One morning, we wake up feeling fat. To be sure, we’d felt fat for a while but on this particular morning, it was exacerbated by the fact that our flat overlooks an official state estate that houses one of our reasonably fat ministers.
I’ve heard people say it’s the education minister’s residence and, you know what? It’s not called “ministerial gravy” for nothing.
At all times, a posse of police officers is to be found at the entrance. They are as fat as we feel and just as lazy. With their frames squeezed tightly into their blue uniforms and their blue caps concealing their eyes, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were guarding the house of a modern Al Capone.
Sunday morning squeezes through a dense mass of leaves and flecks of sunlight.
A piebald cat leaps into view and perches on the wall where the electric fence of our gated apartment block separates us from the minister’s house, and the minister’s electric fence barricades her from the rest of the street.
Cats roam freely in our block the way dogs do in Gugulethu, where my girlfriend’s family lives. But the similarities between Gugulethu and Vredehoek end there. If in Gugs a cacophony of cars and children and music and chatter punctuates the existence of its inhabitants, Vredehoek is the absolute opposite.
Our street, on the contrary, is quiet save for the rustling of leaves and the singing of the mild, dry easterly Cape Doctor.
Slowly, we climb out of bed and put on our gym clothes. We make our way up Gorge Road, past the park where bergies’ rags hang out to dry on branches. Further and further up the foot of Table Mountain we climb, as slowly as our bodies allow.
The canopy of trees provides ample shade from the biting sun. “This is where Azure must’ve climbed,” my girlfriend says. “Ah-zoo-ray”. He is the 13-year-old street kid protagonist in K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel, Thirteen Cents. While the book deals with the underworld and ravages of poverty in Cape Town, this picturesque trail is also reflected on Cape Town Tourism leaflets.
Relative privilege makes for an exceptional life in Cape Town. Where we are standing, the mountain looms large up ahead with behind us the sprawling city suburbs and the city; further down, the harbour and the sea. You’d be forgiven if you thought this is all there is to this magnificent-looking city.
Hugged by the bosom of the mountain and the forest, we take a rest. A black man and his two daughters fish for tadpoles in a shallow pool. The father is patient with his daughters and shows them how to catch the slippery offspring. “No, dad, you do it,” says the youngest. She’s up to her knees in the murky water.
In a way, the view offers us a slice of the dream of the rainbow nation: a smidgen of the new black elite enjoying the bitter fruits of freedom in a world that, not so long ago, was the exclusive territory of whites. On our ascent up Table Mountain, the father and his two daughters are the only black people we see, just as we are the only black people in our electric-fenced apartment block.
An elderly couple with English accents descends from above us. Aloof, the granny slips on a boulder. Her husband jumps to grab her. The two of them cascade down the boulder in the gushing stream from the mini waterfall ahead and plunge into a pool just next to us. “White people,” my girlfriend says as I try to fish them out.
“We’re fine, we’re fine,” the man says as they laugh and play in the water. We ask about an alternative trail down the slope and they point us in the direction.
“Is it not interesting that they know more about this mountain, about this country, than we do?” my girlfriend asks contemptuously.
“It’s because they took all the land and stuffed us in townships and bantustans all those years ago, with Bantu education,” I say. “We’re still in the townships eking out a living from the scraps and leftovers of this city,” she says.
“With a fancy CA qualification I’m still the girl from Gugs. Even at work. They still want to send me on errands like a maid. That’s the only way they know how to relate to me.”
Right there, the thin veneer of exceptionalism peels off and we realise that as much as a lot has changed for a few of us, we’re still in the same position as before.
Except now we experience the misfortune of the pigment of our skin in larger waists and beautifully lit restaurants and quiet streets, on Weylandts furniture and in open-plan offices, hoping that some day, one day, things will truly change and we won’t be so uncomfortably self-conscious in the country of our birth.
This short essay first appeared in City Press*