Beautiful Women of JL Zwane

I often feel torn in my writing here. I want to write of the wonders of Cape Town, to act as unofficial tourist guide and tell you of all the amazing things to be found here. Nowhere on earth have I witnessed such scenery, such incredible food and wine, such culture and such a vibrant creative economy. It is important to talk about these things; to bring to light the layers of beauty and nuance of this place. Doing so, however, always makes me feel like I am betraying the people I love. Much as this is, in so many ways, an astonishingly beautiful place, it is also terribly, terribly ugly. 

Last night I dreamed of a massacre. Humans flung over walls, body parts littering the streets. Such dreams aren't unusual for me. They are my subconscious' desperate attempt to process the absurdities of life here. People I love dearly have daily experiences of systemic exclusion and discrimination, which not only damage their souls but also leave them in physical danger. Whether it is doctors who are not held to account when a colleague's baby's heart defect is undetected ('you mustn't worry so much Mummy, he is just chesty because it is winter'), leading to his profound disability and eventual painful death, or police who aren't even called when a child goes missing or someone narrowly escapes gang rape because it is pointless to try. There is the terrible, soul-destroying, life limiting slow burn of daily micro-aggressions, and the shocking degree of violence facilitated by centuries of theft and murder. My British compatriots who look back nostalgically upon the days of colonialism are incomprehensible to me. To live in South Africa with your eyes opened is to understand the true depth of inhumanity perpetrated under that system in the past, and which continues to be perpetrated in today's proto-colonial environment. All this in a city full of mansions and expensive cars.

I need to add a very large caveat here. I only experience these things by proxy. The daily micro-aggressions are not aimed at me. I do not fear the police. I watch beautiful, talented, black friend after friend move to Johannesburg or overseas because Cape Town's economy does not serve them, refuses, in fact, to do so. The pain of losing them is terrible, but it is nothing compared to feeling so unwelcome and alienated in one's own country. I have never felt that alienation. Not at home, and not here either. I watch as kind, atrociously underpaid women work together to emotionally comfort and ease the physical pain of a profoundly disabled young woman. I watch them in awe, but I am not the one who has to do that daily work, and travel home on unsafe transport to inadequate housing. It is only through the eyes of others that I am able to see these things, only because they have honoured me with their trust.

So it is that the experience of living in this city is one of profound cognitive dissonance. It is possibly the world's most beautiful and the world's ugliest city. The ugliness comes not only from the atrocities against people's bodies and souls, but from the fact that this city genuinely has the resources to overcome these things. There is wealth here beyond my wildest imaginings. The poverty is one of willingness, imagination, kindness and courage, not money.

In the midst of this dissonance I sought comfort in the familiar, in music and community. When I was growing up I was incredibly lucky to be exposed, via the Iona Community, to Xhosa music. I could sing pretty accurately in Xhosa long before I lived here. (A privilege that is not extended even to children in Cape Town's wealthy schools!) The Iona Community maintained a connection with a church nearby my home, JL Zwane Presbyterian, so once I finally obtained my driver's license seven years ago, I began to attend.

My relationship with religion is a complicated one, and I won't elaborate on that for now. What I wish to speak about today is the coping skills I have learned through being welcomed into the community of JL Zwane. The importance of the routine of meeting weekly to sing, dance, cry, laugh and think together cannot be overstated. It is a group of people who understand the importance of action as well as words. It is, in short, the tradition I grew up in; one which marries good music and supportive community with the imperative of working for social justice.

Within JL Zwane there are many clubs and societies, one of which is Young Women. A supportive, committed group of women, who have taught me the importance of straight talking self expression, and the most radical act of self love.

Last year we decided to celebrate our beauty with a photoshoot. I was honoured to be the photographer. We used Beloved's vast studio space and spent a few hours having a lot of fun. We took hundreds of photos, and choosing between them hasn't been easy. Nevertheless, here are a few of my favourites. 


I'll be posting more images on our Instagram account over the next couple of months.

I wish a peaceful, kind, good week to my friends at JL Zwane, and to all our Beloved family, especially those whose daily work involves fighting structural injustice. You are the visionaries this city desperately needs.