The soul of wit
24 November 2014 16:50 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

Colour-blind spots in Cape Town and racism

  • Paul Berkowitz
Helen Zille and Simphiwe Dana are at each others’ throats again. Dana alleges that Cape Town is a “racist city” and demands that the DA clean up the town. But is it really so bad?

During the annual December holidays South Africans of all types down tools and look for some rest and respite before tackling a new year. For many of us this means the embrace of family and tradition, for others it’s exotic holidays. For those who stayed put at home this year (and we have our reasons) the long summer hours were sometimes difficult to fill with interesting enough distractions.

For those of us who had run out of TV to watch, games to play and braais to attend, Helen Zille and Simphiwe Dana were kind enough to engage in a new skirmish on Twitter (twirmish?). Details of the catcalls and kidney punches can be found here and here, but the long and short of this new tiff is Dana’s accusation that Cape Town is a “racist city” and Zille’s admonition to Dana not to become “a professional black” (a phrase first coined by Jacob Dlamini in reference to Jimmy Manyi).

Dana, when not working on her award-winning career as a musician, has created something of a cottage industry out of baiting Zille on Twitter. Dana is clearly a passionate adherent of the black consciousness movement and champions its message both on stage and off. She’s also identified Zille (and the DA and Cape Town) as her antagonists and positioned herself as a champion of the downtrodden wherever the DA govern.

Zille for her part appears to be well-meaning, but at best she doesn’t seem able to divine the deep reservoirs of anger and pain inside many black South Africans. At worst she appears to be giving offense to Dana and others – unintended and careless, but all-too-regular offense. Her accessibility and pro-activity on Twitter is a double-edged sword: she’s been praised by people for visibly trying to fix their problems, but is easily provoked into needless arguments. 

The latest fight spilled over to the airwaves on the weekend on 702, with Aubrey Masango facilitating a direct dialogue between Zille and Dana. Neither Zille nor Dana covered themselves in glory.

Zille, on the defensive, came across as insensitive to the full effects of racism. Her insistence on cataloguing each instance of racism in Cape Town, crime by crime and case number by case number, ignored the big-picture effects of institutionalised racism. Dana didn’t seem to quite know what she wanted from Zille, apart from a commitment to do more to stamp out racism.

Zille came across as irritable and even abrasive at times. Dana frequently interrupted Zille (and some of the callers) and once sarcastically referred to Zille as “Miss Helen”, which is a handy cultural googly to throw and poison the well when debating issues of race.

I’m not going to add to the landfill of verbiage that the “Cape Town is racist” debate normally generates. I lived in Cape Town for seven years before returning home to Johannesburg, and I’ve witnessed racism in both cities. While labelling Capetonians is a fun pastime and good sport on Twitter, it is neither fair nor objectively true that the city is more racist than any other South African metropolis. 

Allow me to defend my opinion by unpacking what it means to assert that “X is a racist city”. One approach to such a claim is to dismiss it out of hand as Zille has chosen to do: people can be racist, but not cities. Dismiss Dana’s viewpoint as an example of the pathetic fallacy, insist on detailed accounts of individual racism, and be home in time for tea and Twitter. Easy-peasy.

The angle I’m taking is to acknowledge that every city in South Africa is racist by design. Apartheid spatial planning ensured that black South Africans were located away from economic and cultural centres. The townships and satellite centres to which they were forcibly moved barely feature in many of the official histories of our cities. The long-term prospects of upward economic and social mobility for people born in Kagiso or Alexandra don’t appear to be significantly better than for their counterparts in Langa or Gugulethu.

The perceptions and experiences of black South Africans in Cape Town are partly shaped by the perceptions and experiences of white South Africans in Cape Town. These in turn are possibly shaped as much by accidents of history as by any desire to change for the better.

Black Africans are in the majority in every major city except Cape Town. Across Johannesburg there has been a critical mass of middle-class and upper middle-class black people for over a decade, living, studying, working and playing in traditionally white spaces. Most white Joburgers have adjusted to the new reality, engaging with and even sharing their formally exclusive spaces. They’re no more likely to travel to Soweto than their counterparts in Cape Town are likely to make the excursion to the Cape Flats, but they’ve normalised the idea of having middle-class black neighbours and of their kids interacting with black classmates.

