For richer or poorer

South Africa, part one

The bus took myself and from Cape Town airport into the city. First the landscape was empty, with occasional buildings hiding between a tree or two in the plentitude of grass. As in silent conversation we stared in awe at the changing scenery, both aware yet unable to comment. To our left a tin-roof-slum appeared with its labyrinth structure. Packed little constructions that from a European point of view are not fit for pigs, yet here are what too many call home. In between their fall-apart, make-believe structure, laundry lines carried baby clothes and a few children ran around playing, ignorant to the injustice of how the world has distributed its resources. As we moved along the highway into the city, the tin roofs turned into buildings, into apartment complexes. The habitats slowly morphed into what could be called houses and decent living. 

A few days later there was no denying it: Despite its spectacular nature, Cape Town is filthy and ugly. A tourist city too rich, with too many too poor. Aggressively they followed us tourists around barefoot, clothes dirty and broken. They begged for food, not money – every single one made that distinction clear: “Please, mam, no money, only food. I’m hungry, mam. Please…”

In my guidebook it says: “don’t feed the baboons, they might attack you”. In Cape Town the locals told us: “don’t help the beggars, they might rob you”. It made me sick, yet like a zombie I fell in line and ignored the people whose circumstance had pushed them inbetween the cracks. Doing nothing, knowing that anything I do, cannot change everything.

One early evening a man followed us like many times before and after. He called for our attention, walking alongside us on one of the bigger tourists streets filled with restaurants, bars and shops full of tourist junk. Following my ‘guidebook’, I did not give him a glance, I simply walked on and ignored, looked straight through him. As we crossed a larger street a single car drove towards us and my mind played a nasty trick on me: What if this man focused entirely on me, does not notice and gets hit by the car… Lying there broken and bleeding, would I give him as little respect and compassion as I do now, and simply walk on as he dies on the streets? Or would I, like a proper hypocrite, suddenly care about his survival? My mind betrayed my idealism in favor of the filthy face of human nature: Caring when it becomes an inconvenience for us, not when it is an inconvenience to others. I remember walking on feeling disgusted and apathetic at the same time. I glanced at him, he was not yet a man. Before we crossed the street he had left us alone, heading towards a destiny I will never know, but can guess.

Walking to the hotel in the evenings and from the hotel in the mornings, revealed the shear amount of men that slept on the streets. Dirty and filthy, drunk and sick, they were tucked into corners, alleys, shop windows, alone or in pairs. One morning I took my hotel coffee and breakfast muffin with me on the walk to the conference. Guilt washed over me as I munched on food in the presence of starvation. A few bites later I left the remaining muffin on top of a trash bin. On my way I see a man sleeping with his pants pulled down. A few evenings later another man walked away from a police gathering without any pants at all. I made an effort not to look. My mind conjectured one thought, and one thought alone: the spread of HIV. 

On the hotel, the conference and the tourist restaurants we were served more food than we possibly could eat. My new waistline reveals not only the wonderful flavors, but also the desperation to finish it all, not bearing the thought that the food goes to waste. Upon enquiry one waitress told us that the leftovers are not thrown away, they are given away. I hope this included the food barely touched on our plates, but I fear it is one of those things tourists want to hear, and restaurants want to say…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *