Public places

Using public space to bridge divides

Sea Point pool 10 January 2016

In her January 2016 Cape Times column, Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana discusses how meeting each other in the country’s public spaces can help to bridge deep-seated divisions in South Africa’s society.

From December 29, we’d begin the debate: where to go for our annual New Year’s Day trip to the beach. I’d want to go to Port St Johns, one sister would want to go to Coffee Bay, and so the debate went. My dad didn’t like crowds, so this was a factor too: trying to determine which beach would be the least crowded on the day.

On the morning of the first, we’d leave early. My dad was the only one in our entire extended family with a car, a bakkie with a canopy, and adults and children would pack in, jostling for space amongst the blankets and cooler bags. When we arrived, the adults would stake out a place and here we’d remain, swimming gleefully, eating the delicious cold food that was packed and catching up with friends and family. Late at night, exhausted, we’d make the return trip home.

Over the years, I’ve learned that my childhood memories have shaped the likes and dislikes of the adult I’ve become. But memories can be tainted and so it was for me when I saw a Facebook post containing a screengrab of Penny Sparrow’s infamous comments about black beachgoers in Durban in which she committed to “address the blacks of south [sic] Africa as monkeys.”

Naturally, my initial reaction was one of anger. This was quickly replaced by sadness, and admittedly, a degree of despair. As the social and mainstream media blew up in the ensuing days, I was heartened that South Africans were engaging in debates about race, racism and privilege. What stood out for me though, is how many South Africans still define themselves in terms of “us” and “them”. Persisting nearly 22 years into our democracy, is the idea of separate spaces for different races or social classes or whoever.

Many people have written about this via personal social media accounts, blogs and some in the pages of this very newspaper group. One such piece, “You don’t know about us,” published in the Daily News of 7 January 2016 and penned by Andiswa Makanda, a producer at TalkRadio 702 and 567 CapeTalk in her personal capacity, speaks very eloquently about the relationship black people have with the beach. “For many, going to the beach is a luxury, a privilege. It is the next best thing that God has given us; for many, its mystic, ineffable beauty makes the whole experience surreal,” Andiswa writes.

Like Andiswa’s, my childhood was not privileged by any stretch of the imagination – and how is privilege measured in one of the world’s most unequal countries? However, I was privileged in that my parents could afford our annual beach trip. Friends today tell me that whether their families had the resources or not, they made a way to get to the beach. Going to the beach was sacred, no matter what your culture. Similarly, many Capetonians I’ve spoken speak fondly of watching the “Tweede Nuwe Jaar” Minstrels parade and how they continue the practice.

For every family making a way to celebrate the new year wherever they prefer, there are countless families for whom there is no way. Sadly, this privilege is not restricted to a young child growing up in a rural village in the Eastern Cape. Stories abound of people who’ve spent their entire lives in Nyanga, Hanover Park, Maneneberg, who’ve never yet seen the sea, or dipped their toes in the salty water.

Beaches are just one example of public spaces that are out of the reach of many South Africans. Likewise, beaches are just one example of when the boundaries are breached, those who ‘look as if they don’t belong’ are made to feel as if they’re intruding in a space reserved for a select few.

In my previous column, I spoke about high school learners who told me that they don’t enjoy the city’s public spaces over weekends, even though they attend school in the city due to the belief that these “belonged to the people who live there”.

Recently, this tacit exclusion was brought home to me when the Cape Town Partnership received complaints about the noise levels from two nearby residents during our Open City activation on Church Square that took place on 7 January 2016. During this performance, artist Kenan Petersen performed a dance piece titled “New Beginnings” that in Kenan’s own words promised: “I will be dancing to usher in the new year, to keep warm, to stay lit, to say thank you, to say sorry, I’ll be dancing for freedom, for rain, for pain.”

Eventually, we had to call the performance to a premature end, as resident buy-in is important for what we do. Still, I can’t help but think what a missed opportunity this was for the person who complained that “I can’t hear my tv [sic]” to meander down and be part of what was happening on Church Square, rather than dismissing the people and the performance as a contemptible nuisance.

I’ve been speaking about the importance of public spaces and placemaking for a while now. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, especially when so many don’t really understand the cohesive effect of public spaces. Judith February’s 14 December 2015 Daily Maverick piece, “Sharing public spaces is the best way to bring people together,” is required reading for anyone in need of convincing. In it, Judith writes:

Great cities are able to accommodate diverse forms of expression by those who live in them through art, music, sport, food, literature and graffiti, to name a few. They have a comfortable relationship with those who dissent and with a past that might be haunting.

It is my sincere hope for 2016 that as South Africans, we continue to meet each other in the country’s public spaces.

Photo: Sea Point Swimming Pool, Sunday, 10 January 2016, by Stephen Alfreds.

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