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Canal Walk Tourism

Unicycling through the Terracotta Wasteland

by Remy Ngamije / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 07.12.2011

I have died and gone to Whitesville. The Century City estate is as white as you can get. The streets are clean. So much cleaner than the average Cape Town neighbourhood. Lawns are manicured to nauseating perfection. Houses are all Italian villa-esque, so out of place on this stretch of the Cape Flats. Of course, no one calls this part the Cape Flats. That’s where hard media men like Ross Kemp shoot misguided “exotic” documentaries. Here, everything is new. Everything is manufactured. Even the air feels imported.

There are no dogs or children playing. Chances of a disturbance here are as likely as the luxury retirement resort across the road having a majority of black people in it: remote. The place needs a good game of kasi soccer to liven up its antiseptic streets. The sound of an improvised ball, made of plastic bags, slapping the tar. The absence of traffic would make the game delightful. None of that dribble-dribble-watch-out-for-the-car happening across the tracks. But the games of my youth don’t happen here. The children are all inside the uniformly designed, strangely hypnotic lines of chic houses. All is quiet on this island of upper middle-class heaven.

What cars appear are disgusting little hatchbacks. Every few minutes, a security guard passes by on his bicycle. He slows down when he passes me by. I am a potential disturbance around here: I am black and I unicycle.

This combination confuses him and the residents. He spent half an hour examining my unicycle with amazement. You would think he had seen a tokoloshe. I feel watched from the houses I pass. A curtain flicker gives them away. Manicured lawns pass by – you don’t see them on the student side of Rondebosch. Students don’t pay for lawns.
They’re all the rage here but no one uses them. Even the ants keep off the grass. In any other neighbourhood you’d expect to find a braai happening. Not here. This Sunday the only signs of life on this vast estate are me on my unicycle. I stop and check whether the grass is actually real.

All of the houses are identical. Creativity in building apparently has no relation to the increase in income. A sickeningly uniform feel descends as if the architect had two crayons in the box: artificial and expensive. Occasionally a house stands out thanks to a different vase on the veranda. They’re rare.

I feel like Moses wandering the desert on my one-wheeled journey. If Julius was still in politics, The Angel of Wealth would pass vengefully through this neighbourhood and leave few untouched. These homes seem to be occupied by robots. I’m trapped in Cape Town’s answer to The Stepford Wives.

No one says hello – it’s like I’ve sworn at them or something. In all fairness, hellos from a unicyclist are strange. Humans are not used to talking unicyclists. Plus I’m black. A friendly black unicyclist. There will be a neighbourhood circular going around before nightfall warning of alien sightings.

I’m an alien in the sense that I don’t belong to any of the 3 categories of permissable blackness on the estate. The Maid: seen blearily trudging to work early in the morning. The Security Guard: seen striding self-importantly about in a brown uniform. And The Gardener: seen hunched over a mower in a green uniform.

I’ve heard of the sterility of gated communities before but this is unbelievable. To me a house or home is something like a six-year-old’s drawing – road, fence, yard, house, flowers, parents, and a dog. The fence is so baddies don’t get in. But the fence that keeps baddies out keeps real life out of the estate as well. It is its own dominion. Completely fenced off from South African society in all its fucked up glory.

There are no taxi ranks (well a few but far too subdued to count) and no KFC nearby. A taxi rank without a KFC waiting as you climb out of your four-wheeled death trap is not a taxi rank. There is a Virgin Active, of course, and a Woolies. For all your cultural needs, Canal Walk is a stone’s throw away.

The giant Hillsong Church is like Cavendish and Canal Walk combined. Ironically, it was a wellness spa and a club (Dock Side) before being called to serve a higher power. This estate offers redemption, if nothing else.

There are no beggars, drunkards or undesirables. No sign of a dog that couldn’t fit in a handbag. It is eerie. I’m staying here with a friend for a bit and I’ve been going mad. The lack of human contact. The casino-like loss of a sense of time. It feels as if every aspect of life, politics, economics, toilet paper, everything, has been repackaged at the front gate. Turned into something distant and abstract. Run through the filter of complacency. Life blunted to keep you feeling mildly happy and extremely detached from reality. Then I picked up a Mail & Guardian and half of it was blacked out. My worst fears had been confirmed. They have even started repackaging the newspaper. The darkness of the estate was spilling over its own walls. If you are reading and agreeing with this, I can only assume the upper middle class has not yet taken over. Get out while you can. My unicycle and I are escaping tonight.

*Illustration © Alastair Laird.

