Racism may be alive and unwell in Cape Town, but agreeing to a dialogue across historic dividing lines may be a starting point for real progress, writes KENNETH LUKUKO.
In the early 1980s, as South Africa lived through the last full decade of apartheid, a group of multinational corporations made a serious attempt to contribute to the building of a democratic future. They entered into a partnership with one of the first schools to become multi-racial and provided scholarships to youngsters from Cape Town’s black townships.
This was a very bold step for South Africa at that time, and neither government nor society was prepared for the reality of having black learners in a white school in the suburbs.
There has been significant recent debate in the media about whether or not Cape Town is a racist city. I reflected on the lives of those boys, of whom I am one, and the society that has had to adjust to accommodate our new democratic reality. This is my account of the story, and the difficulty of finding a future without ‘racism’, and ultimately without ‘race’.
This group of boys ate, washed and played together, prayed together and sung in chapel, were punished together, and studied and travelled to school together as children of different races, but with virtually no understanding or memory of race. They learned English and isiXhosa together and at times outperformed each other in the other’s mother tongue. Sometimes when travelling through the suburbs they would all climb into the same train carriage, oblivious as to which race it was reserved for.
Of course, when this happened a shocked and outraged ticket conductor would quickly escort the black learners out of the ‘Whites Only’ carriage. Whatever conversations were going on between friends would come to an abrupt end. The protective bubble of life on school grounds would be quickly shattered by the reality of life outside. Some, but not all, of the white learners would accompany their schoolmates into the non-white carriage.
One of the most humiliating moments in the life of any victim of apartheid, the boys would sadly learn, would be the experience of walking past whole groups of disapproving onlookers in both carriages. Would their faces be remembered, and how would they be treated afterwards? This was a sudden reminder of the reality that all other black South Africans faced under apartheid laws. The equality of the classroom, boarding house, and the sports field was suddenly overturned for a hierarchy in which black Africans were legally and socially obliged to take up their position at the bottom.
This was only the beginning. These boys had to learn a plethora of accompanying laws in order to avoid breaking the law again. The next humiliation would be to consider in which one out of the two worlds one would ask for further explanation of the laws made for his race.
It is now almost three decades later. As a young black professional, I have never left Cape Town to work elsewhere. Yet in my own experience, the resilient status dynamics between white, coloured and black African people in the Western Cape and Cape Town seems to reflect apartheid’s legacy more than anywhere else in South Africa.
Is Cape Town an inherently racist city? And why are we asking this question now – is it only to improve our image and marketing to the outside world, or are we truly committed to honest debate and a shared, long-term solution?
It is a historic reality that the apartheid exclusion of black Africans from Cape Town was particularly emphatic, in the economy but also in social and family life.
Recent rounds of the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey conducted by the IJR have found repeatedly that social contact between people of different races in South Africa remains limited. The SARB also finds that the lower a household’s income, the less likely they are to be in contact with people of other races. For the majority of South Africans, life in this country is still experienced through a racially segregated reality. Even progressive attempts to change this situation are proving a challenge.
Capetonians of different races still engage socially in limited ways, particularly those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder – who, by apartheid design, are mostly black and speak languages other than Afrikaans and English.
The pervasive political rhetoric in this province, which escalates during election times, is premised on a subtext that this part of South Africa needs to be kept away from the apparently dangerous, impending clutches of control of the ruling party. Those of us who are still waiting for transformation struggle to understand what seems, at times, to be a schizophrenic embrace of both a rainbow-nation dream and what seems to be a fear of black control. During Nelson Mandela’s presidency, it was the only city in which he was met with a placard that referred to him with the K-word. And it has taken Cape Town longer than anywhere else in the country to name a major public space or amenity after Mandela, although it is the city associated most closely with his incarceration, as well as being the backdrop for scenes of his release, which were broadcast all over the world.
Our racism is also illusive. It has many proxies and guises and ways of camouflaging itself, in the economy, in our inferences about corruption. Media coverage and reporting seems to suggest that we need to celebrate this city as more civilised or more competent than the rest of South Africa. For this reason, ‘disturbing the peace’ on suburban Rondebosch Common was condemned and then the demonstration was closed down in the harshest manner.
For those of us who feel targeted by these claims and exclusions, the lack of willingness to attempt to understand, respect and appropriately address our experiences is sometimes understood as an arrogance that is itself racially inspired.
Addressing racism means that we need to interrogate its mostly hidden foundations. We need to look at the historic origins of our stereotyping and prejudice which have been used to justify violence, unequal treatment, political disempowerment and exclusion. We need to work to deconstruct the legacy of apartheid’s power relations, and reject uncritical and unfounded insinuations about black competence.
We need to take seriously the research on racism recently published in the media, particularly as it occurs in the workplace, and particularly in Cape Town.
Can we deny that Cape Town is still the most racist city in South Africa? Perhaps we can’t. But what may be more important is simply agreeing that racism exists and agreeing to talk about it, and that we can work together to stop it, and that solutions to bring it to an end must cut across racial as well as class, language and political lines.