Americans in Cape Town: Untangling a Complex Colonial Legacy

A Slack Chat with writers Yohana and Banna Desta.

Banna and Yohana exploring Cape Town’s predominantly Muslim Bo-Kaap district, January 2017

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Anthony: A month and a half ago, Banna, Yohana, and myself traveled to Cape Town, South Africa and today, alongside Jameka, we’ll be debriefing our journey beginning with our expectations and perceptions before we arrived, then being “in it,” and then our final reflections upon returning to a changed home.

Banna: When Anthony and I began looking into this opportunity, we immediately discussed going to an African country as the basis for this trip. We originally looked into Ethiopia, Nairobi, Kenya, and Cape Town, South Africa. After we narrowed it down, we knew we’d only have a week+ to spend in one of these places, and so, we decided on the Cape, I believe, because we recognized it as a Western country which meant it was easiest to navigate and, you know, my family is from Ethiopia. What I knew of Cape Town is that it was really beautiful, landscapes, beaches, city life. I knew intellectually that apartheid and segregation are a huge part of its history, but I never grasped it. It wasn’t tangible until I was actually there.

Yohana: As you know, I got added onto this journey. I mean, I knew about the major socioeconomic themes, of apartheid in South Africa; though, I didn’t have much expectations of Cape Town beyond its image as a tourist destination. I didn’t consciously think of this country as Western, but looking back at our decision-making process, I was like well, without family able to host us in Ethiopia, Cape Town seemed the most accessible.

Anthony: As we’re unpacking what brought us to the Cape, I remember those same moments and we wanted to have this trip because we wanted to challenge many of these tropes and yet, we fell into some of those patterns of thinking almost immediately —

Banna: Yeah completely, ironic.

Anthony: Ya know, we were saying things like “oh, we aren’t going to some nice European castle or some major resort,” but we then fell into exotifying and othering the rest of the world, even though we weren’t treating Africa Sarah Palin style —

Yohana: Right, not as a monolith.

Anthony: Mhm, it was like creating a menu — and I know we were influenced by the reality of the civil war ongoing in Ethiopia right now –

Banna: We gravitated towards the path of least resistance.

Jameka: I appreciate your critique about pigeon-holing yourselves into some exotified South Africa, but at the same time, y’all did want to go and see the beauty of the natural and human communities there and not be too hard on yourselves as individuals. It’s very hard to keep from going off the beaten path because that’s less accessible. You want to travel, you want to see other places, especially those of your ancestry, but it’s painted as scary.

Banna: It’s definitely a big part of it. I remember questions of “what about internet, etc?”

Yohana: Right, you start thinking about how your reality can be very different, but also want to challenge your comfort and those two ideas clash.

Anthony: I feel like the research process even leading up to the days ahead of our flight exposed many of those anxieties and tensions among us. Ya know, we learned that Cape Town was the heart of white South Africa, that it had the highest percentages of white residents, that it was a top destination for the global elite. In addition to that, I remember just before boarding our flight, we looked around and saw only white people boarding a flight to freakin South Africa. It’s like, excuse me.

Banna: In so many spaces, immediately, my sister and I were like the only Black people.

Yohana: I remember speaking with my dad and he was wondering whether we were going to encounter many Africans. He was upfront and he’s from East Africa and was like this probably won’t be very different from the States.

Jameka: I’m wondering what is the history behind Cape Town’s whiteness? Obviously, it is sub-Saharan Africa and it didn’t start out that way. Did the first colonists just keep pushing native black folks back and back? Were you all in the parts of town where the white folks reside? Could you have been based in places with more people of color?

Banna: We were definitely in the center of white cosmopolitans, in the city center. When we would go to the beach, we’d pass these neighborhoods called townships, which are deemed the “ghettos” or slums of Cape Town and that’s where the Black or “colored” people reside. The accessible areas are mostly the white areas. Even hiking in the beautiful parks and landscapes, we would only see white people!

Anthony: For South Africans who are indigenous to that land, many of those sites are sacred. We, alongside, the 99% of white hikers were able to explore them at any moment and that’s environmental racism right there. It was interesting to learn that background though in many of the community-run museums. I remember the District 6 Museum, the neighborhood that inspired the movie District 9, told the story of what happened decades ago, before they even called it gentrification, when white colonizers used urban planning post-slavery to bulldoze and destroy black, “colored,” and brown neighborhoods. Their aim was to destroy any multiracial neighborhoods as well, as they had done centuries prior. They pushed and pushed those communities further inland, even the black middle classes. Today, those neighborhoods, the townships, have little to no infrastructure.

