It’s a strange concept, having drinks and socialising and laughing in the spill-over area on the street outside a crowded bar, just a couple feet away from a small group of sleeping homeless people. It’s strange. It’s disrespectful. It’s honestly kind of disgusting. Does no one else think this? Or are they just pretending that the homeless people aren’t there? How can so many people here be so happily indulging in alcohol and cigarettes and all these objective luxuries when right next to them are people desperate for food and begging for the small change that sits at the bottom of our pockets? Why does no one seem to care?
I see this issue of juxtaposition everywhere here in my life in Cape Town, and wonder constantly why so many people around me seem to be so okay with its existence. I found myself standing outside that overcrowded bar this past Friday night, surrounded by local people having a great time, but there was just no way that I could get in the mood. Beyond the heads of the people around me, I could see the edge of a dirty blanket on a makeshift cardboard bed. A small empty metal tin on the corner of the cardboard. There’s no soft clanging sound because no one is dropping even the smallest amount of change in there. Everyone is too busy socialising and having fun. It’s jarring to realise that I am standing in this group of people and am complicit in normalising this juxtaposition. After about 20 minutes I can’t do it anymore and so I leave. For most other people at that bar, their night out on the town continues. Their smiles and laughter and banter continue. The homeless people are still just two feet away.
There are other instances of juxtaposition that are less disgusting and more just confusing to me. On Wednesday this past week, one of the paralegals at the NGO I’m working at, The Women’s Legal Centre, took all of us interns on a visit to Khayelitsha, one of the largest townships outside of Cape Town. On the way there, we took a local minivan bus for the first time. The second we climbed into the minivan, I realised that I couldn’t understand what anyone around me was saying. I was told later that the language they were speaking was Xhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. And then the minivan started moving and the driver turned on the radio, full blast. What comes on? The Backstreet Boys. And here, another juxtaposition. There I was, in South Africa and surrounded by a different language, a different culture, a different people, and yet it was a white American band that was on the radio. Why is it that American culture prevails everywhere and yet no foreign culture (save for a few sprinkled British actors) ever truly sees the light of day in the US of A? It’s a question I’ve thought about more and more ever since I left the UK to start studying at Duke but one that never truly hit me as strongly as it did while sitting in that minivan. For all its talk about being the “land of the free” and thereby apparently one of the most progressive nations in the world… is it actually? In a time of increasing xenophobia, why do fewer and fewer people seem to care?
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know this. We need to start caring. Juxtaposition in the ways I’ve seen here in Cape Town should not be okay. We should not tolerate it. And if we don’t do something to change the way that those in positions of privilege so easily forget to care about the situations of those less fortunate than them… well, then we’re all just complicit to that kind of behaviour, to all of this juxtaposition in a world that doesn’t care.