Notes From Abroad: Cape Town, South Africa

For years, the Collegian has spotlighted the ups and downs of off-campus study in “Notes from Abroad.” This week, we’re borrowing our print-edition parent company’s regular feature to bring you Thea Kohout ’14’s account of life in Cape Town.

Thea sent us this JPG titled "TheaNoFace." Sounds appropriate.

Kohout sent us this snapshot titled “TheaNoFace.” Sounds about right.

My time in South Africa is quickly — too quickly, if you ask me — drawing to a close. I’m leaving in a week, after a four-month stint in this country at the bottom of the world, and I cannot even begin to wrap my head around the fact that I’ll be thrust into an Ohio winter in about a month. As I write this, I’m wearing a tank top, cut-offs and no shoes as a sultry South African summer is in full swing all around me. I can’t even remember what my winter coat looks like at this point.

The nature of my SIT program, “Multiculturalism and Human Rights,” is based on movement and change: I have lived with four different host families in four vastly different environments, never staying in one place longer than four weeks. Currently, I’m living in an apartment in downtown Cape Town with four other Americans on my program, which is where I’ll be until the program ends. Before that, however, I lived in Langa, a black township outside of Cape Town, for four weeks; in Tshabo, a rural village in the Eastern Cape, for a week; in Stellenbosch, a white Afrikaner town in the heart of South African wine country, for a week; and in Bo-Kaap, a coloured, which in this country basically means “mixed-race,” Muslim neighborhood in Cape Town, for two weeks.

In addition to the four homestays, I’ve spent time in Simon’s Town, a beach town where all the penguins live; Buccaneers, a backpacking “resort” on the Indian Ocean in the Eastern Cape; !Khwa ttu, a Khoi San cultural center and campsite on the west coast; and Johannesburg.

In a nutshell, I’ve been moving around a lot.This has been a mixed bag: on the one hand, I have gotten to live with so many different people of such totally different cultures, which has definitely enhanced my understanding of the beautiful, heartbreaking mess that is post-apartheid South Africa. On the other hand, this has meant that I have had no constant home base in my life for these past months, and that has sometimes left me feeling very ungrounded and disconnected.

Being in this country, in this city, is hard. Cape Town is called the “apartheid city” because it was the first city where apartheid was enforced. Because of this, the geographic boundaries separating people are really obvious, and it remains today one of the most economically and socially unequal cities (in one of the most economically and socially unequal countries) in the world. Being confronted with such abject and racialized poverty on a daily basis is hard because it makes you think and get outside your liberal-arts-educated American comfort zone.

This is obviously a good thing — you can’t live in a bubble for your entire life — but I would be lying if I said that I never wished I had studied abroad in a place where I didn’t have to think about my own privilege all day long. To add to that, it’s simply not safe to be a woman in Cape Town; South Africa has some of the highest rates of gendered violence in the world. I’ve lost track of how many times random men out and about have catcalled me, propositioned me, shouted at me, followed me down streets or grabbed me without my consent. That hasn’t been great.

Being in this country, in this city, is also beautiful, and it is beautiful more often than it is hard, I think. Watching the clouds come spilling over Table Mountain in the mornings from my apartment’s balcony; hearing the call to prayer from three different mosques all at once in Bo Kaap; listening to some of the best music I’ve ever heard in my life in a smoky jazz club in the middle of nowhere; having my host mother and sister in Langa teach me how to dance to Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata”; standing on top of Lion’s Head Mountain to watch the sun set over the sea and the moon rise over Cape Town; hearing a choir of Xhosa mamas singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” the South African national anthem, in perfect harmonies; curling up in bed with my six-year-old host sister in the Eastern Cape to listen to Bon Iver and eat homemade fatcakes; getting to join in on a drum circle with a bunch of friendly Rastafarians in an open-air market…

I have had many more moments of profound beauty since being here than I’ve had of fear or frustration. South Africa is a dizzyingly chaotic and stunning place, and I know I’ll miss it more than any place I’ve ever missed once I leave.

11 responses

  1. thea, so great to read your thoughts. can’t wait to discuss the program more when you get back (also – indulge me on this one – ‘Coloureds’ aren’t ‘mixed-race.’ my comps is almost entirely about debunking this misconception.) enjoy your last few cape town nights, dog.

    • Sarah, you’re absolutely right– “coloured” implies much more than mixed-race, and it was a big oversight on my part to leave it at that! The history of the term “coloured” as a race category in South Africa is really complicated, but it basically encompasses a whole lot of ethnic groups that all got pushed into the box of “coloured” during apartheid. It’s a really long and super interesting topic, if anyone is interested! Apologies for the oversimplification.

      • No worries, Thea. Well done. RE: gendered violence pre and post apartheid – Thea’s right that it’s impossible to quantify because people weren’t keeping well-kept records of human rights violations, let alone gender or domestic violence, under apartheid.

      • It’s a tricky topic. Not easy to firmly quantify for the reasons you cite. I was curious, though, in case Thea had overheard any anecdotal remarks worth relating, or had any gut feeling, or whatever. Just fishing, basically.

    • That’s a really interesting question, and I don’t want to pretend for a second that I, an American student who has only been here for four months, am any kind of expert on that matter. I would say, though, that that’s a very tricky question to quantify. Gendered violence absolutely played a part in apartheid and is still a big part of reality today in South Africa. I don’t know if I would put any of this in terms of “better” or “worse,” though. (This is a really hard question; I’m sorry to not give a better answer!)

      • Yes, I was ready to back track the moment I post the question, for the reasons you mention. I wonder if there’s a relatively neutral source of sexual violence statistics out there some where covering a period overlapping apartheid and post-apartheid. Even at that stage there’s still a lot of interpretation and analysis to do. Thanks for your response.

  2. Thea! What a phenomenally interesting description of your time there. Makes me hope you’ll come to Chicago soon (or that I can get to you) to hear MUCH more about the entire experience. Really whetted my appetite for more information, more stories, and mostly more of YOU telling it. xo

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