Taxi on Main (2004)

Main Road, Cape Town begins at the Castle, curves around the base of Devil’s Peak and then traces a line through the southern suburbs until it reaches the Indian Ocean. Here it bends right around the Muizenberg and follows the coastline all the way to Simonstown. In the 40 or so kilometres between these two original enclaves of European settlement at the Cape – the defensive pentagon of the Dutch East India Company and the naval base used by the British to provide safe anchorage from winter gales – it passes through areas so different that it is difficult to believe they could be called a single city.

What would a biography of Main Road reveal, charting its earliest beginnings as South Africa’s first highway – the wagen pad na t’bos mentioned by Van Riebeeck in his journal of 1655 – to the congested noisy transport artery it is today? This is a route – often neglected, much maligned – which leads through past the scars of forced removals as well as lush imperial estates, via transplant museums, textile houses and crack dens, through student, vagrant and pensioner territories. Crossing rent gradients as dramatic as the slopes above it, Main Road takes in mall complexes and garden suburbs, soon giving way to junk shops and wholesalers, passing via both Immorality and Millionaires’ Miles. Between the corroded colonial promenades of the False Bay seaboard, tidal swimming baths exist on the sites of the rock pools used by strandlopers to trap fish more than 5000 years before Europeans arrived with coloured beach huts, sea front amusements and ocean railways.

Perhaps tracing this buckled, scoliotic spine and all its cultural byways might provide a way of approaching the intangible but always intriguing question: how much does the spirit of a particular place at a particular time inform and shape the novels and poems written there, and how have writers in turn made Cape Town a place in the mind? Perhaps its oldest road might cut across the city’s cultural history in unexpected ways, providing a map to locate those images that imaginations have snagged on over the centuries. Or at least a rough guide to the writers who have lived, worked, been imprisoned or forcibly removed along this historical axis, once a buffer zone between rich and poor, between White and Coloured, now a space where all kinds of Africans find themselves mingling. And if the dialectic of mind and place is always an elusive one, the means of transport to be used for a preliminary survey is in no doubt:
Mowbray Kaap toe Kaap toe Kyape Town RondeboschClaremontWynbeeeerrrrrrrg !

The shouts of the taximen provide the first map of Main Road, echoing under the corrugated iron arches of Cape Town’s central taxi rank. By five a.m. the Toyota Hi-Aces are revving in their queues – the Hot Stepper, the Dream Lover – as traders lay out pyramids of fruit and lug huge kitbags of merchandise up the steps from the rail station. More than Castle just opposite, this open-air deck seems to be the start of Main today, perhaps even the focal point of this far-flung, disjointed city, if it can be said to have one at all. At bay twenty, students, servants, shoppers, businessmen and even the odd intrepid tourist are herded in to the vehicle – a rare link, or at least point of contact, between the split personalities of Cape Town: the First World city centre, a tourist and property agent paradise cradled by the mountain behind us, and the planned grids of the Flats, still illuminated in the dawn haze by massive floodlights.

By six ‘o clock Lower Woodstock is bustling: there are long queues at the bank machines, smartly dressed women in head shawls waiting outside metal grilles of the textile houses.

“Zhauns, thank you…Caltex. Chippies. Next stop? Shoprite…second Engen…Groote Schuur”

The doorman keeps up a running commentary of the waypoints where people generally board or descend, a mental map of the route extending all the way from the “First stop in Woodstock? Let’s talk about it…don’t be shy” all the way to Wynberg, the end of this Main Road run. Under the Eastern Boulevard, there is a scuffed billboard showing a Toyota minibus juxtaposed with London and New York cabs. The slogan reads: “To be a world famous taxi you have to outrun the competition,” but in fact South African minibuses have nothing to do with the quiet, insulated backseat tours of a city offered by metered cabs. They are part of the much larger transport networks that serve the rapidly urbanising metropolises of the developing world: matatus in Kenya, bakassi in Khartoum or the publicos in Puerto Rico, a ragged fleet of small buses and open back trucks stretching from Cape to Cairo to Kuala Lumpur.

The rush hour is still building as daylight gives shape to the inland escarpment visible to the left across the Flats where Main crosses the Settler’s Way; to the right the various highways and boulevards leading into the city loop and curl around the slopes of Devil’s Peak. The tourist authorities responsible for keeping up appearances regard this as the land gateway to the city: the roads converging below and the immense, angular rock walls above draw sightlines in towards what were once the iconic locales of Cape heritage on the slopes – restored summer houses and the university campus, wildlife paddocks framed by stone pines, statues gazing into hinterlands, gardens and gables.

From here though, wedged four to a seat deep inside the Rock of Ages, there is no recourse to natural splendour. The low roof of the vehicle blots out the spectacle of the mountain, fixing the gaze at street level: bucket shops, fried chicken outlets, exhaust fitters and the grey brutalist slab of the new Groote Schuur hospital obscuring the more graceful older building where the world’s first heart transplant took place in December 1967. “The Cape Peninsula particularly has neglected its opportunities,” complained the Empire-minded architect Herbert Baker in 1911, noting with regret that modern cities were haphazard affairs, no longer created by the fiat of a despot: “On its magnificent flats there is only one through road from sea to sea, and that is dangerously congested and slovenly in appearance.”

In his 1997 meditation on place, A Writer’s Diary, the poet and critic Stephen Watson quotes a friend from Paris who remarks that she could not really find Cape Town beautiful because “unlike that European city, the South African one did not have its Baudelaire or Utrillo (the artist who had represented much of the arrondissement where she’d lived). Hence it had never been transformed into a place in the mind, the imagination. The beauty of the place thus remained on the level of the merely spectacular, the touristic.” Yet sat on a rumbling subwoofer with windows half-blocked by someone’s monthly shop, you are spared Cape Town’s grand gestures and sweeping panoramas. The taxi screens out the sheer sense data of the topography which threatens to outdo any act of the descriptive imagination, rendering the mind blank, content just to gaze and remain silent, or fumbling in cliché and outdated shorthands – the Mother City, the Fairest Cape, the Tavern of the Seas.

