Initial thoughts on South African society from the eyes of an intrepid supermarket shopper
06.18.2010 72 °F
It's early afternoon here in beautiful Hout Bay. We arrived yesterday evening after a two-hour flight from Johannesburg - I was on South African Airways while everyone else flew Kulula (one of the newer low-cost carriers) so we met up at the Cape Town airport, picked up the two rental cars (no power steering), and made our way down to Hout Bay. I got to play the role of navigator, which those of you who have road-tripped with me know I do pretty well...if I say so myself. The drive took only half an hour or so, but we got a glimpse of how the "other half" of South Africa lives. Large, modern houses surrounded by high gates, some with barbed wire or electrified fences. The topography in this area is quite hilly so there are great views.
The house where we're staying is perched on the back end of Table Mountain National Park. which extends south past actual Table Mountain (the mesa-like massif that forms a striking backdrop of Cape Town) itself. We have a view to the east of the northern side of Hout Bay town as well as Imizano Yethu, the black township that sprang up in the early 90s and currently has about 33,000 residents. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Cape Town has a brief section on Hout Bay and describes the community as a miniature version of South African society, with the whites living in one area, the blacks in another, and the "coloureds" (people of mixed race - in Western Cape province that includes the Cape Malays, descendants of slaves brought from modern-day Indonesia by the Dutch) in yet another part of town called Hangberg. Since we just got here I haven't seen much, but it's not unlike Latin American cities whose socioeconomic barriers often coincide with skin color or tone.
A couple of weeks ago the Dutch people who manage the vacation rental properties asked us if we wanted to employ the services of Cesar, the woman who is the housekeeper for the family that lives here (they apparently have no interest in the World Cup and therefore went to Botswana on holiday). Although none of us is used to having such a luxury, we decided in favor of it - one of the reasons being so that we could contribute to the salary that she was already receiving from the house owners. We met her this morning and immediately took a liking to her. She's originally from a city near Durban in KwaZulu-Natal (KNZ) province on the Indian Ocean, lived in Jo'berg, and came to Cape Town because her husband "works on the sea" as she said. Our breakfast consisted of multi-grain bread, sausages, sliced tomatoes, cut fruit (including papaya, which I devoured since virtually no one else would eat it). and these biscotti-like things called "rusks" that had pumpkin seeds, currants, and some other things in them. Really good, so much so that I might have to buy a box and take them back to the U.S.
We had expressed an interest in going shopping with Cesar so five of us piled into one of rental cars and headed to Pick n Pay in Constantia, a neighboring town to the east famous for its wine estates. The supermarket was in a large strip mall-type of complex obviously catering to the well-to-do. The parking lot was really crowded and we barely found a space. The government extended the school holidays for the entire month of the World Cup, though the reaction was not all favorable as I read in a local newspaper on the flight down from Jo'berg (largely related to the additional costs of child care). Many cars had a South African flag attached by a suction cup to one of the windows, and a few were flying a second flag. Prior to arriving, I read somewhere on-line that the 2010 World Cup may have the same effect as the 1995 Rugby World Cup but on the opposite population. Soccer in South Africa traditionally has been the favored sport of the blacks, whereas rugby is dominated by whites - both in terms of players and fans. If you've seen the Clint Eastwood-directed moving "Invictus" with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar (the captain of the South African rubgy team, aka the Springboks or just "Boks" in English and "Bokke" in Dutch-based Afrikaans) then you understand how rugby started appealing more to the black population. The same thing hadn't happened with soccer, however the World Cup seems to be changing that. Inside the supermarket I spotted a few whites, including an Afrikaans-speaking boy, wearing the national team jersey.
You can find lots about race relations in South Africa in other sources, both in print and on-line, and I'm not going to proclaim myself as anything close to an expert just because I made the long trip down here for a ten-day stay. As you can imagine, there are many schools of thought on race in this country - you can ask ten South Africans of all colors about race and you'll probably get ten different answers. But having been exposed to apartheid through the international media, I as a foreigner can't come here and not think about, be intrigued by, or wonder about how South Africa has changed since the transition to a multi-ethnic democracy. As a non-white American I also am intrigued by how people here may perceive me. Our group is quite diverse: four whites, two Latinos (the younger two Clasens were adopted as infants from Guatemala), and two Chinese-Americans (the other being the fiancee of the eldest Clasen child). I was joking with Cesar at the supermarket that we ourselves are a "Rainbow Nation" - this is a nickname coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the new South Africa. She had remarked earlier in the morning that she was a bit confused by our racial make-up. Pretty funny.
The Pick n Pay was packed (how's that for alliteration!) with shoppers, virtually all of whom were white. From what I saw, all of the employees were either black or colored. Most of the whites were speaking English but I heard some Afrikaans as well. The only non-black and non-white people outside of our group were one man of Indian descent picking through the potatoes at the same time I was, and a hijab-wearing woman who was our cashier. I can't say I was expecting anything different, but seeing it with my own eyes was, well, eye-opening. And that's really all I can say - nothing of note happened while we were there, other than our stuffing the shopping cart with R2720 (about $360) worth of food, which for nine people probably won't last more than a few days.
One of the items in our cart was a package of dry mealie (corn) meal, which is used to make pap. Pap is a stiff porridge that forms the base of meals for black South Africans. I'm guessing it's like the ugali that I ate in Tanzania back in 2002. While driving to the Pick n Pay, we had asked Cesar if she could cook some typical South African food. She assumed we wouldn't be interested in what black people eat, but we told her we were so she added that to our shopping list.
Later this afternoon we're watching the first half of the U.S.-Slovenia match here at the house and then will head into Hout Bay town for the second half. From there we'll catch a bus (free with a game day match ticket) to the stadium at Green Point, just south of the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Waterfront downtown, for the England-Algeria match. Kick-off is at 8:30pm so it's going to be a bit windy and chilly, though not nearly as cold as when I landed in Jo'burg.
A final observation: at an intersection near the Pick n Pay there was a black man dressed up as Michael Jackson, complete with a white sequined glove. We saw him dancing for tips - moonwalking an all - on the way to the store and again on the way back. It was a hoot, but it also reminded me of kids I've seen in some Latin American cities who dress up as clowns and juggle in front of cars stopped at stoplights. In countries with huge gaps in income distribution as well as high rates of unemployment, making an extra buck (or, in this case, rand) sometimes comes with a dose of ingenuity and creativity.