Naming the Strange: Africa and its many urbanisms

Stellenbosch University lecturer in English Megan Jones presents the work of three final-year students from a seminar she ran this year on African cityscapes. In the last installment of a three-part feature, Annerié Fritz insists on an aesthetic reading of the town.

Megan Jones

The pieces gathered here were written for the third-year elective "Naming the Strange: Africa and Its Many Urbanisms", held in Stellenbosch University's English Department in the second semester of 2014. The seminar drew on literary, documentary and critical forms in order to think through African cityscapes in all their polyvalent complexity. Working with texts from Zimbabwe, Nigeria and South Africa, the elective sought to unpack the everyday socialities and strategies of Africa's urban residents. In what ways do people move through these cities? What strands of innovation and affectivity exist between city-dwellers that contest their reification as simply marginalised or impoverished?

Somewhat inevitably for a course on cities, a section of the theory component centered on de Certeau's evocation of the "tactics" of walking through urban spaces, and how such actions simultaneously disclose and subvert their offical organisation. We discussed the ways in which, following Lefebvre and Massey, space is criss-crossed by ideological currents. I asked the students to think about how a walk through the spaces of Stellenbosch — the layout of the streets, the architecture of the buildings, the statues on Rooi Plein, the people sitting in the cafes — might reveal histories of inclusion and exclusion that live in the present. This process intersected timeously with Dr Kylie Thomas's on-campus response to the article "What's The Matter With Stellenbosch University?" (Greer Valley, Oct. 8, 2014). As part of her intervention, Dr Thomas and her co-activists erected a board in front of the Arts and Social Sciences Building which read, "Who Owns This Space?"

My students took to the streets thinking, perhaps for the first time, about how they moved through Stellenbosch and why. What fears, prejudices, hierarchies and relationalities did their footsteps trace? Two of the short essays published below interrogate the town's spatial politics, while a third insists upon reading the university and its surroundings aesthetically. The point is not that there is only one correct response, but that the exercise opens up possibilities for dialogue among students about the spaces and identities they inhabit.


Stellenbosch the way I see it
Annerié Fritz

Earlier this year, in black ink on white paper, was written the words: “Racism is only a problem because you keep bringing it up.” A thought which had occurred to me many times, and had now been placed deliberately before the BJ: the latest testament to South African racism. On the red-brown bricks of the building’s entry a rainbow of colours proclaim that “Blackface isn’t funny”: ironic, since Michael Jackson did more or less the same thing… just in reverse. If you have a problem with your skin, you should see a dermatologist.

As an artist, I don’t go looking for reasons to hate things as a result of their history. I search for beauty. If I look at the buildings of Stellenbosch, I don’t see black and white zones, I see the way they blend together like a patchwork-quilt, the red bricks fading into painted walls framing shop windows and art galleries all along Dorp Street and Plein Street; tourists and locals creating a perfect gradient of colours ranging from warm to cold with a touch of neutrality in between. I see the colourful signs of the pubs and clubs with their closed doors, waiting for their midnight customers. Then the long lines of restaurants filled with people; loners, couples and families all leading like a bread-crumb trail back to the University campus. The heat of the summer’s day is contrasted by the soft light that filters through the canopy of leaves that cover Victoria, and one of the local ‘bergies’ starts hassling scared little ‘firsties’ into handing over their change… A stop sign had been decorated with spray paint some time during the night; the vulgar Kaaps-Afrikaans neatly and precisely framing the word STOP. Then a new range of vibrant colours; the dark blue-grey-blackness of the tar; the faded brown and rich brown of side-walks and tree bark; the gold-green, blue-green and deep-green of varying plants; the orange, red, purple and yellow of academic gardens; and the shocking white of the buildings. The pillars of Wilcox, Ou Hoof and Education are neither intimidating nor imperial to my view, as they mainly serve the purpose of leaning posts and shade-givers to the bored looking students beside them. The over-crowded parking lot in front of Admin A, looks like an oven baking biscuits as heat waves stream from car tops in the glaring sun, and the cacophony of thousands of voices mix together to form a symphony of words, laughter and other surrealistic sounds.

Stellenbosch is an urban beauty. It doesn’t carry the same kind of clean-attractiveness that nature does, but its vibrant blend of foreign and indigenous presents a living organism that breathes with the ebb and flow of its people. It is a town of art and culture. It holds no grudges and offers opportunity to anyone who’s willing to take it, and despite its racially divided history, many of its inhabitants have found ways to co-exist peacefully. Its ‘space’ belongs to no-one and everyone.


Walking through Stellenbosch wishing I wasn't seen
Christine Smith

The streets of Stellenbosch are filled with many faces,
passing at different paces racing against the time only to triple and quadruple take at me
Not concerned with my perception of their rude reception,
far too blind to see that they are the antithesis of this rainbow nation
although there are some that stare in admiration
These faces fail to see past a color.
These faces have expressions that question, critique and judge.
While walking through Stellenbosch, these faces make me feel two feet tall.
Walking through Stellenbosch I’m constantly reminded that I’m Black.
Not that I forget. How could I forget? Sometimes I’d like to forget. What I’d pay to forget…
How kind of them to remind me, apparently I forgot you see.
Ridiculous of me to believe I could shop or dine or breathe where I please. In a country with such a liberal and inclusive foundational document, that officially speaks 11 languages (“officially”) AND recognizes gay marriage.
Why would I visit such a place?
How dare I intrude in their space!

