January 28, 2005

An African arrival: confusion and delight

January 27, 2005—CAPE TOWN—Having ascended a series of swooping hills, our luggage-bloated van slowed to a stop. We'd been circling the tiny residential district of Tamboerskloof in Cape Town, South Africa, looking for the guest house we'd be lodged in during our stay. Incredulous, we stared up at the pert, meringue-colored Victorian perched atop a dazzling incline, the vantage point from which Table Mountain's sturdy mass arose before us. Over the past week we'd been hemmed within a college campus in Jo'burg (to be formal, Johannesburg; to be trendy, Josie), taking bus trips out to the townships and to class, where we dissected the picturesque view of imperial landscape: the eye of the beholder holding the land, venturing into it as would a conqueror, conquering. Now, at Tamboerskloof's elite heights, we stared out from the porch as did those powers, sated with luxury. One pool, two porches, an airy dining room and seven crisp, spotless rooms awaited us, equipped with sparkling bathrooms and freshly starched sheets. This, plus the million-dollar view available at one's fingertips, as those fingers pushed clean curtains back.

I set my bags down in my room and laid back on the bed, the cool susurrations from the fan stirring over me. In the halls, students exchanged giddy exclamations, rushing from room to room. My roommate, lugging her bag, joined me.

"It's unbelievable."

"It's gorgeous. I can't believe it."

"It's just so nice."

"Yeah, it's crazy."

She paused. "It's a little too nice."

Our eyes met.



"I don't want to be a jerk," I began, "because this is amazing. But you know..." I glanced at the brass light fixtures and, past the window, the postcard-ready view. "It's just, this isn't why I came here."

She nodded. In the hallway, a cluster of students from the second guest house, a lavishly appointed cottage just down the street, oohed and aahed and compared the digs. One, a friend, stopped into our room. "How's your place?" I asked.

Eyes wide, she shook her head. "It's really lovely. In fact, almost criminal."

We shared the same significant look.

After the commotion dulled, I ate dinner in a confusion of guilt and delight, of indignation and unease. I remembered the warm welcome of the townships: Soweto and Alexandra, where professors' friends had ushered us into their homes, eager to share the textures of their lives; Mamelodi, of Pretoria, where the folk singer Vusi Mahlasela made music for us over a savory home-cooked lunch. I remembered the satisfaction of communicating and celebrating across race and class, the insights proffered by visiting apartheid-scarred places. Now, as at the University in Hyde Park, I found myself at the heights of privilege, both in race and class. As at home, I was uncomfortable with it, unsure of how I would transcend such vertiginous disjuncts of power, and fearful that such heights would dizzy my focus. On last year's program, students had complained that living in Tamboerskloof hampered their credibility as activists. This year, as I planned to work for a community radio station serving the mostly black Cape Flats, I worried that I'd be pinioned likewise: How could I serve the Flats while living in Tamboerskloof?

Over tea and a Malibu, a group of us sat that evening, grousing on the issue in a nearby bar. We batted theories back and forth, pensive. Our T.A. joined us, asking what was up.

"We're discussing an issue that students probably talk about every year, and probably in the same ways," said my friend.

"Tamboerskloof," our T.A. said knowingly, and we nodded.

He explained to us that the choice to house us there was a difficult one, and one they recognized as less than ideal. Safety was a significant factor, he averred, but so was logistics—proximity to the University of Cape Town, where we held classes, and to downtown, where the minibus-taxis could speed us rapidly elsewhere. Tamboerskloof had severe limitations, he recognized, but at least it was easy to get out of when we needed to.

But the guilt of living there, he added, was perhaps a good thing to grapple with. After all, he reminded us, we were entering Cape Town as privileged students, glutted with opportunity. He likened Tamboerskloof to Hyde Park, and asked: Who among us lived in Woodlawn, for all of our disdain of Tamboerskloof? It was easy to be self-righteous in Cape Town, too easy, standing apart from the fray. Later in class, reading Hemingway and citing Conrad, we discussed the ways in which Africa became the stage upon which white Europeans struck moral poses, and I thought about that first anxious night in posh Tamboerskloof, how ready I had been to stake out my principles. On more familiar terrain, however, those upright principles were less easy, less obvious and less simple to declare.

I had held to a fantasy of unseaming myself from race and from class, quitting my privilege like Peter Pan's shadow. Yet as I lay down to bed every night in Tamboerskloof, I was reminded that I could no less discard privilege than shed my skin. I would have to engage with it and move beyond guilt, to a recognition of how power had shaped me, and my commitment to, in turn, reshape power. I would also have to check my idealist's jerking knee, periodically rising to protest South African evils, to interrogate my own excuses for their Chicago analogs. What was hardest was not being placed in Tamboerskloof, but the realization that I'd always been there.