by Caroline Sutton
The conference center was all glass and steel, with wide hallways circling the auditoriums and silent elevators encased in glass that glided from floor to floor. Cappuccino bars with plates of cookies dusted with confectioner’s sugar appeared at convenient intervals. In various seminar rooms we sat in tall-backed swivel chairs made of biodegradable materials, safe enough for your child to eat.
It was winter in Cape Town. During the global conference on developing countries, skies were bright, afternoons unusually hospitable. Clouds parted as if on cue from the stage of Table Mountain. Inside the air-conditioned conference center, soft leather shoes skimmed over carpets and business cards slipped from wallet to wallet. At the waterfront below people loitered at Seattle Coffee and Haagen Daz or bunched onto ferries for a ride to Robben Island, a visit to prison cells, and a gusty return through shifting tides. A Xhosa leader sentenced by the British to life tried and failed to negotiate the cold currents, lighting out one night alone. For decades the pancake of metamorphic rock was home to lepers as well as seals, the original residents.
At the conference President Zuma spoke via satellite about economic opportunities awaiting foreign investors in Africa; “The conference serves as a key platform to drive engagement around critical economic issues on the continent and to connect decision-makers,” he said to an audience that included thirty-five Chinese CEOs. Two South African high school students sat primly on stage articulating their goals, one to advance technology, the other to practice law. Graca Machel, Mandela’s wife, spoke about the need for African men to view all women as if they were their own wives and daughters so that entrenched traditions condoning abuse would begin to unravel. Sporting a marigold World Cup jersey, Archbishop Tutu blew a vuvuzela and remarked with a wink that he hoped to see this audience in South Africa again before the 2020 Summer Olympics that Durban hopes to host. We are a family of man, he said to resounding applause. The air buzzed with change, or the possibility of it.
When the session ended, I ambled through street markets hawking T-shirts and beads, saw Gothic churches and well swept parks with banyan trees and palms, Dutch colonials safeguarded by electric fences, and the new stadium gleaming like a spaceship. An acquaintance remarked that the city was nice but didn’t seem very different. She seemed indignant (though relieved) at the high rises and KFC, as if she’d expected to see child soldiers wielding fully loaded AK47 assault rifles and men with machetes as pictured in The New York Times.
I, too, donned my North Face and ventured to Robben Island. The tour guide was a former political prisoner who found it cathartic to work alongside his former guards and eat a sandwich with them at midday. He showed us Mandela’s cell, scrubbed clean and painted white, with a mat on the floor and a big red bucket for water and waste, a door that slid open as if to a horse’s stall. One of the original eight imprisoned with Mandela, Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, spoke to a group of us, matter-of-factly endorsing that leader’s ethos of forgiveness. During his eighteen-year incarceration the prison took special care to discriminate between people of color: he, as Indian, could wear long pants and socks during the cold winters; blacks wore shorts. Why?
“To remind them they were boys.”
The crowd whispered their indignation.
“Ask any prisoner what he missed most,” continued Kathrada in a voice as temperate as the earth tones he was wearing, “the answer, to a man, was children.” Prisoners protested and fasted for many years before reforms enabled a father to hold his child. I’d thought the answer would be a blanket, sex, meat. But a child changes– is no longer a child–in eighteen years.
We strolled in the sunshine of the prison courtyard and consumed pesto and lemon tarts at a bountiful buffet before heading back to Cape Town, whose high rises glittered against the backdrop of sandstone and shale. Thereafter, I was shuttled on tours from vineyards to Table Mountain, all with dreamy unease and sporadic irritation at not seeing what operated below the veneer of obsequious bellhops and British teas. I wasn’t out to see “the real Africa;” those British teas at the Mount Nelson Hotel were oh so real. But I seemed to be skating on a reservoir in a volcanic crater, and the ice needed to crack. The parks where tourists strolled and blacks in neon vests speared litter with poles were quiet. Through the dark bus windows I saw a crisp new hospital and the stately university standing as it has since 1829 on the Rhodes estate at the base of Devil’s Peak.
Where was the city within the city?