Walking through Stellenbosch I find myself legitimises my presence. Walking through Stellenbosch I morph into a different me. Me that speaks specially selected, hand crafted sentences that are sure not to offend, using tones that are diminished never too loud, bodily language that is far from offensive and overtly warm and welcoming.

Bosman: The street of the privileged. The street of the gates. The pretty white gates, to ease the minds of the University’s elite. The spoiled, uninformed, unconcerned, disconnected. Unless it’s to Facebook or Instagram. The street overflowing with security, laboring 12 hour shifts for people that can’t remember to keep up with their ID. Protecting those that forget to say good morning, fail to say good evening and refuse to say thank you: forgotten so much that it comes as a surprise to be noticed. A surprise that takes 3 consecutive days to be understood as a norm and acceptable to respond.

As I walk through campus I hear languages, whose history speaks volumes to the perseverance that’s brought them over their hardships. That protects them from a world that seeks to generalise and eliminate everything that doesn’t fit in its box. Tongues whose labors convey a beautiful song that I could never tell, vocal cords that suppress the struggle and emphasise the strength, lips that bruise and sometimes abuse the ability to make one feel.

Walking through town I see shops whose employees eye change in apprehension, contemplation, hesitation and expectations of me that don’t exist. I see waitresses glare at my presence at her table. I see patrons stare in disapproval. I see myself being singled, I feel myself bubbling in anger. I see the words formatting to combat the ignorance, but my heart and its kind nature coos the hurting me that wants to be accepted. The me that is dying to be seen for more than a complexion or a grade of hair. I see myself laboring over ways to accept the ‘compliments’ “You speak good English”, “Your hair is so soft”, or “You don’t speak broken English like I thought you would”.

I swallow the venom that desperately seeks escape after being asked “Do you guys have earrings.” Whose words assume that I’m on duty. I must be a worker. I can’t be a patron. Black people aren’t patrons. She can’t be a patron, she can’t afford to be a patron. Black people are servants, nothing more. How was I to know you’re an exchange student? Why would I believe you’re American? How could you be different? Really, you’re American?!?

You don’t know luxury. You don’t deserve service. You’re not white. You’re black. You’re not a patron. You get it yet?!

I walk to Stellenbosch more times than not wanting to be invisible.

I see myself fighting, struggling, battling – tempted by resentment. I see myself telling myself over and over like a broken record, that their ignorance isn’t your problem. It’s theirs. But somehow I see myself walking through Stellenbosch wishing I wasn’t seen.


A walk in the night
Morne Bosman

In my first year at Stellenbosch University, I rented a room at the back of a house in a suburb called Union Park. I had no car or bicycle with which I could travel to campus, and so I had to walk for half an hour just to get to class, and then another half an hour to get back to my room. The route I had to take did not have a lot of streetlights, and the suburb where I live was just across the road from Idas Valley, the place where the Apartheid government had dumped a whole community of coloured people back in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is still seen as a coloured suburb today, and so I got slightly nervous every time I had to walk home at night.

I remember one night I had to walk home. I had been having a few drinks with my friends in our favourite bar, and after greeting them at the end of the night, I set off up Merriman Road. It was probably around 01:00, and the campus was relatively quiet. Merriman is bordered on one side with academic buildings and male residences. I always walked on the side of the road closest to these buildings, and looked at their imposing facades while thinking about the history that they contained. You see, many of these residences were over half a century old, and many of their residents would go on to become leaders in their respective fields. They are, however, still grand monuments to Apartheid and the flagrant advancement of the white minority’s interest while the black and coloured people had to suffer and stagnate. These were powerful thoughts for someone who had drank about a bottle of Tassenberg during the evening and, being a white male, was obviously the product of Apartheid’s discrimination.

Just before you reach the big round-a-bout at the end of Merriman, you walk past the provincial hospital. At the entrance of the hospital is a bus stop that is always inhabited by a few homeless who sleep there during the night and then disappear during the day. I always had the strangest feeling as I walked past them. Instead of pitying them, I was curiously jealous: These people were already sleeping while I had to walk for another kilometre and a half, at least. But I put them out of my mind as soon as I passed them, and concentrated only on getting home. I picked up my pace when I when went past Eendrag, because the part of the route I was now entering was the scariest part for me. It is curious to think that by simply crossing a street, I was leaving behind a sense of safety and entered a state of nervous vigilance, always on the lookout for potential danger. The campus ends at Eendrag, and the academic buildings are replaced by the Jannie Marais Wildlife Park at one side of Merriman, and tall fences that protect big houses on the other side. There are almost no streetlights on this part of the street and the shadows were always ominous.

Just before I reached the house where I was renting my room, I walked into two coloured guys on their way to Idas Valley. They looked dangerous. Both wore old clothes that had been mended many times before, and their hair was filthy and dreaded. I instinctively slowed down, trying to figure out what to do. I decided I should cross the street in an effort to put some space between me and them. As I was doing this, one of them called out to me:

“Jah bless my bru, we don’t want to hurt you, ons smaak jou hare te veel. Djy’s amper soos een van ons Rastas. But don’t you want to buy some ganja from us?”

I thanked them for the compliment, but told them I did not have money to buy weed from them (I actually did have about 50 bucks on me, but I didn’t want to insult them). After returning their ‘Jah bless’ with my own, I hurried to the safety and warmth of my room.


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