Speaking of Soweto, it is big enough and old enough to have created its own economic and social nodes. The municipal government has prioritised its development and has done a lot to transform the poorer suburbs, although I’ve heard residents of Alexandra complain that this is done at their expense. (Is the Johannesburg council being racist in ignoring the development of Alexandra or is it merely being pragmatic in recognising where the low-hanging fruits of economic development are located?) Soweto is the exception that proves the rule: it was never meant to have a sustainable local economy, but it developed its own critical mass over time.

In contrast, black Africans have never been in the majority in Western Cape. There isn’t a critical mass of young middle-class blacks that has taken root in Cape Town – at least not yet. There isn’t a Cape Town analogue of Soweto that has defied the odds.

Black people in Cape Town have not amassed sufficient economic power to appear on the radar of white business and there aren’t sufficient numbers of them to provide cover against hostile fire. Cape Town may or may not harbour more racists than Johannesburg, but the complexities of racism include the dynamics of power relations. A racist incident in Johannesburg may be less likely to rankle if the intended victim has enough economic and social capital to shrug it off.

None of this armchair analysis is meant to dismiss, discount or disparage the experiences of black people in Cape Town. Black people continue to be personae non gratae in certain clubs and shops and it’s clearly not because Cape Town proprietors are better at smelling out money than their Johannesburg counterparts. But racism isn’t a neat, binary phenomenon, particularly not in South Africa. If anything Capetonians have been shielded from the socio-economic evolution that has been experienced in some other big cities and they haven’t had to deal with the realities of a new black middle-class. (The smug, parochial Johannesburger in me looks at this self-professed cosmopolitan city struggling to process the last two decades of social change and finds the ironies delicious.)

An objective appraisal and comparison of the various cities and their efforts to combat racism would include an analysis of the work done to integrate marginalised black people into the broader society. It would examine efforts made by provincial and local governments to improve access to transport, education, housing and healthcare. If the provincial budget is anything to go by, the DA in Western Cape appreciates the challenges it faces in education, healthcare and social development. We should be able to evaluate by 2014 whether its first term in provincial office has been successful in unpicking the work of the apartheid loom or not.

This brings me to a final point: what exactly does Dana expect Zille and the Cape Town elders to do to combat racism? From what I could glean from listening on the radio, Dana would like to live in a Cape Town where the city’s administration is actively trying to stamp out racism. She doesn’t say how this would be accomplished or what kind of resources should be allocated to the problem. Would it require educational programmes at primary school level? A billboard campaign across the city? (It might resemble Fifa’s anti-racism attempts with a uniquely Cape Town flavour – “Just, like, say no to racism, brah”.)

Dana’s call for the city to fix the problem says as much about our willingness as South Africans to outsource all of our problems to people in authority as it does about the problems themselves. Both the DA and the ANC have a strong paternalistic streak running through them, and they actively nurture the myth that big government is an indispensible part of our daily lives. It’s tempting to believe that the DA is merely reaping what it has sown in Western Cape. Tempting, but wrong.

The difference between Zille’s pedantic, technocratic approach to incidents of racism and Dana’s call to stamp out racism altogether is akin to the difference between providing ARVs to ameliorate the effects of the disease and to discovering a cure for HIV. Johannesburg has a much stronger immune system than Cape Town and shows fewer obvious symptoms of the virus, but it can’t claim with a straight face that it has a clean bill of health.

It is not the job of government to effect social change. Government’s job should be to create an environment where social change can flourish and where citizens’ menu of choices is enhanced and maximised. This could be seen as a glib claim even in a much healthier society than ours, and Zille and her party won’t win any points by emphasising individual responsibility. The DA needs to focus on a couple of points if it wants to win the popular vote. It needs to realise the debate cannot be won by having a stronger argument, but by displaying empathy for the victims of racism. It needs to convince black people living in Cape Town that eliminating racial discrimination is a priority for the party.

It isn’t fair that the DA has to take on this additional responsibility while the ANC in Gauteng doesn’t have to devote time and resources to stamping out xenophobia, for example, but whining about fairness is for kids, not politicians. The marginalised foreign Africans aren’t an important constituency to any political party in South Africa. Black South Africans are the most important constituency, because that is how the game of democracy is played in its crudest form. The first step for Zille is to stop alienating this constituency and engage with them. DM

  • Paul Berkowitz
PaulBerkowitzBW

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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