December 2013 — A few days into our conferences, we attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Cape Town stadium. There’s a sense that the formal and relatively conservative Johannesburg ceremony seen on world television may not have been a fitting send off for Madiba. Cape Town has something else in mind.
Festivities begin in the afternoon and paint the late night. Speeches are a mere bridge between many musical performers, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With sunset, thousands of people in the stands are drawn into the stadium center, and we dance. A great pride in South Africa, and in the great man South Africa has given the world, animates the event, and indeed all events this week.
We have some opportunity to see the city in the following days. We catch the view atop Table Mountain, from which Cape Town slopes to the sea. The stadium’s Mobius-like roof is on display.
Four days later, we are called back to Cape Town stadium for a very different event. The Mother City Queer Project presents “Space Cowboys,” a party which draws thousands from the LGBT community and many more who enjoy the scene. Shirts are discouraged, outlandish costume rewarded, and several levels of makeshift clubs beat all manner of electronic music into the night. Those are very nice antennae you have there, sir, yes.
This is minor liberation for my friends. It is a chance at self-expression in a world of otherwise narrow and confining understandings of sexuality and gender. I am glad for them.
But it is also a very white event. As the night lengthens and becomes ever more debaucherous, it is embarrassing to note the sober black workers who are cleaning up after us.
I want a world where everyone is free. That is a political sentiment. It includes the freedom to express ourselves and feel alive. I also want culture to constrain my behavior. I want to limit my actions where I feel that is what respect demands. Not everyone would mark the boundaries in the same place.
On occasion, in my traveling life, I feel as though I am a bit too free. I have few firm obligations to hold me in place, to guarantee my return, to direct my behavior. I may be almost as I please in this world. And while this is extraordinary, I might prefer a stronger calling from home.
Photos by Kelsey Wiens, licensed under Creative Commons CC-by-SA. Photos on Table Mountain by Maira Sutton.