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Daily Maverick Morality Politics

Racist Cape Town (redux)

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.

Categories
Daily Maverick Morality Politics

The Erasmus judgement on Makhaza

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The Erasmus judgement in the Makhaza toilet case, handed down on Friday last week, makes for depressing reading, as would the details of the lives and conditions of most poor South Africans. The judgement itself contains a hint of this, where (in section 136), an affidavit related to the City of Cape Town’s counter application is excerpted, in which Thembisa Princess Sokabo tells us that:

The toilets we have in Nkanini (i.e. the one to five households toilets) are generally in an appalling state, notwithstanding the City’s attempt to maintain same, to the extent that members of the community generally do not use them. They are always blocked and filthy, and are not appropriate for human use. Due to the fact that they are communally owned, people do not take responsibility and personal pride in them. Not only are the toilets filthy and unsafe, but they are a health hazard to people in general and to children in particular as they have burst pipes which are overflowing with faeces.

Despite the fact that many South Africans are forced to live in sub-optimal, unhygienic, and sometimes even degrading conditions, Makhaza has become one of the focal points of debate around service delivery in the Cape. By extension, Erasmus’s Makhaza judgement has rapidly become a stick that Tony Ehrenreich is using to argue that the ANC would do a better job than the DA of defending the interests of the poor.

This could well be true, although we should remember that the ANC has already had a chance to champion the interests of the poor in the Cape. But while the ANC’s return of 45% of the vote in 2004, along with the 11% of votes garnered by their partners (the New National Party) in that election, brought them to power in the Province, their support dwindled to 32% in the 2009 election. If we are to take the notion of democracy seriously, this indicates that voters wanted to give someone else a chance to govern, and exercised their right to vote correspondingly.

That was of course a different time, and the fact that the ANC lost control of the Cape can’t demonstrate that an ANC government in 2011, and Ehrenreich as Mayor of Cape Town, won’t do better than previous incumbents. The chaotic nature of ANC politics in the Western Cape, along with floor-crossing and the death (and now, zombified re-animation) of the NNP – not to mention the short history of democracy in South Africa – make trends difficult to pin down.

None of these complications should however obscure the fact that there is a difference between fact and fiction – and in particular the kind of fiction that emerges in the run-up to elections, when selective factual details are plucked out of context and presented as damning evidence for a fiction. In this case, the fiction in question is that the DA government in the Western Cape is somehow at war with the poor, based on the ‘fact’ that they constructed unenclosed toilets in Makhaza.

Except, they didn’t – or at least didn’t intend to. What they did try to do was to collaborate with the residents of Silvertown to ensure that they all had enclosed toilets, by spending their budget on providing the toilets and plumbing connections, while trusting the assurances of the community that they would build their own enclosures where necessary. This plan failed, and cynics could argue that it was always likely to fail, or that the demands of dignity for the residents required that this detail not be left in the residents’ hands in the first instance.

Of course, we can never know whether the residents would have built their own enclosures, because the City of Cape Town eventually resolved to provide these for the 3% of residents who had not built them for themselves. And then, as we should also remember, they were prevented from doing so by the repeated destruction of the enclosures by the ANC Youth League.

You could argue that the DA has been somewhat naïve in their approach to this issue, as they undoubtedly were in the case involving the delisting of the Sowetan journalist, Anna Majavu. There is evidence of such naïveté, in that this was a relatively predictable PR disaster.

In the context of the South African sensitivity to class divisions and poverty, an approach which involved a relative absence of paternalism (here, in which services are provided in partnership with the community) was clearly risky. Any failure, at any link in the chain leading to enclosed toilets for all, would always have been spun as a failure on the part of the DA, with the roles of other agents ignored or elided. Worse yet, any protestations of good will on the part of the DA can immediately be spun as further evidence of callous neglect.

Sadly, the safest strategy may well be to do the bare minimum – and also to do it in a way which minimises the chances of failure, by swooping in and delivering from on high rather than by attempting to involve communities in their own upliftment. If this is the lesson that Ehrenreich or the ANC want the DA to learn, they might well have succeeded.

But in doing so, they could well have simultaneously built a rod for their own backs, because the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the Makhaza judgement makes it appear no less than a capital crime to leave toilets unenclosed, regardless of the circumstances leading to that eventuality. According to Jackson Mthembu, the unenclosed toilets show a “total disrespect for black dignity”, and demonstrate that the DA “is a racist political party”. In fact, the “Makhaza judgment remains a chilling reminder showing on whose side Zille and his [sic] bunch of racist lackeys are on”.

In light of this strong reaction, as well as the claim from Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka that unenclosed toilets would never be tolerated under ANC governance, what are we to make of the unenclosed toilets in the informal settlement of Rammulotsi, in the ANC-run Moqhaka municipality – some of which have been unenclosed since 2001? Or those in Kwadabeka, outside Pinetown in the eThekwini municipality, where the ANC garnered 67.52% of the vote in 2009?

Perhaps the real lesson here is the reminder that in politics – and especially, in the weeks running up to an election – facts sometimes simply stop mattering. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way, and perhaps increasing numbers of citizens are starting to realise that the truth doesn’t always correspond to the claims made in political speeches, especially when those speeches concern the actions of competing political parties.

Let’s hope so, because as with all decisions, those made while voting should be informed by the facts, rather than by faith. And Makhaza is one settlement, in one Province, in one (mostly poor) country. We should ideally cast our votes for who we think will do the best for that country in the long-term, and not simply based on caricature, and misrepresentation of those facts.