Zahira Asmal in conversation with Albie Sachs and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela about South Africa’s transition to democracy.
ZA: I am sad to admit that the euphoria of 1994 has waned to some extent for me, for two reasons – our apparent lack of direction and leadership, and the minimal effort some South Africans have made to engage with our history and with each other. I am grateful for my freedom – political, social, economic, spatial and cultural – all tangible for me. I am also grateful to the people that have led us to democracy. I am happy to call Cape Town home and I love that Cape Town’s beauty is so accessible to me. However, I am reminded that all this beauty means little if we are unable to access freedom equally.
Pumla, you said previously that you only discovered Cape Town’s beauty in your adulthood. Why is this so?
PGM: I grew up in Langa and, despite apartheid and the things it limited me from experiencing, I had a very happy childhood due to our sense of community. The word community applied to township life. When I was in the United States, everyone talked about the beauty of Cape Town. I realised then that while living in the township I knew very little about Cape Town’s beauty – although I could see it in the distance, I did not experience it first-hand. It seemed that people elsewhere connected more to the beauty of Cape Town than I did – the mountain, the ocean and so on. I wondered about this while living abroad and realised that although the mountain is visible from anywhere in Cape Town, and especially from Langa, for me it was a distant beauty. I never experienced this beauty but only saw it as an object. I never actually reflected and engaged or made it a part of me as one would appreciate a piece of art or music – where one would engage on a deeply internal level. It was only when I returned in 1990 with a sense of wanting to reclaim Cape Town – fortunately this was after the release of Nelson Mandela – that I truly identified with the city and appreciated its beauty.
ZA: Albie, what are your early memories of Cape Town?
AS: In 1963, I received my second banning order. It was a notice from the minister of justice restricting my movement and my contact. The big question was whether it would be house arrest or not. Fortunately, it wasn’t house arrest, but I was confined to ‘white’ Cape Town and I couldn’t move out of that zone for five years. I wanted to jump for joy when I heard that it wasn’t house arrest, but I couldn’t let the ‘special branch’ people see how delighted I was because it was less severe than I thought. It would have been a criminal offence for me to drive beyond Bellville, but it was okay because I was restricted to paradise. ‘White’ Cape Town included Table Mountain and the beaches … but I felt the irony of it.
Every Sunday I would climb up Table Mountain and I would feel free – but at the same time, when I looked down the rocks from the top, I’d feel such anger. I’d see this beautiful city and I’d feel its beauty built on pain and expropriation and division.