Cape Town’s beauty only skin deep?

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by Cynthia Vukets on October 1, 2009

Cape Town's Clifton beach

Cape Town's Clifton beach

Cape Town is gorgeous. Like, really beautiful. Turquoise ocean, rocky mountains, bright flowers, original designs hanging in cute boutique windows and clear-skinned teenagers laughing on white sand beaches.

The roads are well-paved. There’s no garbage on the streets and the espresso tastes, well, like real espresso. In a coffee shop down the street the second morning of my trip I slowly emerge from a haze as a sip a skillfully micro-bubbled latte. I look around and realize everyone frothing the milk is black. And everyone drinking the coffee is white.

Aren’t we done with racial segregation?

A quiet street downtown

A quiet street downtown

An employee at the hostel I was staying at looked at me like I had two heads when I asked about public transportation. “There isn’t any,” she said. “But what about those minibuses I keep seeing zipping around?” I asked.

“Oh. Those are just for working people from the townships,” she shrugged.

Working people?

Just to test that statement I asked another employee the following day. “There isn’t really public transportation,” she answered. “Well, there are black taxis.”

“Black taxis?” I ask, thinking she means taxis from the black market. Because in Cape Town some drivers use a meter and some will just set a price with you.

“You know, the minibuses,” she said.

I just stared. She meant taxis for black people. At a hip hop show (“Cape Flats Uprising” is the band. Google the Cape Flats. It’s a township with a very sad history) on Saturday night I meet Paty, a Congolese guy who’s lived in Cape Town for two years. When I ask him how he likes living here he says it’s ok.

“But the people here, they’re so racist,” he adds.

A view of Robben Island - where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years

A view of Robben Island - where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years

Victor, from Malawi, bumps into me on the dance floor. He says things are particularly bad for Zimbabweans but no one from outside the country really feels at home here. He says he’s going back to Malawi as soon as he’s made enough money.

Obviously not everyone in South Africa is racist. Progress is being made. And I’m relieved when I sit down at a waterfront restaurant and get a beer from a black bartender and a plate of seafood from a white waiter.

But it was a bit shocking to see such a beautiful, well-run, well-maintained place still has so much to work through. How long is it going to take before it’s as common to see a white guy working construction or driving a taxi as it is to see a black woman owning an IT company or sipping an expensive latte in a downtown café?