Architect from Michigan, USA revisits his hometown of Cape Town and reflects on disturbing urban landscapes and its people still saddled with racism – but now in reverse
By Michael Witkin
I travelled to Cape Town from the US after a long hiatus of ten years (2012) and was mortified of the degradation that had occurred over that period of time. Going back and seeing things, it seemed as though I was chasing the ghost of my elusive past; the ghost of something that I would no longer find. I have recollections of a place of seeping memories; another life, another dimension – a society that has decayed and encased itself, enabled by a corrupt and incompetent government out for self-enrichment. A government that has sucked the marrow from the very bones of South Africa.
Hovels, hoks [slang for makeshift dwellings] and hellholes line both sides of the national road to Cape Town from the airport. Corrugated tin, cardboard, black trash bags, petrol drums and burlap hobbled together with string and wire are used as building materials. Cape Town has always had shanties but now it was overwhelming and extended as far as the eye could see. This slum makes the favelas in Sao Paulo look luxurious by comparison. Smoke oozes out from a shanty saying, “this is my home, someone lives here.” A stray cow walks on the side of the road while an African child strolls with a herd of goats.
By welcome contrast, I gaze at the breathtaking Table Mountain and Lions Head bathed in radiant and iridescent light as the sun was setting. The sheer beauty and allure of Cape Town imparts a strong sense of place that cannot be found elsewhere in the world.
Then back to shards of jagged broken glass; like sharpened incisors gleaming, sparkling and ominous, embedded in mortar, forms the crown to three meter high concrete walls. Walls with unfurled shiny coils of threatening razor wire that forms the cloak of invincibility to the souls that live behind these high walls.
Sharpened steel rods, sword-like pikes topped with honed arrowheads and menacing barbs further celebrate and adorn these palisades. Stockades that have become houses of detention overflows with resentment and resignation.
“Danger–Gevaar–Ingozi” These are the words in English, Afrikaans and Zulu on signs with a red background and a crudely stenciled skull and crossbones that are now part of the urban fabric. Angle-iron bayonets affixed at an acute angle to the walls that support twelve strands of electrified wire, add further anguish to the painful broken glass crown and sinister cloak that safeguards, protects and shields those that are held hostage unto themselves. The streetscape and thoroughfares in residential neighborhoods have been transformed into hostile environments, devoid of people.
It was the weekly garbage day. I peered over the balcony from the second floor of the apartment I was staying at. About ten large bins were hauled out to the sidewalk to be picked up. Within less than a minute a deluge of beggars besieged the bins systematically sorting through the detritus, debris and trash. They would neatly empty the bin then would stuff unidentifiable objects into their pockets and into plastic grocery bags slung over their necks and shoulders like bandoliers. This is commonplace as I saw numerous times poor people fishing in trash cans for something to eat. A crust of bread, spoilage or maybe find an item that could be sold.
Besides the non-existence of South African Airways, which was one of the finest airline companies in the world, the postal service is almost nonexistent. I know of someone who received her birthday card five months after the date. The postal workers rifle through the mail opening up letters and parcels and help themselves to whatever they can find. Most post offices in urban areas have closed permanently due to “unprofitability and crime” A number of post office properties were foreclosed upon and are up for auction due to not being able to pay their rent or mortgages. Large numbers of postal workers were let go. No funds are available so there is no solution in sight. Private courier services have to be used albeit at a steep price.
“Poor Whites” has become South Africa’s “New Subclass”. These are white families who have lost their jobs and fallen into poverty as a result of the policy of “affirmative action”, that is, preferential treatment for blacks. Living in total abject poverty, this destitute group is rarely discussed or acknowledged but is increasing in size. They survive in informal settlements away from the public eye; mostly in tents and hovels. They are mostly the disinherited, outcast and bereft Afrikaners that are bitter and dejected and feel abandoned.
This situation is depicted in TFI Global’s ‘You don’t need to die to see hell, just visit a white slum in South Africa’:
“White squatter colonies, where there is little food, running water, and no electricity, live in shanties with rusted cars, ditches and pools of filth, and stagnant water with mosquitos swarming. Over two decades, the number of poor whites has steadily increased. ……Over 400,000 white S Africans are estimated to be impoverished. Reverse racism has been rampant and has ravaged the white population in South Africa. Targeted policies of the government has pushed the country to a near apartheid-like situation and the continued regressive policies have pushed South Africa into an era of subjugation of the people once more.”
