Note: Those who have already read my earlier post on this subject might want to skip this column, as there is a significant overlap in content (around 90%). The text below represents an attempt to make my key concerns more evident, and is the version submitted to The Daily Maverick for my column this week.
A few weeks ago, my (occasional) fellow Opinionista Victor Dlamini Tweeted a link to an IOL report describing an instance of apparent racial profiling at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The conversation which resulted should surprise no one at all, in that it consisted of the usual mix of protestation from Capetonians eager to refute the notion of Cape Town being a racist city, alongside various endorsements and examples of such racism.
Now that the local government elections campaigns are behind us, it is perhaps possible to discuss this issue more productively. Whether Cape Town fits the stereotype or not, it’s useful for the ANC to perpetuate the stereotype of Capetonian racism, as they enthusiastically did in the matter of Makhaza, as well as on several other occasions, however slight the opportunity to do so actually was. Well, they at least thought it useful – the election results could well indicate a greater agnosticism on this issue. But the politicisation of the issue tends to polarise opinion, rather than clarify the issue.
So, one could start by pointing out that to say that Cape Town is a racist city does not mean that everyone in Cape Town 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.
Furthermore, it’s also perfectly understandable that the DA would protest claims that Cape Town is inherently racist – pointing to the diversity in the party, service-delivery successes, and Cape Town’s relatively low (compared to the other metro’s) Gini coefficient. Lastly, it could be expected that many white liberal sorts (such as myself) would feel offence as a result of such claims. But 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, or for some Capetonians to be in denial as to how enlightened they actually are. If so, 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 would be a possible example. But despite all these disclaimers and qualifications, when compared with our other capitals or other major cities in South Africa, we certainly hear more stories about racist encounters or instances of perceived racism emanating from Cape Town.
Perceptions are not always true. Stereotypes can be perpetuated, sometimes through evidence, and sometimes through prejudice. It’s possible, for example, that the trope of a racist Cape Town is a simple consequence of jealousy, in that Northerners (and the ANC) want to find fault in what seems – on the surface at least, and also to many of those who live here – to be the best place in South Africa to call home.
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’m reluctant to 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. Numerous books and papers detail the history of the City as divided on racial lines, such as this paper from Charlotte Spinks at the London School of Economics (pdf). In addition to academic texts, we have semi-regular accounts of discrimination at certain bars and clubs, and first-hand experiences of racism like those described in Xhanti Payi’s column, published last year in The Daily Maverick.
Anecdotal accounts of racism in Cape Town abound, but anecdotes are of course not data. The problem, though, is that we hear far fewer such anecdotes from other cities. And more than anecdotes, existing research such as the Surtee and Hall report (pdf) also appear to corroborate claims regarding racism in Cape Town.
And while some critics (including the DA) reject the findings of that report, one could argue that Helen Zille’s response doesn’t properly address the possibility of racism directed at black South Africans, in that it’s largely focused on the facts of integration and equity in the coloured population (I use this term as per Employment Equity legislation, rather than because I think they are sensible).
Two entirely separate issues could be co-existing here, and should not be conflated: 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. Until we do, anecdotes and perceptions are all we have – and the perceptions are real, and no doubt hurtful, to those who have them.
In other words, if it is the case that Cape Town is perceived as being racist, this perception is a problem in itself, regardless of the truth of the allegations themselves. And my opinion – right or wrong – is that this perception is grounded in reality. But whether it’s mere perception or not, we’re not going to fix whatever problems do exist – whether racism or the perception thereof – by being offended, or by insulting those who make such claims.
Defensive reactions such as these forestall debate. And whether prejudice exists equally everywhere or not, we know it at least exists everywhere. Perhaps, then, the real lesson lies in what Sipho Hlongwane Tweeted at the time, “CPT and JHB are often equally prejudiced. Only one city is honest & confronts this”.
Let’s start by making that two cities, and then not stop there.
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.
Last night, the Doctor and I braved the 100 000 (ish) strong crowd to attend the U2 concert at the Cape Town Stadium. And I wanted to enjoy it, despite the fact that I’m not really a fan. The concert would be a spectacle, I thought – impressive enough in execution to outweigh Bono’s predictable sermonising and his love of cliché (“Africa is the wealthiest country – your people have gold in them” being a recent example). And at times it was – the engineering feat that is “The Claw” was pretty impressive, and it was used to good effect particularly in songs like “Mysterious ways”, where they combined live action edits with some pre-recorded silhouettes of dancers, as well as another track (?) where some nostalgic footage of the band (perhaps in their Twenties, when names like “The Edge” could have sounded edge-y).
