There are two waterfronts in Cape Town, and one is definitely more exciting than the other
There are, in fact, two waterfronts in Cape Town; the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, where you can eat oysters, watch seals at play, and enjoy a splendid view of Table Mountain; and the real waterfront in the township of Khayelitsha, the largest of Cape Town’s townships (at least one million people, I am told).
I spent a night at the house (or perhaps I should say shack) of a remarkable lady called Khuthazwa Vicky Balman. Vicky, who I believe is the same age as I am (29/30, though I have heard reports that she might only be 25), is originally from the Eastern Cape and in 1989 came to Khayelitsha (the only place that she was able to live in) to study engineering, but was unable to pursue her studies because of financial hardship. A few years ago she opened up her house as a small café/restaurant for tour operators to visit when bringing people into the township, and then in 2000 started her bed and breakfast business, now proudly billed as ‘South Africa’s smallest hotel’.
And it is small: there are two bedrooms for guests, whilst Vicky, her husband and two of her four children sleep in the third bedroom. There is, however, a proper shower and toilet, which is almost unheard of in Khayelitsha; until very recently even Vicky’s guests had to go outside to use the toilet shared with her next door neighbour.
I arrived at Vicky’s in the afternoon, having booked a taxi (for R110) from Cape Town to take me to Khayelitsha. My taxi driver – a Cape Malay, as white as I am – was absolutely terrified, and admitted that he had no idea where we were going, never having been to the township in his life. We turned off the N2 into Khayelitsha and I suddenly understood his nervousness. As far as the eye could see were tin and wooden shacks, with every road completely indistinguishable from any other. I must admit that as we crawled along slowly in the taxi I began to have doubts about what I was doing: I was sat in the back of a large white taxi with a large rucksack next to me, in the middle of a sprawling township with a desperately poor population.
Remarkably, however, Vicky’s B&B is signposted, so we watched out for these signs like hawks until we finally arrived. Once I met Vicky herself, I was completely at ease; she is an extremely bright and affable person. She is, of course, very well known in Khayelitsha and the locals assume that if there is a whitey wandering around the place then he must be staying with Vicky. And Vicky’s husband Ntishane has a seriously mean scowl, until you introduce yourself and his face then breaks into a huge grin. None of her guests has ever been robbed.
Most people do the sensible thing and visit Khayelitsha on a tour, spending an hour or so visiting Vicky and being shown around her neighbourhood. I suddenly became part of this freak show, as various Swedes and Americans visited and were astonished to find that I was actually spending a night in the township. One of the Swedes asked if I was frightened of the Africans outside. I replied that I wasn’t, but that I considered Swedes to be extremely dangerous people. Even Scandinavians have a sense of humour. And so do Africans. Vicky gives a short pre-rehearsed speech to the people who visit her house, and when I heard this speech for the third time that afternoon I pretended to fall asleep, causing her to giggle uncontrollably.
I had a very peaceful night’s sleep and woke up in the morning planning to escape ASAP. But then the fun really began… no sooner had I wandered onto the pavement outside and sat down than I found six children on my lap, determined to inspect my white physiognomy in close detail. They stroked my arms, because mine are so hairy; they stroked my hair, because it is much softer than their own; they rubbed their faces against my chin, because I hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. And one of the little devils even had the audacity to investigate my nasal hairs by putting his finger up my nose. So you have been warned: if you venture into a township by yourself you are in grave danger of having a finger put up your nose. I spent all morning playing with these kids, skateboarding and kicking a football. They also became obsessed with my cheap digital watch, pressing every button they could to make the alarm sound. Very predictably, the battery went flat the next day and I had to buy a new watch.
My stay in Khayelitsha concluded with a visit to the local shebeen (bar), called – of course – the Waterfront. The locals claim that this is the real Waterfront, not the modern shopping precinct in Cape Town. It is named after a single tap that served 3,000 people (sic) and once stood where the bar is now.
I decided to get a taxi back from Khayelitsha bus station rather than terrify another Cape Town taxi driver. So off I went through the streets of Khayelitsha, carrying my backpack, accompanied by two ‘bodyguards’ (both aged 14) dispatched by Vicky to accompany me to the bus station. A couple of people shouted at us – and I don’t think that they were being friendly – and even my bodyguards looked nervous at one point. But I got there in one piece, paid R6 to get back to Cape Town (remember that it cost R110 to go to Khayelitsha), and staggered my roommates at my hostel that evening with my township adventures. I still haven’t met anybody else who has actually spent a night there, but I am firmly of the conviction that anybody who goes on a tour of a township rather than actually staying is a wimp.
I also enjoyed the other side of South Africa in its luxurious winelands. Because of so many visits to cellars, I found myself drinking some remarkably good wines with my dinner each night. The Bulgarian waiter in my usual restaurant (next door to where I stayed) would stare in disbelief as I enjoyed a 1994 Welgemeend Estate Reserve with my ostrich steak. He never charged me corkage, so he had a few glasses too.
The diversity of the country – in racial, linguistic, and geographical terms – is breathtaking. I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the hospitality that I have enjoyed here, from all kinds of people in all kinds of places, from Khayelitsha to Constantia. It’s hard not to enjoy yourself in South Africa.