A conversation with musician Simphiwe Dana brought to light a new understanding of race issues in the Mother City, reports Yazeed Kamaldien.
While living in Cape Town for two years, well known South African singer Simphiwe Dana felt the weight of being black.
When I recently spoke to her in Johannesburg – she moved to the economic capital in December last year – she said that she was happy because she was back in the ‘integrated’ city where she had lived for ten years.
A highlight of Dana’s short stint in Cape Town was her public debate about racism in the Mother City with the Western Cape’s political leader, Premier Helen Zille. The last round of this racism row unfolded shortly before she travelled north. The heated interchanges were an ongoing conversation about how racist Cape Town apparently remains towards ‘non white’ people.
Dana told me that her public confrontations with Zille – predominantly on Twitter and then in newspaper headlines – were intended to ‘focus on real change’. Living in Cape Town gave her a ‘sense of what is still going on in South Africa’.
‘I was in the middle of white power. Even though it’s subtle, it still chooses to oppress, subjugate and look down upon. That made me speak out,’ she said. ‘Cape Town has mastered the art of racism. People see you but they look over you. You can feel it. I have exposed prejudices that people still have even though they say let’s be friends. Now I want to build, whether with or without them. Hopefully people have been listening.’
As a person of colour, I have a firsthand understanding of what Dana means when she says that people in Cape Town ‘look over you’. This is a common experience while walking down city streets, in some shops, at malls and at restaurants. And if you’re not being overlooked or ignored completely, you’re being treated like you’re definitely in the wrong place.
The failure to acknowledge my presence is especially difficult when perpetrated by other people of colour. But perhaps I just notice it more when I am ignored or discounted by someone who looks like me. This disrespect is shocking mostly because it feels distastefully ironic. How could they treat someone from their own community in that way?
Cape Town reminds us how racism gets internalised – to the extent that people of the same ‘race’ practice it on each other. My friends who visit from other parts of the country always notice how the ‘dress code’ is suddenly enforced by whoever is at the door when they try to enter some or other night spot in this city.
At the time of the Dana/Zille racism debates, I had reported the story of a young black boy who had allegedly been denied entry to a caravan park in East London for the Cape Times newspaper. The white woman who had contacted me about this incident explained that the park’s owners had told her that she could not bring along her son’s best friend because he was black. She went to the park anyway because, in her words, her mother had already made all the arrangements for their end-of-year holiday.
There was a lot of emotional public comment on the websites where these reports had been published. It felt like we were living in a country that was in fact not complacent about racism – even though Cape Town sometimes seems to be.
The public response also revealed the obvious fact that racism remains complex. A large number of responses indicated that South Africans are ready to move on from racism as well as its accompanying degradation and hurt.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2011 SA Reconciliation Barometer survey results, which I also reported on at the same time, indicated that South Africans are presently concerned more about economic inequality than the divisions caused by race.
Unfortunately, we know that this does not mean that racism is dead. However, people who make a stand against it have been ridiculed in the media and elsewhere, and referred to as ‘professional blacks’ – a term used by Jacob Dlamini in a Business Day column last year, and later by Zille in a tweet to Dana.
Zille later clarified this term, saying that it was a person who views the world through the colour of their skin. A professional black – like a professional white, coloured or Indian – remains a victim of their race. By inference, this person would typically view racism as the reason behind most of life’s woes.
Dana didn’t want to get drawn into all these labels when we chatted recently. She said also
that she did not resent Zille: ‘I love her.’
‘I did make suggestions to the Premier (Zille) that her saying that people must call her with incidents of racism will not cut it. It is very condescending. She needs to run an anti-racism drive in Cape Town,’ said Dana.
Johannesburg, she feels, is ‘much more integrated’.
‘There are racial issues here but there’s not an oppressive feeling when you walk down the street. You don’t feel your blackness. There is not a sense of institutionalised racism,’ she said. ‘Conversations are more substantial and meaningful in Johannesburg. They are refined. There’s not that much ignorance here when it comes to issues. People want to talk. They don’t want to sweep things under the carpet. In Cape Town you must watch what you’re saying.’
Dana’s words echoed my thoughts about Cape Town – the city of my birth – and Johannesburg, which I feel is the most ‘real’ post-apartheid South African city.
I often think back fondly to the time when I lived in Johannesburg. My interactions with people from different races did feel more real. The conversations were less pretentious. Racism was something that nobody needed to be quiet about.
I think that most people in Cape Town still feel a lack of self-assurance in their own skin colour. As a result, they are unable to offer people who look like them, specifically when they are people of colour, a sense of affirmation – that comforting smile of acknowledgement that says, ‘You’re okay.’
And black people still walk around downtown Cape Town uncertain that it’s really their city. No wonder Dana feels at home where she is now.
Yazeed Kamaldien is a freelance journalist and photographer. His work is available here.