African liveability Community

Beyond beauty: a city of possibilities


Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, managing director of the Cape Town Partnership, recently wrote about what Cape Town’s Infecting the City public arts festival means to her, and what it could mean for the city. Originally published in the Cape Times on 12 March 2013 under the headline “Artists help us dream about what our city could become”, the opinion piece can be read in full here.

The global trend of our times is urbanisation. People have been moving to cities, as a means to get closer to opportunities and markets, since they first started forming, but today that movement is happening at an unprecedented rate. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 7 out of 10 of us on the globe will live in cities.

Urbanisation in Africa is taking place even more rapidly: Lagos grew from 300 000 people in 1950 to an estimated 15-million by 2007, and the Nigerian government estimates that the city will have expanded to 25-million residents by 2015. The South African population is already mainly city-based, with more than 60% of us living in urban areas, and those numbers only growing.

What that tells us is that cities are here to stay. If they’re here to stay, they’re also our future – with all their opportunities and challenges.

Which brings me to Cape Town. A city of over 3.5-million – a small city by comparison, but one growing at a rapid rate nonetheless – with spectacular opportunities and significant challenges. If Cape Town is our future, what kind of future is it?

Ours is a fairly contested city: Some have called it a racist city, and think of it as a place of white privilege, the last colonial outpost on the continent. Others will speak at great lengths about its beauty, as if mountain and sea were its only defining characteristics. Others tell the tale of two cities – Camps Bay and Khayelitsha, haves and have nots – affirming that the two will never meet.

All have a point, all have a place, but what I’d like to suggest is that there’s a Cape Town beyond the polarising debate.

A Cape Town of the everyday, where people live and laugh, and work and play, where people are born and people die. Let us not forget that, beyond the symbol of what Cape Town represents on a picture postcard or in a national debate, there are real people living there. Living here.

And in this everyday life of the city, however broken and in need of healing, there’s something extraordinary: Of a new democracy finding its way, and a people finding their voice. There’s something extraordinary in the stubbornness of life, that continues despite every challenge we throw at it. It’s in the everyday that I find hope for our future as a city.

It’s at this time of year that I feel particularly hopeful, for it’s a time when artists take to the streets to push the limits of our city. Infecting the City, a public arts festival hosted by the Africa Centre and happening on the streets of the city from 11 to 16 March, goes beyond beauty: It stages free artworks that are not only incredibly beautiful, but that seem to me to serve a deeper purpose too.

To my mind, what these artists are doing on our streets is that they’re playing at possibility. They’re literally testing out the borders of our city, what is and what can be. They’re helping us see into possible futures. They’re helping us see our city, and ourselves, with new eyes.

Jay Pather, creative director of Infecting the City, has said, “South African culture is rooted in public performance, through ritual, celebration and protest. If we take art out of galleries and theatres and into our public spaces, we can interrogate the essence of a city, offer opportunities for connectedness, a little insight into what our city can be.”

Let’s take this Infecting the City opportunity to connect: to discover our city and discover each other in the streets. While we work to reverse of the legacies of apartheid, slavery, colonialism; while we push for housing closer to the city, more access to opportunities, better education, safer communities, reliable public transport, let’s not forget to take a moment together, to dream a little what our future can be.

Professor Njabulo Ndebele, a writer, thinker, and chairperson of the Cape Town Partnership board, spoke at our last AGM about how narratives of the city, good or bad, shape our experience: “The story we most commonly tell about Cape Town is a tale of two cities – a glittering city of first-world infrastructure and beautiful natural landscapes that stands in stark contrast to a place of unrelenting poverty and deprivation. The trouble with this story is that, if it’s the only Cape Town we are prepared to see, it’s the only Cape Town we will continue to see … What we have, right now, right here, is the opportunity to start making the Cape Town of tomorrow … We have an opportunity to imagine a different ending – and a different beginning – for Cape Town.”

Let’s make it one we can all believe in.

 Photo by Sydelle Willow Smith


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