Closed City

Financial Times | 24 January 2014.

Teju Cole visits Cape Town for the Open Book Festival and I am asked to lead a ‘literary walkabout’ of the city in his company. I worry that this might be a little contrived: can his hypnotic meditations on New York and Lagos really be superimposed onto such a different city? But as we begin our tour, he recalls the literary experiments of Guy Debord and the Situationists, giving us a more resourceful way of imagining the exercise. A regular route taken through the street grid of, say, Paris would be mapped as a geometric shape, then transplanted onto the countryside of Bavaria and retraced exactly, with random encounters and ‘psychogeographical’ resonances carefully noted. Artificial constraints to generate new insights; strict formulas to evade the formulaic.

And so we begin our walk through the city centre, listening to passages from Open City, as well as the work of local writers like Alex la Guma, Zoë Wicomb and K. Sello Duiker. Unexpected affinities emerge between the early Cape colony and the history of Manhattan Island that Cole’s novel so carefully excavates. Both were 17th-century Dutch garrisons; both became brutal slave ports. And in each, the built environment turns its back on the water that gave rise to it in the first place. In New Amsterdam, the deep and navigable Hudson River; in Cape Town, the millions of litres of fresh water flowing off Table Mountain, still running unseen below the city centre. Sailors would fill their barrels at a shoreline that has now been pushed back and paved over by car parks, head offices and flyovers: ‘Beneath the pavement, a beach!’

We detour past the ruins of an old Dutch East India Company reservoir, now labelled behind glass in a subterranean shopping arcade. Wedged in between Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mr Price, it is (I tell the festivalgoers) the most unvisited historical site in the city. ‘The shore was carapace, permeable only at certain selected points’, reads Teju on the tarmac expanse of the Grand Parade, opposite the balcony where Nelson Mandela made his first speech as a free man in 1990: ‘Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over and overused.’

As we are finishing outside the Fugard Theatre, still talking about surrendering to the random drifts and eddies of the city, a woman comes up to me, with the face of someone who sleeps rough and takes hard liquor to make that a little more bearable. I struggle to understand what she is asking – it seems to be ‘Are you a preacher?’, which makes sense, given that I am holding an open book. But before I can answer, someone with an earpiece emerges from the festival box office and ushers her ever so politely away. Only some kinds of randomness, I think ruefully, are permitted in the literary walking tour.


On 6 December I am back on the Grand Parade. Nelson Mandela has died the day before and a multi-faith service is in progress, with flowers beginning to gather below the City Hall balcony. But the summer southeaster is blowing down from Devil’s Peak, thinning out the crowds, making it hard to hear the amplified voices and swivelling the televisual screens back to front. In Soweto’s Vilakazi Street and Johannesburg’s Houghton, there are all night vigils and singing; here the elements seem to conspire against a critical mass, for the first few days at least.

A friend of mine stranded in Canada writes that she feels being absent from her country during this time as an almost physical pain. But one can also have the sensation of being absent even in the midst of things. Faced with the obituaries quite obviously written years ago and kept in cold storage; the memorial banners that have been fluttering for months already; the endless, overly formal salutations that begin each speech on TV – it was hard to muster the emotional gravitas that the event seems to demand. Throughout the whole week I have the sense of somehow failing to connect with History at every turn.

The apogee of this comes when I attend a slideshow as part of a surf film festival, on the same evening that a memorial concert is held in the Cape Town stadium. The talk happens in the predator tank of the Two Oceans aquarium, where ragged tooth sharks and the occasional sea turtle slowly circle above the heads of the speakers.  Just a kilometre away, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have come out of retirement to entertain an ecstatic crowd; Johnny Clegg is leading a rousing chorus of ‘Asimbonanga’ (‘We Have Not Seen Him’), the Struggle anthem dedicated to Mandela. And yet here I (not even a surfer, just someone who likes waves) sit hearing about someone’s trip of a lifetime to ‘Mada’ (i.e. Madagascar) and ‘Indo’; or how seabirds on remote islands have bellies full of plastic. The turtle comes into view again and I feel an almost cosmic sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One talk is Mandela-related, however: about a wave off Robben Island that was named ‘Madiba’s Left’ and surfed in his honour during the 1990s.  A one-mile exclusion zone around the Island had been lifted, so the crew could get a boat near enough to paddle into the heavy Atlantic swell. Madiba’s is (according to the local websites) for pro’s only: lumpy, sporadic and ‘slabby’ – a thick-lipped and unforgiving wave coming out of the deep ocean to break on a shallow rock shelf.

