New Years’ Day in Cape Town in Muizenberg started beautifully and the beaches on the False Bay coast were pumping.
There were people everywhere and the sand, the picnic spots and every available spot of grass were pegged with what seemed like a million gazebos and beach umbrellas in a rainbow of purple, pink, blue, green and black.
Gqom blasted from speakers here, R&B there and in between some rock.
Beach apartheid ended in 1989 when the Separate Amenities Act was repealed and, generally, the beaches do well by their people. Incidents like that at Clifton where a private security company instructed visitors to leave one of the beaches and caused a mini-crisis, featuring a poor sheep which was slaughtered, are relatively rare and the naked racism of a Penny Sparrow, the Durban estate agent who complained in 2016 that black bathers who filled Durban beaches were “monkeys”, is unlikely to happen again as she was successfully sued for racism.
But are there other ways that Cape Town can make the annual big beach days better for the black people who flock there more than they do at any other time of the year?
This year, for example, it started raining on New Year’s Day in the late afternoon. It was a mess for the beachgoers, who sat shivering on pavements as their transport (largely taxis, buses and some cars) was caught in a labyrinth of traffic queues, both coming in and out.
The gazebos were dripping, the pots of deliciousness hastily packed up and the people’s finest costumes or New Year’s Day outfits ruined in the rain. It looked like a great day spoiled by a downpour and traffic officials who careered about, blue lights flashing, but who didn’t seem to be doing so very efficiently or in a way that placed beachgoers at the centre of their efforts.
Richard Bosman, City of Cape Town executive director for safety and security, said:
“We had sufficient personnel at all the beaches. Rain produced (a) quicker-than-normal exodus which caused some congestion, but this soon cleared.”
Storms happen and our summers are given to them, but there was a bigger issue to think through about black people and Cape Town beaches on this day, and in the light of the Clifton kerfuffle.
It is this: Is it possible for the city of Cape Town and its provincial administration to do more for the beach visitors? Cape Town, like most of South Africa’s cities, has not risen to the challenge of dealing with spatial apartheid, so the cities have sprawled rather than risen. This means that at holiday times in cities with big beach culture, for most black people it means migrating inward to the beach, of being a temporary sojourner.
I wondered as we sat in the traffic and people were marooned on pavements, some sleeping wrapped in beach blankets as the rain bucketed down and temperatures cooled rapidly and significantly, whether the City could not place black beachgoers at the centre of its gaze twice a year?
If the City could create an imagined community, by clearing the road of cars and making public transport to and from the beaches free, secure and regular, so people could come to the beaches and get home safely and on time?
It would be a gift of temporary spatial integration and provide a sense of belonging in a city where poor black people can often be treated as outsiders and sojourners.
Daily Maverick requested comment from the City of Cape Town on what more it could do for beachgoers on the big beach days, but it did not respond timeously. We will reflect its views should the City respond. DM