But while some aspects of the evening were impressive – notably the efficiency of the organisation and the security, the concert itself was somewhat disappointing. Mostly because the sound was very bad – muddy as hell, with a fair amount of distortion. Vocals were often inaudible, and when combined with the wall of sound approach they seem to have gone for, the tone was generally one of aural assault. Unless one was a die-hard fan, who knew all the songs in last night’s repertoire, there were plenty of opportunities for boredom – one frenetic and noisy track with bombastic (unintelligible) lyrics sounds pretty much like the next, and the previous one.
And then, of course, there was the cheese factor, and the sermonising. The predictable pictures of Mandela on the big screen, and the predictable cheers when Bono encouraged the audience to swallow the implausible assertions that they were in some mythical heart of Africa. Hello, Rainbow Nation, where it seems that 99% of the audience is white. “You have the big 5”, he says, before going on to introduce his “big 4”, ie. the members of the band, now all given animal names (Bono was a wildebees, at least according to The Edge). But we don’t have the big 5 in South Africa, do we, except where they might be trucked into some luxury game reserve, and you’re playing in a city which is oft-criticised for being as un-African as a city on this continent can be.
You know that I don’t buy into the Africa-thing, in general, but it’s clear that Bono does, or at least that he wants us to think he does. But his Africa-shtick is not dependent on time, nor on place, so I doubt that he’s given it much thought that Cape Town might be in a different universe to Accra, and various other spots that he name-checked during one of his attempts to pump up this section of the “Rainbow Nation”. And as formulaic as all that sort of thing was, it was matched by the rote nature of much of the show – he looked like he was pretending to be pumped up, all street-fighting quick-step on the stage, grabbing the microphone stand and violently swinging it to and fro, etc. It all seemed put on, like a cover band, comprised of old codgers, doing a set where they play the music of an Irish pub band from a few decades ago.
Some parts were great – I’m not intending to claim that it was comprehensively disappointing. The duet with Yvonne Chaka Chaka on “Stand by me” was good, “Miss Sarajevo” was outstanding, and I even enjoyed the brief gospel excursion with “Amazing Grace”. But note that those are all more restrained tracks – and of course this could be saying something about my musical preferences. I’d suggest, though, that it’s got more to do with the fact that, on those tracks, I was able to hear what was going on.
The Cape Town Stadium continues to look good, though. And if a messianic Irishman is what it takes to keep Billy Graham out, I’m all for it.
Normal service* should now be able to resume here at Synapses, following a 20-day sojourn in various parts of that strange place they call America. While it’s great to be back in Cape Town, especially with World Cup fever already starting to mount, there are aspects of life there that I never fail to appreciate – most notably the generally polite (even if often formulaic) ways in which people interact. The ad-hoc manner of much social engagement here in South Africa is certainly interesting, and oftentimes a good tonic against boredom**, but I do hope we one day reach a socio-economic level whereby people’s incentives are no longer so emphatically short-term.
But short-term incentives was exactly the zone in which our trip started, in Las Vegas. While I was there for a conference (on responsible gambling), that didn’t stop the Doctor and I from having plenty of fun. It’s not the sort of place I’d want to live, but if you’re there for 4 days, and are able to pretend you’re living in a video game (in which your character has plenty of disposable income), it’s a great place to be.
We wined, we dined (there’s a plethora of celeb-chef eateries in the casinos), we saw a few shows. And then we (the Doctor took another path at this point) went way south to Birmingham, Alabama, home of countless fundamentalist churches and boarded-up abortion clinics (well, I didn’t try to count, but there are a fair number). In this ocean of mental-death, a small island of deep thought presented itself at the University of Alabama, where Ross, Ladyman and Dennett (and others) spoke at a colloquium on scientific naturalism and metaphysics.
In terms of cultural difference, you’d struggle to find two American locations more divergent, but we were fortunately well-insulated from the most unwelcome sorts of Southern hospitality, while still getting to enjoy the welcome sorts (pulled pork and barbecue sauce, of course).
And then, a week of pure vacation in Maryland, which mostly involved eating and drinking, interspersed with an evening of excessive eating, drinking, and incredulity over Thanksgiving, where the Doctor and I were seated at a table including a (self-professed) redneck, a TSA agent and his military bride, and some incredibly loud children. These people were all family, in some indirect way that adds further terror to the idea of “family”.
Now were back home in Cape Town, and I’m mostly caught up with the backlog of stuff that relentlessly piles up. But most importantly, it’s good to be home – nothing reminds you more of what a great place this is to live than being away from it.
* No rash promises here: this means perhaps a post every two weeks, rather than one per month.
** The headline news item on 567 CapeTalk at 2pm today was that Charlize Theron was dining at the Waterfront, right now! The breathless reporter reported (as they do) that he had tried to gain entry to the restaurant in question (not named) to have a few words, but was not permitted entry.