What is it about this place called Cape Town?

The Cape and its Town, 13 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


Arrested by a splendid autumn view of the Franschhoek mountains as I left the Congregational Church in Franschhoek following this event, I was torn – between a nostalgic attachment to this place I call home on the one hand, and the reality of its complexity on the other.

“The Cape and its Town”, a discussion conducted by top-rated academics, was etched in my mind as portraying once more the delicate hues and stark contrasts that make this place, the Cape, what it is, or what it might yet become – this beauteous piece of earth, with its backdrop of mountain and foreground of sea, its vineyards and forests and cosmopolitan buzz.

I remembered being ripped away from Cape Town in my youth, when I was placed in a backward, browned, boring and flat-as-a-pancake spot in central South Africa for a few long years. After that experience, the attachment I have to the Cape is continually re-honed by rediscovery, and so the question arose in my mind: can I trust my judgment in this matter? Is my passion alone the right tool for grasping the Cape’s complexity? Can I really deliver any kind of judgment, or even an impartial report, given such complex interplays of personal and other histories?

And yet, while sitting in the church hall, I was drawn to the dying bouquet of proteas perched strangely in the background, the peculiar, cut chrysanthemums attached to the pews with drawing pins, and the cheap plastic clock that hung askew at the entrance. These images reminded me of the incompatibilities and raw oddities that so often get romanticised out of history to create a seamless and palatable story called “the Cape”.

The panel consisted of Bill Nasson, an eloquent, celebrated, Oxford-trained professor of history at Stellenbosch University who is also a resident of Cape Town; Vivian Bickford-Smith, an imported Englishman, teaching at UCT; and David Johnson, an exported South African academic working in the UK, who recently published the book Imagining the Cape Colony.

These three men, very au fait with the problems and predicaments of colonialism, along with a church full of mature listeners, mostly Caucasian and female, would now delve into this wide topic. The demographics are, of course, a further comment on the complexity and oddity of history, especially in the Cape.

Engaging the audience with anecdotes from their own past experiences, the conversation started with each panellist’s first thoughts of Cape Town and their personal feelings about the city. From Sunday afternoon “Muizen-beach” fun, to Woodstock brothels and the impenetrability of Cape Town social circles, the panellists quickly had the crowd giggling. However, I was yet to discover the core of this discussion, and I thought I’d be walking away empty-handed until the really pertinent debate, and one which in my opinion should have guided the discussion, at last arrived thanks to a question at the end of the discussion by a sharp member of the audience. This person, of the female gender, questioned the vaunted exceptionalism of the Cape and asked if this depiction of a supposedly unique place wasn’t “a touch of San Francisco and a whisper of France”. Was such exceptionalism not damaging, and how did it fit into the national conversation?

Although time did not allow for an unpacking of this question, Johnson did say that his book was directed precisely at that question. It specifically references the speeches of Thabo Mbeki, since they create an interesting backdrop for viewing the Cape in the light of a national conversation. It was agreed earlier by the panel that this imagining of the Cape had begun in the eighteenth century, and its growth through the centuries was both colourful and dirty, real and messy, and not always the pretty, idealised version that fits the pristine exterior of the Cape. Johnson suggested that the eighteenth century gave us a certain type of vocabulary and that this vocabulary had either changed or was still being used in its archaic sense. For example, how the usage of, say, the word “citizen” then and now differed so hugely; so too had the idea of the Cape and its Town changed over time.

The question that struck me was the following: how will 2012’s history eventually be narrated – how will we reflect on this moment in fifty years’ time? And Nasson’s anecdote about the Bishops graduate who attended the Grand Parade in the 1950s in a school group was inspiring; merely by living his life in Cape Town, he was part of a crowd of all races and classes, where they spoke both English and Afrikaans. Being true to the complexity of a city such as Cape Town is probably the hardest thing a historian can be tasked with doing. Living in the Cape in the thick of that complexity, and allowing oneself to get woven in with that fabric, is what living is about; and so, as I was walking back down to the Franschhoek main street, I wondered whether I would have stories like these to tell one day; stories of My Cape and its Town, and whether the complexity that I experience daily would be portrayed with fidelity in those stories, not to mention the bigger stories told by historians.