“This doesn’t feel like Africa.” At the beginning this was a common sentiment but has since been absorbed into the increasing acceptance of the western nature of Stellenbosch. It is easy though, to loose track of where you are when walking past the white Afrikaners pulling their Mercedes up to the gate of the residence hall complex to drive the four blocks to the university.
“Lazy bastards” says Walter, my half-German, half-Mexican neighbor in the mostly-international residence hall, Concordia. The one thing that needs no reminder is the fact that South Africa has the second widest income gap in the world between the very rich and the very poor – the economic resonance left behind from its racially segregated, Apartheid past.
Just on the edge of town is Kayamundi, a ‘township’, or better known in the west as a slum, which overlooks the red-roofed grandeur of the city. Rows of houses constructed from roofing materials line tight, unsanitary streets where children play soccer or chase cars. All over we see abandoned buildings striped down to concrete and rubble.
“What happened here?” I ask Indipe, a young, black athlete who lives in Kayamundi and coaches after-school programs for the severely disadvantaged youth.
“When a building becomes abandoned,” he tells me “it is like a free market for anything you need to make your house. You need a roof? You need a window frame? You come take it.”
This is shockingly reasonable, I think to myself. At times the resourcefulness and entrepreneurship of people here surprises me. Mzoli’s is a great example of this. In a township outside of Cape Town there is a restaurant that only serves meat… and beer. They have two rooms cooking dedicated to cooking meat on the braai – the South African version of barbeque – and a section of street that gets taken over by customers. They come from the township itself and from towns miles away, not for the meat (which is delicious) but for the party.
Last Saturday I made the mistake of telling a giant Namibian that, if I was going to chug a beer, he had to chug one too. This inevitably turned into a contest, which I lost in roughly 1 ½ seconds. The next morning I get a phone call at 11:00 am. It’s the Namibians from the bar last night and they tell me they’re at Concordia to pick me up to go to Mzoli’s. There, still half asleep, I indulge in the party that rages from 11:30 am to 7:00 pm. When they finally wake me up after having spent the car ride home unconscious, I am informed that we are back in Stellenbosch… at the bar.
Climbing into my bed to sleep off the excitement fatigue from today, I think about what I have seen in the past week. Despite the divisions that are responsible for both the economic and political polarization, South Africans seem to be united by a pride for their country and themselves, and by a new sentiment that is becoming increasingly appropriate: “T.I.A.” – This Is Africa.
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