I volunteered during my six months in Cape Town, because that’s what American students do. Taught township kids about the critical importance of the environment. Our final meeting was supposed to be an outing to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. I didn’t go, but I can imagine how it was. Table Mountain as the backdrop, lush flowers of every color, and rolling green hills. Green is the color of money back in the States, but in South Africa the Rand is printed in every color. We said it looked like Monopoly money. We could spend it like Monopoly money too, even after the dollar depreciated. Our money goes far here, much farther because it’s green. Green symbolizes growth. Money grows well here, as long as you bring the right cards to the table. One night at Grand West Casino, Jimmy, my roommate from USC, tripled his money. He told me, ‘Put me anywhere on God’s green earth and I’ll triple my worth.’ The anthropologists at the University of Cape Town taught me about this. It’s called Millennial Capitalism. It means that money grows irrationally, exponentially, through gambling and stock markets; the old rules of capital and production don’t apply in the New South Africa. It means that Jared’s family, South African ex-patriots living in Texas, bought a beach house for three million Rand and plan on selling it in six years, just in time for the World Cup. They’ll make a killing, because that’s how money grows, at least when your money is green.
You have to use American dollars when you visit Victoria Falls; they only accept dollars there. What else can they do when the inflation rate is 10,000 percent, 10,000 percent in less than a year? The view of the falls is best from the Zimbabwe side, but it’s not safe. The political situation went haywire when the government redistributed white-owned farms to landless blacks. It threw the currency markets into a tailspin–rampant inflation and suddenly Zimbwawe’s money was worthless. Greenbacks don’t do that; they’re strong, reliable. The Apartheid government had a reliable way of keeping the blacks out of white suburbs: they built rolling green fairways between the neighborhoods. Golf courses, coal-burning power plants (you can guess which way the wind blows), and airports are great ways to separate people. As I learned in the township, the environment is critical.
They don’t have dead presidents on the currency here; what kind of portrait do you put on a currency in a country where every leader for the last fifty years was considered an oppressor or a terrorist? When I got to Cape Town there were political signs hanging from every lamppost; just a face, a name, and a party logo. The ANC is green-yellow-black, the NNP blue and green, and the DP yellow and blue. No major political party is red. Red comes with a lot of baggage. Red is communism. America openly supported the Apartheid regime for thirty years, and then covertly for another ten. Why? Cold War, fear of communism: Mandela wasn’t just part of a plot to overthrow Apartheid, it was a communist plot. Of course that’s all over now, but red still comes with a lot of baggage.
Red is blood, and HIV mixes with blood, but blood and HIV don’t mix well with politics. I saw Valimer Moosa, an ANC Cabinet member, speak at the University for forty-five minutes, never once mentioning HIV. When a member of the Treatment Action Council questioned Moosa, his face was red, deeply perturbed. He challenged her, “Do you think that I could sleep at night knowing the government isn’t doing everything in its power to fight AIDS?” Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the population here is infected with HIV. The AIDS Ribbon is red, there’s a giant one hanging in front of University Hall. There’s also a mural a block from my house, with a spray-painted condom and the government-certified ABC’s: Abstain, Be safe, and Condomize. The anthropologists at the University taught me about this too. It’s called the didactic method of education. Give people information: just the facts, words and numbers. And it works, sort of. Buhlelo, one of the township kids I work with, could whip out what HIV and AIDS stood for faster than I could. Said he was taught about AIDS a few times every year. Does he know anyone with AIDS? Nope. President Mbeki went on television last year and said he didn’t know anyone who died from AIDS either.
I learned that colored is a color in South Africa. A mix of black and white, not gray, kind of light-brownish, probably of Cape Malay origin. If being white was not an option, it was preferable to be colored rather than black under Apartheid. I went on a homestay in a colored township called Ocean View. There was no ocean view, only ocean winds. I found out from Sina, a mother who volunteered as a police officer, that it is no longer preferable to be colored. Nowadays, she told me, the blacks control the government, the whites control the money, and the coloreds are left behind. Shades of color are crucial. In rural sections of Kwa-Zulu Natal, it’s the shade of pink in the vagina that determines whether or not a girl is a virgin. It’s a traditional practice that’s been reinvented to cope with the AIDS epidemic. Virginity testing makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The anthropologists say that the problem is trying to reconcile ‘rights talk,’ like the human rights of girls not to have their vaginas inspected in a public performance, with ‘culture talk,’ the rights of groups to conduct cultural practices without interference. It’s not a problem with a black or white answer, probably one of the shades in between.
