Skip to main content

This week a co-worker took the WLC interns to Khayelitsha, a township right outside of Cape Town where she travels to every Thursday. For the first time I rode one of the city’s mini-van buses as I ventured into a part of the city completely unfamiliar to me. Khayelitsha is South Africa’s largest and fastest growing township, and it is made up of mostly informal settlements and shanty houses. We visited the Rape Crisis Center and listened to the director speak powerfully and passionately about her engagement and work with the women that she counsels. When we walked through part of town to look for our ride back, people stared curiously at us. This was probably one of the only places I visited in Cape Town that wasn’t a frequent tourist spot.

Two days later, I paid about 400 Rand (~$30USD) to sit at the Mount Nelson Hotel for “Tea Time.” Again, I felt completely out of place. As we walked in, a crowd made up of white older tourists looked up holding their teacups, scanning our friend group. After we were seated on plush benches, our waiter gave us a detailed explanation about the hotel’s status among the elite. “Queen Elizabeth actually had her 21st birthday party here,” he said. We were given a menu of fancy-sounding “exotic” teas and ate tiers of hor d’oeuvres and small desserts.

Later that evening, we walked down Long Street looking for a bar and good music while were followed for about 2 blocks by a pair of men trying to sell us something. After we settled into a bar that was playing American hip-hop & R&B throwbacks, we danced and partied among a group of locals, young people, and tourists. Even though I was having a great time (and felt relieved to finally be in a party space that wasn’t predominantly white), it still felt like we were a spectacle of naive, dancing Americans, intruding a space that wasn’t for us.

What does “getting to know Cape Town” really mean? There are supposedly a million things to do here, yet many times after work I find myself sitting on my bed doing with absolutely nothing to do. When I do go out to explore the city, I come back feeling unsettled. It feels invasive and unethical to visit local communities and spectate at their culture and living spaces.  It feels superficial to visit Cape Town’s “best” restaurants, bars or beaches, especially when they are packed with wealthy white crowds. It feels risky to walk down Long Street late at night and enter bars and party spaces when I don’t know anybody in the crowd. All of the reasons why I don’t feel comfortable in these spaces can be attributed to my identity, to power structures, to privilege, and to the different ways these things overlap.

During our group discussions, we’ve talked about struggling with the concept of ethical engagement. Our individual identities and the places we go challenge all of us to think about our actions. Where I should go, where I want to go, where I’m welcomed, and where I’m safe are spaces that I struggle to identify, and they are spaces don’t always overlap. I want to make the most of my time here and engage with the community as much as possible, but I don’t really know how to. Maybe I’m searching for a sense of belonging or comfort that I’ll never find, rightfully so.