At the final session of the conference, I met a young woman from Bedford, New York, which is about twenty miles from where I live. Initially, I mistook her for an extraneous family member, someone’s daughter, so unassuming was she, standing by the sign-in desk in a black cardigan and boots. She shook my hand, softly, and pulled involuntarily at her long blond hair while I chattered foolishly about New York and stared indiscreetly at her green eyes and heart-shaped face. She had spent a semester at the University of Cape Town and had returned to open a grass-roots center for HIV positive children in the township of Khayelitsha. More astounding, she had raised a million dollars and had navigated the city’s tortuous political system, including negotiations with the township’s mayor, to purchase a tract of land adjacent to the only hospital serving Khayelitsha’s 1.5 million people. Such is the clout of this politician that when drug gangs who’d committed theft realized they robbed her, they voluntarily worked off the debt by cleaning her house, toilets included. Whitney planned to build a new center with storage facilities for medications, a playing field, and a feasible kitchen for preparing a daily meal, as she already did in her existing center, for her 75 kids. The wait list for her center numbered in the hundreds; she had a staff of four.
In cold drizzle the following day, Whitney picked me up at the Mount Nelson in a black SUV. My husband came too, but our friends opted to enjoy themselves by exploring gracious vineyards in the surrounding hills. As a kid I’d visited pueblos on Hopi reservations in New Mexico, which are now closed to tourists; later I’d traveled to India and Indonesia, Iran and Peru. Gawking at poverty was not PC.
And who would benefit? I swallowed that question like a piece of gristle but felt invasive nevertheless as I questioned Whitney about the sordid conditions, lack of in-tact family structure and education, lack of plumbing and electricity, lack of grocery stores and jobs. “I hear unemployment’s 34% in Cape Town.” Did Zuma tell us that?
“ More like 80% out here,” she said, as if easing bad news–the death of a pet bird– to a child.
“Where does anyone work?”
She shrugged and kept her eyes on the road. “Cape Town, maybe, but a domestic, who typically earns $15 a day, pays $6 in bus fare.”
We drove about twenty five miles– five times the distance from the city to Robben Island—passing much-touted one-story cement houses you get if you essentially win the lottery; thereafter stretched miles and miles of corrugated tin shacks wedged together like crooked teeth. Empty bottles, orange peels, plastic bags lay roadside. Later I stepped over barbed wire and a dog skull. Meanwhile Whitney answered our questions matter-of-factly, if guardedly at first.
“There are no toilets?” I asked, wondering where I was going to go.
“The government supplies Port-o-Potties. The people think they’re a joke.”
“They have buckets, but the shacks have no floors so when it rains they flood.” She turned to me, raising her lovely eyebrows.
By now rain was coming down in droves, and her wipers were on high speed. Through vapor like cataracts I saw shacks with no windows–wood, tin, bright paint, weathered numbers– shirts hung to dry, collarless dogs all generic brown, stands selling oranges and bananas, only oranges and bananas, a few women with blankets around their shoulders to ward off the rain. For the most part only children looked back at us.
The SUV took a sharp turn inside a wire fence and stopped at what looked like an abandoned garage. Inside, a Yale business school student with evenly cropped blond hair and a body toned by varsity lacrosse greeted us enthusiastically. Another young woman from Chappaqua sat sniffling at a laptop in the chilly communal office space, while an older woman, a social worker from the township typed on a desktop and rifled through papers. Whitney could not operate without some local staff—“too dangerous,” she conceded– and she based her center in a Methodist church, whose members also provided some protection. The cavernous room was like the belly of a whale, with exposed beams in a half-finished ceiling, dark wood walls, few windows. Whitney looked down at the brown linoleum and quietly noted she’d had that installed. “You should’ve seen this place before.” We stood among haphazard chairs under dim overhead lights waiting for the kids to arrive, but the bus broke down and only a few straggled in. At the far end a woman hunched over a puzzle with three small girls, scarcely moving, somehow holding their attention. A cluster of boys sat around an electric heater watching professional wrestling. “Usually I never let them watch TV,” chimed Whitney. They danced, played games, went to a museum, did yoga. Four year olds learned how to take medication themselves because no one reminded them, or no one approved. A social worker counseled a teenager on the stigma of HIV, another on sexual abuse by a mother’s boyfriend. Only one of the 75 kids had a father at home. Some lived too far from a water spigot to take their pills. One boy always smuggled bits of his meal home to his siblings under his shirt. “He’s not usually shy,” smiled Whitney as I shook his fine-boned hand. Another boy arrived with the seat of his cotton pants torn– routinely abused.
