Healing in South Africa: A Story of Personal Growth and Revival.

“Simultaneously beautiful in terms of landscape and violent in terms of lifestyle, it is a society as extreme as the weather conditions”

Two and a half years ago I spent three months in South Africa. I had never been before, I knew nobody out there. I had turned 18 two weeks previously and should have been revising for my final A Level exams. I was at a top west London school but for the past two years had been struggling with Anorexia Nervosa and Depression. I had tried to get well myself, without success, and to mask this, and my rapidly declining mental and physical health, I had begun drinking heavily on week nights- in order to quell the fear of eating, going out constantly in order to numb the fear of feeling and being out of control of a potentially lethal eating disorder.  For two years I had been on the NHS, spending my holidays in and out of wards- after little progress had been made, they let me go . After finally admitting I needed help and calling time on my A Level exams, we found out the cheapest option for a rehab treatment centre was in Cape Town. Obviously the financial element of this was a big bonus, but the significance of going to a place as alien to my life as South Africa was then was also vital. Total freedom from any previous association would be one of the most useful benefits, (something I found again when moving to Glasgow a year or so later), though as I sat on the eleven hour flight I saw the remote connection as an ideal hiding place.

“There is a harsh, uncomfortable difference between the wealthy exterior of CapeTown and the Townships that surround and feed it.”

South Africa lives up to the reputations it gives itself. Simultaneously beautiful in terms of landscape and violent in terms of lifestyle, it is a society as extreme as the weather conditions (it can be 23 degree heat and hailing in the same day- and the next furthest point south is Antartica). Racism is still rife, both by our standards and theirs. Blacks, Coloureds, Cape-Coloureds, White’s and Afrikaans all form part of a social, political and criminal hierarchy, which, though acknowledged by many as flawed, is accepted as inevitable. For a white girl to talk to a black man would be deemed progressive but highly dangerous- enough to warrant you ‘a good person’, albeit an overly provocative one. Travelling from the airport the motorways pass through Dubai-esque complex’s next to sprawling Townships; Cape Town is a huge city, with little central focus. Large areas of the wealthiest parts of the city, ‘The Water Front’, is reclaimed from the sea, creating a curiously one sided 21st century shell, and further inland a mix of sixties and eighties blocks juxtapose with Buena Vista Social club-style saloons. Though on that first day I was in too much of a haze to register much distinctly. There is a harsh, uncomfortable difference between the wealthy exterior of Cape Town and the Townships that surround and feed it. Many of these do not have running water and are frequently damaged further by fires and gang fighting. Shockingly they are part of the ‘Big Bus Cape Town Tour’, which is in part an attempt to increase trade within the townships, but can also appear horribly paternalistic in terms of ‘viewing’ the level of poverty from a voyeuristic perspective.

Table Mountain, South Africa

“…the fear and the distance between the Cape Tonians is propagated in this paradise”

The newest and wealthiest area of Cape Town -‘The Water Front’- is crammed with western shops, restaurants, cinema’s and supermarkets, however, the feel of the place is far from familiar; rather, it is soulless and synthetic. Equally, the wealthier suburbs, though in many ways idyllic (they are interspersed among the foothills of the mountain) can appear like a dystopic version of how I imagine LA; sprawling white villas and complexes with the addition of electric fences, guards, and dogs. The stories here of black on white armed robberies and attacks are sadly true, and so the fear and the distance between the Cape Tonians is propagated in this paradise. As either a woman or a man, you are not expected to walk alone anywhere. At best you could get mugged, at worst, shot or kidnapped. Regardless of this, the beauty of Table Mountain, (the foothills of which Cape Town is built upon) ensure the atmosphere of the city retains a sense of the refreshing. The alternative therapies and emphasis on nature and on treating yourself well, hypocritical though this may sometimes seem, feel genuine. The concept of time among Cape Tonians speaks for itself. ‘Now’, (sometime in the future), ‘Just now’ (the past or the future, and anything from 20 minutes to a day) and ‘Now Now’ ( now) are used interchangeably and rushing is rarely done. It is indeed a comic and relaxing take on city life.

