Cape Town is like a lover who professes undying love to you one minute then unexpectedly smacks you across the face the next. Nothing is to be taken for granted and at times it feels as if no-one is to be trusted, as if everyone is on the make. This is an arbitrary and random world where life can change in the fraction of a second – isn’t this the same in any large city? Perhaps, but in the space of one weekend alone twenty -one Somalis have been murdered here simply for not being South African.
The sun, the sea and beaches beguile you as your mind asks itself how hell can be in paradise but that’s the problem: crime in this city is almost invisible unless you traverse the ‘green zone’ of the city and enter the Townships.
Over the weekend Iggy and Musa took me to the ‘ghetto’. Not the watered down ghetto of Gugeltu I was told but the real deep shit of Nyanga – crime capital of Cape Town. Iggy told me that if you get sick here no-one can help – as you can imagine knowledge doesn’t always set you free.
We drove into Nyanga and was immediately confronted with the sight of two women fighting in the street as passers by stopped enthralled by the sight until one women hit the other one over her head with a brick and the contest was over. Everyone in the car laughed and whooped and I sat there feeling the butterfly wings of fear and anxiety gently caressing my stomach.
We eventually arrived at a friends house of Iggy and Musa’s and the drinking commenced – although I decided it best to stay sober as I started to slowly consider the reason I was here and took out my camera and began to take images. Music played, people drank and the warmth of the sun got to everyone; as next door, the boys were being taken to be circumcised.
I say boys, they are in fact between the ages of 18 and 20. This is their rites of passage to manhood. For them there will be no anesthetics, only a sharp knife and blood. Mossa told me that the Xhosa initiation ceremony is the most painful. “Life is touch and touch is pain” he said as he smiled. In Nyanga everyone you touch can cause you pain so this is a place where you choose your friends carefully – but even this cannot really protect you. Musa recounted a story where he and his friend were walking down a street when suddenly a man ran towards them and shot his friend in the head. Mossa stopped and looked at the man who looked down at his friend. The man looked up and said, “Sorry my brother I shot the wrong man”. He walked away leaving Musa and his dead friend and returned to whence he came. No police, no inquiry only one more funeral. Welcome to Nyanga.
Each time Mossa rose the bottle of beer to his lips I noticed the scars on his arms - he told me that when he was 14 a rival gang had locked him in a shed and set it alight in an attempt to burn him to death but luckily he jumped through a window. It’s hard to imagine how another human being could consciously conceive of doing this but perhaps when people have nothing to live for the only power left to them is take away the only thing that ultimately matters – life. Violence is the true economy of power here and perhaps ultimately acts of violence are the real rites of passage that makes a boy a man.
Eight hours after arriving I drove back under a darkened African sky and drank a beer and thought of home.