“The determination of people that I see in this city and country… writers, graphic designers, painters, so many fantastic people. Yet I see the same people, many of them doubtful or fearful or feeling that what they have to offer is beautiful only to them but that it is not valuable to the world.”
“I’ve been some places … some of the best places in Europe and the US. Amazing talents and amazing places. But no place is like Africa. No place.”
– Yasiin Bey
I completely understand why American actor and rapper Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) is feeling the vibe and enjoys living in Cape Town. Being in Africa is powerful experience for anyone – but especially for African Amercans – and there’s a great hip hop, music and jazz scene, the world-renowned Cape Town Jazz Festival, not to mention, of course, that Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. With all of these attractions and a growing interest in South Africa’s transformation and future, thousands of African Americans have been migrating to South Africa since the mid 90s. In the meantime, the allure of Cape Town (now free from the stigma of apartheid) has made the city a highly attractive real estate market for international celebrities and the global jet set.
The well-known, picturesque images of Cape Town are virtually always presented from places like Muizenberg, Green Point, Camps Bay, Hout Bay, Sea Point and the V&A Waterfront with varying backdrops of Table Mountain, the city skyline and the pure, shining azure water of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. These pleasant and at times spectacular vistas gives Cape Town its well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most delightful and scenic urban landscapes. Following along the southern coast, and driving inland into the main areas of the city, the University of Cape Town, the Green Point Market, one can’t help being enchanted by the magnificent stillness of Table Mountain, with its iconic flat-top mesa standing in a heavenly blue sky with floating clouds, and an occasional snowcap in the winter. Hilly, like San Francisco, with beautifully fashioned homes, condos and bungalows in colors that enhance the captivating landscape, Cape Town can make you feel like the southern tip of Africa is a land of dreams and splendor, a wonderfully-crafted urban civilization terracing into God’s country. Now and over the centuries, as Sir Francis Drake pointed out in 1580, Cape Town remains “The fairest Cape in all the world.”
But behind Table Mountain, purposely hidden from the view of the Central Business District, away from the Table Mountain’s elegant Groote Schuur government residences, the trendy Sea Point bistros and boutiques, the charming hotels and bed breakfasts all along the coast, is Mitchell’s Plain township on the Cape Flats – a glaring remnant of apartheid where the mixed-race Coloured community was forced to reside under the Group Areas act. A little further to the east are Kayalitsha and Guguletu, black African townships of smaller, makeshift shelters and tin corrugated roofs that are even more economically and geographically removed from the glamorous side of Table Mountain, to the point where it almost feels like being on another planet.
Despite apartheid’s extraordinary ability to segregate wealth, class and race – music has always been a powerful, creative crossroad, bridging differences and bringing people together despite the political fears and intentions of old white minority government. Back in the 30s and 40s – before the rise of the national party and the implementation of apartheid – urban communities like District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg were centers for sophisticated styles of jazz that blended American swing and bebop with African tribal rhythms and vocals. These musical grooves have carried on and evolved to such a degree that South Africa is one of the only countries outside of the United States that has its own unique, identifiable jazz tradition. And while the music scene is thriving in clubs and events in Cape Town, the music and social life – especially the hip hop scene – is vibrant in the townships like Mitchell’s Plain, Guguletu and Kayelitsha. I am sure Yasiin Bey is finding a way to navigate these geographic, cultural and artistic distances in a manner that is quite enlivening and enriching to his soul.
Yasiin Bey and other African Americans witness a certain paradox in South Africa; while levels of inequality and poverty are dramatic, the interpersonal dynamics of race are refreshingly easier and less fraught with anxiety than in the United States. I’m not trying to suggest that color isn’t a problem or that South Africans don’t struggle with their own conflicts of race, politics, power and economics. In fact, these kinds of debates are very prominent in the media and national politics. Nonetheless, many white South Africans had outgrown their government’s entrenched extremist ideology in the 70s and 80s, and while some political elites fought dramatically and desperately to hold on to power at all costs, the seeds of change were being sown by ordinary people and activists of all races and broad coalitions like the United Democratic Front the Mass Democratic Movement. With the dismantling of apartheid in the early 90s and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, South Africans began to have their open “national conversation” – however limited or flawed – about race. The work in South Africa to resolve the human rights abuses led to similar Truth and Reconciliation processes in Chile, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and many other countries, as well as an international conference on racism, held in Durban in 2001.
This kind of social atmosphere may be especially appealing for Bey as he engages the beauty and natural elements Cape Town along with its various racial and cultural environments for the introspection and creativity that he is searching for at this time in his life. Of course, I wish him the best, and I’m sure he’ll find much to reflect on and contemplate. While societies everywhere are grappling with a global recession, sluggish economies, inequality and a lack of jobs, every individual life is of value – regardless of their race, class or background. Having a national conversation about race and being able to acknowledge historic injustices helps create a healthy climate for more open discussion and interaction as South Africa works to construct a new, more inclusive economy and democratic society. It seems the United States is having a hard time even approaching these historic issues, and the current political polarization makes even a simple apology for slavery seem all but impossible. No wonder an actor, musician and artist in the hip hop tradition like Yasiin Bey is feeling more at peace with himself and comfortable living in Cape Town.