Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Week Two: Cape Town, A City Not What it Seems

By: Rachel Briegel

Never in my life have I been anywhere as beautiful and complicated as Cape Town, South Africa. After an intense week in Johannesburg learning about the Liberation struggle, and having emotional, thought-provoking conversations, Cape Town initially felt like a much needed vacation. Beauty shone from every angle; from the turquoise sea, to the steep, rugged mountains, to the brightly painted houses. The main street, which we stayed only a block away from, was constantly crowded with tourists of all different nationalities. It was a wonderland.

But as our tour of the city progressed my discontent grew. Although I desperately wanted to believe that Cape Town was a perfect paradise in comparison to the hardships of Johannesburg, I soon realized that was not the case.

Although Cape Town is known as a beautiful tourist attraction, just beyond the main roads were townships just like in Johannesburg, where the residents are mainly poor, black citizens. A sea of metal and wood constructed into homes with the skill of third world engineers expanded around us as we held discussions with pastors, HIV/AIDS  nonprofit leaders, and political figures who discussed the past and very current state of apartheid in South Africa. We learned more about the cruelties encountered daily by Africans, by LGBTQ individuals, by women and I could feel my own heart harden.

Before I came on this trip to Southern Africa, I admit I knew little about the struggles of this country. I knew apartheid existed, that it was now officially over, and that a Mr. Nelson Mandela “saved” the country and created equality. But the longer I have spent here the more obvious it has become that many Americans do not truly understand apartheid and what happened in this country. The horrors of night time raids, the harsh conditions for political prisoners on Robben Island, and most important, how many of these issues are still present in South Africa twenty years after liberation. Much of the city is disguised so you cannot see these issues, but if you talk to any South African on the street they will speak otherwise.

A banner flying outside the Methodist Church
in Cape Town protesting the Marikana Massacre.
Photo credit: Grace Corbin
While our group was digesting all of these present day issues, we went to talk with a pastor at a Methodist Church in downtown Cape Town. I have had a complicated relationship with religion and preachers that condoned discriminatory environments, but this church was clearly different. The first thing I saw walking up to the church was a giant banner protesting police brutality and the Marikana Massacre, and I immediately knew this would be an interesting discussion.

We then met Preacher Alan Storey, who taught me how to look at the Bible and Christianity in a whole different light. His main message was to follow what Jesus would do as an activist, a revolutionary, or wherever else life takes you. This message was incredibly inspiring for me, and many others in my group, who have been trying to reconcile our lives and religious beliefs with the pain faced with so many in South Africa. We then asked him about something that had been troubling a lot of us of this trip, which was how to find hope in a world so lost. In response, Pr. Storey stated that we were in a sense addicted to hope and had to come to terms with the reality we lived in. 

This statement left many of us left thinking about Pr. Storey’s concept of hope, if it truly exists, and ultimately where we are to find it. Many of my friends in the CGE program thought about this question in terms of religion, and although I very much commend their ideas, and believe strongly in the values they discussed, the way I have been finding hope the most throughout this journey has been through a different conduit: the people of this country.

The sunrise over Cape Town a top Table Mountain.
Pictured: Myself, Grace Corbin, and Annie Dierberger.
This morning I got up at 4:45am and climbed a mountain in order to see the sunrise over all of Cape Town.  It would be naive to see this beautiful landscape and think the town was perfect. In South Africa, no matter how well it is hidden, there are always signs of poverty and despair, but as I gazed into the peaking sun, I was dwelling not on the wretched conditions that plagued the poor of this country, rather I was thinking of all the incredible people I had met that week; the fighters and revolutionaries, the courageous people who stand up selflessly and commit themselves to a righteous cause. Like Alan said, I agree people today are addicted to hope, so much so that sometimes we choose to ignore the suffering surrounding us in order to believe the world is a better place than it actually is. Yet I also think there are deserving places to find hope, like in the depths of Robben Island where political prisoners hid in the gravel pits and taught each other how to read, in the LBGT community where activists stand up for equal rights and protections, in the past and present feminist heroes of the slave community, and even at the pulpits of churches. Cape Town, like all of South Africa, is not perfect. There is pain and poverty, discrimination and unemployment, but there are also courageous people, and signs of hope.

So that morning, as I watched the sunrise over the whole town and reminisced about all the difficult things I’ve learned in just the few weeks I’ve been in this country, what stood out most in my mind was all the amazing people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made, and I couldn’t help but still think that despite its struggles and inequalities, Cape Town still stood out in my mind as a beautiful city. Be it the people, a spiritual sensation, or the magnificent landscape, there was something inspiring about watching that morning sun rise over the mountain tops, and just like all the people I’ve met here, shine on for another day.

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