The view from Main Road, then, is not the view from the sea, not the sleeping giant Adamastor in Canto V of Camoens’ Lusiads, the 16th century Portuguese epic in which generations of English poets found a ready-made receptacle for amorphous mythic outpourings. Nor is it the panorama offered from Robben Island – the “patch of flatness on the sea’s horizon” in Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s 1979 cross-country journey to the Isle of Makana – to which latter-day pilgrims are despatched by high-speed ferry from the shopping wharves of the Waterfront. The view from Main is equally not of “great spaces washed with sun” as seen from the Rhodes Memorial or Smuts Track, of imperial prospects and the geometries of segregation that followed in their wake traceable far below: group area grids, heartless African autobahns, the ribbon of garden suburbs giving way to the dusty dormitory suburbs, box-like “Mandela houses” and scrap metal towns. Langa, Nyanga, Guguletu, Khayelitsha. Sun, Moon, Our Pride, New Home.

From these vantage points Cape Town emerges in stark historical relief, too easily becoming an entirely symbolic topography which invites the temptation of a different kind of spectacular, one which, as Njabulo Ndebele warned in the 1980’s, can hijack the imaginations of writers at the expense of the ordinariness – the textures, the particulars – of individual lives. Yet as anyone who moves through it knows, a city is not a socio-economic survey or a problem to be solved. Like a novel, a poem or a piece of music it is a place of overlapping rhythms, a world of sounds, private pleasures, shortcuts and sensations. And as rush hour on the N2 reveals, with the bulk of its population shuttled between home and work each day, permanently in transit, the apartheid city – a city of division – was also by definition a place of constant change and crossings: between languages, different behaviours, official roles and informal sectors. Hundreds of taxis are riding into town, burning along hard shoulders and empty bus lanes, overtaking commuter sedans three at a time, depositing their cargo on the slipways and then returning even faster to their local rank. We tack across three lanes and brake violently to pick up more custom, the conductor herding those who need to change routes into his vehicle.

“Yiza mama, yiza sisi…yes officer, ons laai…ons beweeg driver, druk druk druk…”

He switches lingos, fends off poachers and placates a plain-clothes police car all at the same time while the traffic swerves and bottlenecks around us. Slow progress through the Mowbray second-hand strip as he stops to woo more custom with a clipped whistle, jumps out for a salomie in the space of a red light, then shouts across to the shop assistants taking cigarette break. Pulled over in the shaded grounds of University Estate, the crier leans out over the roof and pleads with the students trooping down the hill:

“Town girl? Town? Kyape Town? Obz? Mowbray-Kaap toe Kaap toe Kaaaaap!”

His insistent, distended syllables join all the others to form the signature tune of Main Road, simultaneously soundtrack and potted history. Obz, where in the 1820’s the Board of Longitude in London commissioned an institution of similar size and standing to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich for mapping the stars of a new hemisphere, yet only managed a half-finished building that seemed to have been dropped from the sky in a barren wilderness called Slangkop. Mowbray, named, like pork pies, after a rural English village by wishful 19th century immigrants to plaster over the earlier title Driekoppen, marking the place where the heads of three slaves were set on pikes. Several more layers of history have been added since: the terraced houses of English clerks and shopkeepers painted bright colours by later Muslim occupants, the original Victorian shopping colonnades now largely obliterated by modern shop frontage or home to pool halls popular with immigrant communities not always welcome in the outlying Locations.

Now little more than on-ramp linking Main Road to the stream of sedans curving around the contours of the mountain above, Woolsack Drive names the site of a lavish yet flawed attempt to give Cape Town a literary identity, a fascinating case study in the perils of both literary tourism and political dabbling. On the slopes here, the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes had his architectural right-hand man Herbert Baker build a “home in the woods for poets and artists” where they could draw inspiration from the mountain. “Through a tap, as it were,” wrote William Plomer in his satirical 1933 biography of the Colossus: “Unfortunately, when turned on, the tap seems to have produced little but mountain mist and a few hiccups of patriotic fervour.”

The Woolsack became a place for Rudyard Kipling, the most famous laureate of the British Empire, to “hang his hat up,” and he holidayed here with his family for almost a decade, reading the Just So Stories to his children in close proximity to large African fauna on the bizarre imperial estate, enjoying “the colour, light, and half-oriental manners of the land.” Yet even Kipling’s most ardent admirers admit that he never penned the masterpiece his hero and patron was confidently expecting, that he could not create South Africa in the way he had British India. The Woolsack, it seems, was a writer’s retreat contaminated by its nearness to power: Rhodes’s mansion was just a short walk away, through “a ravine set with hydrangeas, which in autumn…were one solid packed blue river.”

Emerging around us as a strange mixture of giant ficus trees, student deals and tough old pensioners’ blocks, Rondebosch was once the earliest node of European settlement along Main Road after the Castle. A small, politically incorrect plaque tells that “In this vicinity on March 1 1657, nine free burghers took permanent title to land and became the first citizens of our country,” but the name preserves an unwritten history of aboriginal culture that goes back much further: De Ronde Doorn Bosjen was probably a circular, kraal-like enclosure of thorn bushes built by the Khoikhoi herders for their cattle and fat-tailed sheep in the lee of the mountain. As a place where the wagen pad came closest to the Liesbeeck River, this area was lush, accessible and blessed with “the loveliest and most beautiful weather in the world,” according to the Commander’s journal of October 1655.