Setting foot on the newly declared World Heritage site was forbidden however, and so the surfers needed to ensure that they didn’t get washed ashore like the guano-streaked wrecks all along the shore.  Surf breaks, prison breaks: a strange set of inversions and continuities as the Island changed from political prison to nature preserve.

The talk was a reminder too of how much of a role the sea must have played in Mandela’s long incarceration.  In Long Walk to Freedom, he recalls being put to work dragging kelp from the ocean, looking back towards the city ‘winking in the sunshine, the glass towers of Cape Town’.  The passage gives the title to an anthology of prison writing from throughout the continent, edited by the Malawian poet Jack Mapanje, Gathering Seaweed: ‘Although it was surely an illusion, the city, with Table Mountain looming behind it, looked agonizingly close, as though one could reach out and grasp it.’

A surprising detail emerges when I follow the story up. Along with many other documents from Prisoner 46664’s archive, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory has placed online an inventory of his possessions when released from Victor Verster prison in 1990. In addition to ‘1 Stel Gewigte’ and ‘1 Oefen Fiets’ (a set of weights and an exercise bike, as per Madiba’s well known enthusiasm for fitness regimens), there is also listed ‘1 Surf Bord’.

Is Mandela the surfer to join the million other versions of the man in existence? The editors of Zigzag magazine claim to have solved the riddle, explaining that he was a keen but not strong sea swimmer during the latter years at Robben Island. With the traditional disdain of ‘real’ surfers for body-boarders, they write that what he requested was in fact a ‘boogie-board’ to help him stay afloat: ‘but within minutes he became frustrated with it, and the sponge was relegated to storage, never to be used again.’


Just sitting down at the desk on the first Monday of the year, having summoned all my willpower, when the door-buzzer rings. From the particularly insistent tone of the ring, I know exactly who it is: Lucas, the most persistent man in the world.

‘Mr Hardly – your car is looking very dirty.’

On first buying my (first) car, a few years ago, I took pride in cleaning it each weekend, despite never thinking of myself as a car person. As someone who finds the absolute normality of all middle-class South Africans (lower, upper, left-wing, right-wing) having a domestic servant to clear up after their every move a rather disturbing social phenomenon, I used to scrub and buff away officiously, the words of J. M. Coetzee’s priggish narrator in Summertime going through my head: ‘What he finds himself doing is what people like him should have been doing ever since 1652, namely, his own dirty work’.

Over a period of months though, Lucas (who already had a car-washing gig with the flat below) wore me down. He would appear, often in a too-tight Sara Lund jumper and an Edith Piaf beret, and ring the buzzer until I relented. When he speaks to you, it is very difficult to extricate yourself: he has perfected a whole range of ways of keeping you on the spot – the determination and insistent sociability of someone who works the streets each day.

‘You can ask the people downstairs,’ he always says, ‘They know me.’

But my reluctance to have Lucas wash the car is less to do with ethics than the protracted and labour intensive nature of the process for all involved.  Since he doesn’t have any of his own equipment, and since the body corporate of my apartment block doesn’t want any ‘strangers’ breaching the gate, the car washing involves an elaborate routine of me filling and refilling buckets for him, carrying down cloths and dustpan, threading the garden hose through the fence, turning it on, turning it off. Turning it on again when he rings for the rinse, turning it off, waiting. Sometimes he rings halfway through just for a chat.

‘You like the beach eh?’, he says, showing the sand that he has swept up.

This particular morning I eventually give up on my dour Protestant work ethic and hear about his trips back and forth to the eastern Cape, his phones that keep being stolen, his various ailments, how the family downstairs is paying for a doctor. ‘They know me,’ he says. It is like a refrain of his: ‘They know me.’