The Mountain Never Looks the Same

It only took 15 minutes.

Only 15 minutes to solidify a complete 180 in terms of quality of life. The bus ride from the lush and architecturally impeccable Upper Campus to the Walter Teka Primary School of the Nyanga township and back provided me with time to think about a question that I have a burning desire to answer. UCT’s campus is modern, large, and looks like a dream. I have a hard time walking to class without wanting to take pictures of every building I pass. Now flip to Nyanga. Small sheet metal and wooden shacks practically on top of each other that resemble a patchwork quilt, several piles of trash, and destroyed structures. No one who grew up in my hometown could even imagine living in these conditions, yet there is a school where children come excited to learn and ask us questions. They seem happy and curious with smiles all around. From Nyanga, Table Mountain stands as a symbol of hope and pride. Flip back to UCT. There are still 5 whole minutes left in my Sociology lecture, yet everyone begins to pack up their belongings and ignore the final remarks that the lecturer makes. No one around me seems engaged, and someone even rolled their eyes when they asked me if I thought the material was interesting and I responded with a strong yes. The curiosity is gone. They don’t stop to look at the mountain, because it has become a constant of daily life they now ignore due to its close proximity. The excitement to expand knowledge has disappeared somewhere between the two age groups.  Yet the students sitting in a small classroom deficient in several resources have more passion than those sitting in a modern lecture hall on that lush and beautiful Upper Campus.  Why does this happen? I have yet to come up with a viable reason, but hopefully I’ll be able to bridge the gap somehow as I create stronger friendships with students in both spheres.

This disparity in quality of life in the Mother City also poses this question: why do we let this happen?

This past Friday I walked from Clifton Beach to Sea Point, passing exquisite multimillion dollar homes and beachfront properties. The following Saturday I ate brunch at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a place I cannot attempt to capture in words because it is paradise. From these two vantage points, the mountain is the subject of tourist photos or the view from someone’s balcony. It’s breathtaking to look at, yet I stand in the middle of the bustling tourist destination in disbelief that it even exists, because my mind travels back to the townships of Nyanga, Manenberg, and Gugulethu. These are extreme realities and there is almost nothing in between, no gradual decline. If the richest of the rich exist in places like Camps Bay and Clifton, and there are people living with next to nothing in townships only 30 minutes away from them, why is there not more of an effort to help? How did we let this gap grow larger and larger? It does not make any sense to me. I feel as if I’ve been visiting two different countries when I go back and forth between these extremes. There is idea of a “new” South Africa that is united under the new democracy, but the tensions caused by the apartheid era are still very present. If there was more of an effort made to empower those who have less than others, in terms of educational opportunities, resources, and social mobility, the “new” South Africa will grow strong roots that cannot be unearthed.

As I spoke with one of the project leaders on the bus home, we talked about how beautiful the mountains were, and as I my mind was bombarded with observations, thoughts about the session (we are teaching English skills in an after school program), and the aforementioned disparity, she noted that “the mountain never looks the same” for her. She has lived in Cape Town for two years and is still fascinated by the mountain. Each time she’s sees it, it means something different. Maybe that’s the answer to my question. For a UCT student, the mountain sits there each day as simply a geological wonder and nothing more. For the student in Nyanga, Manenberg, or any other township school in the Cape Flats, it could mean a new dream or goal with each new day.

The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. ~Sydney J. Harris”

If the primary school students are looking through a window, when and why did UCT students go back to the mirrors?

You tell me.

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