The fertile lands of Rondebosch served as a much-needed granary for the struggling, hungry colony, the Eastern Buttress providing shelter from the south-easter that had flattened crops on the flanks of Lions Head: “this wind spends itself completely against the back of the Table Mountain, causing a singular calm in those valleys.” This north-south axis became the colony’s first frontier, even though the directors of the Dutch East India Company had given strict instructions that the settlement should not expand beyond a fortified refreshment station. In the earliest of the city’s many misguided urban planning schemes, in 1657 they suggested a canal that would lead from ocean to ocean, entirely separating the Peninsula from the mainland. Lacking the manpower, Van Riebeeck chose instead to plant an almond hedge running from the slopes to link with a system of defensive palisades on the edge of Table Bay. Part of it still exists in the botanic gardens, an apt symbol for an administration that tried to shut itself off from Africa from the very beginning.

In his 2002 novel Islands, Dan Sleigh attempts to envisage the intrusion of settlement into the immemorial pastoral routes of the Goringhaiqua and the Gorachouqua, one of many cultural archaeologists dislodging the myth of a Cape Dutch idyll which Rhodes and his ilk worked so successfully to invent. His painstaking exploration of the Dutch East India Company archive provides a portrait of a place that was for much of its existence hardly an assured European beachhead but rather a “makeshift, wavering, doubtful and extremely hungry community” in the words of one historian, a backwater where the garden metaphor would never properly take root. In his Daghregister, Van Riebeeck describes how starving colonists were reduced to eating dead animals and begging succour from passing ships, a company-report stroke request-for-promotion-elsewhere which is best approached less as a founding document of a city than the diary of a man at his wits’ end.

Yet as the settlement took on a life of its own, growing steadily through the eighteenth century under Dutch rule, then rapidly following geopolitical shifts and discovery of mineral wealth to the north under the British, Rondesbosch became the country’s first suburb, a retreat where governors, merchants and magnates could forget the squalid, windy city, its plagues, effluent and the crushing summer heat by residing in the lee of the mountain. If taming the landscape had begun with oak trees planted along the red ironstone road by the Company, the finishing touches were provided by the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who introduced songbirds and other novel species on his vast mountainside estate, unleashing a plague of starlings and tahrs, small Himalayan antelope which were recently gunned down from helicopters by conservationists intent on maintaining indigenous klispringer populations. To celebrate this Arcadian idyll, in the 1890’s a mining pioneer donated a cast-iron lamp-cum-drinking trough selected from a catalogue of fashionable Victorian street furniture, then ran a cable to it from his mansion, creating the first street light in southern Africa.

Today the Rondebosch Fountain is marooned on a traffic island, the drinking trough filled with rainwater, wrappers and chicken bones. The Liesbeeck flows in a concrete canal that doubles as a laundry for modern urban nomads, while the Fountain Centre squats half-empty and ugly on the old village green, one of many spectacularly graceless malls that line the route. Outside it, conductors fight over customers emerging from the Pick n’ Pay, each seizing an old woman by the elbow in a tug of war.

“This way auntie, this way please, just give me the bags.”

We pull away from the fracas, speed up through Newlands, past armed response men on cycles and the brewery in league with sports stadium, get fully loaded in the crush of Claremont, then cruise through Kenilworth, where the road meanders a little for the first time. The taxi struggles up between the Edwardian mansions of Wynberg, then we rattle into the rank where onions are frying and an enormous amakhu mashali – queue marshal – sits on an upturned crate, checking off the vehicles as they load. Beyond the junk shops, bookies and medicine-man booths the tar stretches onward through the suburb of Plumstead – nondescript, marginal, anonymous – where one writer in waiting spent listless days playing cricket with himself as a boy: Coetzee territory.

Distinguished Professor and Nobel winner, John Maxwell Coetzee would seem to be the Master of Cape Town if ever there was one. Yet a realist depiction of the city remains tantalisingly absent from his books, its natural history and normally inescapable topography notable only in their absence. What, after all, might a circuit of “Coetzeean” Cape Town take in, after the fashion of a township tour, those urban safaris to the Flats in private minibuses carefully managed by the Cape tourist board? The fringes of Site C, perhaps, where Mrs Curren watches vigilantes burning down shacks in the searing 1990 novel Age of Iron, or the Buitenkant flyover under which she collapses, her mouth pried open by street children in search of gold teeth. The gated apartments in Greenpoint where university lecturer of Disgrace has his weekly appointment with the “exotic” prostitute Soraya, or perhaps just the English Department of the University of Cape Town where Coetzee taught for many years, his pigeonhole lingering on even though he has long since left for Australia.

Perhaps following one of the scenic drives taken by the redoubtable Mrs Curren in her Hillman – eager to burn the beauty of her surroundings into her mind’s eye one last time before her death, confessing all to the deadpan vagrant Verceuil – Main Road now continues onward toward the coast. The tar stretches onward through Diep Rivier and Retreat, where the Dutch soldiers and their frontline pandoers withdrew before the might of the British military machine as the Cape changed hands between colonial keepers at the end of the 18th century. Passing wetlands and the forgotten coastal resort once promoted as the “Brighton of Africa,” urban gridlock gives way to ocean drive and the massive sweep of False Bay – seen by one Cape Town poet in summer light as a “great glazed plate / With milk white squiggles baked into the rim.” Shark attacks seem to be increasing in these waters; the locals claim that cage-diving and “ocean safaris” are associating humans with the bloody chum used to attract big marine game, the Great Whites that documentary channels show bursting and somersaulting out of the water in pursuit of decoy seals. The Hottentots Holland mountains trace the bay’s jagged far edge, so named because it was here that the Khoi herders on their seasonal migration to the Peninsula would gesture towards when asked about their homeland.

