The city of Cape town is quite a culture shock for a small-town person, and one of the things I always find the most striking, is the way it feeds off itself. A city consists of people: all sorts of people, and the relativity of affluence is almost painfully apparent.
I drove through the leafy suburb of Bishop’s court: all stately homes and luxury cars. The place smells of money and debt (or would, if money and debt had a fragrance). I found myself wondering what it must be like to have so much money that ostentation is second nature, the way to live. I don’t think there’s anywhere to go from there but downhill. You’re bobbing about on the top of society, you have everything of the ‘best’. If you’re lucky, you’ll stay there, because the only direction in which movement is possible, is downwards.
My route took me past the squatter camps too: shanty towns of wood and corrugated iron perched cheek-by-jowl beside the freeway. You’re on rock bottom over there, and even someone with a RDP house is pretty well-off. (Note to foreigners: The Reconstruction and development program – the government build little houses and give them away - long waiting list.). The RDP houses are nearly as tightly-packed as the shanties, row on row of them, and to their occupants, even someone as precariously lower middle class as I am is wealthy by comparison.
Now here’s the funny thing: in terms of the bottom line in cash (let’s ignore ‘assets’ for now), looking at how much credit is left when debit is subtracted, the shanty dwellers are probably in the best shape. After all, no-one’s going to give them credit. My bottom line falls below zero, squarely in the red, and that of the Bishop’s court folk, is probably way, way below that. Money: most of it is imaginary. Wish I could dream up a bit of it, mind you…
Now here’s where the food chain comes into the equation, because everybody is trying to sell something to the rest: be it consumables or time or South African flags from China. Round and round it goes, you buy this from me, then I have money so that I can buy that from someone else. No-one cares if you’re rock-bottom or upper crust, as long as you’re buying, because buying means money and money means spending for its recipient. It’s a bit like being in the middle of a school of hungry piranhas in full feeding-frenzy.
Sure, deep in the countryside, the cycle of getting and spending continues, but in the City, its so intense, so aggressive. People become faceless, its daunting. There’s constant sensory bombardment, so you have to ‘switch off’ certain things you’re accustomed to perceiving in full or you’d end up gibbering. It reminds me of one of the reasons why, though having grown up in a large city, I worked very hard in order to never have to live in one again.
Thing is, it… like… really stresses me out, you know? Maybe I’m a hippie after all.