Published in 2020, the numbers are considerably higher now in 2023.
There have always been people begging on the streets; mostly blacks. Now however, they are joined by ever-increasing white beggars. I did see an entire family including small blond haired children with crude cardboard signs saying “Please help – God bless you” .
According to some reports, over 50% of South Africans live in poverty on less than $2.00 a day. Some have no access to sanitation, water or electricity.
Many of them are the Afrikaners, the descendants of the early Dutch settlers who have become dispossessed and feel betrayed, defrauded and deprived of their rights and of their strong heritage and beliefs. A large number of South Africa’s farmers are Afrikaners who unbeknownst to the outside world have been brutally murdered, their wives tortured and raped; their children shot. The government fails to offer any protection to its white farmers and there was a popular EFP (Economic Freedom Party) song, called “Kill the Boer” that the Equality Court ruled “does not constitute hate speech”. People are free to continue singing it and during a debate in Parliament about the farm attacks and the plight of white farmers, an ANC Member of Parliament felt immune to shout:
“Bury them alive.”
The government’s solution for the White farmer is to be found in its policy of “Land Reform”. The ANC has vowed to expropriate white-owned land without compensation and redistribute that land to blacks who are not experienced in agriculture nor have the desire to farm.
While an Afrikaner replies to my question “What will become of the ‘Boere’?” that they will fight to the bitter end, a growing number of Afrikaner farmers are emigrating to Australia, Nigeria, the Congo and the former-Soviet state of Georgia, where their expertise and knowledge is in great demand.
At the end of the Apartheid, and the end of racial discrimination in 1994, there was joy and optimism and the promise of a unified society known as “The Rainbow Nation”.
This expression was coined by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu describing post-apartheid South Africa with the assurance of a total multi-racial society and a country where everyone has the chance to prosper.
Well, not exactly and Nelson Mandela must be turning in his grave witnessing what has become of the ANC. A caricature of itself, this ‘movement for change’ has itself ‘changed’ having morphed into an organized criminal conspiracy, eviscerating the country of everything it had, and gutting its citizens of all they have left. Today, South Africa is a country of “74 murders and more than 100 rapes a day.” (Business Tech Feb 17, 2023). The police chiefs are corrupt and they do not care for the sanctity of life but rather how much they will collect from another bribe. Of course there are those that do care passionately, and those that give to the country and their communities.
Sadly, South Africa’s house of cards is imploding. The foundations are cracking and crumbling threatening the very pillars of this modern state. The irony is that the Rainbow Nation does not exist. “Equal opportunity” for whites does not exist. In fact, the abused minority of whites are discriminated against rigorously.
Blacks get preferential treatment in employment, education and other areas. A white male is less likely to get a job over a black male. In fact, employment equity laws make it harder for whites to get work. Jobs in upper management go to blacks further ostracizing whites, and in a sense, sentencing them to more menial employment with the inability to use their talents to further themselves. It seems that today, whites feel that they are being punished for something they did not do.
The government has introduced an odious Quota System, a race-based policy that goes against the norms of society in this day and age.
While “Strict quotas are enforced for the degree in medicine and surgery. The intake of white students is capped at 2%” (Solidariteit Mar 26, 2022), there is a huge shortage of doctors and qualified medical personnel.
The racial quota admissions into universities, across the board, favor blacks over other racial groups. If you are a white student, it is increasingly difficult to get accepted into a university even if you matriculated with distinctions. Those of a darker hue with poor school grades are favored instead. If you did manage to graduate with a degree, you would then again be subjected to the quota system to obtain a Masters.
Why would a white pursue a degree (even if they could get into a university) when there is little future for them; being excluded from society and discriminated against? Today, they are the downtrodden marginalized scapegoats of South Africa.
There is a sense of this is “payback-time…..”
With a growing feeling of despair coupled with a devastating decline in public trust, citizens feel trapped in a dysfunctional society. Even those with majestic homes no longer feel at home anymore. Hence the emigration.
