Cape Town, South Africa: Moving Between Worlds

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Cape Town, South Africa: Moving Between Worlds

Cape Town and I have always had a strange relationship, much like Cape Town’s relationship with its colonizers, its slaves and the rest of South Africa. Cape Town is the only province not run by the ruling party, and because of this, it has flown its own flag and declared itself a mecca for white South Africans. I moved to Cape Town with my family at the end of 2010. My father was awarded a job at a university, and it was there that I had my first interactions with this coastal town at the tip of Africa.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) sits on top of a mountain. It offers its weary students panoramic views of the city, and between lectures you catch glimpses of the bustling city below, a city we were told would welcome us and our fancy degrees. I only ever saw traffic jams.

The university is highly ranked, and students who attend it view themselves as the cream of the South African crop. I was always a very solitary student at university and would flit between the library, my lectures and a patch of grass that offered enough shade in the summer months to read. UCT allows you feel as if you are at an Ivy League school and the number of American exchange students helps that ambiance. I was studying a B.A. in Classics and English literature, and learned most about Cape Town by finding second-hand bookshops scattered around the city.

Living in Cape Town for me was always a balance. I enjoyed the trendy restaurants, the thrift shops and the cafes with wandering cats, but have always been aware of my privilege.


My favorite bookshop was called Tears. It was a charity bookshop, and I would always walk away with a small pile of books and charity event bookmarks. This was my “happy place ” and while I did not always buy something, I loved the feeling of hiding between dusty books and being away from the world and my anxieties. There were always interesting people milling around and when I could, I would buy an extra doughnut from the shop on the corner for the homeless lady who would come into Tears to get out of the cold.

Cape Town, for all its graces and trendy lifestyle, cannot hide its poor. Townships such as Gugulethu and Khayelitsha crawl over vast plots of land, and when you fly into Cape Town, it is one of the first things you see. It is the reality, but it is not the welcome this “mecca” wants its tourists to see.

Living in Cape Town, you can very easily encase yourself in a bubble and stay within areas that fit your trend narrative. You can be a surfer and stick to the sea, surf shacks and beach shops, or be a socialist in overpriced bars and nightclubs. I was neither and because of my love of education and my passion for helping children, I found myself working in some of the poorer parts of the city.

One such place is called Lavender Hill. The name evokes images of French villas, but the reality could not be further from the truth. The community is gang ridden and poor, and between the government housing, lay car shops and barbers. This is not a unique site in Cape Town. Many of the townships speak to the suffering of its people: people I got to interact with when I accepted a teaching post at a public school named “Oakland’s High School.”

cape town

Cape Town

I was hired as an English teacher at a school where I was to be the sole white person. The majority of the children were poor and came from homes where lunch and dinner was a luxury. Every day I taught 250 kids in a school where there was constant chattering, a lack of resources and fistfights; I learned more in those six months than in any academic course. I become a substitute mother, a friend and sometimes just that weird English teacher who told scary stories with the lights off. I became particularly attached to my home class, 10A, and through my interaction with them, I believe that I became less introverted, but more passionate. Passionate about working with children who are thrown away, who are watched with a beady eye as they walk through shops or ignored by the pretty white places of Cape Town.

Away from the people and places of Cape Town, its natural beauty is unbeaten. Visiting Cape Point, the tip of Africa is an experience with nature that is hard to beat. The meeting of the two oceans feels mythological and, as a Classics major, it was the one place I felt close to the temperamental mythological gods. Living in Cape Town, you are confronted with nature everywhere. There are forests, grasslands, mountains and the sheer power of Mother Nature beating down on them. I remember getting caught in a rainstorm: my glasses flew off my face and I was left blind and fighting against the wind. Cape Town is not called the windy city for nothing.

Living in Cape Town for me was always a balance. I enjoyed the trendy restaurants, the thrift shops and the cafes with wandering cats, but have always been aware of my privilege. Through my teaching and NGO work, I have come to see how others live in Cape Town and how my experience is an atypical one. I moved between worlds, but always came back to the white mecca that I tried so hard to get away from.

For more, also check out Growing Up In Johannesburg.

Sofia Viruly

Sofia Viruly

Sofia Viruly is a qualified English teacher with a passion for classical and gothic literature. She recently moved from South Africa to Tucson, Arizona, where she lives with her husband and cat. When she is not reading and writing, she is arguing about plot holes in movies and learning rules to overly complex board games.

1 Comment

  • Erika

    Thank you for sharing you story, Sofia.

    June 6, 2017 at 9:31 pm