The curious cult of Cape Town
I’ve been asked this question by Capetonians at least twenty times since I made the decision to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Each time it’s accompanied by a look of genuine perplexity, like I’m completely insane. And while you’re reading this, I know some of you are thinking the same thing too.
The short answer, and one that’s so obvious to me that I’m not sure why I need to explain it, is that pleasant scenery aside, Cape Town sucks big hairy geographical, socio-economic and climatic balls.
But the short answer’s not good enough. It implicitly buys into the Capetonian conceit that there could only be a negative stimulus driving a move to Johannesburg, that there’s nothing about the city that could possibly provide a good enough justification to relocate there.
So with that in mind I’m going to try to offer a reasonably civil and detailed answer to the question of why someone would move from Cape Town to Johannesburg. I’m also going to ask some of the questions I’d have asked my interrogators if I’d not been too busy moving.
I’ll actually start with one of those.
Taking into account that you’re dealing with a city located on a highland plateau, what exactly is it that you find so unpalatable when you gaze across a city that doubles as the world’s largest urban forest?*
I suspect the answer to that question will probably be ‘the world’s largest what?’
And I suspect this because during the years I lived in Cape Town it became apparent to me that Johannesburg is typically imagined by Capetonians as a seething concrete metropolis surrounded by a desolate, dry dustbowl littered with the sun-bleached skeletons of crime victims.
The reality is that Johannesburg is a massive man-made forest. Apparently someone tried to count the trees and there were 6 million or so of them. And many of these trees are pretty cool. When a tree is left to follow its natural urges without being molested by gale force winds, bergie urine and overcast weather it can do some impressive things, like grow ten stories high.
And this forest attracts a surprisingly diverse suburban birdlife. Everything from fat Loeries to cheeky Indian Mynahs will visit your yard. The first time I turned my sprinkler on at my new home I came out 15 minutes later to find the members of five different species of bird taking a free shower out in the sun. This morning I enjoyed my coffee on the patio while being serenaded by what appeared to be a giant yellow budgie with a red bib and a black Mohawk.
To be fair to most Capetonians who reflexively despise Joburg, theirs is probably an error born of ignorance rather than malice. They know the place from what other Capetonians tell them rather than personal experience. Of those Capetonians who have actually been to Johannesburg, some might conceivably have visited only the old CBD, Boksburg or Alberton. Which would be like rating Cape Town based on a visit to Maitland, but one can understand how they might depart with a less than favourable impression of the place.
As for those who have actually seen the city in its entirety, my next question is: what did you think when you gazed out over the green blanket that covers the city, with the odd skyscraper sticking out in the distance?
Did you sit there thinking ‘damn, if only that greenery was two feet high, anything that wasn’t grew diagonally, and the lot flowered once a year for two weeks before being burnt to cinders then I’d consider calling it beautiful. It also needs more rocks.’
So that’s a few of my questions out of the way.
Now let’s talk about Cape Town.
I moved to Cape Town at the age of 18 to study at UCT. During my time there I lived all over the peninsula – Kalk Bay, Plattekloof, Sea Point, Observatory, Rondebosch, Mowbray, Fish Hoek, Kloof Nek, Oranjezicht, Parklands, Sunningdale, Noordhoek and Clovelly.
I did every touristy thing that someone can do in Cape Town numerous times. I surfed for five years, I hiked Table Mountain, Cape Point, Silvermine, Newlands Forest, the Hottentot Hollands. I hung out in pretentious dives filled with proto-hipsters in Kloof Road. I became a regular at an eco-retreat in the Koo. I visited all the little coastal towns along both the east and west coast. I walked every beach, dined at all the cool beachside cafés.
I did many of these things during a period of my life when I decided to make a sincere effort to come to terms with Cape Town and make it my home. And at times it was great, but really, most of the time it wasn’t.
For a start there’s this little thing called the wind. How someone can ignore the fact that a ‘moderate breeze’ (I found it quite radical) blows on 95% of the days of the year, while a ‘fresh breeze’ (that’s two notches below a gale force wind) blows every fifth day of the year escapes me. You should know something is wrong when you have to lodge stuff between your door and the doorframe to stop your doors rattling, or when you can get a free skin peel just by attempting to take a walk on a beach.
I’m prepared to grudgingly accept that some people might enjoy the wind while it’s still a fresh breeze – summer temperatures can clock an idyllic 41 degrees after all. But my credulity is strained when Capetonians start saying how much they enjoy the southeaster, which usually blows at gale force. I lost count of the times that I stood on the green belt near my Sunningdale house trying to walk my dog in the southeaster, and found myself dismally surveying the land between myself and the mountain and seeing airborne garbage dancing above a wind-scoured wasteland, wondering what the precise fuck it was that people were getting so gushy about.
Maybe I’m not sufficiently impressed by big blocks of granite, even of the dramatic variety. Maybe I don’t like feeling like I am being assaulted by the climate. I don’t know, either way the former could never make up for the latter and it sucked.
