Day 2: South Africa History Day

Aug 23—Today we took a step back in time, visiting sites involved in the Cape Town area's history. It's both a depressing and encouraging story. Depressing in the sense that suppression of any kind--in this case racially motivated--is one of the recurring themes in human history that is, well, not one of our better ideas. Encouraging because progress is being made and the people of this country are aware that it is.

First up on our town history tour was a visit to the first residential area of Cape Town, Bo-Kaap*, where the small brightly colored homes dominate the hill above city center. These days the area is a mostly Muslim neighborhood. And like almost everywhere you go throughout Cape Town, you find mostly friendly, encouraging people. For instance, one of the students was photographing a house and asked a woman who came out of it if she wouldn't mind posing for a picture. Most city and street photographers know that being polite, respectful, and willing to listen to a few stories often pays off with willing subjects, and this time was no different. Not only did she gladly pose, but next thing you know the whole group was being invited into her home for some baked goods she was preparing for her family and friends, which were about to set off on a Haj to Mecca. After politely chatting and thanking her for her hospitality, we made sure to get her name and address so that we could send her a copy of the picture that the student took when we get home. 

*Even in South Africa there seems to be some confusion over the actual name, as I've gotten five different spellings and punctuations on this. But after a little more research, we'll go with this one. The area is also known as the Malay Quarter for those of you trying to find it.


I'm not known for people photography, but when the situation arises at a workshop, we try to take advantage of the opportunity rather than let it pass by. I suppose it helps that I'm not particularly trying to collect pictures to publish of people in the places I visit, so generally almost all of my people encounters are friendly and often lead to experiences that there is no other way to get. Obviously, you have to take care when and where you deal with locals, as not every situation might turn out so pleasant, but with a small workshop group like this and a knowledgable local guide moderating where and who we interact with, I'm not afraid to put my friendly side forward and see what happens next. If they say no--heck, if they're not 100% cooperative--I have no compunctions about moving on. I don't need the shot and the potential subjects don't need the grief. But it's those times when you make a new foreign friend that makes travel such an interesting and rewarding experience. So our day started with some of that.

(I should note here that you won't see much in the way of "people pictures" here on the my Web site. I do not like to use images that contain people in them on the Web site because it feels a bit like exploitation. It would be one thing if I were paying modeling fees to someone and getting them to sign releases, but for casual street photography, I do not tend to publish such images, especially when children are involved, so you won't see many people in the images you'll see in this blog. That means not many of the images we took today are going to make it on the blog. Pity, that, as some of the students got some excellent portraits today.)

The big item on our itinerary today was a slightly more risky venture than wandering through friendly city neighborhoods, though. We were headed to one of the cornerstones of understanding the recent South African experience: a township. 

When we got to our destination at Khayelitsha I was a bit surprised. Visiting the same multi-block area of the township as I did last year I immediately noticed changes. For the better. Last year, the block we visited consisted of perhaps three or four constructed homes and dozens of more impromptu metal lean-to type shelters (see left side of image, below)--shacks or shanties in local parlance. This year in the same block I'd guess that about half the shacks were gone and replaced by constructed homes (see right side of image). Still modest, of course, but real structures that were built to real construction codes, and which the residents now own (assuming they live in them for seven years). Yes, there are still tin-metal shacks about, but fewer than before. Noticeably fewer.

INT SA Khayelitsha 00566 EP1.JPG

It's difficult to describe, or even show in pictures, partly because the history of the area is a big part of a backstory you need to know to fully understand what is going on. This is a township of a million or so people in what most of us would consider a modest-sized area for that population. And it all came about in very recent times. When I was born, Khayelitsha didn't exist. It was just an open area 10km from Cape Town. When the legal system here changed after the British handed over rule and Apartheid begin to rear it's ugly head, the story starts as a very sad one. 

For instance, in an area in town known as District Six (I believe their were nine districts in town at the time), the government began tearing down the small homes of the colored and blacks that lived there. In a short time, over 60,000 people lost their homes. Mostly because the government wanted the land for potential development for whites. Because "black" and "colored" mean different things in South Africa, the fates of those that lived in District Six were different. But both lost their homes and were moved elsewhere, usually to new townships. The government would take some open land outside of town, construct some minimal infrastructure and move the displaced there. That's how Khayelitsha started. 

