Dreaming big in Cape Town

Monday 8 March 2004, by Dawn PALEY

Central Cape Town. Known as Lie de Kaap, the Lovely Cape, in Afrikaans, and from the city centre, one can understand why: tall beautiful buildings, the sea stretching out turquoise blue and Table Mountain looming above the city. Famed for its nightlife and incredible geography, Cape Town, from this vantage point, cannot be mistaken for any other. But if you board the metro train east out of central station, you’ll roll past kilometres of shacks built metres away from the railway lines, right up until the last stop: Khayelitsha. People are shocked at my white skin, wondering out loud if I got on the wrong train

Central Cape Town. Known as Lie de Kaap, the Lovely Cape, in Afrikaans, and Ikapa lo dumo, the vibey Cape, in Xhosa, and from the city centre, one can understand why: tall beautiful buildings, the sea stretching out turquoise blue and Table Mountain looming above the city. Famed for its nightlife and incredible geography, Cape Town, from this vantage point, cannot be mistaken for any other.

And as the coast makes its way around the city, the people do too. Fanning out in all directions from the central district, Cape Town’s citizens occupy suburbs, townships and informal settlements; houses with pools and gardens, simple brick houses with outdoor taps and toilets, or shacks with no running water.

In a recent interview with the (South African) Mail & Guardian, Noam Chomsky reflected that "...if you’re inside the city it’s nice, integrated, fine and so on. Take a walk outside the walls around the cities and there’s massive, horrendous slums... [that have] gotten worse since apartheid."

If you board the metro train east out of central station, you’ll roll past kilometres of shacks built metres away from the railway lines, right up until the last stop: Khayelitsha station. This is the other side of Cape Town, where simple brick houses and shacks are packed together on dry, dusty sand, and the romance of Cape Town is gone.

Khayelitsha. People are shocked at my white skin, wondering out loud if I got on the wrong train. I’m in Khayelitsha to work with the Community Networking Forum (CNF), and what I find when I arrive at seven Phandle Street is spray paint on an outdoor toilet stand proclaiming "CNF POSITIVE" and a brick house with an open door. Inside is Solomon Cedile, the organizer of the Community Networking Forum; a man with incredible ideas and energy, and an organization determined to counter what Chomsky describes as a place where "...there are people living in misery, without hope, under gang rule and so on."

The CNF has its origins in an organization created in 1993 called the Youth Development Project, which was created to build the self esteem of the youth of the so-called "Lost Generation" through outdoor excursions and workshops. After various incarnations, the CNF as it exists today was formed in 2001 by youth, including Cedile, living in Khayelitsha. The existence of CNF is what Cedile calls a "scratch scratch" one, getting by with small donations from South African NGOs and overseas funders. The so-called "staff" of CNF are in fact unemployed (as 40 per cent of Khayelitsha’s residents are) full-time volunteers. Organizing in these adverse circumstances has not stopped Cedile and friends from dreaming big.

Each person who visits the CNF is asked to plant a tree with a pick and shovel on the sandy streets of the Harare district of Khayelitsha. This is part of the "10,000 trees project," which the CNF initiated last year with the goal of planting 10,000 indigenous trees in Harare over the next 10 years. The brilliance of this project is in its scope and accessibility: engaging community members and visitors in physical exercise with tangible results creates a platform or a point of contact for any number of ideas to spread in the community - including the identification and use of public spaces, the healing of people through contact with nature, the need for the establishment of nature reserves and parks, and increasing property value and instilling a sense of pride among community members. Beautifying Harare, one tree at a time, is part of what Cedile calls CNF’s effort to "try and find a meaning for every ordinary citizen."

The CNF’s other projects include hosting an annual week-long community college, one which is open to leaders of community-based organizations across the country. According to Cedile, the college intends to forge "the building and delivery of a new culture to counter the apartheid legacy and the social disintegration of our communities and their support systems" through combining western and traditional knowledge. The goals of the colleges project and the 10,000 trees projects come into union in the energy-efficient housing project, which aims to draft and construct a fully self-sustaining model home in Khayelitsha in order to provide a new model of housing and energy use to the community. Through the 10,000 trees, the community colleges, and the model home, the CNF intends to, in the words of Cedile, "Turn Harare into a living classroom."

Even with vision and ideas like CNF’s, this organization is a long way from the air-conditioned offices of well-funded NGOs located in Chomsky’s "integrated, fine" Cape Town. Functioning in an office with three old computers and a phone line that gets cut regularly, the CNF continues to organize from the periphery, which is paradoxical since it is, in fact, operating from the centre of where community development is most urgently needed in the greater Cape Town region.

Sanza Nkula, from the Khayelitsha-based youth organization Ilithabalo, explains that "If you can’t see a white person in front of an organization, you can’t see development. That’s what we’re led to believe." Ten years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, it’s way past the time to ask why agents of social change and community development like the CNF are not being supported by national and international structures. It’s time instead to act, to support development initiatives where they can help the most, instead of supporting the "NGO culture" of city-based NGOs.

Because for the world’s majority, Khayelitsha is the centre. Central Cape Town is the other side.


Dawn Paley is an intern with Alternatives. She recently came back from Johannesburg, South Africa.

This article was published on rabble.ca

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