With each bend revealing a different incarnation of the city – slave state, surfers’ corner, stone age midden – a linear progress along Main hardly provides an accurate chronology of the city. It has always linked a chain of independent settlements that wanted little or nothing to do with each other, a common road through private estates, used by all yet maintained by no-one. To settle the many conflicting claims which arose along it, in 1812 the French architect Louis Michel Thibault was commissioned to survey the route, an undertaking which represented one of the first attempts to chart the greater spread of Capetown, as it was then known. His beautifully executed “General plan of the Abodes and Properties at the Righthand Side of the Public Road from Cape to Simonstown” shows all the estates on the mountain flank – Rustenberg, Zorgvliet, Mount Pleasant – their names suggesting the life of aristocratic idyll to which this newfound rural gentry of “wine bibblers and wog bashers” aspired, in the words of Paul Theroux’s 2002 Cairo to Cape odyssey, Dark Star Safari. The long rectilinear shapes of the farms gave the east-west axes of the southern suburbs’ roads when, following the discovery of mineral wealth in the interior and the coming of the railway, they were subdivided at the end of the 19th century and the municipal grid laid down.

Even here the “dissonant combination of sunshine and strife” which Theroux detected in South Africa is always just below the surface. En route to Simonstown on the upper highway, Breytenbach tried to avoid looking at the buildings of the notorious Pollsmoor Prison which he knew to be nestled amid vineyards and greenery just outside his field of vision in Tokai: “it accompanies me like some dark peripheral image.” After two years of solitary confinement in Pretoria he was transferred here, his 1984 prison diaries recording an acutely sensitised mind set adrift and wandering in a maze of language, trying to reconstruct and recover an entire world from the small portion of mountain visible over the walls, yet haunted at every turn by a sense that its efforts would never make it out: “Writing took on its pure shape, since it had no echo, no feedback, no evaluation, and perhaps ultimately no existence.”

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is one of several minor classics of prison writing that have emerged from the Cape’s fearsome penal archipelago. The Island – a minimalist drama devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in the 1970’s – and the chilling poetic economy of Dennis Brutus’s 1968 Letters to Martha form a darker counterpoint to the struggle memoirs from Robben Island; Alex La Guma’s short works blur the boundary between the cells of Roeland Street jail and the ghetto beyond it; Albie Sach’s 1966 Jail Diary culminates in a euphoric victory lap from there through the city into the ocean. In Jeremy Cronin’s celebrated 1983 poetry collection Inside, the experience of physical enclosure paradoxically unlocks an expansive lyricism. Cooped up, his mind plays over the geography of his Simonstown childhood, its “dockyard hooters on mornings of mackerel-green sea / that cast up sea-eggs, Argonauts, unexplained white rubber balloons. / A soft sea full of cutting things, of sharktooth, barnacles and ultramarines.” Main Road curves around Randlords’ villas, small boat harbours and old gun emplacements to end here, where the SAS Isandhlwana and other hi-tech warships purchased in the government’s latest arms deal lie at anchor and the different architectures grafted onto the Cape coastline spread around the yacht basin –

of Club Myknonos

Cape Dutch gable

Fungi Floral

Filigrees of English iron

in the words of Geoffrey Haresnape. Or perhaps slightly further on, where human settlement thins out at the edge of Cape Point nature reserve and sea air turns to cloud as it strikes the first swells of a continent starting. But for now, a quick turnaround into a vehicle with grotty, unpadded interior and a door pulled shut by a shoelace, the doorman staring with glazed eyes at the passing scenery that plays on an endless loop.

Woodstock at noon: halaal butcheries and stacks of disconnected basins lurch by in the windows, car seats on the pavements and the sound of adhaan from the mosques of Salt River. Passing through the intricate architecture of Muslim shop cloisters, for a moment it feels like a chowk in Old Delhi, or a north African medina. Department stores on the main drag promise lounge suites on hire purchase and “lay-bye,” while to the right flicker narrow lanes leading off to the fisheries, mills and depots surrounding the Salt River railway works, once the country’s biggest industrial area. “Its shops are respectable, its lanes notorious,” wrote Richard Rive, struggling with the paradoxes of the Cape Town street scene in a short story from the 1965 collection Quartet: “It is clean and dirty, modern and old-fashioned, plastic and enamel, with just a touch of crinoline and sedan chair. It contains bank mangers and clerks, whores and pimps. Mosques and churches, Englishmen, Afrikaners, Coloureds, Moslems, Africans, Jews, Gentiles, Germans, Greeks, Italians.” With the low helmet of the roof still in place, the urban fabric of the city centre is revealed for what it is: the high-rise filing cabinets, graph paper flats and cricket screens of the CBD, the ugly carapace of the Good Hope Centre below the cleared slopes of “Cape Town’s Hiroshima,” as Rive called District Six.

The driver of this immaculate Toyota Hi-Ace is surrounded by dashboard photos of his family and his vehicle, a favoured model amongst taximen. Fuel economy earned it the title Inkom’ ephuza amanzi in the 1980’s – “the cow that drinks only water” – speed and endurance the nickname “Zola Budd” after a famous barefoot marathon runner. He tells us he used to do the run out to Bonteheuwel but now stays along Main, to avoid protection syndicates.

“Out to the Flats the gangsters are taking half your money. Why must I drive for them?”

In the 80’s, as apartheid’s “influx control” measures began to disintegrate under the weight of their own contradictions, the taxis came into their own, a symbol of transport for the people by the people and an embodiment of everything the government had tried to deny and could not control. In a rapid about turn, it decided to wash its hands of this enormous and unstable emerging market: in 1987 the taxi industry was “deregulated” almost overnight. Without the necessary infrastructure in place to manage it, the market soon became flooded, prone to intense competition over access to routes and ranks, and in the 1990’s the Cape Peninsula was one of the most volatile areas in the country. Social commentators explain that with space on the Cape Flats so limited and economic opportunities so few, territory tends to be serially reappropriated, like the walls, fuse boxes and security shutters around us, all layered with spraycan tags.