“by that point you’ve got little left to hide, no reason to care, and are too exhausted to try and make pretence”

In terms of the treatment, it’s a sensitive subject, and difficult to write about even two years after. Certainly at the time you aren’t going through the experience with any distance or perspective. You are ‘Just Being’ because by that point you’ve got little left to hide, no reason to care, and are too exhausted to try and make pretence. The intensive therapy of my two months there ranged from dance meditation and art therapy, to trauma relief and an inventory. The effect was similar to taking a course in psychotherapy which you then applied to your own experiences and emotions. Tough love and a re-structuring of your sense of self were key. The fifteen others and I were on CCTV twenty four hours a day, and what we wore, the way we interacted with others, whether we chose sit or stand, where we went at the weekends, how we wore our hair, was all analysed; no detail left unturned. And why shouldn’t it be? You had left you’re life back home for this. Some people had had to leave their jobs, often with no certainty that after a three month hiatus they would be taken back. It was a lot of giving up and the general feeling of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ was necessary, along with the blackest of humour, and a huge amount of compassion, to carry you through. Intrusive though the process sounds, it was necessary in re-figuring the thoughts and beliefs that can become ingrained after a certain amount of time. They were not forcing you to change or to deconstruct yourself, but encouraging you to find what had been lost in the self-destructive processes which had become a way of life. Frequently, this was very deeply hidden.

“The coastal road runs directly beside the sea, sometimes dropping sharply to crags and rock, adding to the dramatic beauty of the landscape around you”

With the aid of a car we were able to travel down the coast. Cape Town is the last major city before you reach Cape Point, the furthest tip of the Cape of Good Hope. The towns along the coastline again have the same haphazard charm as old Cape Town in terms of aesthetics. But corruption in South Africa means general maintenance in terms of roads etc. is hard to come by. So as you travel along the peninsula, the roads get shiftier, and the sea gets wilder. The coastal road runs directly beside the sea, sometimes dropping sharply to crags and rock, adding to the dramatic beauty of the landscape around you. Penguins famously colonise Simon’s Town, one of the smaller stops along the Cape, creating comical juxtaposition with the tropical plants. And then further along, ostrich’s and jackals take over at the uninhabited Cape Point. Coupled with the sunset and an open top car, its Bond and David Attenborough combined.

In the third month of my stay I volunteered at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and a local children’s hospital. The first epitomised Cape Town’s growing wholesome living culture. The wealthier areas of town are full of organic eateries and craft markets, selling everything from ‘angel cards’ to ‘rusks’ (a South African biscuit) . The second showed the brutal reality of life for many South Africans. However clichéd it sounds, it was very humbling. The excitement and happiness of these children was touching when on a material level they could be said to have very little. Though compassion for myself was important, reality checks were also needed.

“In a very crude sense, if London was the place I got sick in,  then South Africa, with its lush natural beauty and emphasis on peace, seemed to be where I got better.”

South Africa

Part of the course I did had introduced me to meditation and by extension, mindfulness, something I try, with mixed success, to continue doing daily now. The five am wake up is hard to get into but the reward of waking up is the ‘Table Cloth’: a thin layer of cloud that rolls over the flat mountain top and unfurls in the morning. Though often freezing at that time in the morning, it’s very beautiful, and for me fortified the sense of recovery. London is often cited as ‘The Lonely City’, but it is also the manic city. The beauty of living for three months in a place you have no previous connection with but which, even solely in its landscape, is very different from the one you have come from, is that you have no ability to compare it, or yourself, once you’re there. In a very crude sense, if London was the place I got sick in, (at times stifling and concrete) then South Africa, with its lush natural beauty and emphasis on peace (and yes, this is a privileged experience of it- as I mentioned before, it is not an ideal place in any sense) seemed to be where I got better. Speaking to others, South Africa seems to have somehow provided a similar point of refuge, to those who somehow felt unable to fit, or simply out of place in their ‘hometown’s as it were. Certainly many of those who I was at the centre with, opted not to come back to their home countries at all and are living in Cape Town still. I knew I always wanted, or perhaps needed, to come back, and though I have subsequently thought I might go back to Cape Town at some stage, for the moment, I don’t want to. It was absolutely necessary at that particular time, but is definitely coloured by that as a result. To go back and see things as they are, as supposed to how I choose to remember them based on what I was feeling at the time, may alter that memory which, as it stands, has become crystallised as a place of recovery and safety. Useful to have in itself. When I left, a nurse who I was particularly close to sent me off with, ‘Please don’t come back. Not like you came here three months ago’. So I have planned to go back every year since, but know that I won’t go yet.