Clifton: Of baba ganoush and bungalows

Life has a strange way of assigning you just the work you need to do, and I’ve been coming to think that it’s probably no coincidence that I was born in the very same year that the Rolling Stones released that killer anthem You Can’t Always Get What You Want (But You Get What You Need). The name of the album? Let It Bleed. Indeed.

When it comes to matters of karma, inheritance, haves, have-nots, leisure and labour, Veuve Clicquot and “tata ma chance, tata my millions”, Porsches and bunions, caviar, revolution, investment bankers, debt collectors, “we, the 99%”, haute cuisine, red overalls, cocaine, tik, TB, Vitality, Sanderson linen, property, table manners, cows, stocks, stokvels, trophy wives and alimony payments, rich cousins, black sheep, contested wills, family feuds, yoga and diamonds – in a nutshell, class – There Will Be Blood. But this is a story about Clifton – 1, 2, 3 and 4 – where life is a beach, not a bitch, so let me relax and rewind a bit.

There I am on a Monday morning on the outer reaches of False Bay freelancedom, going about the general business of attending to my not-so-humble post-PhD overdraft, when an email plinks into my inbox. The Mail & Guardian is doing a special edition on “class” and would I be interested in writing a piece on Clifton – playground of our very own “one-percenters” – against the backdrop of the larger South Africa, the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters and “global discussions around (the end?) of capitalism”?

Ha! See what I mean about the Rolling Stones? You think you’re minding your own business … I mean, I haven’t been to Clifton since … er … a scenic sunset picnic in the late Nineties? Gate-crashing a Great Gatsby-style pool party hosted, as I dimly recall, by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s naughty-boy son, and feeling like Sylvia Plath on the set of Baywatch all night? I actually can’t remember. And now – ta da! – a bespoke invitation to strip down and confront my muddled class demons.

My pulse starts to quicken when I realise that, for a middle-class misfit like me, this is one of those razor’s-edge “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” type commissions.

Ideological time bomb
On the one hand, I risk further alienation as a class traitor from my recently returned global investment banker cousins, who’ve bought a lovely home on the slopes of Table Mountain overlooking Camps Bay; on the other I must be careful not to shoot myself in the Birkenstock with my lefty tribe labouring away in service of Jacques Celliers (FNB), Ivan Pillay (South African Revenue Service) et al on this side of the caviar curtain.

OMG, it’s an ideological time bomb dressed up as a piña colada! How can I resist?

My first thought is to settle in with a flagon of Tanqueray at a table at The Bungalow with a ridiculous view over the Atlantic and the Glen Tennis Club at sunset, and write a polysyllabic, acid-tongued takedown of the whole glib and botoxed scene a la Hunter S Thompson at the Kentucky Derby or Lin Sampson at the One & Only.

But I can’t really see where all that would take me. Having grown up on the inside of double-storey privilege until my family bubble burst at the age of 17, I know that it’s not always the permanent summer holiday it looks like from the outside – which is why so many rich people are either on drugs or in psychotherapy. So a snarly takedown just won’t cut it. No, the only way to approach this is from the point of view of a class gate-crasher with some familial and cultural residues in the rarefied sunset-strip strata. 

A week later, as the long, Nordic winter begins to subside, my friend C WhatsApps me, out of the blue, to ask if we’d be keen on a Sunday picnic at – I swear to god – Clifton. As the day approaches, our picnic party expands and the venue shifts from Clifton 4 (too much family) to Clifton 2, which is deemed by the singletons among us the sexier of the two options. We detour via the hot-blooded Euro bustle of Giovanni’s deli in Greenpoint for morning cappuccinos and picnic meze.

Arriving studiously early, we park on Queen Victoria Road and wend our way down a narrow path, the houses on either side recalling the close layout of a Greek island ­(residents grow weary from the intrusions of snooping passers-by), to the crystal-white beach, which is still empty enough for us to snag the perfect spot. There is only one luxury yacht bobbing in the aquamarine sea for the brunch set. But by mid-afternoon about six have moored in the bay.

Laying out our towels, we notice that the perfectly positioned Hamptons-style white clapboard bungalow just above us is “for sale”. When I hear the word “bungalow” I think of the kind of makeshift wooden shack Henry David Thoreau retreated into to write Walden; or, Life in the Woods in the mid-19th century.

