(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. J Grobler says:

    I wonder how much the ANC paid for this “advertorial”? The same party that denies that coloureds count in their own B.E.E polcies.

    Furthermore I have many friends who were squatters once and since have houses built for them in yes “rural” parts of Cape Town, Do your homework! Improvement takes time at least Cape Town is strides ahead of anywhere else when it comes to building the whole province.

    ANC turned it backs on anyone that is not Zulu, they turn their back to coloureds, Indians and even Xhosa’s. Funny for a party that was always Xhosa run.

  2. papa says:

    yeah keep complaining about black treatment, when the very same black south african people are being xenophobic against their own african brothers.. go read ur bible. treat others as you would like to be treated. seems not much was learned from the apartheid regime.

  3. Ricky says:

    I call B.S! If this article is to be believed in it’s entirety, one has to ask, in twenty years why are there no significant black-owned businesses furthering the cause of black economic empowerment? Who’s fault is that? How can we continue to excuse black business and government for not leading the charge in levelling the playing field in the Cape as has happened across South Africa? I am black and lived in Cape Town a number of years and I believe that black government and business leadership like the status quo. They use Cape Town as a reminder to all blacks of the “power of white capital” yet they lap up it’s luxury behind high walls and hedges in Llundadno and Bishop’s Court and wine farms of Franschoek or the security of the parliamentary compound. As long as you, the struggling black professional, think Cape Town is for “whites only” you won’t think to question what your leadership are doing there. Last I checked there was no Maserati dealership in Langa, Gugulethu or Khayelitsha but Tony Yengeni drives one when he goes to Camps Bay, the V & A Waterfront and Mzoli’s.

  4. Bronwyn says:

    As a white South African who moved down here from Jhb, I have observed exactly what the author has written about. She nails it on head – exactly my observations. Very sad. I love this city, the beauty of it, the sea, and mountains, but I am ashamed of the lack of integration.

    I live very close to a coloured community and was invited to join a book club when I moved to Cape Town, but told that I would have to host my night at one of the other members’ houses because “the ladies wont come to where you live”. I did not join that book club.

  5. Anna says:

    ugh guys… I mean we came all the way from Europe to witness and learn fro South Africa… We live at the moment in a small town in the Eastern Cape – and I get what Fikeni describes. Absolutely. It is just that I also see good happening in your cities and towns and small places. Couples of different cultures, people growing together…so I see also NO RACISM growing and being natural too guys. However, getting this terribly sad places uplifted, the poor communities, I don’t know, it takes a lot of guts and trust from each individual – no matter what economic background in south Africa to support economic equality and LIVE IT and especially a conscious vote and solidarity and TIME. U cannot change things within 10 years – sorry- not if the majority of citizens has been empoverished for more than 100 years. Guys, what I learned from your own folk in the Eastern Cape – living as in terrible stuctural conditions as in CT – they will tell you: If you want this to happen sustainably it takes time – firstly. Secondly, it takes a community of care. and thirdly an individual consciousness of what you can do. Perhaps man?

  6. judi says:

    In response to Sandiswa – Cape Town is steeped in a history of separateness. First port. & all of that. I think their ” call it conservative or reserved ways” comes from colonization. As my brother once described it as being separate to the rest of SA. It’s a ‘culture’ thing.
    But seeing as it’s old school behavior not very fitting for a new global community. I think you should put your efforts into, meeting the scores of ‘other’ foreigners that live there.
    If you’re going to live in CT …you’re going learn what ‘moneyed’ is all about. Or else…come to Jozi. The whole world is here…

  7. frank says:

    Stop worrying about the color of peoples skin (including yours). Intelligence, education, good manners and good heart are far more important. I am white and non racist and I fell I do not deserve to be molested by some peoples lack of confidence on their own being. Enough.

  8. Aimee says:

    I agree with Phil, you cannot make such a biased statement to CT as a whole, Joburg is no better.

    I work all over JHB and I can tell you, as a young white female face in whichever township, you get plenty of shocked, and curious attention (sometimes not in the best way). “What is this mlungu doing here? Go back to your comfortable little suburb…”

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable living in Soweto anyway, even though I have friends there, as I do honestly believe I would be made a target. In the opposite regard, I don’t mind and am actually very happy to have black neighbours in the suburbs as it allows everyone to start learning to live together and understand one another. But what do you do however when a culture and an attitude follow it’s skin into these places? I have lost two neighbourhoods to this, both Yeoville and Kensington (bordering Bez Valley) were once vibrant, beautiful AND multicultural/coloured. It then became majority black and went completely downhill – why?

    It breaks my heart – unlike all my other friends I can’t go back to the place I grew up and look on with smiles; the park, recreation centres, lovely sidewalks and my mother’s beautiful garden are all gone. discarded, dusty and full of squatters. I was born just before our born free’s and know nothing of apartheid. My parent were not a part of it and never believed in it. Why should I be lumped with the idea that I’m a judgemental and racist white when I do not think that way, but instead lose my own home and community regularly to another race who sees no value in what has been cultivated for EVERYONE to appreciate and enjoy?

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