I barely washed my hands all week. It wasn’t from laziness or gross hygiene habits though. Almost every sink in Cape Town is shut off.
It was easy to forget the city’s water crisis when it rained nearly everyday, but Cape Town is still experiencing a “Level 6 drought.” I have to limit my shower to 60 seconds at the gym (else a beep starts publicly shaming me) and we pay for water at restaurants.
I’m not complaining though.
Using hand sanitizer instead of soap and water is an inconsequential loss compared to everything I experienced in Cape Town this week. We moved into a Mediterranean Villa in one of the nicest sections of the city on Friday, and have been enjoying a buffet breakfast every morning. The biggest tragedy so far was the day they didn’t make eggs.
I finished work on Wednesday by drinking wine under the sunset at Camps Bay with the other DukeEngage kids and saw penguins on the beach yesterday. It was less than a 5 minute walk to the night life and bar scene… that plays Latin Pop and EDM from New Orleans style double decker buildings. It was an even shorter drive to Lion’s Head today (one of the scariest, but most beautiful climbs I’ve ever been on).
I’m listing all of this to share how novel and incredible this week has been, but also how unsettling it still feels. Because despite all the Purell as I’ve been using… my hands still feel really dirty.
I started working at SACTWU (Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union) with Lily on Monday and it was a whirlwind of getting to know my coworkers, learning new things about the fashion industry and already being assigned a big project.
SACTWU was also a whirlwind of confusion, unmet expectations and exhaustion. The Union represents workers in the clothing, textile, leather and footwear industry and negotiates wages and terms of employment to make sure the employees are being treated fairly. I thought my job would focus on interviewing factory workers and documenting their stories, but this week was completely unpredicted.
We attended a conference focused enforcing ethical labor laws on Monday, a conference promoting ‘partnerships’ with major international retailers on Tuesday, and a fashion trade show on Wednesday. I caught myself pretty disappointed and ungrateful this week. It was hard getting into the swing of a 9-5 / M-F work week and I felt like my skills weren’t being utilized. I expected to interact with factory workers and ended up spending three days at the mall looking at clothing tags and recording where apparel was made. It was almost always Made in China.
However, plans changed later in the week and our supervisor picked us up from the shopping center and took us on a tour of a textile factory outside the city. He told us the factories were located here because the government needed industrial zones to separate the Black and Colored slums during apartheid. It obviously didn’t matter apartheid ended 24 years ago because remnants of separateness were right before my eyes.
It felt dystopian to drive over Cape Town’s mountain walls and towards townships on the other side to view the less sexy factories. It felt like deliberate separateness from the overpriced clothing stores we wandered around, and worlds apart from the conferences and fashion show I went to earlier. But I guess it only made sense that just like the attempt to push extreme poverty out of the city center and into the slums, the labor going into clothes filling downtown shops is also hidden from Cape Town’s pretty image.
How did I honestly listen to businessmen and academics talk about “building partnerships across sectors” for the past three days, when separation was still so clear? The conversations over hors d’oeuvres focusing on “collaboration across industries and across countries” seemed so superficial when all I saw outside my window was the very fragmented spaces we’re still occupying.
I couldn’t stop thinking about a story I read in my ethics class freshman year called “The One Who Walked Away from the Omelas.” The city of Omeleas existed in perfect harmony and happiness but at the expense of one child living in isolation and perpetual misery. They story ends with a small group of citizens leaving the city and silently choosing another place to inhabit. They leave the Omeleas and its’ eternal hedonistic heaven for a place where happiness doesn’t depend on another child’s suffering.
I didn’t know why my mind kept going back to that story because it doesn’t make sense to compare Cape Town to Omeleas. But I couldn’t shake a feeling of unbridled privilege I’ve experienced here, in the face of so much suffering and poverty passing by my window.
As the drive continued, I realized, the difference between Cape Town and the Omelas is that suffering seeps through the cracks here. It’s not put in one child, one township or one factory. I saw these less glamorous spaces for the first time on the other side of the mountain, but it didn’t mean the inner city was pretending they don’t exist.
I feel like I was able to reconcile Cape Town’s contradictions because it’s not in perfect harmony.
It would be easy to fall in love with this city, the food, the beaches and friendly strangers, but my dirty hands have been a constant reminder that luxuries in Cape Town don’t come without reparations. It’s beautiful to wake up in the morning on the cliff of Tamboerskloof, watch the orange sunrise on my morning run, indulge in the almost daily froyo trips (because it’s dangerously close to our villa), and check off all all the tourist-y things off my bucket list during the weekend… but I still can’t wash my hands.
I can take a 20 minute shower at home if I want, but I can’t go out to eat without paying for a bottle of water. I can sit outside at a restaurant, but I risk losing my bowl of miso soup and leftover sushi to two homeless men on the street begging me for food. I can walk alone to the gym like the independent 20 year old woman that I am, but need to carry mace on me to feel safe. I can roam on Long Street at night with a friend, but have to take the well lit road on the way back home, because we’re two naive Americans that realize we’re being followed.
I’ve tried to stay in places of comfort of safety here in Cape Town, but remannts of the city’s unequal past and unfair present are bound to slip through. Cape Town doesn’t exist under unlimited happiness because as much as they tried, and tried again, to create seperate spaces… there are constant reminders of Cape Town’s inequality every day, and even in the cosmopolitan hub of the city.
Cape Town is defintley not the Omelas, and there are constant reminders that this place is not a utopia. It might have taken a drive outside the city to realize it, and I’m feeling better about my contradictions here. I don’t have to ‘walk away’ like the Omelas, or reject my privileges because something still feels unjust. I don’t have to avoid the city’s beauty, stop eating out, or forgo my weekend hikes, but I’m trying to do them with more awareness.
I’m still trying to figure out how to operate here, and how to foster more flexibility at work and more gratitude when I come home. I can keep trying to incubate myself in comfort and safety in Cape Town, but I don’t want to, and I’ll never really be able to wash off the remnants of dirt from my hands… even when the water crisis is over.
“…and all the quirks, imperfections, and contradictions are par for the course. Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes).”