Congested highways dissect the stunning landscape into visible segregation, while nepotism pervades the South African Parliament.
At the same time, as both a tourist destination and an emerging film industry hub, Cape Town is a popular destination for travelers and creatives alike. The city bustles its way toward exploration and innovation while cautiously facing its challenging past.
This is the Cape Town that I spent three months navigating. Only 23 years after a 1994 vote officially desegregated the colonized country at the southernmost tip of Africa, I was a foreigner commuting on the train, walking the paved city streets and dirt township roads. Each day I felt the weight of decades of oppression and racial injustice. But I also saw new growth and changes happening all around me.
Culture and commuting in the Cape
Before landing in the country in mid-September, I was aware that South Africa was highly modernized and influenced by European (primarily Dutch) culture. And yet I didn’t expect to find Cape Town to initially feel quite as familiar as it did.
At times, Cape Town appeared like any other large city at home. The Ferris wheel at the waterfront reminded me of Seattle, the multicolored homes on sloping streets reflected San Francisco, and the extensive restaurant scene shouted Portland dining.
Like many said might happen, I sometimes forgot that I ever left the U.S. However, after months of preparation and over three days of travel, the fact that I was far from home was also a very tangible reality.
I had flown to Cape Town to participate in an IE3 internship program in local documentary filmmaking. My last-minute housing arrangement was at first a rust-red 17-person hostel-like home in the student neighborhood, Observatory (or Obs, as we fondly referred to the hodgepodge of shops and flower covered gated homes). But I soon moved into a much smaller blue home down the street.
My initial introduction to the area was facilitated by Volunteer Adventure Corps. I spent my first week in Cape Town with every wary word of caution spoken to me over the last few months echoing in my head: Petty theft is common. Muggings are a daily occurrence. Hold your bag close. I couldn’t walk past anyone on the street without looking over my shoulder.
Ultimately, this fear dissipated as I became more acquainted with my surroundings and took in its daily beauty. But I continued to err on the side of caution while giving more leeway to my curiosity.
For 10 weeks, my morning commute started with a 20-minute (often delayed) train ride on the MetroRail that passed through the adjacent districts of Woodstock and Salt River and by Lion’s Head and Table Mountain before reaching the city center.
Whenever possible, I preferred walking instead of taking the cramped, unreliable public bus. This walk would lead me through the heart of Cape Town, and a small detour allowed a stroll in the company’s Garden. Without fail, I’d encounter vendors and street musicians as well as men, women and children demanding food and money.
Many other interns I met in Cape Town chose to take a car into town to avoid the city and public transit altogether. Meanwhile, I cherished this part of my daily routine and the chance to feel more connected to this new place.
However, this wasn’t always the case.
In fact, on the eve of the November U.S elections, my fears resurged. As two of my roommates and I walked to our shared home in Observatory that night, we were held at gunpoint and knifepoint by three men. We were left shaken but unharmed, standing in our doorway, as they ran away with our possessions.
Unfortunately, this is a very common reality for most Cape Town residents. Most people I talked to had experienced a similar situation at some point over the course of living in or outside of the city. Many recounted that these moments, more often than not, occurred in broad daylight with onlookers unwilling to help.
While my friends and family at home were outraged, it was somewhat difficult for me to feel the same. Yes, it was an experience I would not wish on anyone. At the same time, I truly recognized the gravity of the Cape Town life.
Afterwards I was told on several occasions, “You’re a South African now.”
These words will always stay with me.
Navigating the South African workplace
As a visual journalism student taught to focus on narrative as well as stylistic elements, my internship experience proved challenging when I found myself working for a company that was ultimately uninterested in either.
I was placed with Street Talk TV, a documentary filmmaking company that resided in the Gardens district of the city. My employers were two middle-aged white men, while my co-workers spoke English, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. At the start, I was just another intern with a desk that faced a wall and a Word document filled with the company social media account passwords.
Originally, I was told that my role in the company would be hands on. I’d help with videography for a feature-length film set in the Masiphumelele township, conduct on-camera interviews and schedule shoots.
While I did facilitate shoots I primarily played a fairly stereotypical intern role that involved taking on social media, daily phone calls and emails and acting as liaison between my co-workers and employers. On shoots, I was more of a production manager than anything else, and I often shot photos or video only with my own camera instead of for assignments.
As a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Street Talk operated on grant funding to fulfill a mandate of one weekly 10-minute episode screened on Cape Town TV. This meant that style and content took a backseat to merely providing segment pieces.
However, what the company lacked in technical experiences, it made up for with opportunities that most interns working in the city center rarely get access to.
Our first assignment sent us out to the #FeesMustFall protest at the University of Cape Town, where students protested for equal and free education. For the first time, I witnessed toyi-toyi, a form of protest that uses song and dance.
Over the course of three months, my coworkers and I left the skyscraper-filled, fast paced city several times on assignment. We drove by taxi into Langa, Khayelitsha Gugulethu, Delft and Kayamandi — just a handful of the shanty township neighborhoods where the majority of the Cape Town population, including my internship coworkers, resides.
The real Cape Town
Townships are haphazardly segmented housing districts that were constructed on Cape Town land during South Africa’s apartheid adoption in 1948. Ringing a “white-only” city center, townships were erected skillfully to pen black and coloured (a term commonly used to describe Capetonians of mixed-race descent) workers in distinct regions surrounded by highways and railways to dishearten the masses into a state of chronic, submissive poverty.
Unfortunately, not much has changed in over the two decades since apartheid ended.
On one assignment in Langa, we visited the most derelict area of the township to talk to locals about the nature of their dilapidated housing. Faulty electrical wires hung from makeshift homes made of tin sheets emblazoned with Coca-Cola logos and flammable tarps. Runoff from wetland marshes containing trash and other unwanted substances filtered through the streets — the same streets where children ran unsupervised and barefoot, playing with discarded bits of Styrofoam and kicking wads of plastic wrap through smoking traffic.
Yet, despite the smoke and dirt, the air crackled with vivacity and resilience.
In Khayelitsha, I listened to middle-school students discuss how an after-school gardening club motivated them to avoid participating in township gang violence. And in Gugulethu, I learned about book-share programs that encouraged often disadvantaged children to gain literacy skills. Through these moments outside of the city, I found myself privy to people and places that were virtually hidden from the typical Cape Town tourist.
This was the Cape Town I loved.
Yes, the city’s mountain views are picturesque, the rooftop lounges inviting and the beaches unlike any other. But what gives Cape Town life is its impassioned people, determined to step outside their circumstantial boundaries.
Go to Cape Town to further understand the racial disparities in your own country, to feel the power behind demonstrations of song and dance in protest and to be humbled by the dichotomous culture.
Tour the wineries, dance at Mzoli’s and hike Lion’s Head. This is also Cape Town culture. But remember the people who, although surrounded by normalized violence, racism and unequal opportunities, are actively changing their societal landscape each day.
Angelina Hess is a senior studying journalism and cinema studies at the University of Oregon. After graduating this June, she will live in Bend, Oregon, to work as a 2017 UO Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism intern at 1859 Oregon’s Magazine/Statehood Media. Over her past four years as an undergraduate, Angelina has collaborated with OR Magazine, Ethos Magazine, Envision Magazine and NW Stories, and she has worked for the UO Mills International Center, Live at the Armory and the Cinema Pacific Film Festival. This past year, Angelina left the U.S for the first time, traveling to Costa Rica, Namibia and South Africa before participating in an SOJC experiential journalism program in Sri Lanka this winter. She is a book and film fiend and a friend to all butterflies, and she can brew a mean cup of tea, Taiwanese style.