I have been following with interest the popular discussion on a form of racism described as unique to Cape Town. Many commentators have written and spoken about what is curiously said to be the racist capital of South Africa and the narrative has grown exponentially over the last few years, pointing to the possibility that there may be more to this discussion than meets the eye.
There can be no contestation of the assertion that there is racism in Cape Town, just as there can be no debate about the ubiquitous presence of racism in all of South Africa. This is the unfortunate legacy of our Apartheid past, a reality we are all trying to work through. There is simply no part of South Africa that can claim to be free of racism.
So what is it about Cape Town which seems to attract this consistent slew of criticism regarding its race relations? And, perhaps more importantly, what is it about those who sustain this lament? What informs their expectations?
Is it possible that there may be a subliminal aspiration to Cape Town’s upper-crust lifestyle – a closely guarded enclave of the rich, mainly white – by similarly rich, ambitious and perhaps greedy black sushi-eating elites who seek to take control of this socio-economic class? Is there a possibility that once again the “Holy Transformation” argument and the inevitable race card is being cunningly and selfishly used by narrow class interests for dominance, not for equality or justice but for replacement rather than transformation? Who really stands to benefit from this race rhetoric aimed at Cape Town? Will the poor people of Khayelitsha, Gugulethu or Mitchells Plein really see any material change to their economic conditions, or do the results of such complaints only benefit the well heeled? Could this be the sour grapes of black middle- class prima donnas hell-bent on forcing a specific version of transformation and integration on Cape Town that will benefit them and them alone?
There is a saying which goes, “Those who cannot reach the grapes declare them sour.”
Let me firstly declare that I too, have personally been a victim of racism in Cape Town. I have been made to feel racially uncomfortable not only by white folks but by so called “coloured” folks there too. I have incidentally also been made to feel like a foreigner in Cape Town by black folks who realised that I do not speak isiXhosa, the predominant African language spoken in Cape Town. This latter experience gave me a glimpse into the experience of African foreign nationals who often find themselves in the midst of us black South Africans. The “harmless” jokes about their accents, the remarks we make about their hygiene and black magic prowess, or even their penal endowments, all of which are wrong, but often not seen as deeply prejudiced attitudes by us.
The details of the incidents of racial prejudice I have experienced in Cape Town are irrelevant because this was my experience, my own subjective experience. But it is an experience shared by many. Would it be fair, though, to make a sweeping generalisation about all of Cape Town because of an authentic but subjective experience and then come to a conclusion that has the potential to create a stereotype that would be difficult to reverse? Ironically, this is the argument used by those who speak of the “endemic racism” of Cape Town when pressed for a more universal and credible principle to underpin the assertion that Cape Town is the most racist city in South Africa. “It’s my experience, do not trivialise it by interrogating the conclusions I arrive at, that is racist!” is the patronising retort when challenged. You decide the fairness or validity of such an argument, the conclusions to which have such far reaching implications. Should it not be subjected to deeper scrutiny to test its universal applicability as its assertion suggests?
I suppose I’m trying to concur with those who point out that there is widespread prejudice (of a racial nature) in Cape Town because I have felt it too. I feel compelled, however, to say that I have been a victim of similar racism and prejudice in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Bloemfontein and, may I add, I have probably been an accidental perpetrator of the same prejudices at one stage or the other, myself. Yes, these were subjective experiences, painful experiences which have left a bitter taste but cannot be the reason for a wholesale accusation of a whole city.
So what is it about Cape Town’s brand of racism that has captured the interest of the many pundits who write and talk about it?
Well, let’s see. Indeed, Cape Town has in the past, particularly in the dark days of Apartheid, been seen by many as being much more liberal in its racial character than other South African cities, especially those in the hinterland, particularly in the “Ou Transvaal”, where blacks knew their place, back in the day. It has been the one city that has been able to attract foreigners from Europe and the US and, over time, has developed an international cosmopolitan character that is not typically South African.
It is the one city in South Africa where the majority of its citizens are not black, and where the social and economic agenda is not necessarily set by black folks because of their meagre numbers in that part of the country. It is also the city that has attracted many white folks who previously lived in other parts of South Africa but could not handle the “swell of blackness” in other areas of South Africa, particularly Gauteng, and could not go to Australia or New Zealand, for whatever reason. These white folks are those who prefer to commute between Cape Town and Joburg because while they need the economic spoils of GP, they enjoy the “non-blackness” of Cape Town, as some would argue. There they don’t feel the need to “bend over blackwards” as has been said about those whites who have “acclimatised” to the sheer numbers of black folks in other parts of South Africa. There is therefore a character to Cape Town that is not inspired by a black-led agenda characteristic of other provinces in the country. One can’t ignore the reality, also, that Cape Town, the capital city of the Western Cape, a province governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance, which has been generally caricatured (rightly or wrongly) as a “white party”, is the location of bitter political contestation between the governing DA and the opposition ANC, generally caricatured (rightly or wrongly) as a “black party”. There is also the contestation for economic opportunities which is, as is the case everywhere else in South Africa, still, unfortunately, determined by a racially determined pecking order. Even the fact that the racial demographic of the Western Cape is not as “black friendly” as it is for the rest of the country is cited as evidence that Cape Town is more racist that the rest. Really? These, among many others, are the factors pointed out by the self-appointed priests and priestesses of political correctness and racial equity.
The point here is that these issues are true for Cape Town, but they are true for the rest of South Africa too! All one needs to do is simply turn the tables and see if the same reasons that would make a black middle class individual (one who has voice and economic means) point the finger at Cape town, are not the same factors that would be true for a white middle class individual who points the finger at Joburg or Pretoria, hence their move to Sydney or even Cape Town! These individuals, both black and white middle class folks, are two sides of the same narrow class-focused coin and the one kettle cannot be calling the other pot black (pun intended). Their carping is nothing more than a contest over who gets to complain more cynically about the other. Their complaints have nothing to do with the real issues of widespread structural inequality that bedevil our society. It is, frankly, inconsequential whether you feel ignored at a restaurant at the Waterfront because in Joburg everybody recognises your celebrity and falls over themselves trying to get your attention. Neither is it a seismic revelation that your German friend does not like Cape Town and you were under the impression that all Germans would prefer Cape Town rather than Joburg because of your own prejudices. Get over yourself! There are many examples of racism in Cape Town but there are also many examples of goodwill there too, just as there are in other parts of the country.
What irritates me most is not the patently childish lament by certain commentators about Cape Town’s so called “unique racism”; that is their right. It is the hijacking of the legitimate transformative imperative that is aimed at deeper and broad-based change in South Africa by narrow middle-class intentions, that gets my goat. It cheapens the discussion. It is the unbridled arrogance of certain black pundits to think all they have to do is invoke the race card in order to feed their narcissistic and, dare I say, even racist agendas. It takes a racist to know one. The shame is that in all of these well-crafted but useless arguments, the poverty of the black masses, whose name they abuse, continues, while they fight for a piece of the cheesecake.
Sies. Stop it, it’s silly! DM
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