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RESPONSES (122)
  1. Africa is a Country says:

    I am always amazed how when posts at Mahala tackles racial privilege and breaks through the rainbowed-out facade, all the “reverse racism” charges come out.

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  2. Fuck Norris says:

    @’Simon’ (my guess is you’re about as male as Barbara Streisand, but anyway).

    You’re up here with Jeff Goldbum. You two should get married and have an amoeba.

    I know you think you’re smart, you seem very sure of that, even though the signs revealing the opposite are quite clearly there, but I’m going to try explain this for Hi5.

    Switching the race polarity reveals that the opening statement would be considered racist in the reverse context. That is all. If that statement had been applied to any other race it would be deemed unacceptable. We’re pointing out a double standard.

    What I didn’t see was anyone here defending gated communities (hate em personally, have never lived in one, and couldn’t afford to if I wanted to), or people trying to say that township life is a a totally conscious product of black culture (if there is such a uniform and monolithic entity – I don’t think there is).

    You, like Jeff Goldbum, take the flipped race polarity at face value. Get affronted by it as it seems racist to you (because this time you take contextual factors into account – a dignity you do not afford to the inhabitants of gated communities), and thereby actually prove the point of everyone who called this article racist.

    And who are you to presume what somebody’s reaction to the reverse scenario would be? Personally I’d see the same issues with someone writing the same sort of article about any other cultural or racial community – failure to take contextual factors into account, resort to racial stereotypes and failure to engage with the forces that drive the circumstances being witnessed. The inherent sense of smug superiority, the reluctance to engage with the other as a human being first and foremost.

    You’ve already stereotyped anyone who might potentially take affront to black on white racism as a white racist – some of us are just getting tired of racism in all its forms and don’t feel it has anything significant to contribute to this country.

    Understand? Somehow I just know you’re not going to get it. I’m not really worried about the writer’s racism. I’m worried about people like you. Fuck I hate the smell of bigotry in the morning.

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  3. Jeff Goldblum says:

    No, it doesn’t seem racist, it just doesn’t work. Not in the context of this article.

    The point of view here is informed by the fact that there were no humans visible. It is not an investigative piece, he had no mandate to go seek these people out or get the stats. It is a point of view based on a moment experienced.

    The same point of view just wouldn’t happen in a flipped polarity situation because well, one just doesn’t exist. It’s easy for the first two sentences but just try take it beyond that. It’s just not possible.

    You are totally correct in your assertion “…black culture (if there is such a uniform and monolithic entity – I don’t think there is).” Now try flip the race polarity on that statement and see where it gets you, in the context of this article.

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  4. Fuck Norris says:

    @Jeff. The first two sentences of the article set the scene for a critique of the gated community in question. I found the rest of the article relevant and funny.

    If one flips the race polarity on my statement and says there is no uniform monolithic entity like white culture I would agree completely – which is why I said it. I think it’s worth taking that into account for any race or cultural group.

    However, please explain to me how a gated community is ‘whitesville’ and ‘as white as you get’, is not suggesting some sort of uniform monolithic white culture which finds expression through gated community living.

    If anything, a gated community is a reflection of middle class adaptation to the reality of house prices, rates/levies costs and security issues in this country.

    Oh well, I tried.

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  5. Sipho says:

    You can take a man out of the Township, never the Township out of a man.

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  6. Shalom Ndiku says:

    Love the article Remy! Nuff said.

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  7. Cathy says:

    Fuck off on your Unicycle Noddy!

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Nobody likes gated communities but we like crime much less – STUPID

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  9. Jeff Goldblum says:

    Yes but this is not an article about “a gated community” it’s about Century City and the specific area of Century City the unicyclist was driving through. And his perception of it.

    Just because you expected something from the first two sentences doesn’t mean the author is a racist because he didn’t deliver on your specific expectation.

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  10. Klutsy says:

    cute illustration, indulgent crap content

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  11. Tim (White) says:

    @Fuck Norris,
    I would defend a person’s perspective on a black community if they were to share it.

    What I’m defending here is a sharing of perspectives. Trying to establish my perspective which is; telling someone they’re wrong of the bat, or insensitive is detrimental to us coming to a point of understanding.

    We need to be able to exchange freely without being shot down.

    Perhaps try this line, “Well that’s a very interesting viewpoint, I wasn’t aware you thought of it like that. This is what I think.”
    Only through an uninhibited exchange of views, can we perhaps find the intersection of perspectives which will gives us a rough outline of where the truth resides. It’s not all black and white.