Did they wonder what I was doing there? I wondered what I was doing there, but didn’t want to be elsewhere, for the moment. We stood talking with Whitney for some hours while the rain clattered on the roof and pummeled the mud. Her staff brought a plate of spinach and bean stew to each kid, one at a time, from a kitchen (smaller than Mandela’s cell) with a tiny refrigerator, two burners, and a shelf harboring brown paper bags and two heads of broccoli. Acid worked at the inside of my stomach, but I figured I’d wait till I got back to the hotel.
When the clouds running overhead left a listless grey cover and the rain relented, we left the center and wound through paths between tin homes. We stepped over dog feces and broken glass, brushed past occasional men, always alone. “Don’t flash a camera around,” Whitney warned. I wouldn’t have been able to find my way out. Little boys stared and grinned. At length we reached a square opening with a spigot and called out at the doorway of one of the homes. I remained near the door while Whitney and her social worker went in, the latter chatting in Xhosa to a woman holding a baby. The walls were lined with newspaper; a kerosene lamp stood on a board attached to the wall; an electric wire dangled fruitlessly from a corner of the ceiling, not a foot above my head. One bed. Children slept on the cardboard floor. Three adult women, no men. I smiled and looked mostly at my feet. A plump girl in pink sweatshirt and sweatpants, who had raced up to Whitney when we arrived, still clung to her, arms locked around her torso, nose crusty and running. For years the family had thought she was mute. A boy tried on black leather tie shoes we brought, and I thought they looked hard and ungainly jutting from his slender ankles. He soon took them off, placed them carefully side by side, and slid his feet into flip flops. Did they fit? He nodded. We thanked everyone, called out cheery goodbyes, smiled, waved, and soon left.
I followed, asking no questions about where we’d go next. That way I’d appear easy going, as if I did this kind of thing every day, as if we were one family, as Tutu had said. Perversely, I validated the marble bathrooms and lavish breakfasts at the hotel because I was also seeing this; in the same breath, I condemned it all, the displacement of millions, the morass of shacks stretching in perpetuity beyond the shadow of the new stadium and the unabashedly colonialist hotel with its etchings of British military men standing at attention, brass cannon in the hallway, kudu antlers on the walls, warm fireplaces and cozy high teas, egg salad sandwiches with the crusts cut off and butterballs that someone had to make…. Worst of all, I found myself wanting to leave, wanting to eat one of those sandwiches.
I left nothing in the township except a smile and a pair of shoes I didn’t buy–and whatever reaction my presence provoked, if any. What did I take, I who already had a job, a plane ticket, a wardrobe of cashmere and silk? Photos I snapped on the sly like a private detective and images to transcribe arbitrarily into words for you—but do you see what I see? And what then? Back at the hotel the doorman opened the door, and the concierge standing tall in her tan pantsuit smiled broadly. I had coffee in the bar, skirting the immense display of watercress sandwiches, custard tarts, and chocolate truffles laid out for high tea. The same waitress I saw each morning brought a tray with a starched napkin and far too many utensils for a cup of coffee. She remarked that the weather was likely to clear. Such optimism! I wondered where she lived, what time she got up to start serving by 7 am, what she thought about our cordial greetings, but I chattered as if I didn’t think about these things.
Later I told my friends about the township, the kids, the disease.
“Anything like Calcutta?”
“Worse,” I replied with earnest fatigue, as if I’d just gone without food and water and slept in the mud, as if I’d just survived.
“We wish we’d gone,” my friend replied. “ It rained and the view from the vineyards was lousy.”
