Hout Bay’s heaven and hell

This Cape valley is a microcosm of South African society, with its three separate communities, each living in its isolated enclosure, eyeing the others warily, writes Bryan Rostron Hout Bay: a little bit of para-dise, murmur local tourist brochures seductively. And, yes, out of my study window, I see a magnificent panorama; a foam-fringed bay surrounded by a towering amphitheatre of mountains. Puffs of cloud drift lazily, due south, somewhere beyond Cape Point. The scene is sun-flecked, soft. But what happens when I alter my angle of vision slightly? Straight ahead, over the crest of a ridge, is the harbour and Hout Bay Heights. This is where the coloured residents live. It is tucked away out of sight by the jagged slopes of Karbonkelberg mountain, but it is not paradise. I glimpse the little fishing boats as they steam out into the bay, before they turn towards the heavy swell of the Atlantic. Due east, out of my other win- dow, is the sprawling, black shack encampment of Imizamo Yethu, clinging precariously to the side of Skoorsteenkop mountain. From here, across the valley, drifts an unruly mix of sounds: donkeys braying, jiving weekend shebeen revelry, Sunday Hallelujah revivalist meetings and sporadic gunfire. I am spellbound by this view. Our small valley embraces three separate communities within the folds of its looming mountains, each living in their isolated enclosures, eyeing each other warily. And if that first view, pretty as a picture postcard, is promoted as paradise, must we then also admit that – only 23km from Cape Town – we still boast our local manifestations of Dante’s limbo and inferno? I often feel that there, laid out before me, is the whole tangled panorama of South Africa’s enduring human comedy. The first thing that struck me when I came to live here two years ago, after an absence from South Africa of 28 years, was how separate the white, coloured and black communities remained, and how pathetically little communication there was between them – even four years after our transition to democracy, and despite living in such proximity to one another. It is as if, after so long, they simply don’t know how to talk to each other. The second thing that struck me was the continuing talent of most of the white population to erase from their minds what they don’t want to see: like that enticing postcard view of a little bit of para-dise, which airbrushes out of the picture about 10 000 people who live in squalor in a highly visible shack settlement. “You’ve actually been there?” gasped a well- travelled white woman, who has lived here for many years, within days of our arrival. “You must never go there. You’ll get killed!” She herself has never set foot in Imizamo Yethu, and swears she never will. Imizamo Yethu, popularly known as Mandela Park, still engenders fierce passions 10 years after its creation. Many whites in Hout Bay, I often feel, hope to wake up one morning and find that overnight a UFO has hovered over Skoorsteenkop and magically hoovered up that vast encampment, leaving behind a bare mountainside (and, hidden among the scraggy pines, one surviving shack containing their own domestic servant). Of course it’s not as simple as that; South Africa never is. But like the winds that gust here in summer and winter, all the racial tensions and uncertainties swirl and eddy through this small valley. Whites fear blacks, blacks are suspicious of whites, coloureds resent blacks, the black community is riven by in-fighting and discord, the whites bicker nastily among themselves and complain vociferously about almost everything as if they are the ones that have been hard done by all along. Hout Bay is a microcosm of our eccentric society. Even so, there remains an odd feeling of remoteness from the rest of Africa. Perhaps it is the psychological effect created by the massive sandstone and granite bulk of Table Mountain, the intervening sandy wastes of the Cape Flats, then the ramparts-like barrier range that the early Dutch settlers called, tellingly, “The Mountains of Africa”. Thus, in the white psyche, a myth of paradise persists. Despite the fact the valley is rapidly filling up, farms and pastures hastily subdivided into small plots for mock- Cape Dutch suburbia, there is still a nostalgic settler dream of the Lost Valley, some kind of Shangri-La. At least a couple of homes have this very name on the gate.

One glance out of my study window dispels the illusion. This view has rapidly filled up with houses. Even the sand dune, once a great scar of white across the lower eastern slope of the Karbonkelberg, is being built upon. Higher up, among the fynbos, there is a highly controversial development initiated by Absa Bank, bulky luxury houses beyond a barrier that announces: Cape Peninsula Nature Reserve. Recently I saw a steenbok up there, at dusk, on a half-completed site. But even these new developments wish to pretend that they are not in Africa. The walled estate of identical boxy yellow brick townhouses that I can see out of my window is called, in Italian, Villa di Legno (Villa of Wood) and the advertising billboard which points the way there promises ludicrously “A Touch of Tuscany”. The sad affectation that this unimaginative, barricaded complex is really situated somewhere on the Mediterranean Riviera is not just a daft marketing slogan. It is symptomatic of a real psychological block still apparent among many colonially minded white folk in the Cape peninsula. Nearby is a condominium block called “St Tropez”, while a new, uncompleted speculation close to the beach is marketing itself as “La Mer”. Quite a few local whites, and wealthy foreigners who buy holiday homes here, don’t really want to live in Africa at all. They just want to live in a sunny suburb, some kind of ersatz Europe, with cheap domestic labour.

