Steven Otter on Life as an Umlungu in Khayelitsha
A large crowd of curious Capetonians gathered at the Book Lounge on a muggy Wednesday evening last week to hear Steven Otter’s compelling personal story behind his new book, Khayelitsha. Otter, who is white and grew up in a conservative Eastern Cape family, lived in the black township of Khayelitsha for a total of two years, between 2002 and 2006.
When making the decision to move there, he didn’t approach Khayelitsha as an exotic, dangerous place to do field work. Instead, he focussed on the (mostly) practical: while interning at the Cape Argus in 2002, his lease on an apartment in the trendy, affluent suburb of Tamboerskloof ended. A friend asked, “are you ready to live in a black area?” – and Khayelitsha is where Otter ended up.
At the beginning, it was Otter who counted as exotic, a local celebrity, often the first white person that anyone in the community had ever interacted with – and the only permanent white resident, as far he could tell.
Over the next few years he became increasingly attached to Khayelitsha, both for the many friends he made and the sense of community he felt, contrary to much of his life in other areas – including Holland – which he described as “boring.” Otter had reversed the conventional South African emigration: after two years in the Netherlands, he felt that “South Africa needed me,” and moved back to Cape Town, and thence to Khayeltisha.
He lived in a shack in the Site B neighbourhood for six months. As a resident for intermittent periods between 2002 and 2006, Otter witnessed vast transformations in the community. He also lived in the Elita Park area, which by 2006 he felt was gentrified and “too smart” – more like an upper-middle class suburb than the vibrant place he remembered during his earlier stays.
Much of Otter’s talk was spent recounting the chronology of his stay in Khayelitsha, and it became clear that he was never motivated by anthropological investigation or a political mission. Instead, his was an intensely personal, non-political and very transformative journey. Many listeners took away the message that the sort of cultural exchange involved in his relationship with Khayelitsha could itself be a force for change.
He recounted that some friends in the township remarked that he had “changed their opinion of white people.” (Though he denied that he could possibly stand in for the whole of “white people”). Instead of being greeted with hostility as some might expect, Otter encountered an acceptance of difference that seemed foreign to the world of middle-class comfort in South Africa. His experience of difference (and celebrity) as a white South African was important, but that attitude also quickly attenuated, as he “eventually became just an ordinary person living in Khayelitsha.”
The question period brought some of Otter’s most insightful observations about South African life. His time in Khayelitsha might look obviously political, but Otter insists that it was practical, and that politics in Khayelitsha itself are rather monolithic – where every election seems predetermined, and where one party rules the day.
The popular “township tour” can seem problematic, placing the tourist atop a tour-bus, passive photographers observing a benighted community. But Otter said that while he understands the problems with township tourism, he said that any exposure tourists (and especially South Africans) have to the townships, and any chance they have to interact with the community is positive.
He put it in the following way: “we go thousands of kilometers to take photos of people we’d never speak to at home.” Playing with this sense of foreignness at home, encouraging the audience to travel and experience difference in vibrant communities nearby, Otter underlined the hope that his book would inspire cultural exchange and acceptance.