The Curve was a club on Lower Main Road in Observatory, a neighborhood with pretensions of being the home of bohemian Cape Town. “A strange place,” was how Ntone Edjabe, a DJ whose long sets of Fela-tinged Afrobeat were the highlight on Saturday nights, described The Curve. What made it unique, according to Ntone, was that it was “… a darkie vibe in a joint owned and frequented by whities who feel there should be a darkie vibe in their neighbourhood.”
By 2001, a multiracial (still mostly white) crew of journalists, NGO workers, graduate students, and émigrés would gather there for the regular fix of worldbeats. By then the club had gained “so much colour” that whites began to “stand out like Cape Town in a post-’94 South Africa.”
But by mid-year the owners were rumoured to be getting uneasy. Ntone remembers an eventful evening that year when word got to him that “Mr Curve” did not like these developments: “Only the vibe was supposed to be darkie, not the crowd. Right before me, he passes his index finger across his throat in a self-explanatory gesture. For a second I’m tempted to obey the order. Literally. Then my co-DJ steps in and Fela lives 30 extra minutes. Only until 3 am. The following week the Curve will host a trance party instead.”
I lived in Observatory at the time and was a regular at the Curve. The gig represented for me what I began to like about the city I barely tolerated until then (I grew up on the Cape Flats, went to a still very white University of Cape Town, and had also lived briefly in Chicago and Boston). Unlike most of Johannesburg, on the surface the city’s downtown and nearby suburbs such as Woodstock (well, the section above Main Road) and Observatory appeared to be thriving, both during the day and at night. (This was, of course, before tourist-driven economic growth or gated markets were at the center of developments projects in the city).
The time felt right (we were mostly in our late 20s and early 30s) and we rode the wave of a national mood of opportunity, interaction, and upward mobility. The afterglow of “liberation” and the remarkable transformation of South Africa was still something to marvel about. Since 1994 the size and relative wealth of the black “elite” and what passed for a middle class had expanded rapidly. And from our vantage point, this was also happening in parts of Cape Town and its surrounds where spaces stubbornly reserved for whites, even long after apartheid had ended, were slowly opening up to multiracial (well, our) crowds.
We were certainly a very political crew (many of our jobs demanded it; I worked at the Institute for Democracy or Idasa, for example), but leaving that Tamboerskloof-Observatory stretch would often bring back the reality at the heart of Cape Town, which visited us only occasionally in the form of a manager at the Curve.
We understood that our reality, for all its mixing, was an exception in Cape Town. And still is.
In fact, most of us were aware that many people who might like to party at places like The Curve would not be able to get there late on a Saturday night since public transport, as under apartheid, basically existed (as it does now) in order to ferry large numbers of mainly poor black people from the townships or inner city to the city center and the suburbs for work (domestic work, the service economy, office cleaning, etc) or to do their shopping. One survey reports that 46% of households in Johannesburg spend more than 10% of their disposable income on public transport. I can’t imagine it being any different for Cape Town. At any rate, public transport is clearly not about convenience or leisure.
Bus and train services under apartheid and since 1994 — despite huge subsidies (about R5 billion a year) — are not designed as a convenient means to get people around. In fact, a minibus taxi industry, one that is barely regulated, carries the bulk of the responsibility for public transport — it is estimated that the minibus taxi industry carries more than 65% of passengers a day.
We also knew (and still do) that the minibus taxi system, as it is, is very lucrative but, more importantly, very precarious: characterized by unsafe and unlicensed drivers, frequent accidents, violence between rival operators, and arbitrary change of routes (not much has come from the state’s effort to “recapitalize” — overhaul the permit system and replace the broken-down fleet of taxis on the road). And that system basically shuts down at night. If you don’t have a private car, you can’t get around.
And if you are spending all your money on transport, are too tired to go out, or don’t feel too welcome in the former white suburbs, then the chances are less that you’d enjoy Observatory, Woodstock, or Long and Kloof Streets in central Cape Town (unless you wanted to frequent the strip-mall parts of the Waterfront with its long line of fast food joints. But even there, where people ostensibly mix, they don’t really interact).
Today, six years after the demise of the Curve, Cape Town sadly still lacks a coherent local government public transport policy.
So while young, black professionals like my myself and my fellow black partiers at The Curve — a very small part of the population — can “integrate” white middle class neighborhoods and parts of downtown, the same can not be said for larger integration.
And no real changes seem to be in the works. I have not seen any of the city’s more recent plans for a public transport system, but if there is a stopgap effort, I bet it is linked to the 2010 World Cup. And I suspect that the security and comfort of visiting fans, rather than that of local residents, will be a priority of the government and tourism industry.
