Every year, like legions of young, trendy Zarathustras, thousands of bright and eager young faces flock from the many corners of South Africa and the world to the university on the mountain, The University of Cape Town. Like the many thousands before them they come here to this windswept prominence to learn, and to be transformed.
With my back turned to the wind in an attempt to shield my recorder from the near-ubiquitous southeaster, and my hands cupped around a university-branded, spill-proof coffee mug, I smile warmly at Isabelle; a first year humanities student, come to study here all the way from icy Sweden. It’s my first ever actual, real-life interview, and I’m trying to appear casual, unperturbed, in control. Fake it till you make it.
Innumerable text messages, hundreds of hours of voice calls.
Isabelle, too, is sipping on a coffee, and appears way more nervous than I am. The Swedes, she assures me, are a highly caffeinated nation. It’s somewhat of a national obsession there, apparently, along with Mexican food and introversion. But we’re not here just to savour our coffees, compare introverts’ war stories, and admire the distant mountains. We’re here to talk about distant homes, the internet, and the indispensable role it plays in staying in touch with loved ones left behind.
Isabelle came to South Africa to study at the University of Cape Town, and to be with her partner, who she met while here on vacation.
“He also studies at UCT,” she says in beautifully accented English, “and I liked him, and I liked this city, and I wanted to study anyway, so it just made sense to come here.” Before Isabelle moved to South Africa, she and her partner would spend a large part of each day communicating over the internet. The two of them sent sent innumerable text messages, made hundreds of hours of voice calls, and laid waste to frightfully many gigabytes of data on video conversations.
We’re a long way away from Scandinavia, and I guess there must be many differences between our internet and theirs. I ask Isabelle what she thinks about the internet in South Africa.
In Sweden, internet access costs a fraction of what we pay here.
“Extremely expensive,” she says, drawing out the words for emphasis, a look of near-disbelief on her face. “Like crazy, I mean… I don’t even know how many times more expensive it is here than in Sweden.” She struggles to get her words out, she’s clearly shocked. In Sweden, she tells me, internet access costs a fraction of what we pay here in Cape Town, and it’s unlimited too. Local speeds are fine though. At least in that arena we’ve caught up to the rest of the world.
How do you keep in touch with your family and friends, I continue? Do you prefer traditional means, or do you mostly use the internet?
“Do you mean as in sending, like, handwritten letters? Or smoke signals?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I am trying, as in I haven’t really yet, but I’m thinking about it… to send letters, especially to my sister. She’s seven, and I know it’s nice to get things in the mail.
I don’t call using airtime, it’s too expensive.
“When I was little there was no internet, and there was no cell phones, and that was just the way it was. When my grandparents were travelling they sent us postcards, and I know I liked that, and I want her to have that same little part of the analogue world.”
What methods do you use?
“I’m only using internet, I don’t call using airtime, it’s too expensive. So usually I use either Facebook’s Messenger, cause my mom don’t know how to install WhatsApp, and I use WhatsApp.
“Also, WhatsApp… here’s the thing, I never used it when I was home in Sweden, cause airtime, and text, and things like that, it’s not expensive.
“My partner showed me how to you can use Skype, and how you can load money on to it and call as if it’s from your own phone, if I need to call my grandpa, or if I need to call, like, my Swedish bank. It’s affordable, and quite easy.”
I’m wondering what it would be like for her, how well Isabelle would cope, without internet. Do you think you would make it here in Cape Town, I ask, so far away from your family, if you didn’t have the internet?
“Well, if the option of internet wasn’t even… an option, I wouldn’t be knowing about it. Then obviously I wouldn’t be feeling as if I’m missing out on anything either.
I think it’s very easy to lose people if you stop talking to them.
“For example, when I was younger, and I was travelling for longer periods, it’s not like we didn’t have internet, but we had to go to an internet café. I would send emails, like once, maybe every second week.” She tells me how easy today’s communications are, we don’t even think about it. In the past we didn’t even know this kind of communication was possible.
“I don’t think of it as a substitute, really,” she adds, “I see it more as a way of contact. I think it’s very easy to lose people if you stop talking to them.”
These days, she explains, whenever any of us see something, or think of a friend or family member, we just send them a message or phone them and say hey, look what just happened. We’re all, always, keeping in touch. I agree, of course: I’m a child of the internet myself. We get it.
It’s time for us to come down from this mountain for a while; there are many wisdoms to be learnt under these rocky cliffs, new friendships to be made, and old bonds to be nurtured no matter where in the world they lead. But the wind is picking up, as it often does on autumn afternoons. And we’re both in need of more coffee.