This is not that kind of “bungalow”. Clifton is, after all, the most exclusive, blue-chip residential area in South Africa, and the unofficial playground of the world’s rich and famous, who are rumoured to spend their time basking on the more secluded first and second beaches. “OMG – I’m just chilling here and boom – Sean Penn spotted on Clifton!” beamed Anne Hirsch on Facebook about two months ago.

When I later Google “Dogon Group Properties”, the appointed agent on the “for sale” board, I find Clifton “bungalows” selling for between R17-million and R65-million plus VAT. Further up the mountainside opposite an old funicular, which transports residents down to the beach, there is a development called Nettleton Ridge, which comprises four custom-designed houses with a 24-hour security presence and controlled access via a purpose-built guardhouse. Security is far from an afterthought in this ‘hood.

House three, which hasn’t yet been fully built, is one of the four most expensive properties on sale in Cape Town. At last check, it was going for R120-million (less than half of Jacob Zuma’s bill for Nkandla – #payitback!!!). Bet you could put that in your crack pipe and smoke it, Mr Jordan Belfort, Wolf of Wall Street, because I sure as hell don’t know what to do with that kind of a figure – um, except perhaps start retrofitting Khayelitsha and improving the lives of thousands. Wasn’t that supposed to be the plan?

‘Schoemakers Gat’
It wasn’t always this way. In 1783, Clifton was known by the less salubrious moniker of “Schoemakers Gat” or “Cobblers Cave”. These names are said to have derived from the old story that a shoemaker – a lucky deserter from the despotic Dutch East India Company – lived in the Clifton caves and would mend the broken shoes of farmers on their way to Cape Town. Decades later, the area was named after Bessie Clifton, who ran the only hotel in the area, which was apt as, by 1900, Cape Town residents started going to Clifton for holidays.

The small size of the properties on which the bungalows between the second and fourth beaches are built is due to the fact that the area was laid out by the City of Cape Town for demobilised soldiers who had fought in World War I. The original bungalows, mostly replaced now with ­über-chic new structures, were built from the packing cases in which motorcars were imported in the 1920s and 1930s.

The house next door to the house for sale is owned by a couple of gay interiors moguls who have adopted two black toddlers, and they’re having a low-tempo Café del Mar-style Ibiza moment on their front deck with some friends. I’m almost tempted to join them. I learn this via my friend, C’s yoga instructor, who is a local, having grown up in Clifton. He is sunning his well-toned body a bit further down the beach from us and is something of a mogul himself, I’m told.

Living within a stone’s throw (an unnerving metaphor) from Capricorn Park on the Cape Flats (where the taxi war is now raging across the M5 with burning tyres, gunshots, helicopters and police blockades), it doesn’t often leave my consciousness that I’m living in one of the most brutally unequal cities in the world. But for half an azure day in spring, I’ve gotta tell you, it feels pretty darn fine to be living the Peter Stuyvesant dream on the Atlantic seaboard.

For me, that’s pretty much all it is. As committed as one can be to social struggle, everyone probably needs a fantasy break sometime. Take Albie Sachs, who lives in a fully renovated Clifton bungalow. In his autobiographical work, Intimacy, Michael Cope, son of the novelist and poet Jack Cope, writes that the people who lived in Clifton in the 1950s and 1960s were from the ­”middle class or lower middle class, bohemians and the like”.

‘A truce from apartheid’
He quotes Sachs, who recalls that Clifton’s were the only beaches in Cape Town that did not display racial segregation signs and also spoke of New Year’s Eve parties there that seemed like “a truce from apartheid for 24 hours”, with people from all races attending.

Somehow it is the utopian, cosmopolitan, mixed Clifton of Ingrid Jonker and the Sestigers that we end up channeling under our green umbrella. I find myself chatting about ageing with a Bulgarian swimmer almost half my age, making a helpful contact for a public reading in support of Edward Snowden that I am busy organising, and discussing Walter Mignolo and decolonial theory over baba ganoush and crackers with my friend from Delhi.

Diversity does not equal class parity, but despite the Marxist cliché, Clifton turns out to be more of a mashup than expected. Maybe that’s just because our motley clan decided to occupy a few square metres of the beach for half a day in spring. But the sweet thing is that we’re free to do that.

Alex Dodd is an independent writer who lives in Cape Town.


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