(Pic: Gallo)

Race and racism in the Republic of Cape Town

(Pic: Gallo)
(Pic: Gallo)

Cape Town is so conservative. It’s not surprising then that the rest of the country calls it “The Republic” – a country not quite a part of the so-called new South Africa. You don’t have to look far to see whom Cape Town caters for. Just take a short drive from Vredehoek to Khayelitsha, as a start. If you’re not the driving type, take one of those cute red tour buses, plug in those nifty little earphones and learn the unpalatable history of this city, said with such timid self-awareness so as not to give away what nearly every Capetonian knows – that Cape Town is still divided along racial lines.

Anyone who lives in the city centre will vehemently deny this although it’s evidently clear, from the racial makeup of boardrooms and suburbs to those who are left to enjoy the city after 5pm. It is an awkward contradiction for a city that desperately wants to be seen as a progressive “World Design Capital”. Unless by design it means the invisible lines that run across the city, dividing it into specific racial areas: the whites in affluent suburbs and the CBD, the blacks and the coloureds in the townships; a spatial arrangement akin to that of a chest drawer with distinct shelves and compartments that contain each puzzle piece of Cape Town in its place – except for the bergies and buskers who seem intolerable nuisances. (Remember the assault of a blind busker by police last year?)

The other not-so-famous incidents include a “private function” policy at certain bars, such as Asoka, where black people have the unfortunate position of being turned away at the door once the colour quota has been reached. There was also that interesting piece of journalism by the Cape Argus, last year, which uncovered what was evidently a stated preference for white tenants by property owners in suburbs around the City Bowl. The city has vehemently refuted claims that it’s racist. Here, I must concede that Cape Town isn’t racist – at least not in the classical sense of what we see in documentaries and exhibitions about apartheid. There are no “Whites Only” signs around the city. It must be an unfortunate coincidence then that there are hardly any black people who live in the affluent parts of Cape Town. It must also be an unfortunate coincidence that novelist Teju Cole, in his interview with City Press about the Open Book Fair, stated: “[Cape Town] is a divided society where privilege accrues very much to people who are white and who have money.”

A woman carrying a child walks down an alleyway in Blikkiesdorp ("Tin Can Town" in Afrikaans), a settlement of corrugated iron houses about 25km east of Cape Town. (Pic: AFP)
A woman carrying a child walks down an alleyway in Blikkiesdorp (“Tin Can Town” in Afrikaans), a settlement of corrugated iron houses about 25km east of Cape Town. (Pic: AFP)

When I went to the Open Book Fair in Cape Town last September, I nearly tripped over myself when I realised how homogenous the audience was – a pale sea of whiteness jostling around brilliant black writers. I distinctly remember thinking: don’t these white folk find it strange that there are no black people at this event, except for a negligible number of tokens, myself included? Contrast that to the Jozi Book Fair or any art opening showcasing a black artist’s work. Johannesburg, as far as art is concerned, has a more diverse audience; a more informed audience than Cape Town, and a notably larger black middle class. Some attribute this to the economic status of the city but the alternative answers avail themselves easily when you speak to black professionals who are about to relocate to the City Of Gold. Often you’ll hear that there is little or no transformation within the organisations and companies situated in Cape Town. The bosses are white, the tea lady is black, Jabu answers to Chris. In a nutshell, Cape Town companies are run by white males.

As if this wasn’t enough, even the visual arts crowd is predominantly white despite the fact that “nearly two thirds of emerging visual artists under the age of 40, in South Africa, are black” according to Joost Bosland, one of the directors of the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town . The very people, I presume, these emerging black artists would love to have a conversation with through their work never get to see the work, at all. And the art industry seems perfectly fine with this. Typically, you’ll find a group of black artists doing work that concerns something about them being black but it’s shown in spaces and to people who aren’t quite engaged with the stories being told by the artists; people who appreciate the work from a distance. Some artists struggle with this. I chatted to Mohau Modisakeng, a visual artist, about how race plays out in the arts: “I look at art as a language, a language that functions like any other – using pictures and symbols. And my language is informed by my mother’s story and my father’s story, and how I grew up. I’d say my audience is people who share the similar circumstances in life, whether it’s social, political or economic. They are my ideal audience, but I can’t get to them because of these frameworks that are in place.”

These frameworks are a historical fact that persists to this day. A present reality that is burdened by our history of deliberate social exclusion, which makes for very specific demarcation of the various groups who are in or out, or comfortable or not comfortable in a space; a fact currently at play in this city, sans the apartheid signage. The white man who recently told my friend at the Harley’s Liquor store that he wished “he’d gotten rid of all of you when we had a chance” simply because he thought she was jumping the queue to pay for a bottle of red wasn’t racist – he was being conservative, by Cape Town standards. He just wanted her to know her historic place and to remain in it – and that place is nowhere near him and his lily-white Cape Town CBD.

