Landscape as Curriculum

The landscape is a curriculum. It offers a journey from superficiality to complexity, from insight to understanding. At first sight, its meanings seem evident. But follow its course carefully and critically, and things become open to new interpretations and wider relevance.

This is particularly so for Cape Town. Here, the surface images are universal icons; Table Mountain, beaches, Nelson Mandela. Push a little deeper, though, and this is a landscape of marked and increasing inequality. Inequality is etched into the fabric of the land: in the location and quality of housing; in schools, clinics and public utilities; in the vegetation; in the sand and dust carried by the Cape’s signature winds.

At the beginning of January, I was one of a team with the task of giving some sixty senior undergraduate students a sense of the extent, nature and consequences of inequality across the Cape Town metropolitan region. This was not an ordinary class; participants were from twenty-one different South African and American universities and colleges. All had a declared interest in postgraduate study; many had a sharp appreciation of the politics of curriculum and campus life, both here and in the United States. The wind was relentless, the thermometer got to 36C and the aircon was a theoretical concept.

The landscape, though, absorbed and challenged us. There were tangible certainties: the indelible imprint of segregation on the layout of the wider city; the contrast between the suburbs beneath the mountain and the Cape Flats. There were also contradictions: between different ways of defining inequality; over political options; about the ethics of inquiry and research; with regard to victimhood and stereotyping. In leaving as much unresolved as is certain, the complexities of the landscape revealed the perpetual uncertainties and anxieties of trying to know more, and of making a difference.

Inequality is about contrasts, for which Cape Town’s landscape is an archetype. We started on Signal Hill, from which the trace of the Dutch East India Company’s seventeenth century grid of streets is still evident, along with the vast scar of apartheid forced removals from District Six and the Waterfront, built by forced labour through the late 1800s. We travelled to the Company’s Garden in the heart of the city, and to the wine estate at Groot Constantia.

These are places that inscribe both privilege and exploitation, and the systems of slavery that made them possible. They serve as cues for the fault lines of the present day: an economy with a five-fold difference in the average household income of black and white families; centuries of subduing slaves and then indentured labour with cheap wine, manifest today in the epidemiology of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Twenty years ago, Groot Constantia denied the existence of the two hundred or so slaves who made its owners rich; today, their story has been added to provide a fuller picture. Museums of conscience have a more difficult mission in starting with a substantial injustice and persuading visitors to experience discomfort.  Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum is an antipode for Groot Constantia. Getting there along the False Bay coast is an hour along a long surf line of windblown sand and past the edge of Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, now cities in themselves. There is an awkward relationship between visitors and township residents, despite the fact that the museum is there with the consent of the community. The hostels are shocking both in their own story and conditions, and because people live in similar buildings next door, and in every other street in Lwandle. No answers here; just more contradictions.

Experience and knowledge become powerful when a closer understanding of the particular can inform more abstract and generalized insights into our condition. We wanted our group of emergent critical thinkers to draw comparisons between the manifestations of inequality in the Cape and in their parts of the United States. What was similar; how much was different? How much can similarities and differences be attributed to history? How do the politics of inequality play out across two continents? In particular, how do the legacies of racial segregation shape the present day? How are these legacies written into the landscapes of other cities – Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York?

Our journey across the Cape landscape was the beginning of a week’s immersion in the issues raised by inequality; in housing, health provision and education, and more widely. Ours was of course a thoroughly digital group. We were constantly connected, always drawing down information, virtually integrated with the vast ocean of online resources. The visceral experience of the landscape was a parallel exploration; a way of knowing that was often more haptic than verbal. As a curriculum, the landscape gives us the smell of hope and the taste of despair. Being there hinted constantly at how much we couldn’t know. This, perhaps, is the way learning should be.


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