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  • Writer's pictureChristopher S. Kelly

Cape Ghosts

Updated: Jan 12

Rights reserved to all photographs, 2023

Cape Town CBD, March 2023

The South African playwright Nadia Davids summed up so much of what I have been struggling to verbalize about the mother city, as she described her reaction to the beheading of the Cecil Rhodes Memorial statue in 2020:

"It surprises me how shocking I find this unkinging, because Cape Town is known for two things: beauty and violence. It is so chock-full of both that it can sometimes feel as though there is no space for the aesthetic response, the metaphorical gesture, and yet here is exactly such a response, such a gesture in all its disturbing, compelling, riveting complexity."

And I would add that sometimes it feels there is no space, at all. For breath. For sense-making. For a dignified human response. A psychologist might suggest that we go to numbness, or anxiety, or overwhelm, rather.

With Davids’s observation comes personal relief: I, too, have been so struggling to feel, to process, to grieve during these weeks arriving back in the African southwest after leaving New York, family, friends, teaching, the oxymoronic unsustainable stability of it all. It helps to know that this is a sensible emotional response to “Blood and Water,” as Netflix puts it.

It looks like the Boer War, but it's Cape Town in the 2020s, next to the Castle — 350 years after its construction during the Dutch East India era

Bottling it up– overwhelm. How do you surrender to the maelstrom of the Cape, of recent life, without just breaking down and sobbing at the foot of the mountain? That spiritual abode from heady youth, where Mandisi sang gospel to us, tadpoles darted to and fro in the drying streambeads of Skeleton Gorge, an eagle-owl’s hallowed gaze pierced (this time those places were empty), stands apart. But the wind blown sunbird singing, and swaying, holding on for dear life, as the melodies of a summer concert crescendo echo up the ravine. Hold on.

Jan Smuts Statue next to the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum

For years I’ve fallen flat when trying to describe the valence, the horrible magnetism of southern Africa.

For SA lays bare the contradictions of the modern human experience in a way that is in your face, all the time.

The gratuitousness of it: the brutality, the ineffable beauty, the betrayal (of equality, reconciliation, of revolution, of what would be humane), the irrational resilience, the falseness of empire. All set against the context of the longue duree we don't always put so overtly: this is our species’ ancestral homeland. This is where we're from. And, to a large extent, this is who we are.

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