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Stories build bridges of trust

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"I always find it quite amusing to hear people debating whether Cape Town is an ‘African’ city"

Every other week CEO Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana publishes a column in the Cape Times. Read the latest column, 'Stories build bridges of trust', discussing Cape Town as an African city.

I always find it quite amusing to hear people debating whether Cape Town is an ‘African’ city, comments Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership, for the Cape Times on 14 May 2014.

This article first appeared in the Cape Times on 14 May 2014, click on the small image above to view the PDF.

After all, it just takes an atlas to prove that the issue is not up for debate. Yet I have been party to many heated discussions that turn on this fulcrum. They generally reveal more about people’s pre-conceptions of ‘African-ness’ than about the city we call home.

Some regard Cape Town as far superior to other African cities; a sophisticated, ‘world class’ urban centre better described as ‘European’. Others view Cape Town as a misplaced colonial relic; a city that has not earned the right to call itself ‘African’. Apart from being simplistic and one-dimensional, both these attitudes assume that there is an agreed (and clearly defined) formula for what makes a city ‘African’, beyond its location.

I’ve had the privilege of working and traveling in Africa and experienced the richness, diversity and complexity of African cities first-hand. We live on one of the most rapidly urbanising continents, and our cities are in a constant state of flux – they make up a crazy, colourful kaleidoscope that simply doesn’t fit any formula. And their human fabric is woven from their specific sets of circumstances – history, geography, topography and even climate.

‘Stories are the secret reservoirs of values’

What if we could begin to tell a much fuller story of what it means to be African, and to be an African city?

One of my favourite poets, Nigerian born Ben Okri says: “Stories are the secret reservoirs of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves, and you change individuals and nations.”

Like Okri, I believe that the power of stories lies in their ability to bridge divides and build community.  I grew up listening to stories being told around the fire in my village in rural Eastern Cape. As a result, I appreciate how a good story can open up space for conversation, help bridge the divides of time and space, history and circumstance, and foster social cohesion, humanity, empathy and connectedness. To this day, I generally try to entertain houseguests around a fire, and the stories just seem to follow.

Cape Town journalist and blogger Nontando Mposo recently struck a chord with me when she wrote about the divisions between Bonteheuwel and Langa, two Cape Town neighbourhoods on either side of Vanguard Drive. I would like to include another bordering neighbourhood, Pinelands here. Nontando writes of alienated neighbourhoods, physically separated by a mere road but historically separated by mistrust, a geography of disaffection, muddled facts and a history of ignorance. She describes how those living and working in Bonteheuwel and Langa are common citizens, co-workers, equals before the law. They share a flag, an anthem and a parliament they have collectively chosen to direct a state that serves all South Africans. Yet, where they live and dream their dreams are places that are worlds apart. And for many of us in Cape Town and South Africa that’s how it still is. It’s what we might even think of as knowing our place and keeping to it.

Building trust through storytelling

Nontando’s article stimulated a lot of debate and I was struck by a thread that ran through many responses to her piece. It occurred to me that you can’t cross the road, both physically and symbolically, without building trust. In my experience, the best way of building trust is through storytelling – often listening to the stories of those who are completely different to yourself.

I love to listen to the stories of strangers. Perhaps the closest thing to the fireside chats of my childhood would be my regular visits to my hairdresser in Mowbray. I began going to her when she was just starting her business – her sisters and brother were students at the time and doubled up as her employees – now she has over ten people working for her.  I think a big part of her success is that her salon is quite gritty; more ‘African township’ than high end or fancy. It’s a comfortable, familiar place that makes strangers feel like friends.  Every time I go there I meet new people who are interesting and fun, with many stories to share – in Swahili, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Isixhosa and more.

Our vision at the Cape Town Partnership is for the public spaces throughout our city to be welcoming to everyone – places where we can openly share our experiences, stories and perspectives.

Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  I couldn’t agree more. Cape Town is a place of infinite stories. There are as many stories in our city as there are people and the communities they belong to. We need to tell these stories, more regularly and more rigorously.

Too often, however, we tell the same divisive story of Cape Town: a tale of two cities, where a cosmopolitan “European” city of first-world infrastructure and stunning natural landscapes stands in stark contrast to its poor “African” relation, a place of unrelenting poverty and deprivation. If we are to move beyond being a city and a people divided by apartheid, then we have to learn to tell our many stories and celebrate our multiplicity.

For me, Cape Town is a potjiekos of people, cultures, classes and histories. Like a good potjie it needs time, good ingredients and heat to merge into a mouth-watering meal. Our role as citizens and organisations is to ensure that we keep adding the necessary ingredients to ensure that we create a meal we can all enjoy.

Sadly, our baggage often keeps us from absorbing one another’s cultures wholeheartedly and without fear. Is it that we do not yet have the appropriate mirror to look into and see our multi-faceted selves?

Young people can inspire – with less baggage and open minds

Perhaps we should look to our young people for inspiration? They generally have less baggage and are much more open to exploring the myriad aspects of identity and culture that make up Cape Town. For instance, when asked to describe the smell and taste of Cape Town for City Views, 20-something writer and stylist Ndu Ngcobo replied: “Cape Town smells of dreams and mermaids and tastes like ambition and red velvet cupcakes. There’s something in the water here that makes you want to be true to yourself. There’s always something going on to thrill a part of your soul.”

I am reminded of the furore surrounding Tope Folarin, winner of the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story ‘Miracle’, from his forthcoming book The Proximity of Distance. Folarin is the first writer based outside Africa to win the prize – he was born and raised in the US, spent a year in Nigeria and six months in Cape Town as a student, and now lives in Washington DC. He’s since found himself at the centre of a controversy about what it means to be ‘African’.  Interviewed by Siji Jabbar for a brilliant article titled ‘African identity in a globalised world’, on www.thisisafrica.me, he challenged the narrow view of identity, saying:

“Much of the world recognises that the term ‘African’ is in flux, and has been for quite a while. Many of us were born abroad and have not spent a great deal of time in Africa, and yet our parents have been telling us that we’re African from the moment we were born, and our friends have told us that we aren’t quite American, we aren’t quite British, we aren’t quite Canadian. Our lives and our stories are important precisely because they point to a future in which identity will be a constantly contested topic, so much so that I believe our traditional methods of categorising ourselves will have to be amended and/or updated.”

“Being a human being – focusing on our shared humanity – is difficult at times because our identities are premised on difference. Our identities often emphasise what separates us, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in these differences, to forget that beneath the different songs are people who like to sing, and beneath the different clothes are bodies that are broadly similar. I think far too many of us spend our time focusing on the little things, while forgetting the fundamental similarities that stare at us in the face whenever we glance at another human being.”

I am certainly making a date to meet Folarin when he returns to Cape Town later this year to take part in the Open Book Festival, which runs from 17 to 21 September 2014 at the Fugard Theatre.

South African poet and storyteller, Gcina Mhlophe believes storytelling is the social media of days gone by. “For as long as there have been people in the world, there have been stories – long before all the great respectable sciences were known to us”.

I am driven by telling the stories of my country and my city. It is in telling stories that I have come to know that, when it comes to being African, there is more that unites us than divides us. Whether in Langa, Bonteheuwel, Muizenberg or Mitchell’s Plain, Pinelands or Constantia, I believe that the common ground and trust that we find in storytelling is a step in the right direction towards discovering what can truly help us to bridge the divides of our city and nation.

This article first appeared in the Cape Times newspaper on 14 May 2014. Download the PDF.

  • Text by Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership. 
  • Image by Chris Ledochowski: Nelson Mandela delivers his first speech as a free man at the Cape Town City Hall to a crowd on Grande Parade. 


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