Last year, I met someone who’d come on holiday to Cape Town for the first time. He was a niceish florid German man with a powerful third-wife energy, and he was stridently enthusiastic about all the things that you would expect: beaches, wine farms, being close to penguins. He made a little show of tempering his joy with sorrowful acknowledgement of the poverty and the inequality – intelligence he had obviously gathered on his trip from the airport into the city centre, during the ten or so minutes when the freeway is backed by the edges of Khayelitsha.
Khayelitsha is one of the biggest and fastest-growing townships in South Africa, with a population of between 400 000 – 1.2 million people (the last census was in 2011, and it’s grown a lot since then, although no one seems able to agree on how much, exactly). You do not need me to tell you that there is no evidence whatsoever to support any of the deranged conspiracy theories currently being floated about white people being hunted for sport in South Africa. You are an adult, and you know that already. The vast, vast majority of murder victims in this country are black, and quite a lot of them come from Khayelitsha. Toward the end of last year, the South African Police Service released the lists of the stations where the most “contact crimes” are reported. Contact crimes include murder, attempted murder, assault with grievous bodily harm, common assault, common robbery, aggravated robbery, and sexual assault. Khayelitsha police station was 6th on the list for contact crimes reported in 2017/18: 3477. It’s also 6th on the list for murders reported.
The florid German probably did not know any of this. He just said that there were a lot of shacks on the edge of the freeway, and that it must be a tough place to live. Hard to argue with that. It was clear that he was proud of himself for noticing this very obvious thing. He got the same expression on his face that everyone does when they come to Cape Town for the first time and point out that there seems to be something of an issue regarding wealth distribution in this city: this sort of Here Comes Mr. Clearsighted Humanitarian thing where they flare their nostrils and look off to one side. They usually keep it up for five minutes before they get back to what they really want to talk about, which is the beaches and the wine farms and how far a euro will take you. The German tired of the concept of social justice after about two minutes and started talking about his different hikes he had been going on with his small, robust children. This morning, he said, I went up Lion’s Head – do you know it? This is a little bit like asking someone who lives in Paris if they know of the Arc de Triomphe. The Christ the Redeemer statue – have you seen it? The Sagrada Familia – come across it at all? The Statue of Liberty – heard of her?
Lion’s Head is difficult to miss. It’s right there: a nice pointy mountain between Table Mountain and Signal Hill, looming over the Atlantic Seaboard and allegedly resembling a lion. I kept all this to myself, because I am nicer in real life than any of the above would suggest, and I just said yes, I had heard of Lion’s Head, and that my boyfriend and I walk there a lot. He bridled slightly at the use of the word “walk”, and said “hike” three or four times in a row, and then we had a nice chat about how pretty it is.
I thought of that niceish German man this last Sunday, because there was a fire on Lion’s Head. It started at about 3 in the afternoon and by night-time it was pretty well out of control on the Atlantic Seaboard side. On my side, the City Bowl side, it was nothing more than quite scary, but I hear it looked absolutely terrifying from the other side of the mountain. It was a windy day, which meant that the fire spread quickly, and also that the helicopters couldn’t do their water bombing properly. One person was seriously hurt, and the vegetation that had just started to recover from the drought was destroyed. The sweet little paths around the bottom of the mountain are closed indefinitely.
As fires go, it really wasn’t that bad. There have been worse and scarier fires on Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, and there have been much worse and much scarier fires in other parts of the city. Still, it freaked me out quite badly. I couldn’t stop looking at all the little sparks on the mountain and thinking about what would happen if the wind changed. My boyfriend asked me what it was about this fire in particular that made me so scared, and I gave him the rote answer: climate change making everything worse, 2018 having left me with the very strong feeling that there is no reason to anticipate anything other than the worst possible outcome, etc. He didn’t really buy it, and neither did I. It’s because it’s right there, impossible to miss, in the part of the city that I live in, where most of my friends live, the part of the city that tourists go absolutely hog wild for.
In October last year, the month after the crime statistics were released, there was a fire in Khayelitsha that killed one person and left 4000 people displaced. Four thousand people who already had fuck all and now have less than that. In 2017, there was a fire in Imizamo Yethu (a township on the edge of Hout Bay – another place that tourists love) that left 15,000 people displaced. There are stories from those fires that are too sad to talk about here. None of them made the international news, as far as I can tell. This week, the Lion’s Head fire was on the front page of the UK Guardian, and I wondered if the German read it, and what else he remembered about his holiday in Cape Town.