Firstly, this entire country still features sprinklings of racism that often peak in rural communities or the northern provinces – where white superiority pans out unquestioned. Nonetheless such instances of overt racism (such as the Wavecrest / Wild Coast resorts in the Eastern Cape which aren’t shy to say “No blacks allowed!”) are much easier to digest as well as address. Such that we cannot say such places are the most racist. The most racist places would have to be those that don’t know they are racist. Like Cape Town. Cape Town takes the cake where racism is concerned because its racists amble about unconsciously offending here and there without so much as batting an eyelid. Such is unconsciousness.
Who are these unconscious racists?
They are faceless and could be white, could be coloured and black even. They are mostly experienced, not seen, as they are deeply institutionalised in the fabric of Cape Town. Their trademark feature is how blacks experience them. There are no “No blacks allowed!” signs in Cape Town and that is what makes its racism far worse than that of the rural areas I mentioned earlier.
To understand this racism we have to understand that blacks are a minority in Cape Town, majority of which lives in townships and primarily moved to Cape Town for menial labour way back then. To this day, the great majority of blacks migrating to Cape Town still do so for menial labour. Their role in the functioning of the Cape has always been menial, such that inferiority complexes were easily adopted. So inferior are Cape blacks that even Cape coloureds see themselves as superior to them. Afterall Cape coloureds share Afrikaans with many a white person and former oppressors of this country. With language alone we are able to already see the barrier. There begins the exclusionary nature of Cape Town. People who have something in common, like language, often never see how their commonality locks others out: They tend to employ, advantage, prefer or relate better with those who have something in common with them, almost by default. This explains the seemingly preferential intake of coloured employees over blacks of equal qualification. It seems qualified or black professionals are a risk employee in the Cape – they’re seen to be race-obsessed, nuisance-ical and uncomfortable to have around if they’re assertive and can raise race matters. It’s better to employ the coloured employee with whom it is easier to bond (via shared social imaginings borne out of this cultural common ground foregrounded by the language of Afrikaans and English).
Where does this leave the Cape black?
Well, it beats the Cape black into submission that indeed “I am of a lower being!” Having accepted this means that Cape whites become accustomed to obedient/subservient blacks who rarely raise concerns nor assert their being as equals. I draw this conclusion based on an elderly Cape white friend who travelled to Swaziland and came back a bit shocked saying, “the black people there are different! The way they speak to us whites, they don’t look down – they look you in the eye. They don’t pull child-like smiles or laughs when talking to you, they just talk to you as a person.” To her mind or from what I gathered from our conversation she was acknowledging that indeed something’s wrong with the Cape black she’s grown accustomed to. I am surprised many a white person has yet to admit that Cape blacks allow themselves into positions of inferiority that enable whites to walk all over them without so much as feeling guilty about it.
The Cape black inferiority complex has become the norm in Cape Town. Such that it is unquestionable. Any black not born nor raised in Cape Town will immediately feel this inferior treatment by whites, coloureds and Cape blacks even. The ones who exert the most racism on behalf of whites are in actual fact coloureds and Cape blacks. Never have I seen so much self-loathing in my life. I’ve been here for 12 years and it still baffles me how coloureds have come to treat blacks with such contempt. Perhaps it’s the insidious nature of whiteness that prevails over Cape blacks and coloureds. It is unacceptable. When a people has been beaten into submission by their master they tend to turn and take out their frustration on one another, rarely on the master. Hence master doesn't see this frustration. It explains why white people, like Helen Zille, will immediately jump to say there’s no racism – show us the racism, where and when it took place. Because in all honesty her experience of blacks is premised by the precedence set by Cape blacks – that her mannerism as a white person is acceptable. All is well. “Mavis-the-maid understands me and I understand Mavis” white internalisation.
I will further go on to state that I personally do not expect any white person to see contemporary racism. I mean how on earth do we expect a people that claimed it couldn’t see racism when it was active pre-94 to suddenly see racism when it has been declared inactive post-94? If you couldn’t see it when it was in front of you, you most likely won’t see it when it has passed you. We’re being way too optimistic in our expectation of white South Africans to see neo-racism. Way too optimistic.
Sadly, I am reducing my argument to black versus white. This is borne out of the online discussions where this entire “Cape Town is racist” was produced months ago. The white stance online is to deny there’s racism in Cape Town – they even ask for evidence. The black stance asserts there is racism in Cape Town – they just aren’t sure how to pinpoint it or resolve it. What makes these online discussions even harder is the fact that white South Africans tend to speak from positions of privilege on the matter (i.e.: they honestly aren’t affected nor were affected) and as such it’s common to find that privileged people tend to hide behind other people’s stories or other places of reference. Hence you will find them saying “That happened in Germany…” or “My domestic worker had a similar…” it’s never really personal engagement – if it is it’s probably gender or something else related. Never race. We rarely hear the white side to this claimed racism. We rarely hear admissions and a “What can we do as white people?” all we hear is “There’s no such, Cape Town isn’t racist!” or at times you will hear, “Can we stick to the facts, stats and tangible aspects? And put race aside!?” or "Let's talk about class and culture, not race!" all in the name of sorting out their discomfort with the subject of race.
For as long as we run away from race, it will continue to catch up with us. We cannot continue to devalue difference in this country. We cannot continuously enforce diversity – put people together and expect osmosis of sorts. Intergroup dialogue is needed, blending won’t just happen naturally. Why are we not engaging one another on these matters seriously?
What can be done about Cape Town’s racism?
One has to ask themself these questions:
1. Would Cape Town be less racist if it had more black professionals or blacks from other
provinces settling in it?
2. Would Cape Town be less racist if the predominant language were a black language?
3. Would Cape Town be less racist if the ruling Democractic Alliance (DA) and other
political parties stopped capitalising on black versus coloured rifts come voting season?
4. Would Cape Town be less racist if it had fewer tourists? (the tourists’ question is rarely
ever considered in this debate – I imagine tourists enter South Africa oblivious to
the sensitivities of race, they spend and rub in white conspicuous consumption, which
for the lay black man simply means white people are still rich in this country and are
unrepentantly spending their riches).
5. Is it possible that Cape Town is racist because white people are free and comfortable to
be in it and shamelessly flaunt their known-as-inherited-or-stolen good life in front of
It’s possible. It is further possible that all that we interpret as racist behaviour is nothing but fear and self-preservation of a white race that has found itself Cape Town. In the interests of this fear it will resort to infectious cliquey behaviour – stick to own kind, ensure spaces are more frequented by own kind without making it overt, pass on opportunities to own kind or (as mentioned earlier) coloureds they are more comfortable with – all in the interests of self preservation. Even the geography of Cape Town clings steadfast to apartheid ideals – whiteness lives comfortably alone (around convenience), blackness lives far away (around the airport). Hence it’s common to hear white people say “I love Cape Town!” or “I’d love to move to Cape Town” – trust me, it’s not the mountain calling, it’s probably the need to be around more of your kind in an ideal setting, that privileges them further, like Cape Town. Such is human – we’re more free, comfortable, with ease and similarity than with difficulty and difference.