Banna: There was an aerial shot I saw that demonstrates how beautiful and organized the white city center is and how dilapidated the townships are, despite being side by side. Race and class divide.

Jameka: I’m thinking about the access to resources that the center represents to white folks and the opposite being true for people of color. Tying that to here in DC, where black people were located within the inner city and are now being pushed into the suburbs and pushed away from resources they used to have. After I graduated college, ya know poor college grad, I couldn’t afford to stay in this super expensive city and had to move in with my Aunt way far in Indian Head, Maryland — we aren’t even gonna get started on the super racist name — so far away from DC. Traditionally, it was an affluent suburb and now it’s where people go for cheap housing. There’s only one bus line that runs very infrequently and you can’t even leave the town on the weekend. No buses from Friday evening to Sunday. The last bus into DC in the morning is at 7:30am. The closest grocery store is a mile away. She didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a car. If it snowed, you were cut off completely. I’m just thinking about all the black people of DC, who used to have access to buses and the METRO and now don’t have that because white folks are moving into apartments to be “green,” which brings back that environmental racism and urban planning. From there it’s the appropriation of the very black people who made the city what is was, who built that culture, but are now no longer around.

Banna: It’s insane how those patterns of white settler colonialism are so persistent and repeat themselves everywhere.

Anthony: That ties into our experience at Robben Island as well. This island is the location of the infamous apartheid prison — that still is a functioning prison, unbelievably — where Nelson Mandela was held. Before even going into our time there, from the start, the whole experience represented capitalist tourism in how none of the folks who were impacted received any of the profits. In a microcosm, it symbolizes the fallen dreams and stagnation post-liberation, since there was only a transfer of political rights, not economic power. The young generation is referred to as “Born-Frees” rather than Millennials and their government is run by the African National Congress, and they are very angry at the former revolutionaries as they see themselves as boxed out and still in chains when the owners are still all white.

Banna: Our own tour guide, a former political prisoner, was asked why he would come back to such a place of despair. He replied that he couldn’t find a job anywhere else. You see how there’s been no sort of reparations. The prison is a just a major tourist destination. But, in some ways, he’s still a prisoner there.”

Yohana: What also surprised me is that there is a community that lives on the island, there were school camps, weddings. I wonder what it means for those who live there; when you reside in such a place, you must know what happened there. I wish we had the time to ask even an outside question like, “Why would you want to live there?” It would’ve been great to hear that perspective just as we heard from our guide what is was like to provide excursions of the prison several times a day. It was still tough and triggering for him. That was eye-opening and peeled so many layers back on South African history.

Banna: When he told the story of when he came for his first day of work, he drove 20 hours from Durban on the east coast to Robben Island and how he said it felt like going to prison all over again. He had to do that out of desperation after enduring torture for 5 years.

Jameka: His suffering was something to be exhibited.

Banna: And almost all the tourists were white!

Jameka: I saw this meme yesterday of a sociology class with a black girl and white boy and they are learning about the struggles of the civil rights movement and he’s like OMG wow I can’t believe this and the black girl is just rolling her eyes.

Anthony: People were more focused on the penguins than the reality of the prison like it was a beach and a movie.

Banna: They idealized a place and Nelson Mandela that they can consume rather than understand what this means for real people.

Jameka: Exactly, the tourism industry and capitalists have turned freedom fighters into t-shirts at H+M. It’s about how they can make money on this rather than the future they were fighting for.

Banna: It’s like the hype about going to the African-American History Museum out of FOMO rather than wrangling with that truth and that history. Were you asking these questions before?

Jameka: Right, now it’s fashionable, they never gave a damn before. And thinking about your guide, there was never a transfer of wealth and resources, without that, white folks didn’t have to pay anything. Rights alone isn’t enough. Affirmative action mainly benefited white women. Black folks are still left within a system that doesn’t work for them. Corporations aren’t held accountable for hiring practices, that connection is so clear.