I now live in Brooklyn, New York, but still regularly visit Cape Town. My most recent visits were in December last year (for one month) and in June this year. On this last trip, my younger brother David and I drove to the township where we grew up. I hadn’t done it in a while. I was struck again by the unemployment, the drug abuse (my brother estimated that a troubling number of young people in the street where we grew up are using “tik”). But most of all I was depressed by the housing crisis. The housing stock has been neglected for a decade or so. Overcrowding is rife. Shacks and extensions of either plastic, wood, or tin to two-bedroom council houses (built in the 1970s for nuclear families) are a necessity for families with grown children. Many of my peers, now married, divorced, or single parents, still live with their parents through no fault of their own. No new houses have been built.
Certainly the provincial and city governments are aware of the housing crisis.
In March this year, for example, the provincial government announced statistics that would be a scandal in any other democracy. According to the province, by conservative estimates (an annual growth rate of only one percent), Cape Town housing backlog was expected to reach 460,000 by 2020. That same report also suggested that if the city spends R1 billion every year on building houses, “the demand for formal housing would only be met by 2033.” Should the city spend half of that amount every year, the demand for “site and services” (meaning squatter camps with a standpipe and electricity supply) would only be met by 2017. Waal [STET] Street also announced that 51 percent of housing applicants lived in shacks, 31 percent in backyards, and 12 percent shared homes with other people. These people’s positions are made worse by poverty and unemployment. “Of the applicants, 79 percent earned less than R1,500 per month and 18 percent between R1,500 and R3,500.” Finally, the report noted that 63 percent of applicants listed their status as unemployed.
City and provincial officials would be quick to point out that they (well private firms supported by banks) are building plenty of low cost houses: in Delft, Khayelitsha, and near Blue Downs. Anyone with knowledge of Cape Town and its jobs knows this is a daily commute of two hours. It is also de facto racial segregation and class-based apartheid. Apart from privately developed gated communities close to the city, Cape Town has a habit of expanding existing racial ghettoes. And the end of apartheid has not stopped this practice. So another coloured ghetto is built next to an existing one. Another “African” ghetto is constructed next to an existing African ghetto. Urban sprawl appears to be criteria for successful tender. Moreover, what results is that poverty — manifested by unemployment, bad schools, and gangsterism — is trapped in the townships far away from the city center and the op-ed pages of the main newspapers or the talk shows on AM Radio. (By the way, as my friend Herman Wasserman who is researching the rise of the tabloids reports that, ironically, they cover the townships more sensibly than most of the “real” papers). It’s worth mentioning that police statistics, reportedly, prove that the homicide rate has dropped in almost all urban areas of the country, except the Western Cape, and homicides are mostly concentrated in these townships.
This month my brother is visiting me in Brooklyn. This has presented ample opportunity for me to go on about price hikes and service problems with the public transport system and the broken schools, warn him about New York’s overeager police, and lament the destruction of thriving neighborhoods by gentrification.
David instead minds the walking (he misses his car), and he can’t stop talking about the use of public space. Watching working-class families, hipsters, professionals, and young students all share the local parks on weekends, or accompanying my daughter and me to the park daily where we chat with other families, some of whom live in the nearby housing projects, he remarks on how this is completely absent in Cape Town.
Sadly, in tackling the real problems of Cape Town, one can’t count on its recent and current political leadership. The ANC’s new friends in business seduce the party (Brett Kebble paid its electricity bills, and disputes over the allocation of tenders appear to drive wedges among provincial party activists, and Nelson Mandela’s name gets affixed to Cecil John Rhodes’). Its leadership contests degenerate into ugly ethnic politicking and the party papers over its deficiencies with empty slogans (example: “Home For All”). The Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, governs (if you can call it that) with a cynical eye on the mainstream media (which loves press statements and stunts) and the white suburbs. In doing this, they poorly imitate Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair’s politics by media, for the status quo, and in the interests of the middle and upper middle classes.
Ntone, by the way, kept his creativity intact and now publishes and edits Chimurenga, a small, but growing literary magazine out of Cape Town that is gaining props for its off-center takes on postapartheid South Africa and the continent. Late last year, Ntone decided to do an issue on Cape Town. The cover of the special issue, except for the magazine’s masthead and its slogan (“Who no know go know” culled from Fela of course) was pure white. As for the owners of The Curve, they moved to Johannesburg and opened the Colour Bar. It too closed soon after.
Sean Jacobs is a journalist. This essay by Jacobs was first published in the Cape Times on 11 September 2007. He took the picture of Ntone on the balcony of Pan African Market where Chimurenga Magazine has its headquarters. Visit his blog Leo Africanus at <theleoafricanus.blogspot.com/>.