The townships are both chaotic and organized. Chaos can be seen at any stop light (which generally would only be near the edges of the township as within the township you see few vehicles and there's no need for them): from one signal I counted 18 unauthorized wires connected up to the signal that were drawing power down to nearby shacks. The joke here is that if you've managed to acquire a radio or TV, your channel will be changed every time the signal changes. Seriously, power lines snake all over the place here, with people grabbing power from any source they can find. Dr. Random has arranged the overhead wires in ways that are sometimes amusing and sometimes mind-boggling. On top of this there are people everywhere due to the high population density, and from the edge of the township looking in you see very little regularity, just a lot of incongruent metal, wood, plaster sides and impromptu roofs, all with a teeming mass of people in the midst.

Inside the township you discover something else: there is structure and order. Neighborhood Watch means something much more here than it does where I live. Neighbors look out for one another, watch the children, police for crime, participate in councils that decide what people can build, and much more. Small collectives are present, too. There's a part of the neighborhood that specializes in washing vehicles; somehow certain areas seem to have been designated for business instead of residential. There are day care centers, and in a few places there are small non-profits that have established centers where people can come to learn a craft and sell their work. 

Don't get me wrong. This is not nirvana. This is poverty. But here's the thing: these people appear to be mostly happy, there is obvious progress happening in their township (which I've now witnessed), there is pride in ownership of what they do have, and they are generally friendly. More than once I've been spontaneously invited into their homes, such as they are. And when you do take someone up on that, you find that their home may be simple, but there is an obvious pride in what they do have, and things are always remarkably clean, especially considered all the dirt and chaos just outside the door. 

With school out due to a teacher's strike, the children were all hanging out and playing around their homes when we got there. Within minutes, our small group of photographers became the new toy in town. No child asked us for anything, no one begged, none made faces at us or gave us anything other than joy and love. One small child just walked over to me, hugged me, and then walked away. I don't know what that was about, but to me it felt like a positive experience. Maybe he just thought I needed a hug today, maybe he does that to all visitors to show that it's friendly here, maybe he's heard a story that boycotts from those overseas people are one of the things that broke Apartheid and he wanted to thank me. I'll never know. All I know is that it was a touching moment. 

Most of the children had never seen so many cameras at once, and our group became a giant attraction to them. Especially after we started showing them the pictures we were taking (again, I'm not going to post them here, as I feel that's exploitative). Here's another thing that touched me: at one point I had been taking pictures of a few of people and children when one of the children gently--yes gently--pulled the camera away from me and indicated for me to pose. When through his English-speaking sister I managed to ask him why he thought it important to take a picture of me, the answer I got back was that he was afraid I wasn't going to get any pictures of me in his town. 

Hope is a strange thing. It's hard to grow without a real seed. What I saw, both last year when I visited this area during a scouting trip, and again this year, is that there are lots of seeds here. As little as these people have, as much as these people have been through, as far as they still have to go, there are plenty of seeds of hope here. 

What I found in almost every encounter with the children of Khayelitsha, both this year and last, is that there is a hunger to be taught, to learn. Learn almost anything. After one child did something I liked, I gave him a high five. He understood that. I tried to follow that with a low five and he was perplexed at first. Guess he hadn't seen the "give me five high, now give it to me low" routine before. But you could just see his eyes light up with the "want to learn this new thing" look, and next thing you know he's teaching it to the next child in the group, and the next, and the next... By the time I left the area, everyone was giving me the high/low and grinning up a storm. 

As I've noted several times, I generally don't publish street encounter pictures I take. In fact, I normally don't do anything with them other than keep them for memories. I don't wish to even give even a vague impression that I wish to exploit those that have less than me. But every time I look at the pictures the students and I took today, I'm going to remember the hope, the eagerness to learn, and the welcoming nature. Children here are like children everywhere. They are the future. I'm now going to see what little things I can do to see that their future is a little better than it was before, because today they made my present better than it was before.

Damn. And I thought we were here to photograph. ;~) 

Oh, and one other thing: since the children all saw us pressing buttons while taking pictures, every time they got their hands on a camera, they'd press buttons, too. Unfortunately, they pressed buttons randomly. So if you're ever in such a situation, be sure to check to make sure your settings are all still intact afterward. You'd be surprised at what a couple dozen random button presses on a camera can set it up to do.

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