Some years ago I walked with C up to the saddle of Table Mountain and Devils Peak. Standing on that crest I could look out at all the places that have shaped my memory. The land stretching out towards Muizenberg holds most of what I remember of my childhood. My school, my parents’ house, the two stadiums where I spent most Saturdays, days at the beach, the University my father worked at and the M3 running like a grey vein between them all. Turning around I could look towards the places I spent much of my adult life: Long Street, Roeland Street, my places of work, the house I owned in Vredehoek.
There are not many cities where you can stand above it and have laid out before you ones own psychological cardiovascular system. That is where I lost my teeth to a pavement, that is where I first read The Outsider, over there I damaged my mother’s car when I reversed into a petrol pump at three in the morning, that is where, at that robot there, at the crossing of the M3 and Rhodes Drive in June of 1997, I realised my first relationship was over. Over there is where some of my family died and that is where I buried them.
But there is something else about being up there, looking over these places. Perhaps it has something to do with the altitude, the distance, the coldness of the air, the dryness of the grey coarse sand, the scented fynbos, but there is a distance up there. I mean an emotional distance. It is as if those places below don’t really exist as they once did. Like the pricks of the joys and pains were not quite as sharp as one remembers them at other moments. Perhaps this could be put down to nature’s ‘tranquil restoration’. Certainly it has a feeling of a separation from one’s anxieties. But I am not a Romantic despite my youthful liking of Keats’s poetry. There is something else in that feeling. Something linked to Cape Town itself.
That day, as we began to make our way down towards the block house, we saw something yellow hovering above the fynbos. At first we were not sure what it was. But as we drew closer we realised it was a little balloon filled with helium and on it, printed in red, were the letters DHL. Quite how it had managed to survive getting all the way up there, we were still quite high up, I am not sure. But it must have made its way up from Newlands rugby stadium where the Stormers, who are sponsored by DHL, had played the day before. I took it by its string, partly because what else would you do with a helium filled balloon and partly because it was litter, although of a rather surreal kind. As we continued down the path we overtook a youngish couple. They looked surprised by the fact that I had a balloon in tow. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I come from the DHL company with a package for you.’ Just for a second I think they actually believed me, that I was from DHL and I think they thought I was about to harass them with a promotion of some kind. Or perhaps they were just unfriendly young locals. It was difficult to tell. Suffice to say they offered no acknowledgment of either the joke or the greeting.
This interaction did bring two things home to me that have something to do with the detachment that is linked to Cape Town. If you meet anybody on those mountains with grey hair and a walking pole you are most likely to receive a greeting, perhaps even a chat about the day or the dangers of the path. My grandfather I know, who was a lowly NCO in the army until the end of the Second World War, a builder’s merchant by profession after the war and frequent mountain walker would chat to Jan Smuts when their paths crossed on the mountain – this was, I believe, while Smuts was still the prime-minster.
But here I do not mean that those days were so much better, they weren’t. But something has changed on that mountain that has something to do with that balloon. Cape Town has always been a place of distance, of social aloofness. Whether that be the distance inscribed by apartheid or the coldness of the English speaking white community. There has always been this detachment between the whites not only with the other races of the city but with themselves. I arrived in Cape Town as something of a country bumpkin at the age of nine and I still, 31 years later, feel it. Feel that I barely know or understand the people I grew up with. Feel like although I am standing with them at cricket matches, rugby games, in bars, at work, at family gatherings that there is some unmeasurable remoteness between us. It has something of that feeling that one encounters looking down at the city from the mountain – like one hardly knows the thing in front of you.
Contrariwise the mountain itself has always been a locus of engagement. A place that somehow escaped that degenerate politics. Throughout my life walking on those mountains it was a place where all Capetonians left their politics behind. We greeted and chatted to everybody we encountered – and at least paid a kind of lip service to the idea that we recognised one another as human. But it is as if that balloon has changed things, as if it brought with it, and its branding, something of the city’s polluted air.