Surfing made up for it right up until the point that the aforementioned wind destroyed the surf on both sides of the peninsula for weeks a time, turning the water in False Bay brown and sewagey, and coaxing the water on the Atlantic side into putting on a reasonable impression of liquid nitrogen. I soon learned that to surf regularly in Cape Town you either need to quit your day job or live next to a break, because the wave conditions can change within minutes if the wind direction shifts five degrees or decides to venture into fresh breeze territory, which happens constantly.
And about that cold water. Having a beach with water that can induce cardiac arrest almost negates the point in having a beach at all. It’s like being married to a frigid underwear model. Again, I’m prepared to accept that some people like it. After all, some people in Russia like taking ice baths in the middle of winter. But don’t try to pretend we’re dealing with some sort of balmy seaside resort here just because the place has sand, water and some wind-molested palm trees. Go to Mauritius or the Natal south coast if you want to experience what balmy seaside resorts are like.
And the thing is, it’s not actually the constant wind, the cold water and the featureless scrub that are the real problem. Nor the poor tortured trees and the other things I could moan about at length if I had time and you had patience (okay, in brief: the N1, N2 and M5 highways, the summer fires, the Koeberg refinery, the locals who never outgrow their high school cliques, the bergies shitting on your doorstep while singing drunken songs at 3am before attempting to murder each other, the fashionably liberal whites hiding away in the least diverse and most Europeanized part of South Africa and then lecturing everyone else about their failure to embrace multiculturalism and diversity, the pretentiousness, the gloomy, long, dank winters that induce pale skin, SAD and vitamin D deficiency, the drug culture, the overpriced shitty seaside restaurants, the V&A Waterfront in its entirety).
It’s none of those things that made Cape Town unbearable for me. Every place has its good and bad. It wasn’t even that people in Cape Town tended to focus more heavily on the good then the bad – that’s completely understandable, and a pragmatic accommodation to make with the place where you’re going to live your life.
What eventually made Cape Town unbearable was the insistence of so many residents on pretending that not only are these bad things minor inconveniences (to the extent that they are acknowledged at all), but that the city is actually, in all seriousness, the best place in the world to live. Their determination to up-vote their city as the best this or that in the world on online polls, to join multiple Facebook groups to agree with each other how awesome the city is. One prize idiot even told me that Cape Town is one of the planet’s chakras (I can only assume it’s the muladhara chakra, less formally known as the asshole chakra).
Accompanying this fervent denial of easily observable reality was the urge to insist that others do the same, to marginalize non-believers, and to find a good, solid enemy to frame as the all-bad thing against which true believers can juxtapose their impeccable goodness (smile and wave,
Emmanuel Goldstein Johannesburg). In other words, the whole thing started looking less and less like an annoying and barely comprehensible form of geographical narcissism and more and more like a cult.
A couple of days before I left Cape Town I had drinks at a Parklands bar with some friends from America. The owner of the establishment heard the American accents and asked my friends why they were here and where they were going. When they told him they were heading to Joburg next, he told them that there’s no reason to go there, that South Africa ends at the Orange River, and that the people ‘up there’ aren’t ‘like us’.
My answer to him: fuck you china.
The reason we go up here is because there’s a mix of cultures, there’s a sense of growth and opportunity. There are easily accessible mind-blowingly good restaurants all over the show, if you go to a bar you have never been to and sit down to have a drink, someone you never met before will probably start a conversation with you. There are awesome, crockery rattling thunderstorms almost every afternoon in summer which prevent the day from overheating. There’s the fragrance of summer rain on warm, red African soil. There are crisp winter mornings that make you feel more alive, sunny afternoons that allow you to strip off your jerseys and jackets. There are light breezes instead of gales. There’s the feeling that the sky is bigger and horizon further away. There are the towering cumulus clouds, the trees, the outdoor café culture, the lush gardens, the koppies, the cosmos blossoms on the roadside verges, the song of crickets at night. Five provinces are within a five hour drive of the city. Drive just 30 minutes north of Joburg and you find this:
Is it perfect? Of course not. Everyone knows what’s wrong with it. Those faults that are not the product of horizonally challenged Capetonians’ imaginations are as much the stuff of cliché as the orthodox canon of Cape Town’s endlessly repeated virtues. And when it comes down to it, that’s one of Johannesburg’s greatest virtues: that its faults are known and openly acknowledged while its virtues are typically understated and left to be discovered and appreciated in peace, rather than constantly hammered over your head by the city’s residents.
So, does that answer the question?
*before someone says smog, yes Johannesburg wears an unfortunate mantle of smog in winter. As does Cape Town. The only difference is strict adherence to the cult apparently forbids photographing the Capetonian version and posting the results on the Internet. Nevertheless, the occasional unpalatable picture leaks along with the odd article on the city’s pollution levels. The fact that Cape Town’s lung cancer rate is almost double that of Joburg’s has mysteriously evaded popular consideration.