Morality Politics

Racist Cape Town?

Tempers are flaring on Twitter, as people gradually wake up (it’s a Public Holiday) to the news that Osama bin Laden is dead, and then quickly find the seeds of various conspiracy theories being planted. Was Osama buried at sea? How long has he been dead for? Etc. But alongside this latest development in what must surely be one of the most news-filled years in quite some time, Victor Dlamini tweeted a link to this story of racial profiling at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and immediately attracted plenty of protestation from Capetonians, eager to refute his claim that the latest incident is indicative of generalised racism in Cape Town.

To say that Cape Town is a racist city does not mean that everyone is racist. It certainly does not mean, as ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu alleges, that the governing party of Cape Town and the Western Cape is racist. I don’t believe that they are, and I also don’t agree with interpretations of events like the Makhaza toilet case which are used to support this claim (a column on Makhaza will be published later this week). Furthermore, it’s also perfectly understandable that the DA would protest claims that Cape Town is inherently racist, and also understandable that many white liberal sorts (such as myself) would feel offence as a result of the claim.

As I’ve frequently argued, offence is no guide to the truth, and also shouldn’t be used to drown out noises you don’t like hearing. While it is of course true that there are racists everywhere, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of Cape Town containing a higher proportion of them. If we did, then it would make sense to say that Cape Town is a racist city, by comparison to other relevant South African cities. And of course there are cities that are more racist than Cape Town – Orania might be a good example of this. But when compared with our other capitals, or other major cities in South Africa, we a) certainly hear more stories about racist encounters, and b) hear frequent reports of perceived racism.

Perceptions are not always true. Stereotypes can be perpetuated, sometimes through evidence, and sometimes through prejudice. I can understand the anger of those who claim the stereotype of a racist Cape Town to be founded on prejudice, but I’m afraid I can’t agree with them. We shouldn’t forget that Cape Town’s urban planning was intentionally premised on the maintenance of social order, which in those days meant segregation of the races. Read Cape Town in the Twentieth Century, or even this short summary to get a sense of what this entailed. Then, add the semi-regular accounts of discrimination at bars like Asoka, or Xhanti Payi’s account of his experiences in The Daily Maverick.

Anecdotal accounts of racism in Cape Town abound, but anecdotes are of course not data. It is however disturbing to note that we hear far fewer such anecdotes from other cities. And more than anecdotes, existing research also appears to corroborate the claims (here’s the pdf of the study itself) regarding racism in Cape Town. Note that that link is to a report by Sabie Surtee and Martin Hall, and I’m by nature inclined to be fairly dismissive of what one of those authors has to say. Helen Zille and the DA certainly reject the findings of that report, but her response doesn’t properly address the possibility that racism is directed at black South Africans – she instead focuses on the facts of integration and equity in the coloured population (I use these terms as per Employment Equity legislation, rather than because I think they are sensible).

Two entirely separate issues could be co-existing here: First, it’s entirely possible – even probable – that the ANC uses the ‘racist Cape Town’ card as a political weapon against the DA, and in doing so might exaggerate the extent to which racism is prevalent in Cape Town. But second, it is also possible that black visitors to (and residents of) Cape Town experience racist treatment exceeding the levels found in other parts of the country. We shouldn’t pretend that this possibility doesn’t exist, simply because we don’t like it.

Cape Town does have a higher proportion of whites and coloureds than the other metros. And if racists are everywhere, we could well have more of them here than, for example, in Johannesburg. The facts of this matter could easily be established via a proper survey of attitudes and behaviours across the country, if we cared to do so. But in the meanwhile, it’s undeniably the case that Cape Town is perceived as being racist, and this perception is a problem in itself, regardless of the truth of the allegations. Moreover, my opinion is that this perception is grounded in reality. But whether it’s mere perception or not, we’re not going to fix it by being offended, or insulting those who make such claims. As Sipho Hlongwane Tweeted moments ago, “CPT and JHB are often equally prejudiced. Only one city is honest & confronts this”.

Let’s make that two cities.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

16 replies on “Racist Cape Town?”

Whenever the anc is feeling threatened and has nothing to defend themselves and their actions with they pull out the race card. They are useless

Is the behaviour described a form of racism or racialism? It is a legitimate concern for a club owner to have too many males in a club for instance. why is it not a legitimate concern regarding race?

While a private enterprise should have the right to keep a certain race or gender out, they need to realise that doing so is racist or sexist, and that people (including me) are going to think less of them as a result. I don’t share your premise that discrimination on grounds of gender is legitimate (if you mean morally legitimate, as opposed to legally).

Not to get too fixated on clubs, but a club would discriminate at any given point so as to ensure it’s viability as a popular place of entertainment. Determining who enters and who does not (assuming there is in fact a golden mix/ratio of males to females, and perceived clientele backgrounds) can work to ensure the enjoyment of those in the club itself, as well as ensuring the club remains a place worth going to.
Racism is fundamentally incorrect as its reasoning is flawed and it is “unfair” in that the hand that chooses is biased towards or against a certain group. In the case of the club, and a theoretical golden balance, it may indeed seem unfair to a given individual, however the group they represent will in fact have had a “fair” chance at fully representing themselves. (As in, say 40% female requirement, means that the female who would make it 41% and above is rejected, however before that stage any female at all is permitted without question).
Thing is I can “feel” that this logic is wrong, but I really do want something a little better than just a gut feeling of its flaws.