Back at the taxi deck the rhythm of operations has shifted down a few gears. Hundreds of vehicles wait in storage, many of them being cleaned by women while the male drivers lounge in the sun listening to music or catch up on sleep. At its edge, where portable braiding salons and makeshift phone booths wait for custom, the view brings home how compact the City Bowl is: a dense knot of banks, cranes and all other human business cupped and constrained by the immense heaves of quartzitic sandstone. In Johannesburg, the broadcasting towers, diamond-hard head offices and slag heaps all rise up from the Highveld to advertise an instant city whose reason for existence is crassly obvious yet also invisible. But in Cape Town the virtuoso geology denies the business district its usual assurance; the rockwalls of the Graafwater Formation show up – starkly, continually – the errors and eyesores made by Cape Town’s planners.

From its earliest days, the heart of the Kaapsche Vlek – the Cape settlement – took shape as an elongated rectangle flanking the Company’s vegetable gardens, a series of parallels following two streams leading from the mountain to the sea. Originally called the Heerengracht – the gentleman’s way, after the boulevard in Amsterdam – in the mid-19th century the main concourse was renamed Adderley Street in gratitude to a Member of Parliament at Westminster who campaigned against sending convicts to the Cape Colony, a name which locals also apply to the well-trodden tourist path zigzagging up the face of Table Mountain through Platteklip Gorge. Most of the other streets in the centre remain as descriptive markers within this stately European grid: Strand, Buitenkant, Buitengracht, Long and Bree.

Just beyond it on the slopes of Signal Hill are the steep cobbled streets and painted houses of the Bo-Kaap – the Upper Cape – which housed artisans and slaves, most of them Islamic, following emancipation in 1834. In a grim irony, many ex-slave owners invested the compensation money provided by the British government in property, and the result was a building boom on the fringe of town which laid the grounds for District Six and District Two – the Bo-Kaap, or “Malay Quarter” as it was known at the time – and a long tradition of slum landlordism. The oldest more or less intact section of the modern city and one of the most photogenic, the Bo-Kaap has remained untouched by the bulldozers of the Group Areas Act and the designs of foreign buyers, at least for now. A museum there is dedicated to those who built the city but were never able to enjoy the fruits of their labour; there are black and white photographs of work parties asphalting Long Street, digging the mountain-top reservoirs of the Back Table in 1891, dredging the Foreshore in 1940.

Under British rule, Cape Town was left to grow more or less haphazardly, according to the whims of speculators and investors, coming to resemble “a big distributing centre”, as Kipling remembered in his bad-tempered autobiography, “dominated in many ways by rather nervous shopkeepers.” Shopfronts and department stores appeared on the streets of this self-professed merchant city, along with suburban villas. Sturdy red brick institutions and grand colonial meringues were designed to trump the rural Dutch buildings of whitewash, thatch and low beams, so that today the Victorian façade of the City Hall remains locked in a dialogue with the battlements of the Castle across the Parade car park, the place where thousands gathered in the dusk to hear Mandela deliver his first speech after being released in 1990. Yet with the Foreshore scheme, 480 acres reclaimed from the Atlantic provided an opportunity to “make up for lost ground” according to the planning committee, a blank canvas to create an entirely new part of the city. Spurred by the opening of the Duncan dry dock – the rectangular basin where new districts of the city appear overnight in the form of supertankers and oil rig attachments – a massive programme of urban planning began to gain momentum, one that would eventually change the entire character of Cape Town in a dire amalgam of all that was worst in Continental brutalism, American zoning and the failed ideal of the English Garden City.

“I tried to imagine the place in a few years time,” says the narrator of André Brink’s 1974 novel Looking on Darkness of the flattened working class tenements, “With imposing white mansions in New-Cape Dutch, Pseudo-Corbusier, and Hottentot-Gothic.” In fact most of the area remained undeveloped, with only the churches, mosques and temples left standing as indicators of the false piety of the social engineers. Yet the architectural hybrids Brink foresaw have appeared in the vast mall and casino complexes on the Flats, stockades of faux-Tuscan columns and exotic Africana under closed circuit surveillance. Perhaps the most fitting monument to Cape Town’s brutal 20th century rearrangement is the Western Bypass, complete with unfinished outer viaducts dangling in the air, a memorial to an ideology of division so ambitious it achieved an almost total segregation between city and ocean.

As a way of remembering all those planned out of existence, the floor of the District Six museum has become a reconstituted street grid on which one-time residents can inscribe their names and stories. Yet if popular memory can hardly escape a nostalgia that all but forgets the violent and desperate slum of La Guma’s 1967 novella A Walk in the Night, perhaps another memorial is provided by music of the Cape, particularly the distinctive sound of its jazz which, as Albie Sachs has written, bypasses, overwhelms, ignores oppression, establishes its own space. Abdullah Ibrahim has compared Cape Town’s musical landscape to that of cities in the American south where jazz originated, a New Orleans style mix of slaves, immigrants, creoles, street funerals and carnivals. Ibrahim, as aficionados agree, is above all a storyteller, a musical raconteur who in famous standards like Kramat, Tuan Guru, The Mountain and Manenberg (Is Where It’s Happening) outlines a sacred personal geography, some of his keyboard vamps and melodic turns of phrase as much a part of mapping the city as any author’s, and perhaps the most precise of all. A reminder of how written accounts of the Cape will always leave out huge tracts of its experience, this blues for District Six – by turns dissonant, reverent, strident, joyful – seems the perfect metaphor for the improvisatory, ad hoc cultures that have always existed within designs of the planned city, and always will.

