Saturday, December 17, 2016

Waiting for Godot (Khayelitsha)

Waiting for Godot - Khayelitsha, South Africa

The two men sit outside a container waiting there in the middle of the field. There is an ease about them. We've caught them at a comfortable lull in the conversation or perhaps they are pondering a fond memory or the whereabouts of so-and-so. Their posture is relaxed, their clasped hands are mirrored. They've shared many stories, they'll share many more.

The one, perched on a couple of cement blocks, sports a plaid cap, a light pink polo shirt and slightly loose black trousers. Second hand. The other's multi-coloured off-brand Kangol bucket hat underlines the point. They are not rich obviously, for it goes without saying that the rich do not sit waiting outside containers in the middle of fields.

The power lines loom overhead, the hum of Tesla's crucifixes perhaps crackling occasionally to punctuate the high voltage cancerous flow. A basin sits to their right and there are a couple of piles behind them, clothes, it appears, that they are in no hurry to wash. The puddles of (dirty) water we assume do not disturb them now if they ever did. They are at ease in their patch of the the world. If it weren't for their skin tone, one would be tempted to call them Vladimir and Estragon, for indeed they do appear to be Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for Godot - Khayelitsha, South Africa

The earlier photo, taken at a further remove, is more classical. With its wider angle it captures more of the bluer sky, and places the men in their proper scale and perspective: insignificant like the discarded beer bottle at the curb, twenty meters away from the faded green container. Although it was winter in South Africa and it had snowed in Johannesburg for the first time in years, the environs of Cape Town could count on the milder weather that the men are enjoying. I understand why the photographer zoomed in, however. It's those details: that package at their feet, that blue plastic bag stuck under the locked container, the expressions on their faces, it's not so much resignation and despair as wist. Rather than the theater of the absurd, call the scene a mere portrait of modernity. I welcome other readings.


The Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa remains a foreboding place: poor, underdeveloped and a visible reminder of the lasting legacy of apartheid.

Khayelitsha slum

Still, even among the informal slum surroundings that might depress the most hardy,

Khayelitsha shacks precarious

there is a dynamism among the people that live here that belies the script that many have written for them.

Amidst the tin shacks (these days without the asbestos roofing of yore)

Khayelitsha shacks

and the containers

Khayelitsha containers and housing

those improvised, repurposed and ubiquitous containers

Khayelitsha container housing

and under the shadow of the electrical pylons and power plants,

Khayelitsha tower

you'll find shops,

Khayelitsha containers Dumakude herbalist shop

churches of sorts

Khayelitsha african gospel church

and, more importantly, the people with more ideas than you can absorb.

There's no time to dwell on any notion of nostalgia or the tragicomedy of poverty. This is the terrain of the hustle.

Khayelitsha bhango cash store

I trust the future is being written in Khayelitsha.

Soundtrack for this note

As is my custom, a playlist to augment this thoughts.

Obligatory disclaimer: I skipped the obvious songs about waiting since I was aiming for optimism rather than the blues (Prince's Still Waiting, Bob Marley's Waiting in Vain or say George Michael and Aretha Franklin's I knew you were waiting for me etc.) Also: these photos were taken by The Wife during a research trip in July 2007. I still haven't geared up to write up my own observations from my time in South Africa.

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