Becca Cohen’s Blog



Weekend in Oceanview

I walked into the Cape Town High School Seminar to hear students discussing the meaning of the words “tradition,” “culture,” and “diversity.” Soon thereafter, the program leader asked the students to separate themselves— those who consider themselves to be black to one side and those who consider themselves to be coloured to the other. I was somewhat shocked how students identified themselves, because by appearance I would have classified some as a part of the other group.

Next he asked the coloured students what they don’t like about black people. Silence. After some encouragement, hands went up and students gave gross generalizations like, “they’re loud,” “they speak Xhosa so we can’t understand what they’re saying,” or “they smell bad.” Next the black students were asked what they don’t like about coloureds. After hearing stereotypes thrown at them for five minutes, these students needed no encouragement to shout out comments about the way coloureds dress, speak and interact. The black students were then asked how it made them feel to hear what the coloured students said, and how they would like to be treated. The coloureds were asked the same questions. Each group’s message was the same— everyone wanted to be treated like a person, the same as anyone else.

The students were then asked to split up again. Those with flat noses and lips and frizzy hair to one side, and those with longer hair and sharper noses to the other. There was a shift from side to side, a visual demonstration how the differences between the groups are simply constructed by society, culture and location. For the rest of the day the students were to work through their problems with the opposing group, with the purpose of destroying the barriers and coming together as one.

“This would never happen in America,” was the first thing flowing through my mind. These leadership seminars for high school students are meant to discuss the issues of race and prejudice and to break down barriers between the groups. They are also meant to discuss other major issues of today— drugs, alcohol, and violence. All the Cape Town high schools are invited, but the white students never come. For me, it was another demonstration of how race is so blatantly on the table here to be confronted by society, rather than swept away and denied as in the US.

I was not expecting to witness such an intense and blunt discussion that day. I spent last weekend staying with a family in Oceanview, a coloured township outside of Cape Town. My host mother’s uncle was taking some students and myself around the area and had to drop a neighbor off at the seminar, and we decided to sit in for a few minutes.

Coloureds are a mixed-race people, descending from blacks and whites. Under the apartheid government, they were given more privileges than blacks but still ranked below whites. When the Group Areas Act was issued in 1950 each racial group was given an area in which to live. Coloureds were forced to leave their homes and were relocated to the barren area that has now developed into Oceanview. Oceanview still does not compare structurally or economically to the still predominantly white towns of Fish Hoek and Simonstown, where the coloureds were forced to leave. However it has developed into a large settlement with a strong feeling of family and community in spite of its drug and crime problems.

I stayed with a family that had two adorable girls ages nine and two-and-a-half. My host father had to work most of the weekend in his job as a security guard, since my host mother has been out of work for health problems. The weekend was filled with braais at various family members houses, with more meat than I have ever seen in my life. We stayed up late playing dominoes and hearing stories about their family. We woke up early to tour the area and go to church.

On Sunday the Cape Town cycle tour came through Oceanview— a bike race around the peninsula with thousands of participants (including my housemate, Scott and Matt Damon riding tandem with his brother). I sat with my host sister for hours, cheering on the bikers and looking for Damon (sadly he came by right after we left). When we left on Sunday it felt like I had been with the family for weeks instead of days, and I was truly sad to say bye. They welcomed me into their tiny home with so much love and openness, and gave me a unique experience that taught me a lot about South Africa’s past and present.

Cape Town Cycle Tour going through Oceanview.

Cape Town Cycle Tour going through Oceanview.

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