The confusion is sometimes understandable: to get to the beach, I drive down Empire, past Manchester, Lancaster, Liverpool, Oxford and Brighton. The other day one local woman informed me that she was taking a holiday, first visiting England, then going “abroad” – by which she meant not leaving Africa, but visiting France or Italy. Such dislocations may sound like caricature, but they are still, horribly, common. While there are whites who longed for democracy in South Africa, there are many others for whom it is – at best – an irritation, or just very, very baffling. Perhaps it is the deadening force of apartheid-induced habit: often they just don’t seem to see what is right before their eyes. My Californian wife is still constantly, freshly, shocked how so many whites here still look right through black people, fail to acknowledge their presence if they enter a room and simply can’t be bothered to pronounce the simplest Xhosa names correctly. We called our dog Baleki (runner). People still ask: “Oh, is that Russian?” >From dawn every day, along the nearby Valley Road, unemployed black men wait around in the hope of casual work, sometimes 40 or 50 of them, and many are still there hours later, and again the next day, and the next. Further along, at the traffic lights, every morning there is a jostle of women from Imizamo Yethu, some quite elderly, hoping to get a lift to their place of work at Llandudno, several kilometres way. Yesterday my wife came home, quite angry: “I watched a group of these women politely asking car after car for a lift. The white women inside didn’t even acknowledge their presence. They just stared straight ahead, with stern faces.” A sure reflection of such uptight attitudes is our monthly paper, The Chronicle. It is a faithful mirror of much that is ill-informed and ungene-rous in white attitudes, with a shrill tone and sour pessimism, clearly convinced that the end of civilisation is nigh. The paper conducts an unflagging campaign of propaganda against the local African National Congress councillor, even hinting once that he didn’t live in Hout Bay (he lives in Harbour Heights). By turns crotchety and petulant, with fretful letters from the likes of “Civic Minded” and “Rule of Law”, there is a pervasive mood of belligerent paranoia. Recently The Chronicle wrote about “our squatters” in Imizamo Yethu, alleging that more families “are bused in every Friday night”. While there is a constant influx of migrants from the poor, rural Eastern Cape, there is no evidence whatsoever of “busing”: this is pure swart gevaar, but believed by cosseted, privileged people who are primed to believe the worst. But then this valley has a long, long history of bigotry and division. The prototype for apartheid was dreamed up here. Jan van Riebeeck, eight months after establishing a European settlement at the Cape, visited the bay and admired its magnificent forests and teeming game. This is where Khoi leader Harry (Autshumao) and his “Kaapmans” (Goringhaicona) frequently pastured. The fortress-like nature of the valley’s encircling mountains eventually, in 1657, gave Van Riebeeck the idea of blocking off all passes: “By these means Harry and the Kaapmans, having been enticed hither, could be confined within the said bounds where they would have sufficient pasturage for all their cattle, and then, out of the increase, the needs of the company could also be supplied according to her wishes by payment of copper and tobacco.”

Unlike the later fanatical progenitors of formal apartheid, the first commander of the Cape garrison soon realised the sheer expense and impracticality of such a “homeland”. After a lengthy recce, “it would be quite impossible,” he concluded, “to confine the Hottentots with less than 10 or 12 redoubts.” Instead, Van Riebeek decided to shield the white settlement behind a “dense hedge of bitter-almond and thorn trees”. The attempt to excavate a canal across the peninsula, to divide it from the rest of Africa, had already been abandoned. But this obsession with separation still cuts across the white settler reverie of paradise. In Hout Bay, apartheid attempted to achieve this by reversing the Van Riebeeck scheme: instead of enclosing the indigenes in, they would preferably be kept out. The coloureds, distant descendants of the early Khoi, were moved from various locations around the valley and corralled into a slum close to the harbour. Blacks found in the area were shipped back to the Transkei, from whence they simply slipped back again, erecting another illegal shack somewhere out of sight among the pine trees. An elderly domestic worker I gave a lift to recently, who normally walks the 3km to work, told me she had lived in Hout Bay for nearly 30 years and could not remember the number of times she had been caught, fined and expelled, only to return as soon as she could because she had a job here. “Africans were never local to this valley,” resentful whites sometimes complain, forgetting their own recent arrival, foreign ancestry and the fact their racial exclusivity was maintained, till recently, at gunpoint. There was even an attempt under the Group Areas Act to close down the small Moravian Primary School, started in 1952 for children of coloured farm workers. But like evidence of stone-age Khoi sites concreted over for a shopping complex, most of our recent history has been rapidly buried and forgotten.

