Women’s Spaces, Women’s Business

This week, my dear friend Devon has been exploring Cape Town with us. Because John and I have another week here after her departure, we’ve prioritized the must-do tourist itinerary, which has meant putting some of my more industrial sites on the back burner.

For obvious reasons, the relationship of race and space has occupied a lot of my thoughts here. But during Devon’s visit this week, I’ve also been seriously considering how gender enters the equation as well. A striking number of tourist spaces that we’ve experienced have been operated by men. 100% of our Uber drivers have been men, as have most of our tour guides (excepting the few that I specifically sought out and hired for private tours). There have been some exceptions, such as the reception center at Kruger National Park, which was staffed exclusively by women, or our guide at the Gold Reef City mining experience. But on the whole, tourist-oriented spaces have felt very male-dominated, and I’ve been surprised at the either casual or implicit sexism I’ve experienced on multiple occasions. The most frequent experience is having a third party address John rather than me, even in circumstances where it’s clear that I’m the one with the professional interest. However, traveling with my male partner has, I think, also shielded me from the kinds of experience that, Devon, traveling alone, has had—overly friendly or inquisitive drivers, street harassment, etc. While I don’t think these experiences dampened either of our experiences significantly, it has been interesting to note the respect and veneration accorded to historical women heroes who fought in the Freedom Struggle, versus the way women are treated here on a daily basis, and the persistent disparity between the opportunities accorded to men and women.

On Tuesday, Devon and I explored Long Street, which cuts through Cape Town’s CBD, mingling Victorian architecture and trendy new shops. On a whim, we ducked into WAG Fashion, a boutique owned and operated by Sheray Goliath, a woman born and raised in Cape Town. An explosion of bright, African patterns and modern, flattering cuts, WAG felt like the first space by women, for women that I’ve experienced in South Africa. Up front, the owner/designer and a team of stylists oversaw the try-on process, helping clients achieve the desired look. In a sunken area towards the back, the seamstresses could be seen making more garments and tailoring existing apparel. The fact that the means of production were on display, and the other women working there at least seemed content and not overworked, made this space even more attractive. Like many stores on Long Street, WAG resides in a repurposed Victorian building, part of old commercial stock that has been updated to serve the influx of hip shops, cafés, and restaurants. In contrast to Jo’burg, a city marked by its rapid development since the 1880s, Cape Town’s architecture has felt a lot more layered. Stately Beaux-Arts classicism mingles with whimsical Cape Dutch gables, International Style and brutalist high-rises cutting sharply towards the sky.

The paradox of Cape Town is that the feeling of downtown is a fluke of geography and apartheid-era planning. Unlike Jo’burg, Cape Town is able to hide its townships and rougher neighborhoods from the view of mainstream tourists. Thus, the experience that many visitors have of Cape Town is a but a narrow slice of all that the city has to offer. The townships that lay on the periphery still face an inordinate stigma, as we discovered later in the day after our dress-shopping escapade was complete. In the evening, Devon, John, and I caught an Uber to a restaurant called Mzansi in Langa, one of the oldest townships on the outskirts of Cape Town. Our Uber driver was initially suspicious (“Are you sure you want to go to Langa?”), but eventually relented and took us there. On Harlem Avenue in Langa, we rolled up to Mzansi Restaurant, which stands out as a double-storied, brightly-illuminated beacon amidst single-story shacks. Once inside the orange, red, and yellow walls of the restaurant, we were treated as guests in the home of Nomonde Siyaka. A buffet of traditional !Xhosa dishes and township food had been laid out for the guests, a mostly vegetarian feast full of spice and texture. In one corner, a band comprised of three marimba players, a drummer, and a saxophonist belted out African music and jazz standards. At the meal’s conclusion, the owner and head chef emerged from the kitchen to tell her story—how she came to operate the #1 ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor in Cape Town, and how, even as business has grown dramatically, there are still nights when she struggles to fill the restaurant, due to the lingering bias against townships.

“Mama” Nomonde tells her story at the end of dinner. Photo by SR.

This experience also reinforced for me the importance of oral storytelling as a key facet of public history in South Africa. Over and over, the power of the first-person testimonial has proved a critical aspect the tourism experience here, serving a critical role in helping outsiders to understand apartheid and the changes that followed in the wake of democracy.

For Nomonde (who goes by “Mama” in the restaurant), Mzansi struggled along, barely breaking even for seven years, until a group of international students fell in love with the restaurant and set it up on TripAdvisor. Thanks to the free advertising the restaurant has received through the ranking system on the site, business has improved over time. Playing at Mzansi has become the primary employment of the band we heard, though they still struggle on nights when the restaurant receives few visitors. Local teens gain employment and experience serving, busing, and washing dishes. Extra food goes to the needy in the surrounding community. What started as a three-room township house has expanded to accommodate the growing business. The original doorway of the house still connects the dining room to the kitchen area, a visible reminder of how the house has changed over time. And all this because of the vision of one woman, who was supported through the hard times in her early business by the constant moral support of her mother and the financial support of her sister, who freely shared meager earnings from occasional domestic work in Cape Town.

I was struck at both Mzansi and at WAG Fashion by the design choice of the proprietors to reveal the workings of their businesses—these were women who were proud of how hard they were working, and rather than try to downplay those accomplishments or make it seem easy, both spaces were really designed to show the work necessary to be a successful woman entrepreneur in South Africa. By revealing process and labor, these women are not just ideals or abstract inspirations for the next generation of women, but practical role models with business plans and growth strategies. I hope that the next time I visit Cape Town, these two businesses will still be going strong, joined by another thriving crop of woman-owned enterprises. These women are remaking the city, tearing down racial and gender boundaries as they do.

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