NEW FOREX PROBE. I’M NO GUILTY WHITE, SAYS MP. KINDERS WORD AL DOMMER. By mid-afternoon in a capsule full of fumes, the frenetic scenery of the Road unspools somehow slowly behind the window glass, punctuated by the cryptic clipped messages offered to the public by newspaper placards. Election posters hang limp following a night of heavy rain, their colours fading now, after the event. Once the Western Cape was a political anomaly in the country, with power held by a fractious alliance of new nationalists, old liberals and far right secessionists all desperately wooing the Coloured vote. This time the opposition fell out and squabbled at street level, while President Mbeki rode high up and out of reach, promising to CONSOLIDATE OUR REVOLUTION in the powerful triumvirate of black, yellow and green. Ten years after the first democratic elections, the ANC has increased its national majority to almost 70% and taken the Cape, with a new teetotal premier who, all the taximen say, is coming down hard on traffic offences.

In the Hi-Ace that is weaving between intersections, hip hop is turned up to dangerous levels, with a subwoofer built into the roof directly above the driver’s head so that the low-end frequencies can be transmitted directly into his bobbing skull. With conversation or any other human interaction impossible, the only option is a surrender to the pleasure of merely reading the city by its signs and textures: a warehouse with a rusted roof called NEW AFRICA METALS, a Salt River wholesaler promising FRESH FLOWERS. SILK FLOWERS. ARTIFICIAL TREES, a backpackers hostel in Observatory offering HALF DAY PENINSULA – FULL DAY WINE ROUTE. The brown facade of a funeral parlour against the sky, sweatshop workers at sewing machines behind a metal grille, a man chopping up fish heads behind a dirty window, covered in blood. To preserve its panoramas, freestanding advertising billboards are outlawed in central Cape Town; instead the marketing spread across the back of buildings, creeping down onto flags, bins and the taxis themselves so that it seems ingrained in the very fabric of the cityscape.

Some of Cape Town’s street level texts have become engraved in popular memory. WELCOME TO FAIRYLAND read one famous scrawl in District Six, a portal to a place where, like the “liberties” beyond the city wall in Shakespearean London, the usual rules did not apply. In the 1960’s, a few days after riot police dispersed a demonstration with water canons using coloured dye to round up insurgents, a defiant slogan appeared in Observatory: THE PURPLE SHALL GOVERN. More recently, I’M SICK OF MBEKI SAYING HIV DOESN’T CAUSE AIDS survived long enough on an overpass to burn itself into the minds of commuters before being buried under grey municipal paint. In Woodstock lanes, certain painted walls have been left untouched by respectful taggers; looking at them entails a series of shifts in visual perspective, where solids give way, backgrounds transform things, flip them upside down. Glimpsed briefly through the window and then gone, these make up the urban landscape more than any planning grid: isolated images that should ideally remain unconverted to mere information, keepsakes of raw experience retrieved from “the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets,” as Edmund White writes in describing the pleasure seeking Parisian flâneur for whom “the foray into the cityscape is always undirected, even purposeless.”

Yet by late afternoon, cramped between bags as a woman loads up her monthly shop, the notion of a solitary dreamer of cities is difficult to maintain. Partly because this is not a place whose inhabitants have had the leisure or even the right to move about in freely, partly because edging through the gridlocked malls of Claremont is less a process of private reverie than unending compromise, but mostly because the driver is bumping up his sound system to excruciating levels for the rest of the queue.

A sense of urgency is building at the Deck again after the long, quiet afternoon. Leaving the rank we turn onto the Eastern Boulevard instead of Main and accelerate evenly for a long time, the cars in front peeling off to the left, passenger seats empty and engines barely audible within the plush interior capsules. By upper Woodstock the metal skin of our vehicle has begun to rattle violently. The conductor’s arm is stretched out the window, not so much a request to the surrounding traffic as an instruction, while the driver charges fearlessly down the hard shoulder, then simply hoots when he needs to re-enter the flow. Another taxi holds up the lane so we can slip in front, then pulls out himself and carries on this high speed game of gaining ground, threading a web of rogue driving and pure fear through the daily traffic. Watching the taxis create their own left-margin lane like this, a virtual law unto themselves on the roads, the poet and politician Jeremy Cronin saw them as part of a social and economic domain present throughout the developing world that, in its sheer scope, is beyond regulation or taxation, so ingrained in daily life that to call it the “informal” or “extra-legal” economy is misleading: in fact it is legality that is marginal; while informality has become the norm, in Cape Town as in so many other cities throughout the global south.

As the evening rush hour builds, the vehicles draining out to the Flats and the northern suburbs begin to clog at the interchanges below Hospital Bend, a notorious kilometre of sloping highway where a series of misplaced sliplanes mean that drivers in either direction are perpetually trying to cross multiple lanes of high speed traffic to make their exit. Medical metaphors are popular with road planners, but the routes that loop and buckle below Devil’s Peak are incapable of managing the daily systole and diastole of the city, and bypass surgery is impossible since it would infringe on the land protected by the Rhodes Will Act of 1910. Vast tracts of the slopes here remain relatively unspoiled and open to the public through the bequest of one most incorrigible imperialists of them all. Yet the wording of Rhodes’s will has been interpreted in different ways by different governments to produce a strange mixture of jealously conserved pockets and large scale public works, with wildebeest paddocks on one side and Groote Schuur hospital on the other.

Below its porticos in the 1960’s, the ambitious young Chris Barnard operated on baboons and grafted extra heads onto dogs to refine his technique, finally achieving the holy grail of transplant surgery in 1967 when he brought back from America the machine that could take over the function of the lungs and the organ which, as he was fond of saying, was just a pump. The technology arrived too late for Rhodes, who suffered all his life from an atrial septal defect, a hole in the heart that kept a sense of mortality always with him, spurring him to take on ever greater challenges of architectural restoration and landscape gardening as his health deteriorated in the 1890’s. One of the most ambitious schemes was the creation of a high level carriage drive meant to make the slopes more accessible to the horse-drawn public; today it has become the tarmac contour of M3 which cordons off the mountain from the southern suburbs. “In its own way, Rhodes’s heart was almost as significant an organ as Cleopatra’s nose,” William Plomer reflected, “Had it been weaker, or stronger, the whole aspect of Africa would have been changed.”