The chaotic, sprawling shanty town of Imizamo Yethu has been here less than a decade, yet now contains at least one third of the valley’s roughly 30 000 inhabitants. It was born, violently, out of the turmoil of the times. Squatter camps had sprung up all over Hout Bay, causing considerable tension by the late 1980s. There were tense stand-offs. Squatters on the dunes flew ANC flags; white vigilantes, some with AWB armbands, strutted round with dogs and side-arms. In May 1990 the Cape Argus carried an editorial about Hout Bay, arguing that it reflected the wider political and social crunch facing Cape Town: “White property owners, who thought they had purchased a little corner of paradise, now find squatters – in rickety shelters with no facilities – almost literally camped on their doorsteps.” Seven months later, in the early hours of Christmas night, the main squatter camp near the beach burned down. Four people died. Many believe this was arson. The result was that a large tract of forestry land on the side of Skoor-steenkop, flanked by buffer zones, was designated for the creation of an “informal settlement”. This was fiercely resisted. The Argus later commented on the sustained letter-writing campaign from anxious whites, concerned about crime and property values. The Cape Times reported that some even wanted a two-metre wall round the settlement. Originally, 541 families were to be settled there. Ever since, different administrations have procrastinated over granting title to these plots. Finally, nearly a decade later, the first few deeds are being processed. Meanwhile, the shanty town has mushroomed, squalidly. There are now 2 411 shacks perched on the mountainside in crazed, unplanned, unsanitary proximity, with no space for schools or recreation. Aids and TB are rife. Medical experts fear an outbreak of cholera. It is a situation replicated all over South Africa, but seldom quite so startlingly as in this exquisite valley, where all our uncivilised disparities are nakedly visible. The dream of a Golden Age, however, dies hard. “You should have been here 30 years ago,” old-timers say. “Hout Bay was unspoilt then.”

Actually, I did come here 30 years ago. It was the high noon of apartheid; already there were small squatter enclaves hidden among the pines and dunes. As a student I used to trek out with some politically like-minded friends to a tiny wooden shack on a rocky promontory sticking out into the Atlantic, on the other side of the Karbonkelberg. This shack belonged to a colossal man called … well, let’s call him Sam. Sam used to plunge fearlessly into the crashing waves and emerge with writhing crayfish, upon which we feasted royally and for free. One weekend we went without Sam, but with dozens of jars of mayonnaise. We were all too poop scared to plunge our hands under rocks, in the roaring surf, and so had to feast on nothing but mayonnaise all weekend. Like all imagined Golden Ages it was an illusion. Sam, for example, was almost certainly a government agent provocateur, if not a spy.

The view from my window, right now, is entrancing. The sun has burnt off the last wisps of haze along the coast. The sea sparkles, indigo. A moment ago, through my binoculars, I thought I glimpsed spouts from the first whales, but this may have been spray from the waves. What I love most about this view is that it is constantly changing. The same cannot be said, how- ever, for the attitudes of many who live here. Ways of thinking remain deeply entrenched, like a sick habit, through ignorance, fear, lack of ima-gination and the inability to communicate across colour lines. Suspicion, on all sides, is the serpent still lurking in the valley. And greed. There is an uncontrolled building frenzy, much of which is truly hideous; towards the beach you now pass plastic shop fronts, an unsightly forest of advertising hoardings and even a garish KFC. A great deal of this – including, it seems, the Absa development on the dunes – also flagrantly breaks the building regulations. Meanwhile, precariously up on the mountainside, Imizamo Yethu continues to fester. Sometimes, as I gaze out of my study window, I wonder: if we can’t get it together in this modest valley, what are the chances for the rest of South Africa? The discrepancies are so vast. Two years ago, our first New Year’s Eve in our new home, we were startled by a sudden explosion on the stroke of midnight. Sol Kerzner, who owns a large chunk of the mountain behind us, was throwing his annual party to which the rich, beautiful and powerful – old style or new – were invited to watch a small part of his gambling fortune detonate in a loud firework display over Hout Bay. On the other side of the valley, halfway up another mountain, the ramshackle shanty town of Imizamo Yethu had a grandstand view of Kerzner’s extravaganza. How was such a poor community to respond to the multi- millionaire’s profligate pyrotechnics? Soon, from that side of the valley, we heard the staccato bursts of AK-47 fire. Today, in daylight, Hout Bay appears deceptively tranquil. Over the past few months, though, I have noticed the walls and fences of neighbours creeping higher and higher. A start to ending our interminable cycle of mutual fear might be for whites to relinquish, forever, that old pioneer myth of living in a beleaguered Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, the comedy continues: whites distrusting blacks and blacks whites, coloureds wary of whites and resenting blacks, and whites still bitching with aggrieved self-righteousness, as if they had all along struggled selflessly to avoid our present state of edgy limbo. Once, I found a graffito scrawled outside our front gate in white paint; I quickly scrubbed it off and haven’t told my wife till this day. It said, simply: “Die …” Oh no. Perhaps paradise will be like this – competing groups, mostly defined by colour, skirmishing bitterly for eternity over scarce resources.

But right now, after so long away, as I contemplate that strange, troubled scene out of my window, it feels, finally, like home. Last summer, I remember one particular day, so hot that the stunned silence was broken only by cicadas; outside was a brilliant, searing simplicity of light as if everything had stopped absolutely still, pin-pointed in that one moment of heat and clarity. Inside, shadowed and cool, the murmur of a sea breeze rustled purple bougainvillea petals across the white tiled floor. I wouldn’t – heaven or hell – live anywhere else.

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