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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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