Knowledge 2.0.
25 October 2014 22:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Racism, put on your ballot-proof vest

  • Jacques Rousseau
Morphing is now ubiquitous in films to suspend reality and create the perception in our minds that Benicio Del Toro has, in reality, changed from human into a werewolf. Such is the power of perception. The unreal becomes real, and we have to say things like: “It’s only a movie”. On Wednesday South Africa will get a measure of the power of its political perceptions. Or not.

A few weeks ago, my (occasional) fellow Opinionista Victor Dlamini Tweeted a link to an IOL report describing an instance of apparent racial profiling at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The conversation which resulted should surprise no one at all, in that it consisted of the usual mix of protestation from Capetonians eager to refute the notion of Cape Town being a racist city, alongside various endorsements and examples of such racism.

Now that the local government elections campaigns are behind us, it is perhaps possible to discuss this issue more productively. Whether Cape Town fits the stereotype or not, it’s useful for the ANC to perpetuate the stereotype of Capetonian racism, as they enthusiastically did in the matter of Makhaza, as well as on several other occasions - however slight the opportunity to do so actually was. Well, they at least thought it useful – the election results could well indicate a greater agnosticism on this issue. But the politicisation of the issue tends to polarise opinion, rather than clarify the issue.

So, one could start by pointing out that to say Cape Town is a racist city does not mean everyone in Cape Town is racist. It certainly does not mean, as ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu alleges, that the governing party of Cape Town and Western Cape is racist. I don’t believe it is, and I also don’t agree with interpretations of events such as the Makhaza toilet case used to support this claim.

Furthermore, it’s also perfectly understandable that the DA would protest claims that Cape Town is inherently racist – pointing to the diversity in the party, service-delivery successes and Cape Town’s relatively low Gini coefficient compared to that of other metro’s. Lastly, it could be expected that many white liberal sorts (such as myself) would feel offence as a result of such claims. But as I’ve frequently argued, offence is no guide to the truth and shouldn’t be used to drown out noises you don’t like hearing.

While it is true racists are everywhere, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of Cape Town containing a higher proportion of them, or for some Capetonians to be in denial as to how enlightened they actually are. If so, then it would make sense to say that Cape Town is “a racist city”, by comparison to other relevant South African cities.

And, of course, there are cities that are more racist than Cape Town – Orania could be a possible example. But, despite all these disclaimers and qualifications, when compared with our other capitals or other major cities in South Africa, we certainly hear more stories about racist encounters or instances of perceived racism emanating from Cape Town.

Perceptions are not always true. Stereotypes can be perpetuated, sometimes through evidence and sometimes through prejudice. It’s possible, for example, that the trope of a racist Cape Town is a simple consequence of jealousy, in that northerners (and the ANC) want to find fault in what seems – on the surface at least, and also to many of those who live here – to be the best place in South Africa to call home.

I can understand the anger of those who claim the stereotype of a racist Cape Town to be founded on prejudice, but I’m afraid I’m reluctant to agree with them. We shouldn’t forget that Cape Town’s urban planning was intentionally premised on the maintenance of social order, which way back then meant segregation of the races. Numerous books and papers detail the history of the city as divided on racial lines, such as this paper from Charlotte Spinks at the London School of Economics. In addition to academic texts, we have semi-regular accounts of discrimination at bars and clubs, and first-hand experiences of racism like those described in Xhanti Payi’s column last year in Daily Maverick.

Anecdotal accounts of racism in Cape Town abound, but anecdotes are, of course, not data. The problem, though, is that we hear far fewer such anecdotes from other cities. And more than anecdotes, existing research such as the Surtee and Hall report also appear to corroborate claims regarding racism in Cape Town.

And while some critics (including the DA) reject the findings of that report, one could argue that Helen Zille’s response doesn’t properly address the possibility of racism directed at black South Africans, in that it’s largely focused on the facts of integration and equity in the coloured population (I use this term as per employment equity legislation, rather than because I think they are sensible).

Two entirely separate issues could be co-existing here, and should not be conflated. First, it’s entirely possible – even probable – that the ANC uses the “racist Cape Town” card as a political weapon against the DA, and in doing so might exaggerate the extent to which racism is prevalent in Cape Town. But second, it is also possible that black visitors to (and residents of) Cape Town experience racist treatment exceeding the levels found in other parts of the country. We shouldn’t pretend this possibility doesn’t exist, simply because we don’t like it.

Cape Town does have a higher proportion of whites and coloureds than most other metros. And if racists are everywhere, we could well have more of them here than, for example, Johannesburg. The facts of this matter could easily be established via a proper survey of attitudes and behaviours across the country, if we cared to do so. Until we do, anecdotes and perceptions are all we have – and the perceptions are real and no doubt hurtful to those who have them.

In other words, if it is the case that Cape Town is perceived as being racist, this perception is a problem in itself, regardless of the truth of the allegations themselves. And my opinion – right or wrong – is that this perception is grounded in reality. But whether it’s mere perception or not, we’re not going to fix whatever problems do exist – whether racism or the perception thereof – by being offended or by insulting those who make such claims.

Defensive reactions such as these forestall debate. And whether prejudice exists equally everywhere or not, we know it exists everywhere. Perhaps, then, the real lesson lies in what Sipho Hlongwane tweeted at the time, “CPT and JHB are often equally prejudiced. Only one city is honest & confronts this”.

Let’s start by making that two cities - and then not stop there. DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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