From coming face to face with a great white to the definition of posh wealth, Stellenbosch sits so conspicuously yet comfortably close by to the untamed wild. Stellenbosch is a small town, a university town that hums with all the usual buzz and vibe that a youthful population brings. Trendy bars and cafes spill onto the streets, nightlife is not confined to weekends and there’s no shortage of overly fashionable people filling edgey promenades and pathways. This all sounds very familiar, standard even; what is not so standard though is the notable lack of rough-edge grunge. Uni towns are usually a place of creative style that emanates from a youthful desire to stand out but without the money to conventionally do so.
Here we find a sense of gentrified ‘old money’ that simply drips from every perfect white building. The upper-crust style that is Stellenbosch is not to be decried as a death of university culture, the lively dash that accompanies this crowd seems there in hearty measure. This strange mix of anti-establishment vibe placed in a setting that is everything that resembles establishment in any common measure is as odd as it is attractive. Imperious wealth is forced inside the stately architecture, the streets are overrun with craft beer, tapas bars and too-cool cafes. Yes Stellenbosch is a university town for all money, and money it has; two forces so unaccustomed to each other mix so elegantly here giving a result that can only be called a success.
As if Stellenbosch town isn’t enough of an exercise into gorgeousness, the picturesque surrounding mountains lay backdrop to the weave of vineyards that bring this area its fame. Make no mistake, this whole region does offensively beautiful really well. From the modern architectural trendiness of Tokara winery to the epic historical grandeur that is Boschendal vineyard, we drink our way through some of the most beautiful countryside this planet has to offer. Stopping at the nearby town of Franzhoek we take in our three course degustation menu with a commanding view of the valleys and mountains that typify this beautiful area. Yes this is every flavour of indulgent luxury in one place, and indulge we do.
Mixed in with all this too-perfect indulgence, the bubble within the bubble that is this part of the world reveals contrasts so stark that we can only be in Africa. So close to this postcard made into a real place lies townships of shanty settlements, it seems so odd to have these two places so close together. From a casual observer the townships seem quite legitimised, not entirely freeform or pushed far away at all. They’re a poor settlement with only the barest of services no doubt, but not entirely transient or temporary. A complex network of wires webs over the roofs of rickety houses, many of which sport small satellite dishes. On first glance these places look more like just another way to live; poor and disadvantaged for certain yet with a sense of permanence that seems a little like a traditional village that got modern too quickly. A first world society with third world issues.
As we’ve made our way around this little bubble with so many other bubbles within it there seems roughly three ways to live; indulge me for a moment. There’s the imported spring water anima set locked inside electrified fences. There’s the marginalised masses in the townships locked outside of the electrified fences. And then there’s the middle ground that aren’t entirely poor or rich who don’t seem to have any fences to be locked in or out of. From a platform of ignorance it’s so easy to refine simple conclusions, the luxury of being a traveller I confess. It appears that fences, or lack of, are so much more a social designation than just a way to delineate a place. I never thought a fence could have so much meaning.
From this first snapshot I can’t help feel that society here is less homogenous than anywhere else I’ve seen before. In some places of the world there is a relative lack of a class divide, relative being a very important word here. In some places there’s a diversity of ethnicity, some places have a large wealth gap, sometimes it’s culture and language that defines. So rarely are all of these factors and more smashed together so formidably and fluidly. With so many layers of diversity I wonder how many fences would be required to chop up this place accurately, there’s more categories and sub categories for the humble idea of a fence. It seems that here they’re trying to do just that; I wonder, how powerful a symbol can a fence be? I guess far more than I understood from the ignorant pedestal of a traveller.