Opinionista Osiame Molefe 5 January 2012

Cape Town, world racism capital 2011?

Last year’s global accolades were not enough to spare Cape Town an ignominy it has so far been unable to shake off. A trend on Twitter in South Africa, #CapeTownIsRacist annoyed Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and many other (mostly white, I suggest) Cape Town residents. What’s Africa’s “little Europe” got to do to catch a break on this perennial bugbear?

A good start would be for its leaders and residents to acknowledge the potential for a problem, which, as the Social Justice Coalition’s Gavin Silber pointed out, is mostly the result of almost 50 years of apartheid, not six years of Democratic Alliance rule.

More so than in the country’s other metros, Cape Town’s racial and income distribution, and historically disproportionate development have created groups of people who live together, but apart. The city admitted as much and the mammoth task of breaking down the barriers in the bid document it submitted to clinch the World Design Capital 2014 honour. These enclaves are physical – separating black Gugulethu from coloured Mitchell’s Plain from white Clifton – and mental too, where, often subconsciously, residents limit deep and meaningful social interaction to those within their racial group and hold unchallenged preconceptions of what characteristics define the other.

But instead, when Lindiwe Suttle tweeted about having experienced racism in Cape Town, Zille’s immediate response was to say, “What complete nonsense”. Zille later bordered on the ridiculous when she suggested that those who allege racism in Cape Town are part of an ANC cabal, bitter that the DA is in charge in Western Cape. Sure, the ANC has used the issue before to score political points, but to use this as the basis to dismiss the possibility that racism is endemic in Cape Town is a political shot in the foot when courting the black vote.

Capetonians, feeling under attack, also responded with the unimaginative #CapeTownIsAwesome tag, which did nothing to engage on the topic.  

How different a conversation would it have been had Zille immediately responded (as she eventually came around to doing, sort of) by expressing her disgust at racism and saying that she will not tolerate it in her province?

To her credit, Zille asked for details of specific incidents and has been sending emails to establishments concerned. But that she asked for this and has been promising to act against those concerned betrays a lack of understanding of the mechanics of racism. Paint me the colour of surprise if anything comes from her investigations because the mechanics are such that racism can often easily and plausibly be denied. That’s not to say nothing can be done about it, however, it will not be tackled incident-by-incident alone.

It is trendy in Cape Town to “downgrade” potential racism to classism. Zille should expect to hear this from the establishments she contacts. In this hierarchical view of prejudice, it is better to be a classist than a racist, even if the experience, regardless of what it is labelled, is the same for the person at whom the discrimination is directed. And never mind that discrimination by class, while not specifically mentioned in Section 9 of the Bill of Rights, is also likely prohibited.

In 2003, when Marcus Pillay, a coloured Cape Town actuary, was turned away from Sliver, a gay club in Green Point now closed, the club’s owners said their door policies were based on class, not race. Pillay and constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos took the issue to the Equality Court and reached a settlement where the club owners admitted that Pillay was prohibited from entering the club on racial grounds and promised to revise the entrance policy. That lesson, however, has been lost at other bars in the area, particularly Bronx, are still dogged by accusations that their door policies are racially prejudiced.

The third (and final) time I was turned away from Asoka, a bar and lounge in Kloof Street, a representative of the establishment wrote, “I can inform you that Asoka does not have a racist door policy! We will be the first to admit that our policy is based on class and superficiality – unfortunately that is what our regulars expect and want. And realistically this is the unfortunate reality of the society we live in!”

Further problems with this “stepping down” of racism to classism is that you cannot easily discern class on sight. Save for the truly ostentatious, no one walks around with their income and net assets tacked to the front of their shirts. In both instances, the doormen at these establishments had sweet bugger-all to discern class other than skin colour given that in Pillay’s and my case, we were dressed no different to other patrons.

Class and race, particularly in Cape Town due to the city’s particular racial socio-economics, are a case of six-of-one, half a dozen of the other in the minds of many. Unlike Johannesburg, for example, where black wealth is not a rarity, in classist Cape Town, white is money and black is poverty. In classist Cape Town, white moves about unquestioned and being black means retailers can say without shame that you cannot afford their merchandise and kick you out of their store.

The actions taken by Pillay also point to something else that can be done to help the city shake off its unsavoury reputation. Rights are given, but they are of no good unless accepted and exercised. In a constitutional democracy, where there exist institutions to protect those rights, complaining to leaders and on social networks is only a fraction of the possible actions one can take. Which is why, after hearing of more friends turned away due to Asoka’s supposedly classist door policy, I have placed my trust in our democratic institutions. I have filed a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission over Asoka’s door policy, and encourage anybody else in Cape Town or elsewhere who feels their rights have been violated to do the same. After all, that is part of why these institutions exist. This action will also bring finality – for me and others – to the violation to which many may believe no resolution exists save for lugging it around with us. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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