Behind the mountains, beaches, wineries, and wildlife that make Cape Town famous are the everyday lives of locals. Void of tourist attractions, what the day to day lives of local Capetonians lack in paragliding and shark cave diving, they make up for with diversity and character. Now that I’ve been living in Cape Town for over two months, I feel adequately qualified to explain what life is like here in the Mother City. For simplicity’s sake, I have divided this post into sections based on topic.
FAIR WARNING: THIS IS A VERY LONG POST.
Language & Communication:
South Africa has 11 official languages. Most of the people I’ve met in Cape Town speak English with varying degrees of fluency, although I have been told that is not the case in other parts of South Africa. It is common to hear Afrikaans and Xhosa spoken around Cape Town, and when I visited Limpopo I heard lots of Zulu. Aside from the official languages, countless other African languages can always be heard from the many immigrants in Cape Town. I have met awesome people from Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, and Malawi, each of whom speaks at least 3 languages.
The English spoken in South Africa can be very different from American English. One of the most surprising things I have experienced in Cape Town is the wide variety of different accents that are all found in one city. There is the white English accent, which is very different from the white Afrikaans accent, which is different from the black Afrikaans accent, which is different than the Cape colored accent, and so on and so forth. The English slang is also very unique to Cape Town, often combining English with Afrikaans and other African languages.
Common Cape Town slang words and phrases include:
• Awe (ah-weh) means hello
• A Bakkie (bah-kee) is a pickup truck
• Bra (brah) means brother and is the way that men are greeted
• A Braai (br-eye) is a South African barbecue. A braai consists of cooking LOTS of meat, usually lamb, sausages and steaks, over coals (never a gas grill). They are extremely popular in South Africa.
• Cheers is used all the time to say hello or goodbye or in toasts or really for any reason
• Hectic is used to describe something as crazy or really cool
• Howzit (how-zit) is a very common greeting that means ‘how are you?’
• Is it? is used in place of “oh” or “I see”
• Kak (kuh-k) means shit or rubbish
• Lekker (leh-ker) means cool or nice
• A Robot is a traffic light
• Shame is used in place of bummer when something is disappointing
• Sisi (see-see) means sister and is the that young women are greeted
• Are you winning? means “are you doing well?”
• Yabo (yah-boh) means I’m done or tired
• A Yoco is a mobile credit card reader
Cars (that drive on the left side of the road) are the most common mode of transportation in Cape Town. Although the roads look similar to roads in the U.S., the driving is much more aggressive. Buses and packed minibus taxis speed up and down the main road, weaving in and out of lanes, cutting off other drivers, and almost completely disregarding traffic signs and lights. Tailgating is an understatement in Cape Town, where the space between vehicles is never more than a few inches, and rush hour traffic can last for hours. Unofficial parking attendants expecting a tip watch over parked cars and gas station attendants pump gas rather than drivers themselves.
I take a minibus taxi to and from work each day. Minibus taxis are white vans that somehow manage to squeeze 20 or more passengers in them. When there are no seats available on a minibus, passengers sit on crates, stack pillows between seats, or just stand. The minibus taxis drive up and down the main road with a driver and a man whose job is to collect fares, open the sliding door, and yell out of the window to try and persuade pedestrians to ride the taxi. To catch a minibus, one need only to stand on the side of the road and wait. They operate on a hop-on hop-off basis, so when you’re ready to get off, you simply yell to catch the driver’s attention and the minibus pulls over. A ride on a minibus taxi costs R10, which is the equivalent of about 0.75USD.
Aside from minibus taxis, the other available forms of public transportation are buses and trains. The large buses are generally slower and less reliable than the minibus taxis, so they are often left nearly empty. The trains in Cape Town are notoriously late. They are so unreliable that violent protests fueled by angry commuters frequently break out at train stations. Although usually safe during the day, none of the three modes of public transportation are very safe after dark and it is not safe to enter an empty minibus taxi, train car, or bus. At night when public transportation is not an option, those without a car (like me) can use Uber, a popular and very safe form of transportation in Cape Town.
Currency in South Africa is called Rand. The bills range from R10 to R200 and the coins range from R0.10 to R5. The brightly colored bills show images of Nelson Mandela and various animals and they increase in size as the value of the bill increases. The current exchange rate between the US dollar and the South African rand is $0.77 = R10. To put the exchange rate into perspective, the following are a few average costs of living that I have experienced in Cape Town:
• Nice meal at a sit-down restaurant (including beer, desert, and tip) = R140 = $10.70
• Cheap lunch at a shop in Woodstock = R30 = $2.30
• Normal size trip to the grocery store = R350 = $26.76
• 10 minute Uber ride = R60 = $4.59
Safety and Security:
Because of the high crime rate in Cape Town, fences, walls, and security guards are the norm. The wealth disparity is very noticeable, and a reliable way to gauge someone’s wealth is to evaluate the security around their home. The rich and upper middle class have tall walls surrounding their homes, high enough that you can’t actually see the house from the outside. Above the walls are live electric fences and surveillance cameras and the only way to enter the premises is through an automated gate.
Middle class homes have similar security, but the walls surrounding the houses are not quite as high and barbed wire is used in place of an electric fence. Even lower income houses have gates topped with metal spikes. The only homes that lack security are the small, tin-roofed shacks in the townships, poor areas where non-white residents were forced to live during apartheid.
All the rest:
There are very few truly South African television channels. Most are American and British channels playing reruns of old shows accompanied by South African commercials. The first 8 channels on South African cable are movie channels that play a variety of American movies on repeat. Radio is also very westernized. While there are definitely South African bands and artists, most of the music playing on the radio is American. My morning taxi rides are filled with 90s and early 2000s hip-hop artists and dance remix versions of today’s top 40 hits.
There is no central heating in South Africa. At the beginning of my trip, I did not understand why people wore big winter coats and hats and scarves in 60 degrees F weather, but as time has passed I have realized how cold 60 degrees F can feel when you don’t have the option to escape the cold in a warm, heated building.
To end this post, I should mention one of my favorite parts about Cape Town, which are the mountains that are always in view no matter where you are.