Anthony: We learned of the bus routes in Cape Town later, but the main avenue of transit was Uber! There were no other options, not even Lyft, and it was very cheap for foreigners –

Banna: I had a receipt for a 98 cent ride. We never had a white Uber driver. They were mostly Zimbabwean and we learned the most about the city from those people. Those conversations were so much more informative than with white people at bars, They discussed politics, the history, so much context.

Yohana: I found them very willing to discuss their own perspectives on South Africa especially since they are also coming at it from a bit of an outsider perspective.

Anthony: A conversation that struck me related to us as Americans being away from the US amidst all this turmoil around Trump’s Inauguration, the Women’s March, protests. One Zimbabwean man, Ronald, he cared for us so deeply in that short time. He spoke so compassionately about America, he couldn’t believe Trump was real, because he thought America had already overcome racism that many of his friends dreamed to go there one day.

Banna: His lens was MTV Cribs, that race and class did not factor.

Anthony: When we told him our own stories and the realities of racism and poverty in America, he was very heartbroken, as if his own escape from white supremacy had been erased.

Banna: In many ways, we understood so much more deeply about what it represents to be an American.

Anthony: His empathy was incredible. He went through so much shit like being carjacked, yet he extended empathy to his oppressors. At the end of our conversation, he may have been hurt by that reality-check, but was already mentioning another way for him to reach an alternative future.

Jameka: Ya know, they exported that idea of the American Dream across the world. It’s been transplanted into our brains and it’s important for this system transport that idea internationally for the government to survive. The idea of commercialism and wealth is seen as the key to being “ok” and if that idea crumbles the empire crumbles. Trump is revealing some of that work for us and revealing how people here are not living great. You can see so much coverage of all these movements growing and rising up across the States for everything, from Trump’s immigration bullshit, to Black Lives Matter, to the fight for living wages.

Anthony: We then arrived back to DC via Istanbul just days ahead of the first Muslim Ban.

Banna: It was strange after our escapism, especially given that this trip was originally planned when we assumed Hillary would be President and that we didn’t need to necessarily be around. In my mind, Trump’s America weighed on me throughout our trip away. We even went on a wine tour one day and there were a Trump-supporting couple there and, of course, it found us! At one point, the husband kept asking if we were Indian, typecasting us, as if it was impossible that other Africans or Black Americans were on a wine tour in Cape Town. So crazy.

Anthony: And right behind them sat pictures of the landowners’ former slaves-

Banna: It was a huge part of the story of the Stellanbosch wine region.

Anthony: These vineyards didn’t hide their white colonizer history.

Jameka: Still have the land, still have the money.

Banna: Coming back to DC specifically was then even heavier.

Jameka: The veil is now completely lifted. Folks I work with didn’t think their work would be affected, and blatantly tried to ignore the fact that many more lives, real lives, will be lost because this man is now President. All I could think about is, it’s not about the work it’s about peoples lives. Damn, White people have a fucked up relationship with work and its silos.

Yohana: I was so grateful to be briefly away from the nightmare, but South Africa was also dealing with its own. After returning and covering the news for my own work, the fear and anxiety was everywhere in my office. That distance energized me though ahead of having to deal with the additional disgusting shit we deal with each day.

Anthony: Banna and I jumped right into it the day after. We were literally blocking roads in response to Trump’s immigration executive order and then were back at Dulles days later to instrumentally, not just symbolically, occupy space to demand the release of detainees. We saw how these institutions now have their leashes off, they feel so empowered to carry out the new normal. Yet, we also saw so many new folks jumping into the fray.

Banna: Right, even though we saw white liberals profiling anyone who wears something similar to a hijab, like Ethiopian women, who are Christian, always do, or even any black or brown person. It was interesting to see black and brown people being cheered for the first time just for who they were.

Anthony: We dove into the struggle of bringing those folks who may not get our ideology, but still want to see our people and communities win.

Banna: Altogether, Cape Town was in many ways a parallel to what is happening here at home in the US and I’m really looking forward how we can continue to make those connections ahead.

Jameka: We are dealing with modern white colonization here in DC today just as they have been dealing with and are still dealing with today in South Africa. We can only win together by binding all of our struggles on an international platform.

Yohana: Next steps for me are to really dive into my own history and history of place to better understand the racial lines of everywhere we go and see. Intersectionality is global.

Anthony: I’ll leave us with the powerful words we read on our first day, “Remember the day Rhodes fell.”