As Rowan Philp in the Mail & Guardian (19 April 2013) wrote
“South Africa has been robbed of its best and brightest. For a number of years there has been a steady brain drain of leaders in technology, science, medicine and education. The loss of these people has had a negative impact on the economy. An impressive number of South Africans have risen to the top of their fields in other countries.”
Few if ever will return.
With so many whites unable to come to terms with the realities of poverty, corrupt politics, out-of-control crime and violence, there is a verb that is now commonplace – “Ostriching” – of burying one’s head in the sand, which by the way is a myth much like the “Rainbow Nation” as ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand.
Besides no airlines, no postal service and no trains, there is a dwindling electricity supply. They have rolling blackouts, euphemistically called “load shedding” which can last as much as 10 hours per day in Cape Town. Johannesburg is worse. People survive by always keeping their thermos flasks filled with hot water, using small gas camping stoves and using rechargeable lanterns for light and a healthy supply of batteries and candles at all times. Food rots in refrigerators so one needs to purchase small amounts of groceries just for a day. Few people can afford to have a generator, let alone the exorbitant cost of diesel fuel. Without electricity there is no viable economy. Retail stores, restaurants, businesses and factories cannot operate. The employees are idle and cannot do their job. As a result they are unable to earn a livelihood. The lack of electricity is a complex topic. In a nutshell, a history of huge financial losses, mismanagement, sabotage and corruption is evident. A judicial commission found that former President Jacob Zuma had orchestrated attempts to raid the coffers of the power company, Eskom. He denies this of course. Little maintenance has been done and with a large increase in the population (mostly emigres from other African countries) they have not kept up with the need to build additional power plants. The lack of electric power has had far reaching effects: Sewage treatment plants, with their pumps shut off; raw sewage overflows and spills into the ocean killing fish and posing very serious health issues. A friend of mine, an ardent swimmer, contracted septicemia blood poisoning which was caused by her ingesting tainted sea water. She almost died…..and yes, hospitals need electricity too.
In a February 25 interview with the Daily Investor, Andre De Ruyter, the outgoing CEO of Eskom, spoke at length about the cartels and the billions of Rands stolen from Eskom by corrupt officials and criminal bosses. “These criminal networks have workers sabotage and vandalize power stations on their behalf and the perpetrators of crime often publicly flaunt their ill-gotten gain.” Continuing, he reveals:
“Our informants tell us that when these criminal cartel bosses have a gathering and walk into a room, they wash their hands in 15-year-old whiskey. Why? Because they can.”
He spoke of the Maseratis, McLarens and the conspicuous number of Louis Vuitton bags “among certain individuals.” He spoke of a power station where the manager walks around with a bullet proof vest and is accompanied by armed guards because of the number of assassinations.
He really summed it up in his remark:
“Eskom is the feeding trough for the government”
The sick irony is that the trains that transport coal to the power plants which are their life-giving arteries, no longer operate and cannot deliver coal because the rail lines were stolen off the tracks.
The cartels also sell the best quality coal to China and the inferior coal with “rocks and metal” has to be used.
In the agricultural sector, including processing plants, the lack of electric power has led to the culling of poultry, some 10 million chicks in January of 2023, the wastage of fresh milk without refrigeration and the inability to irrigate crops.
With South Africa being a large exporter of fruit to the UK and the EU, this sector of its economy is now also in serious jeopardy due to inadequate refrigeration. Food production has to be sustainable. If there is no food then what happened in Zimbabwe will happen in South Africa. Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, was known as a jewel and the breadbasket of Africa exporting wheat, tobacco, beef and corn to the rest of the world; especially to other African nations. However today Zimbabwe faces famine and is now a net importer of food from the Western World.
When food is in short supply the national security of the country is also put at risk.
There is another nauseating component of South Africa’s economy or rather its ‘underground’ economy, and that is, the practice of poaching animals. I visited a game park in the Western Cape. Three weeks prior to my visit three rhino were shot and had their horns hacked off. They tried to save a female rhino which was pregnant. Unfortunately it was to no avail and she bled to death. What can one expect when the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa is rumored to have arranged for three caged lions “hunted” by American tourists so that they could have a photograph taken posing with their kill as a “souvenir”.