    And to help you understand what I mean by “grow and learn from it” I do not mean abandon your gated community because someone else thinks it’s shit. I mean understand the people who think it’s shit, because attempting to express something from your perspective is like showing them a picture of yourself and expecting them to see themselves in it; what you need to do, is understand another’s perspective and explain your viewpoint, through their perspective.

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  12. Andy says:

    Africa is a Country… love your work

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  13. I think the more important question is says:

    Who the fuck rides a unicycle?

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  14. Fuck Norris says:

    Jeff, you guys have exhausted me, I have nothing more to say. Yes he’s talking about a particular gated community, but he’s calling it Whitesville, he’s saying it’s an epitome of whiteness. That’s like me chancing onto the most dysfunctional black community I can find, one that reinforces whatever stereotypes of black culture I might hold dear and calling it Blacksville and holding it up as an epitome of blackness.

    Tim you’ve missed the point again. Nobody says he shouldn’t say this, they’re just saying we should not apply double standards to cross cultural analysis in this country. I’d defend his right to be offensive to the death – I’d like to think we’re all robust enough to handle insults. Cross cultural analysis in SA is probably a very useful tool, I don’t for a second suggest that all the various cultural groups in this country can learn valuable things from each other.

    I’m struggling to believe you guys don’t get this, and maybe you’re just trying to rile up the comments, so I guess that’s about all that can be said. Repetition gets repetitive. Hasta Luego!

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  15. Montle says:

    Jesus when did white people get so faggy and sensitive? I preferred apartheid when you all had hit squads, arrogance and eugene de kock.

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  16. Roger Young says:

    @Fuck Norris

    You are correct in every assertion. However, you are denying Remy the right to use a perceived notion of whiteness for comedic effect.

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  17. The Pig says:

    Why is Stevie Wonder always smiling?
    Because he doesn’t know he’s black.

    There’s a perceived notion of blackness for comedic effect.

    It also happens to be racist and offensive.
    get the picture?

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  18. Andy says:

    no Pig, that’s just racist

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  19. Roger Young says:

    We’ve hit the arguing with car guards phase of the thread. I’m out.

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  20. Car Guard says:

    Why bring me into this?

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  21. Sad Sack says:

    Remy, are you a clown in your spare time? Seriously, I’ve never seen ANYONE on a unicycle, except for clowns and, on one occasion, a juggling mime. So let me just start off by pointing out that the “strange looks” you got, even peaks through the curtains, and the security guy checking you out, was in all probability because you were on a unicycle. Not because you are black, as you tried to argue from your pre-conceived racist ideas about white people.

    Secondly, I live in Joburg in a gated community, more of a complex really than an esate/”community”, but the point is, me and my girlfriend are one of 5 white households in the complex. out of 45 units. So you hinting that these kind of closed off communities behind fences is some sort of “white disease”, is inaccurate.

    People living in these communities are typically middle-class people who sacrifice their individuality for just a little sense of security. They give up a lot, just to be able to feel a little safer, in a country where criminals have more rights than people defending their families and property.

    I agree with previous comments that you started this article off with a deliberate racial low blow. You are entitled to your opinion that it looks sterile. You are even entitled to be racist about it. Go for it. Just don’t pretend that it wasn’t.

    Even though you can call the place sterile, it certainly sounds like anything BUT a wasteland.

    I’ve had plenty of clients living in closed off estates in PTA where not one house looked the same, where children can still ride their bikes, and play freely without supervision, and believe it or not, the neighbors even knew each others name. You may have just gone to a shitty estate, on a day that everyone was recovering from the party the night before. Who knows? We can only take you word for it.

    And “Simon” and others who are shouting that people criticizing this racist piece for what it is should “escape the black / white paradigm”.. That’s kinda hard to do when the piece in question start off with

    “I have died and gone to Whitesville. The Century City estate is as white as you can get.”

    I’m sorry that you were so offended by being surrounded by people who can still miraculously afford to live in descent surroundings, despite all the racial discrimination they have to endure in the workplace.

    I also want to remind people who commented that reverse scenarios are somehow irrelevant to this piece of racist drivel, that Annelie Botes was stripped of her award, simply for saying that she was scared of black people, because of the crime situation in the country. You can argue that she wasn’t joking when she said that. But so what? How do we know that Remy was really joking? Yes, I understand metaphors, and satire thank you very much, but that could all just be a lame excuse. We all know that there are problems in our country. I doubt that this is the best way to talk about them.

    Maybe next time when you go for a ride on your unicycle you should do it in your full clown make-up, so that people can make more sense of it. At least then you’ll know for sure why they are staring.

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