Standing in a pungent spice shop, being jostled by busy workers bagging up cardamom seeds and saffron and paprika and peri peri and chilli powder and ginger and cumin, I think, “This has the makings of a foreign curryspondence.”
We’re in the Malay quarter of Cape Town – the Bo-Kaap – an area that were it not for the glorious colours of the buildings, would look like an especially depressing inner-city scheme. It certainly doesn’t feel very African.
N is our guide and quite possibly the cheeriest (and certainly the campest) Muslim I have ever met. It’s hard not to think that it’s a goddamn shame that more people aren’t like him though: when talking about abstinence during daylight in Ramadan, he titters that “really we’re like vampires – raaarrr!” Before folding into giggles.
This part of town was the settlement of choice for descendents of Javanese slaves who were brought here by the largely evil Dutch East India Company. Today the remnants of that enforced emigration is a strong Muslim community spread between a few colourful streets near the city centre. What was once a near slum is now makes up some of the most sought-after real estate in the city.
We are on the Cape Malay Cooking Safari, a brief cultural tour of the area, before moving onto the considerably more important topic of food as, alongside the religion here, culinary techniques and recipes have endured.
We’re led into one of the drabbest houses on the block and straight into a family living room. An initially shy, then increasingly boisterous and ultimately irritating five-year-old peeks down from half way up a staircase; two teenage daughters fiddle with their head-scarves and a gurgling baby; in the middle of it all stands F, the mother. She’s got a wearied knowing look of parenthood about her that almost obscures an undercurrent of mischief. F is a ball breaker, always on everyone’s case, maybe joking, maybe not. She treats international guests and the five-year-old the same.
We’re quizzed on some of the spices we’d seen earlier in shop and largely fail, before we’re cajoled (and occasionally bollocked) into kneading dough to make rotis, mixing ingredients for the curry and then folding samosas. At one point, Wee Mo finds herself stirring a pot with one hand and holding a baby in the other. It’s manic stuff, but all good fun. Moreover, the scran is – to my surprise – actually Quite Good, even though all we really did was follow the occasionally threatening directions.
A couple of hours later we leave with full bellies and a slight whiff of curry following us in the air. It’s not right to say that it’s downhill from there – or if it is, it’s only in an emotional sense.
When Nelson Mandela was released from jail, I was seven years old; when he became the first black president of South Africa, I was 11. The word Apartheid meant little – it maybe had something to do with the Nazis, I wasn’t sure.
This and dozens of other mounds of my ignorance are dissolved when we’re picked up by O,our fourth guide in three days, who is to take us on a township tour. He gives us a full and frank history of the cities troubled past – born in 1951, he lived through the majority of the racist Apartheid regime.
The first stop is District 6, a former neighbourhood and current wasteland near the heart of the city. In 1966 an agreement was signed to clear the area as it had been designated as white-only. Depending on skin colour (which was often decided via the Pencil Test) people were given more or less notice to clear out before the demolition began. Apparently one black family were eating breakfast in the kitchen when a bulldozer came through the living room.
From here people were displaced around the city to designated townships. They, along with thousands of others brought in from rural areas to aid with construction, remain home to some of the poorest ethic groups. We stop in Khayelitsha which with over 2 million inhabitants (Glasgow and Edinburgh combined) is the biggest township in the city. O shows us the hangover of Apartheid, people living in corrugated iron shacks without power or running water. At one point K and I find ourselves sitting in one of these little shed-homes, listening to a dress-maker tell us the story of how her cheating husband gave her HIV. When we leave I give her some money which is pathetic, but all I can think to do in the moment. Outside, some kids throw themselves in front of the camera, unaware of the misery all around.
The guide explains that the reason this way of living became so popular was partly down to the alternative, which saw men rounded up from other areas of the country and forced to work unreasonable hours before going to bed in horrendous squalor, with up to 20 people sharing in a room. Here Wee Mo and I feel particularly ashamed; that, after all, is exactly how tens of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis and Pinoys are living in the Middle East today. We’re humbled, embarrassed and massively uncomfortable with a lot of what O has to teach us, but that’s undoubtedly a good thing.
Throughout he keeps on talking about the “miracle of South Africa”: that the country didn’t fall into civil war because of Mandela’s pleas for black to forgive white; that the families forcibly removed from District 6 are now being offered a new home or compensation by the government; that now areas of Khayelitsha are now being torn down and replaced with simple, but safe homes complete with electricity and running water. He points out some of this work going on.
“This time the bulldozers are welcome,” I say, feeling a bit sick, but still somehow thinking that it might make a good closing line for a piece of Actual Journalism.