The University overlooks all of Cape Town, an expansive view and a truly academic environment. You can find plenty to study here, especially from such a high vantage point. It’s a twenty-minute walk, door to class, up to what was once Cecil John Rhodes estate, what was once the all-white University of Cape Town. On a nice day there are hundreds of people of all shades out on the steps talking, not rights talk or culture talk, just talking. What the anthropologists didn’t mention, and what never occurred to me, was what my girlfriend noticed after visiting for only one day: on the steps there are many shades of people, all talking to the same shade. Not possible I told her, ‘I have black friends, colored friends, it’s the New South Africa, the rainbow nation, take a look around.’ And I did, and I noticed that she was right.
All that glitters isn’t gold. In Gauteng Province, diamonds glitter as well, nestled in soft black rock called Kimberlite. Stars glitter and glimmer in the African sky, arranging themselves in constellations that I’ve never seen in the Northern Hemisphere. When I visited Cullinan Diamond Mine, there were no glimmering stars, only glittering diamonds: their five-star safety rating was recently stripped from them after two fatalities in mines during the last six months. Diamonds are forever, and the stars above have a lifespan of a couple million years, but the new South African government removes companies’ safety-stars after only a handful of ‘Lost Time Incidents.’ As if time was all that was lost, not limbs and lives; as if time was all that was to be gained, not diamonds and profit margins. A few miles outside of Johannesburg, I met an artist who bought an abandoned gold mine and began to research its history. He dug up all sorts of black and white pictures of black and white miners working by candlelight, sans shoes, pounding the rocks with raw muscle, as they did before the compressed air drill really made profits glitter. Of course, all that’s gold doesn’t glitter. As my artist cum tour guide explained to me, the streets of Johannesburg are actually paved with gold. Tremendous alabaster mountains found all over the city, leftovers from the gold-mining process, were once mixed with concrete and used to build highways. Only recently was it discovered that the old, inefficient method of extracting gold from rock wasted almost forty percent of the ore, leaving the rest lying there in the streets. Ironically enough, gold-mining companies now foresee the biggest profits in mining these alabaster mine dumps.
While I was in Johannesburg, the City of Gold, I stayed with a wealthy family, the Krugers. Nightlife was non-existent. After dark the gates were locked, security alarms turned on. The Krugers warned my friends and I not to explore downtown: it wasn’t safe, the city had taken a turn for the worse. They were so sure that they hadn’t ventured there themselves for almost fifteen years. They would drop us off downtown at the MuseumAfrika, but we mustn’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Stories, rumors, reinforced the atmosphere of insecurity. There was the break-in when five men with automatic weapons hopped over the back wall, tying up the Krugers around the dining room table. Or the friend of a friend whose car broke down outside of Soweto after dark; he was shot and killed. The fear is tangible, at least as tangible as the gold that paves the streets. Always present, but the problem remains one of extraction. No one’s been able to think of a way to get the gold from the roads without tearing the city apart, and they haven’t had much luck with the fear either.
I always forget that white light is not the absence of color; it’s every color blended together. I guess that’s why so many people think God is white. God was white four hundred years ago, crossing the ocean when the Dutch Reformed Church first began mission operations under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company. Twenty years ago, God was briefly confused. Liberation theology claimed God for the black struggle and the Dutch Reformed Church claimed God for the ideology of Apartheid. In the New South Africa, God is white once again, played by James Cazaviel, and He crosses the ocean under the auspices of the Paramount Pictures Company. He shattered box office records in South Africa, beating out Titanic for the biggest opening weekend ever, before being nailed to the cross by the Jews. Like Mel Gibson, I’m Catholic. I also live on Church Street and walk along Chapel Road every day on the way to campus. I’ve found about seven Church Streets in Cape Town, but have not yet had a religious experience. I imagine that having one would be like seeing every color simultaneously, seeing only blinding, transcendental white. Maybe all this focus on whiteness is inappropriate when writing about South Africa? After all, it was not whiteness but, as Fanon put it, the Fact of Blackness that determined the fate of Africa. And I can still see black everywhere. At the pool hall down the road, the signs, sponsored by Black Label Beer, read “You haven’t won until you sink the Black.” Tee-shirts parody the beer’s insignia, reading “Black Labour,” helping to laugh off a legacy. Irony worn on the chest, covering the skin. I bought a Steve Biko shirt the other day. Not only because I admire the man who founded the Black Consciousness movement and was later beaten to death by security police; we also share the same first name. Funny, right? Of course, I can’t wear it until I get back to America, the fact of my whiteness would probably offend people here familiar with the other Steve’s history. It would, however, be misleading to conclude with the whiteness/blackness binary. I didn’t have a religious experience in South Africa because, like any good experience, six months didn’t confirm ideas, it conf