HEWBREW SCHOOL REVISITED
I visited the Hebrew school that I had attended in Claremont, a suburb of Cape Town, as a young boy. A building now that has been totally defiled, abandoned and eerie. Most of the windows shattered. A portion of the roof appeared to have collapsed while doorways were shut and sealed with concrete blocks. Awnings dangled listlessly from the window openings. Tall weeds and vegetation were growing out of the brickwork. A building destined to crumble and forever root itself in the parched mother-earth.
I peered through the ubiquitous razor wire fence; a child’s swing swayed gently in the summer breeze. I remember a time when the nursery school playground bustled with the clamor of children’s laughter. Now all I could see were shadows and figures in the landscape wreaking havoc; with the stench of putrefying trash adding to the setting. This could have been a scene from Dante’s inferno and his passage through hell.
One day I went by the Cape Town railway station. The ineffectual city council had decided to build a 20 story building as a “student center” with retail shops at the street level. The station was partially demolished. Large precast concrete panels had fallen down haphazardly like a deck of cards and had embedded and now protruded from the ground.
Black smoke stains around large window openings devoid of glass and window frames could be seen. Smoke, probably made by the homeless making fires. Rubble, bricks and debris were scattered all around with more piles of trash and razor wire encasing it all. All I could smell was ash, gasoline and molten metal in the air. Add the smell of gunpowder and I could have been on the movie set of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
Numerous train stations have been vandalized in South Africa. The railroad tracks have been removed in many areas by thieves and sold as scrap metal. It is not uncommon to have electric power lines cut and the copper sold as scrap. Anything that is brass is fair game too. Any exposed garden taps (faucets) will most likely be stolen and sold as scrap. The actual train station buildings are pretty much destroyed as a source of bricks, doors and windows, roofing and lumber. Consequently those people that depended on the trains to commute to work and back have no means of transportation any longer. Cape Town that once had an amazingly efficient public transportation system – no more. There are still some buses. However, this is not the case with the trains.
One day I walked on the Saint James walkway from Muizenberg beach to St James beach immersing myself in the tantalizing views of the ocean. This walkway was built by the city council with generous financial assistance by the late local resident and businessman Mendel Kaplan. It was built right up to the ocean edge and runs parallel to the railway line. This is a truly breath-taking walk with waves crashing against the rocks; with the smell and taste of salt in the air. In another era many well-known figures including Cecil John Rhodes, John Garlick, Princess Ida Labia and the South African gold tycoon, politician and financier, Sir Abe Bailey, had homes in Muizenberg. Rudyard Kipling, Agatha Christie and others visited and stayed there. These were known as the Halcyon times; not quite as sublime today.
Some of the best examples of Edwardian style buildings are to be found here. Notably, the iconic Muizenberg train station, designed by a pupil of architect Sir Herbert Baker in 1913. It was a beautiful building with its red stone arches, symmetrical floor plan and a clock tower which welcomed holiday makers arriving by train.
The clock tower, a piece of artwork in itself, was handcrafted in teak with elaborate detailing with a clock face that has Roman numerals on all four sides. I was appalled and frankly offended by what I saw. The station was vandalized, trashed and robbed of its dignity. The clock tower was teetering at a perverse angle while three of the clock faces were smashed with their metal guts, cogs and springs spilling out. The hour and minute hands were hanging limply downwards telling us that there is no more time; and that the precious privilege of time is gone forever; completely irretrievable. A candle flickering then dying and vanishing ….…
Is this a metaphor for South Africa?
About the writer
Raised in Cape Town, South Africa and a graduate in architecture from the University of Cape Town in 1976, Michael Witkin‘s first commission was the Mosque and Madrasa in the oppressed black neighborhood of Hanover Park where he also helped to raise money and acquire donated building materials. He also designed emergency low-income housing units using waterproofed heavy-duty corrugated cardboard. With the birth of his first child, he designed and manufactured a portable baby bassinet; and was involved in other pioneering projects including water recycling. Michael immigrated to San Diego where he had a successful architectural practice for 28 years; and a construction company for 13 of those years. He served as president of the North County American Institute of Architects and chaired the design review board for the San Diego City Development Corporation for many years. Additionally, he critiqued students at the School of Architecture in design. He has 4 children and moved to Michigan 12 years ago. Besides commercial and residential projects, he specializes in religious buildings, grows flowers and builds furniture from exotic African hardwoods.
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