Trouble is, what is racism?
1) Is it only whites and coloueds who can be racist against black? What about cases of black people discriminating against other races? Is that acceptable.
2) It is very easy to claim racism the moment you don’t get your way or the moment somebody doesn’t appear to like you.
the recent incident discussed may or may not have been racist but does that mean that every single person who is unfairly arrested can claim racism? The way our police force carries on these days the courts would be clogged. Basically people are far too quick to use the race card these days to get there own way that when genuine cases of racism do occur then the public either ignore it or deny it. If people stopped using the race issue to make up for their own shortcomings and furher their own agenda maybe ganuine cases would be dealt with more effectively.

1) Is it only whites and coloueds who can be racist against black? What about cases of black people discriminating against other races? Is that acceptable.

No and no. As for your second point, sure, as I’ve said here many times, the race card is overplayed. This doesn’t mean racism isn’t a problem – it points more to the fact that people sometimes exploit the problem in ways that are self-serving, and which can do a disservice to fixing the problem itself.

Also Jacques, adding to the possibility of a greater South African issue are the still-persisting, not-to-be-crossed social lines, which are mostly by race (and to a lesser extent by class, too). I read something from IJR that said 60% of South Africans do not socialise outside their race and that this stat hasn’t changed much since they started doing the survey. Admittedly it doesn’t tell us much if not split by race, location and income strata, but if racism – real or perceived – is ever to be said to be coming down, it would be evidenced by greater social interaction across racial lines. [tongue-in-cheek] Essentially, more coloured babies please. Contrary to what Manyi said, there is an under-supply.[/tongue-in-cheek]

Also, Cape Town-specific, I’d think that anyone seeking to make claims of a well-run city would want to tackle the realities of racism as well as the perceptions.

P.S Can’t wait for Makhaza post.

Ooh look: a comment that isn’t defensive. Thanks. Mostly agree with you, although identifying the ‘realities of racism’ would often be quite tricky. The reactionary approach is to take instances of black people being treated poorly, and to assume racism. Unfortunately (really not the right word), we don’t have a large group of, for example, ‘poor whites’ living in informal settlements, so can’t ever see how they are treated by comparison. And a situation like Makhaza is of course really tricky, in that you can make the argument that the attempted resolution by the DA, while perhaps naive, was one motivated by more respect for dignity (here, self-determination) than other alternatives would have been. But we can talk about that later in the week.

If one takes into account that Cape Town is an attractive destination (to relocate to) for white South Africans then in my view it would make sense that CPT will turn ever increaslingly racist. A DA supporter once asked me whether I know what is happening in Hout Bay? I said: “Rich folk and poor folk seem not be able to live together” she was stunned by my response… that is the inherint racism of Cape Town. She moved from JHB a few years ago.

Is there an objective measurement of racism? Discrimination?

A lot of this has to be based on perception, and the defense is often an attempt at deflecting the issue. For example accusing the ANC of raising a racist issue to try to score a political point is deflecting the question, even though they probably are.

Is Orania racist? Are the rugby supporters at Loftus racist? Is the dominee who said he likes racism racist? And, if so to what degree?

I have a form of an answer: Racism manifests itself in both the social and economic spheres. Using the past as a guideline it turned out that blacks, via legislation were disadvantaged more than whites.

There is a clear measure of that level of disadvatange via my field on interest and expertise – the B-BBEE Scorecard. While it may not be perfect, it covers about 40 indicators of social and economic activity. This is no different to another interest of mine, in which I have no formal skills – medical diagnostics. For example a high homocystiene level in your body measures inflammation and could be an indicator of cancer. A high body fat index could be an indicator of obesity and unhealthy. Of course it does not apply to Gordon Lewis Pugh.

In B-BBEE terms the higher the score the more equal the organisation that is being measured, thereby contributing to removing the disadvantages.

The lower the score, the less opportunities that blacks have in the organisation. It could imply that there are no black employes in any management positions, that no training is offered to black staff to bring them up to the levels of skilled white staff – the typical white boss, black labourer situation. Yes, it is possible that there are other interpretations of low scores, and it does not imply racism but on a macro scale I would suggest there is a correlation between racism and low B-BBEE scores.

Thanks. I’ve no specific criticism of the Surtee/Hall report, but it only covers EE which is one of the seven elements, accounting for 15 plus 3 bonus points on the scorecard. I still say a better, not perfect approach is the entire B-BBEE scorecard.

To go off-topic slightly, I’m currently researching the link between share price and B-BBEE scores, and industrial action and B-BBEE scores. My hypothesis is that companies with a high B-BBEE scorecard will have less industrial action than others in the industry. This was spurred on by the damaging Pick’ n Pay strikes (Pick ‘n Pay has an out of date level 8 scorecard) and the slightly less harmful industrial action against Massmart (level 3).

While anecdotal racism doesn’t count as a statistic, it is the only kind of racism that is truly representative of what’s happening within the city. How does one procure racist statistics? As a coloured woman who went to a high school that had a pretty even mix of races, in the Southern Suburbs, I thought that I wasn’t particularly affected by race until my mom and I went to Cavendish Square. We often shopped her, living in Rondebosch and all, and one particularly day while shopping as usual, exited through a store’s doors at the very same time that a white woman did, only she was holding a shirt with a security tag on it and wanted to show her husband(and as people often do, forget they’re in a store, not their own home) naturally her security-tagged shirt caused the shops alarms to go off, yet my mother and I were asked to open our bags. This isn’t an isolated event and I think your “white liberalism” is getting in the way of coming to terms with the fact that while we certainly can’t make blanket statements about all Capetonians, it is fair to say that the city is affected by racialist(not necessarily racist) issues, definitely more so than Joburg, and it’s probably because the city hasn’t yet encountered a Black middle class quite like Joburg.

Comments are closed.