Turning onto Main the rush hour is reaching critical mass: taxis vying with each other for the afternoon knock-off in the textile shops, brazenly jumping red lights to avoid waiting while whole swathes of traffic turn off the freeway. Bigger buses destined for outlandish part of the city are stranded in the melée – Harare, Kuwait, Atlantis. Near this spot, a mild mannered clerk from Gardens named Denise Darvall was knocked down by a speeding policeman. In the window between brain death and legal death, her heart was removed, carried between theatres in a stainless steel dish and sewn into the chest of Louis Washkansky, a Sea Point businessman who liked his boxing, cigarettes and whisky. “It was a frontier no less important and much more immediate than the stars” according to a Washington Daily News editorial, and as the eye of the world’s media focused on Cape Town, a medical drama unfolded as Barnard tried to balance drugs for suppressing an immune rejection of the new organism against the danger of infection. Washkansky succumbed to lung disease within 18 days, and by the time of the second, more successful operation, the whole affair had become a grim political farce: the patient was White and the donor Coloured. “His body will be buried in a segregated cemetery in the non-white section,” wrote the London Daily Mail of the 25 year old factory worker who had suffered a brain haemorrhage while playing on the beach, “If it is any consolation to his widow…Clive’s heart will one day lie in a white man’s grave.”

In fact his heart is in a jar of formalin in the Transplant Museum, a dusty, forgotten place where mannequins of Barnard and his team stand frozen in dashing poses, the clock stopped at the moment when Washkansky’s new heart began to fibrillate. Yet the hospital itself is enveloped by graves, the skew and shattered remnants of the Mowbray cemetery that once covered the slopes here. On one side is Malay burial ground to which bodies of respected community leaders would be carried along Main in huge funeral processions; in another area, a small garden of remembrance for merchant families and glorious war dead exhumed during the building of a shopping centre (and its generous car park), crammed with salvaged sepulchres, many of them angels with delicately raised arms. Today hotel builders are turning up skeletons on the other side of town at Greenpoint, which once marked the boundary of 17th century settlement, and near the Breakwater at the Waterfront, where a slick business school occupies the site of what was once a notorious prison and forced labour barracks. Some early historical sketches show separate enclosures for Protestant and Islamic dead, but many cemeteries went unmarked on early maps, so that now the rampant development of the Atlantic seaboard is halted in patches as the bones of anonymous slaves, plague victims, dead sailors and labourers are painstakingly unearthed to be reburied in solemn commemorative ceremonies.

Back on Main, it seems that awkward transplants are the only way of understanding the cityscape, where Lower Main joins its parent road and the once prim Victorian but now ragged bohemian suburb of Observatory peters out in back garden Buddhist temples, a Colonic Hydrotherapy Centre and acres of second-hand car forecourt. Walking back along this diagonal to the old river crossing, box-like hangars and factory shops recede to reveal urban forms of a much finer grain: quaint Edwardian and 1930’s architecture, fussy and intricate, which has been restored and painted or sometimes just left to weather artistically. Further down, the aromatherapy shops and delis give way to locked warehouses and gutted cinemas, while the windblown terraced cottages show that this is also a transition zone in the Peninsula’s microclimate, where the baked Mediterranean side of the city shades into the forested lee of the mountain. The same elements that create the worn, threadbare lesions on the exposed knuckle of Devil’s Peak above visit urban erosion on the roofs below.

This was one of the last areas to be developed along Main Road, and when the building boom came at the end of the 19th century, it was rapid. Within twenty years, what had been a rural gap between the working class city fringe of Woodstock and the secluded garden villages further south was subdivided, sold off and built up “to meet the insatiable Earth-hunger of the many who, successful in life, are desirous of ensconcing themselves snugly in the pleasant Suburban Villages around Cape Town,” as an advertisement for the sale of Wrensch Town proclaimed. The colonial pretensions of its first residents – civil servants, teetotal typists and small traders with conservative tastes – earned it the nickname “Observ-a-Tory.” Milton, Shelley, Kipling – the street names hereabouts record a literary longing for all things English, yet as earlier residents moved up and out, their place was taken by artisans and rural migrants during the inter-war years. Another demographic element was added when a Forestry Department operation of 1979 cleared almost a thousand bergies – mountain men – off the slopes, most of whom moved in Woodstock and Obz where the small Victorian access lanes between houses have become temporary shelters.

Today you can sense earlier routines in the way everything is within walking distance, but Obz is now a very different place of bikers and beatniks, Goths, Rastas and retired academics: visually distinctive urban tribes each with their own uniforms, lingo’s and hairdo’s. In his brilliant reconstruction of the life of Demitrios Tsafendas, Henk van Woerden shows how the man who stabbed H F Verwoerd mid-session in Cape Town’s parliamentary chamber was living here in a boarding house prior to the assassination, acting (so government spokesmen would claim), under orders from a tapeworm inside him. A Mouthful of Glass (2001) traces the complex wanderings of a man who was officially deemed insane (and “White”) at the time to deflect political fallout, recovering a story that was never properly told as a parable for all those written out of the narratives of both Afrikaner and African nationalism, one in which “the power of madness had…shown itself to be equal to the madness of power.”