One night the members of the conference split into groups of about thirty and were bussed to different sites throughout the city for dinner. One group went to Cecil Rhodes’s mansion, which is closed to the public. Ours drove forty-five minutes along the coast to the home of Eric, head of a human resources consultancy, and his wife, Mary. French doors opened onto a balcony overlooking Table Bay sparkling in moonlight like a Hollywood set. A striking array of oil paintings hung in the dining room where four parallel tables were set with white tablecloths for the occasion. We were seated and wine was poured. At my table was Jeff Berger, an anthropologist who found skeletons in the Malapa Cave north of Johannesburg which, he claims, are 1.9 million years old and will forever change our concept of the origins of hominids, subsequently, the family of man, though I couldn’t get him to say exactly how. Asked why human life started in Africa, he responded, simply, it’s the biggest landmass in the world. You could plop North and South America and China and Europe inside it, an image that sent ripples of surprise around the table. Our hostess went around the room asking each person—members of the conference only—who they were and what they did. We heard from brilliant wind and solar energy entrepreneurs and the creator of bubble wrap who works out of New Jersey but said New York.
While individuals introduced themselves, “colored” women served huge platters of beef, whole fish, pumpkin ravioli, smoked salmon, and salad to each of us, after which Mary said she had a surprise. I’d noticed a young man standing just inside the living room, dressed in black slacks and a short-sleeve collared shirt, smiling and nodding as we arrived—he might have been the only person of color not in the kitchen. Now, with anticipation evocative of Christmas, Mary presented her protégé, of sorts. She had helped sponsor his violin lessons. He had studied for two years and made exceptional progress. He was eighteen though given his five-foot height and willowy limbs I would have guessed twelve. With her maternal arms around him, Mary narrated snippets of his childhood in the township, citing his many siblings and his will to attend school, hunger and ever-present danger from gangs. He then raised his bow, cocked the violin on his shoulder, gazed over our heads, and performed a classical piece for us that was so familiar, followed by something slow and lyrical that I had never heard. He dedicated it to Mary and played with such ardor that tears came to her eyes. This art, too, was hers. We applauded her generosity and his talent, and he thanked his sponsors warmly for his many opportunities. In the air was a giddy optimism veiling vestigial colonialist sensibilities: they too can rise. But he was one, and we were so many.
Waiting at the Cape Town airport for the 22-hour trip home, I leafed through Fortune. More poverty. But GDP grew 4.9% in Africa from 2000-2008! I tried to see, concealed in that figure –the triangular 4, the circular 9– another bowl of soup, another pair of shoes, a lightbulb lighting a shack, a woman with a raincoat. There was land to farm, diamonds, uranium, and manganese to mine, a hydroelectric dam to build on the Congo that could supply all Africa with energy, fiber optic cable to lay throughout the east and the south. It was Cecil Rhodes, redux.
Back in New York, I often think of the township. On land formerly owned by William Rockefeller that tumbles down to the Hudson River, I walk my dog with the joggers and picnickers. It’s summer and the grass has gone brittle and yellow in the drought. August is the coldest month in Cape Town and the rainiest, the time when Khayelitsha, floods and the sun retreats by five. I pass three men speaking Japanese and carrying enormous cameras, not in their cases, cameras with lenses that will capture this park as I have not seen it. I’ve contacted the school where I teach and asked them to invite Whitney to speak to raise money for her center. The request was met with enthusiasm, followed by an email outlining the difficulties of scheduling time at morning assembly, what with speeches by the new representatives of community service, and all. And that email betrayed not the slightest touch of irony.
I replay scenes and reactions– a young man who brushed by me in the alley between homes, a dog ripping at a plastic bag, a slightly cross-eyed boy, the tangy smell of urine. Of course I wanted an egg salad sandwich that day. Who wouldn’t? But why would I think not wanting one at that moment would make me more empathetic, more transcendent, more integrated in the scene–and that would suffice?
Unlike Whitney, most of us mortals cannot—or do not want to–pick up and start another life halfway around the globe. When my daughter, who is Whitney’s age, exclaimed, “Can I work at the center?” I flinched. I saw her walking the labyrinthine township with her ingenuous smile, taking a wrong turn, catching looks, and worse. Port-o-Potties are used for gang rapes. Maybe I wouldn’t let her go; maybe it was a passing whim. “I’m sure there’s a lot you can do from New York.”
At the conference Bill Clinton said to his audience of empowered people, “You can always find a reason not to do something.” This child ravaged by HIV will not live, three doctors told Whitney. You might as well go home. For that reason she and her staff stayed with him twenty-four hours a day, and for that reason he had something that day to live for. Repeatedly she told me, “This is what I’m meant to be doing.” The very reasons not to be there constitute the reason she is.