A Letter from Cape Town by Kiluanji Kia Henda.
In 2008, the South African artist Ed Young invited me to take part in a three-month residence programme in Cape Town funded by two Swiss cultural institutions. I had been to South Africa twice – first to Johannesburg, where I had lived from1996 to 1998, during my adolescence, and right after the end of apartheid.
Later, in 2006, I returned south, this time to Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited, with a vibrant art and music scene. For a time, I thought it would be the perfect place to live. But during the three months I lived there, the tourist charm began to wear off. Although the violence in Johannesburg is more explicit, a cynical peace holds sway in Cape Town, a façade of racial democracy in the area of town closest to the sea. Behind the mountains lie the neighbourhoods that are the opposite of the idyllic city of the picture postcards.
What makes Cape Town so special for me is the fact that many of the friends I grew up with in Luanda live there. They emigrated in 1998 and now have children and South African wives. South Africa was a refuge for thousands of Angolans trying to flee the war and poverty in their home country, chiefly in the 1990s. This has allowed me a kind of reconciliation with the country.
So, here I was for the third time in the south of the continent, in a huge two-storey house that had been allocated to me for three months. One night, looking at the shelves of a bookcase full of films, I came across Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. I put the film on and watched, utterly absorbed. I was amazed at the ability of the film to condense, in a single day and in a single street, the tension (racial, social, economic) that envelops the whole of the United States, a country which still today has one of the most sophisticated forms of apartheid. The characters, living in the hellish heat of a New York summer, the music and the tight camera angles created the simmering atmosphere of a pressure cooker about to blow its lid. But the catastrophe could only occur if something ignited it. On the walls of a pizzeria in Brooklyn, a meeting point for the black characters and the centre of the film’s narrative, there was a collection of photographs of boxers, all of whom were Italian-American. The fact that there was not a single black man was enough to trigger the pent-up anger; to create a chain reaction resulting in an uncontrollable act of revenge.
During the same time that I watched Lee’s film, and in which ideas for my own project were beginning to take form, there was an outbreak of violent xenophobia in South Africa, beginning in Johannesburg and spreading to Cape Town. There was a strong wave of indignation among many in the immigrant community, chiefly those from countries where many black South Africans had sought refuge during the apartheid era, Angola being one. My Angolan friends, who lived in the suburbs of the city, were appalled at the extent of the violence being meted out.
In this context, I changed the direction of my work radically. The result was Expired Trading Product. On the covers of newspapers there had appeared a photograph of a Mozambican being burned alive in the street, while around him the people looked on with indifference. This image of incineration stuck. A product whose use-by date has expired is buried or incinerated. The African immigrants at that time in South Africa were being treated like industrial products which, after their usefulness had expired, had to be destroyed.
I started then to create a work on xenophobia. For the photographic session, I invited one of my Angolan friends who had married a South African. I asked him to wear the same white suit he had worn at his wedding.
During this time, I frequented the Kimberley Hotel bar, where artists went for drinks in the evening, and which was also frequented by some veterans of the South African invasion of Angola. The bar is in a 19th-century building, the former home of Barney Barnato, a British fortune-hunter, who made his money in diamond mining. On the walls of the bar were a series of photos of Barnato’s various journeys around South Africa. It didn’t take me long to notice that, among the dozens of photos of his exploits in South Africa’s mines, there wasn’t a single one in which a black person appeared.
The opening day of the exhibition arrived. I hadn’t slept well for five days because of the stress. I invited the whole Angolan community and asked my friend to come in the same white suit he had worn for the photograph.
At the end of the exhibition, I was so tired all I wanted to do was go home, but all of my Angolan friends kept saying, “Just one drink, just one, just one.” I remember like it was yesterday that when the car accelerated, a voice behind me said, “There goes Kilu with his crazy friends!”
There are nights when you sense that something is going to happen, like the hot and closed atmosphere prior to a storm. There’s an electricity in the air, the humidity levels rise bit by bit, but when it starts it doesn’t pause, it isn’t gradual, it is sudden and violent. So it was on that day. There were various signs of what was to come.
We went to the Kimberley Hotel bar for a party. Sometime after we arrived, I noticed an argument between one of my Angolan friends and the South African barman. Soon the two of them were fighting in the street. I knew the barman, so I was caught between the two. I managed to separate them, but only for a short time. Another friend came over, the model in the white suit, and punched the South African in the face. He fell down, got up, went behind the bar and came out with a baseball bat and started swinging it left, right and centre. My Angolan friends joined in the fight. It was impressive: no one got hurt by any of the attacks until the bat broke. Then he returned to the bar and came out with a broom handle. At the moment he was just about to hit the man in the white suit, the latter ducked and the handle hit me straight in the face. I fell over backwards, with an arm across my chest and passed out. The man in the white suit, when he saw me on the ground, thinking I was dead, picked up a piece of the broken baseball bat and broke every window in the bar, one by one. They were precious, dating back to the time of Barney Barnato.
Bleeding, I was put in a car and taken to hospital. While they were sewing up my broken lips, the police entered the operating room and said, “When the operation is over, this man is under arrest. They tried to rob a bar.”
“What!?” I exclaimed and the doctor said, “Shut up, if you don’t want to have a disfigured lip!”
After the operation, and paying the hospital bill, I was no longer a police suspect.
However, all of my friends had been arrested and released the same night, except for the man in the white suit, who remained in jail and had to appear in court the next day.
Finally, I was taken home. All I could do was lie down in the coolness of the white sheets, wait for coloured dreams and wake up black as always. For two weeks, I rested at home. After I had recovered, I returned to the Kimberley Hotel. It was like the return in a Western, when the character who was treated badly by the town’s people returns for vengeance. I entered the bar with my lips swollen and the room fell quiet. I ordered a Cuba Libre and the first person I saw was the barman, Themby, who had hit me, and who was afraid I was there for some kind of revenge – as if I had enough strength left for anything.
I went over to him, held his hands and asked, “Isn’t there a police station next door?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then why get your hands bloody?”
He apologised without looking for any more excuses to justify his actions. But there was still the problem of the man in the white suit, who ought to pay for the windows. I gave the barman his photograph to iron out the problem. They framed the picture and hung it on the wall. Now, among the portraits of Barney Barnato, you can also find the figure of a black man in a white suit, with the words “Some say we are in Africa… Celebrate!” written above it.
This story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.
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