Amid the gridlock of this suburban village become major transport hub, our driver gives way to another road user: scrap metal collectors from the mental hospital across the river are picking their way through the scrum of traffic in a horse drawn cart, going back to the liminal ground where the Southern Suburbs and the Flats proper are beginning to bleed into each other. A commune of sculptors and hard drinkers have moved into some of the unused wards of Valkenburg; organic farmers have started vegetable patches on the wetlands that once separated different racial zones. Wedged between this and a driving range is the dome where astronomers once tried to chart the stars of a new hemisphere from a barren wilderness. The South African Observatory moved its main operation to the Karoo in the 1970’s because of light pollution, but this place, also rumoured to be built on slave graves, still generates standard time. Once it was signalled the time to ships in Table Bay by firing a pistol from the roof; today an electrical impulse from vacuum clocks triggers the Noon Gun on Signal Hill, a sound that, like fish and fog horns, the bell of the plague wagon, songs of carnival and protest, flower seller and taxi cries and the drumming of wind, is woven into Cape Town’s history. Nineteen seconds elapse before a faint booming comes back from the city.

Riding back into town for the last time, the Mountain slowly changes shape to the left, no longer spotlit by night for the high season but a dark mass against the sky. Our crier hauls himself out of the vehicle to greet nightclub bouncers across the road, while a driver from Somalia named Hassan takes time to point out the early evening sights. He points out the numbers stencilled on the front of the vehicles, the routes the driver has a licence for. Taxis can only load at certain ranks but they all share the road, and with these measures in place, it is no longer the “wild place” he remembers a few years ago, when immigrants from the rest of Africa changed the composition of the industry again, creating new feuds and fractures. Main Road is number 101 and after renting a permit and petrol, it works out that Hassan must do its length ten times over before he begins to make his own share.

“I’ve made my money for today; I’m driving for myself now. Hey look, you see the pro’s coming out?”

There are lone figures in the pools of yellow light as we cruise through the Immorality Mile where the notorious apartheid act was brazenly flouted. Our guide explains that the combination of wide pavements and gated retirement homes creates a kind of no-man’s land ideal for prostitutes, and is sceptical about the government plans to “recapitalise” the taxi industry, bringing it within the remit of the formal economy, regulating and replacing the battered Hi-Aces with a new fleet of custom-fitted buses.
“You can get a taxi every minute. I don’t know what they want timetables for.”

Seen through the window of a minibus, Cape Town’s famous cultural diversity often seems only a matter of social distance. Its roads trace a four hundred history of barriers and bad planning – from Van Riebeeck’s hedge of bitter almonds along the wagen pad to the “Native Yards” that loop back on themselves in Langa and Guguletu and the bleak, inward looking satellite towns of Hanover Park and Lavender Hill, cynically preserving the street names of a vanished District Six. Moving within them non-stop with the taximen there comes the feeling – so obvious as to be overlooked – that the shape of the city was not just a symptom of centuries of division, but the very means of maintaining it, the modus operandi of a system which tried to fix people in space and so control how they saw the world.

Yet Main Road has always been an annoying glitch in the system for grand planners. First a frontier that stretched the resources of the Company, later an escape route for the moneyed classes which let the city follow in their wake, the sights, sounds and the state of it a cause for complaint since written records began; a route of processions and protest, the site of surgical breakthroughs and equally outlandish cultural transplants. A place where chain-gangs of /Xam prisoners were forced to labour, a transport corridor targeted by anti-apartheid saboteurs, the line of flight taken by Coetzee’s Michael K, dragging his mother behind him in a homemade cart, yet hardly an unusual sight in this post-industrial, apocalyptic vision of the city: “Stranger conveyances were emerging on the streets: shopping trolleys; tricycles with boxes over the rear axle; baskets mounted on pushcart undercarriages; crates on castors; barrows of all sizes.”

Main Road is the way into the city taken by Zoë Wicomb’s coloured protagonist as she travels to an abortion clinic in a finely focused 1987 collection of linked stories, assured by her white boyfriend that “You can’t get lost in Cape Town,” yet also the route that brings in buses of revellers to an ANC rally at the end of her 2000 novel David’s Story. Like much contemporary writing, it is a novel that reveals the process of South Africa’s transition as painful, unpredictable, unpunctual. Yet for a brief moment, the people reclaim the city centre on a day that, the narrator realises, also commemorates James Joyce’s linguistically dazzling pilgrimage through the Dublin of Ulysses: “The sixteenth of June – Soweto Day – Youth Day – Bloomsday – Day of the Revolution of the Word – birthday of freedom.”

For if on the one hand Cape Town is relentlessly divided by its history – with rich and poor, human settlement and natural beauty set permanently at odds – from day to day it appears as a place of shifting populations and weather systems off the ocean, a peninsula out on a limb at the tip of Africa which seems almost like a crucible for the social dynamics of a new century, and one that is producing every imaginable form of urban settlement. Returning to the city along the N2, the disgraced protagonist of Coetzee’s post-apartheid novel watches while a child with a stick herds a stray cow off the road and into the shantytowns: “Inexorably, he thinks, the country is coming to the city. Soon there will be cattle again on Rondebosch Common: soon history will have come full circle.”

And so, in a sense, has this taxi. Arriving at the Deck for the last time, the smell of exhaust is worked deep into clothes, and there is an international film crew sealing off streets to one side – an everyday sight in Cape Town – no doubt using the backdrop to fill in for the Mediterranean, Sydney harbour or downtown Los Angeles. Most of the taxi stands are empty now, but lone vehicles are still operating, and will carry on late into the night.

“Five Rand, ok? After hours price.”

The last taxi of the day. The driver, fez-wearing, old and gentlemanly, says he is only in the business part-time. He waits at petrol forecourts, angling for customers, meanders down back alleys until people start complaining about how late it is, that they have paid double fare, that they want to get home now.

2 Responses to Taxi on Main (2004)

  1. brian thorn says:

    who wrote this fine description ?

  2. hedley1980 says:

    I did Brian…thank you. There is a shorter version in the book Cape Town: A City Imagined, edited by Stephen Watson.

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