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.