L.L. Fikeni lives, writes and works in Cape Town.


  1. Jane says:

    Sad to say, i think we face this issue all over South Africa still, maybe not as blatant as in Cape Town, but racism is very much still alive and kicking in all our provinces and cities. It is now just shrouded in secrecy… there are MANY establishments here in Johannesburg that also refuse entry or even to take bookings from non-whites; something that my friends and i have put to the test… try any number of affluent clubs or bars in Jhb, let a person of colour send an email enquiry or telephonic enquiry for a booking and the answer is always a resounding “Sorry we cant accommodate you at this point” and ask a white person to send the same enquiry and they are gladly accommodated. A sad reality of our times, and if we dont talk about it more it will just keep being swept under the rug.

  2. Raeesa says:

    I don’t think the writer implied that ‘all’ blacks live in Khayelitsha and ‘all’ white families stay in plattekloof. A comment such as ‘there are hardly any black people who live in affluent parts of Cape Town’ would not be made if it were so. Fikeni merely painted a broad image of how the city is generally divided, and in all honesty, it is true.

    Taking an approach to which black lives in Blouberg show’s the defensiveness many provincial whites take to a blindingly obvious fact that they are on the sugary end of a deeply racist CT.

    Where I believe in the freedom of expression and association, I don’t believe making an easy comment like we should be free to decide for ourselves who we associate with helps when the Woodstock Exchange is filled with majority white creatives and there is a township behind the never-ending bustle of the Biscuit Mill. Its that sort of acceptance that perpetuates the division.

  3. Noma says:

    its is really so…
    certain events are advertised at certain areas…e.g. you will never find a poster for Kirstenbosch sunset concerts along Goodwood but you will find them all over Pinelands! Don’t even mention townships

    they choose their audience carefully along racial lines

  4. Mpho says:

    I consider the fact that it’s not were you coming from but where you go to that makes a difference. This article is written as a victim rather than a victor. Take what you have and work with it. It’s this “what I deserve” attitude that keeps people stuck in the same place.

  5. uMjita waseKhayelitsha says:

    Boo hoo! Tell me something I don’t know instead of dredged up cliche…I swear, a bot could’ve written this if programmed with the appropriate algorithm. I think what my friend fails to mention is that Cape Town is just apathetic about everything, or rather about most things. Conservative is not a label I’d fix to the Mother City, perhaps laidback. Racist Asoka, no need to protest, I tell all my friends and we spend our money somewhere else. I can’t speak for the art world, those guys are still getting off their high, but yes, the inner city is mostly white after dark…we can’t blame racism for the fact that we can’t live in the CBD…that’s capitalism. Cape Town’s innr city was never developed as a residential space, so most of the people who work there still commute to either their nearby suburbs, or dormitory townships.

  6. Sandisa says:

    Hi Lwandile, I am really moved to tears by your article because indeed what you say is true. Fate imposed that I be an economic refugee in this our Mother City. As much as I love CT but I feel I killed my professional life by moving here.

    The treatment I have received while here is nothing reminiscent of motherhood to me infact I find the City to be very unfriendly to African Blacks like myself, I guess as per conservativeness of the City, I am one of the the few unlucky one.

    I know what it means to be told by your manager that she would prefer your lily-white colleague over you, I know how it feels like to be frustrated by your manager because you are an affirmative action appointment by translation incompetent. I decided to be brave and complain about racist treatment to the CEO of the company I worked for then, I am paying for that decision because that manager now is giving me bad reference so that I cannot get employment. Like my friend Matabz always say “white skin has intrinsic value, you do not touch it without consequence”. Am I saying all whites in the mother city are racist…no am not saying that at all…I have been lucky to know a few whites here who have been extremely kind to me whom I will always cherish.

    • uMjita waseKhayelitsha says:

      Sandisa, I think if you move to Johannesburg you’ll find you are in the majority, but you still work for (mostly) racist whites. Some times I wonder how people who complain about racism in Cape Town would be able to work overseas? Or are you so fixated with the fact that you’re black that its your raison d’tre…how about just being professional about your ish?

  7. Phil says:

    Wow, you make it sound as if it is a crime to be white and living in cape town. Those lines you talk about are not as clear cut as you would make them out to be. Lets talk about the 1000’s of coulered and black families living in affluent parts of cape town, plattekloof, panorama, blouberg, table view, to name a few. No mention of those though? I mean, all black families stay in khayalitsha and all white families stay in plattekloof, right?

    So I am sure you don’t have a problem with all the white families staying in Sandton and the black families staying in soweto?

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