Inside Cape Town

Tourists are flocking to the city, but a former resident explains how the legacy of apartheid lingers

(Cheryl Carlin)
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Not everybody catches marlin. Zongeswa Bauli, 39, is a loyal member of the ANC who wears Nelson Mandela T-shirts and has voted for the party in every election since 1994. One afternoon I travel with her to her home at the Kanana squatter camp, an illegal settlement inside the black township of Guguletu, near Cape Town's airport. In 1991, the dying days of apartheid, Bauli arrived here from destitute Ciskei—one of the so-called "independent black homelands" set up by the apartheid regime in the 1970s—in what is now Eastern Cape province. For nine years, she camped in her grandmother's backyard and worked as a domestic servant for white families. In 2000, she purchased a plot for a few hundred dollars in Kanana, now home to 6,000 black migrants—and growing by 10 percent annually.

Bauli leads me through sandy alleys, past shacks constructed of crudely nailed wood planks. Mosquitoes swarm over pools of stagnant water. In the courtyard of a long-abandoned student hostel now taken over by squatters, rats scurry around heaps of rotting garbage; residents tell me that someone dumped a body here a month ago, and it lay undiscovered for several days. While free anti-retroviral drugs have been introduced in Cape Town, the HIV rate remains high, and the unemployment rate is more than 50 percent; every male we meet, it seems, is jobless, and though it's only 5 p.m., most appear drunk. As we near her dwelling, Bauli points out a broken outdoor water pump, vandalized the week before. At last we arrive at her tiny wooden shack, divided into three cubicles, where she lives with her 7-year-old daughter, Sisipho, her sister and her sister's three children. (After years of agitation by squatters, the municipality agreed in 2001 to provide electricity to the camp. Bauli has it, but thousands of more recent arrivals do not.) After dark, she huddles with her family indoors, the flimsy door locked, terrified of the gangsters, called tsotsis, who control the camp at night. "It's too dangerous out there," she says.

Bauli dreams of escaping Kanana. The ANC has promised to provide new housing for all of Cape Town's squatters before the World Cup begins—the "No Shacks 2010" pledge—but Bauli has heard such talk before. "Nobody cares about Guguletu," she says with a shrug. Bauli's hopes rest on her daughter who is in second grade in a public primary school in the affluent, largely white neighborhood of Kenilworth—an unattainable aspiration in the apartheid era. "Maybe by 2020, Sisipho will be able to buy me a house," she says wryly.

Helen Zille, Cape Town's mayor, largely blames the ANC for the housing crisis: the $50 million that Cape Town receives annually from the national government, she says, is barely enough to build houses for 7,000 families. "The waiting list is growing by 20,000 [families] a year," she told me.

Zille's own story reflects the city's complex racial dynamics. In the last local election, her Democratic Alliance (DA), a white-dominated opposition party, formed a coalition with half a dozen smaller parties to defeat the incumbent ANC. (Many coloured voters turned against the ANC once again and helped give the DA its victory.) It was one of the first times in South Africa since the end of apartheid that the ANC had been turned out of office; the election results created a backlash that still resonates.

Zille, 57, is one of only a few white politicians in the country who speak Xhosa, the language of South Africa's second-largest tribe, and lives in a racially integrated neighborhood. She has an impressive record as an activist, having been arrested during the apartheid years for her work as a teacher in Crossroads, a black squatter camp. Despite her credentials, the ANC-controlled Western Cape provincial government launched an effort last fall to unseat and replace her with a "mayoral committee" heavily represented by ANC members. Their complaint: the city was not "African" enough and had to be brought in line with the rest of the country. After protests from Zille supporters and criticism from even some ANC allies, the leadership backed down.

The wounds are still raw. Zille bristled when I asked her about being heckled at a rally she attended with South African President Thabo Mbeki. She said the heckling was "orchestrated" by her enemies within the ANC. "This election marked the first time that the party of liberation has lost anywhere in South Africa," she said as we sat in her spacious sixth-floor office in the Civic Center, a high-rise overlooking Cape Town's harbor. "The ANC didn't like that." As for the claim that Cape Town wasn't African enough, she scoffed. "Rubbish! Are they saying that only Xhosa people can be considered African? The tragedy is that the ANC has fostered the misimpression that only black people can take care of blacks."

The Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, Africa's only nuclear power plant, was inaugurated in 1984 by the apartheid regime and is the major source of electricity for the Western Cape's 4.5 million population. I've come to meet Carin De Villiers, a senior manager for Eskom, South Africa's power monopoly. De Villiers was an eyewitness to one of the worst crises in South Africa's recent history, which unfolded at Koeberg for two frantic weeks in early 2006. It may well have contributed to the defeat of the ANC in the last election.

On February 19, 2006, an overload on a high-voltage transmission line automatically tripped the nuclear reactor's single working unit (the other had earlier sustained massive damage after a worker dropped a three-inch bolt into a water pump). With the entire reactor suddenly out of commission, the whole Western Cape became dependent on a coal-fueled plant located more than 1,000 miles away. As engineers tried desperately to get one of the two 900-megawatt units back on line, Eskom ordered rolling blackouts that paralyzed Cape Town and the region, as far as Namibia, for two weeks. "It was a nightmare," De Villiers told me. Businesses shut down, traffic lights stopped working, gas pumps and ATMs went dead. Police stations, medical clinics and government offices had to operate by candlelight. After the city's pumps shut down, raw sewage poured into rivers and wetlands, killing thousands of fish and threatening the Cape Peninsula's rich bird life. Tourists were stranded in cable cars on Table Mountain; burglars took advantage of disabled alarms to wreak havoc in affluent neighborhoods. By the time Eskom restored power on March 3, the blackouts had cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

For De Villiers and the rest of Cape Town's population, the power failures provided an unsettling look at the fragility that lies just beneath the city's prosperous surface. It drew attention to the fact that Eskom has failed to expand power capacity to keep up with the province's 6 percent annual growth and opened the ANC to charges of poor planning and bad management. Now Eskom is scrambling to build new plants, including another nuclear reactor, as the city prepares for the World Cup. The power collapse also laid bare racial grievances: many whites, and some nonwhites as well, saw the breakdown as evidence that the official policy of black economic empowerment had brought unqualified people into key positions of responsibility. "Given the mismanagement of this economy à la Eskom, I am beginning to prefer my oppressors to be white," one reader wrote to Business Day, a South African newspaper.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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