(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. Mothi says:

    This really can’t be argued without looking at history. Where do the black and white inhabitants of the cape come from? What plans and hopes have brought people here? Are these the same hopes we all share? Without due consideration, there is no discussion.

    Dealing with middle ground from a single perspective breeds a sham. We should stand back and try to take it all in, trying out the shoes of others as we go. (If what follows seems subjective, it is. Please note, this is a digression, and there is a larger scope at stake here. )

    I am a part of what has been termed the ‘immigration problem’ in this ‘republic’ of the Cape. I came here out of fear and hope. That said, having been here for some time, I still have my fears. No doubt they will seem familiar to many of you. Having seen the frontier beyond this republic degrade, seemingly uncontrollably, (and noting the vast differences in service delivery between the rest of this country and this ‘republic’) it seems to me that we are not sure whether we really want to build our country or just live off the wealth that still survives amidst this profusion of corruption, outright theft, neo-racist denialism, and the soft-racism of our own low expectations. This is the ethical dilemma facing the entire world now, we are not special, we are just not as far along as the rest of the globe yet. We have now passed the point where unprofitable enslavement of our country’s hopes remains enforced by the moral aberrations of political-correctness-before-development. As Confucius noted many years ago; while real development always heightens human rights, mere entitlement to human rights does not necessarily ever bring real development.

    Wrapping these big issues up in racist banter ignores the facts of history. We should be striving for equality by rising up to the level of our highest proponents, but instead we seem to be attempting to reduce everyone to the same grounded status. We should be emulating our best, not merely imitating the most visible, political, and spectacular looking achievements (nkandla and number one’s actions being hardly worthy of imitation) but rather the moral achievements of our countrymen, whatever their race.

    Why are there no traditional African schools? The Afrikaners of the 19th century managed to build their own schools and maintain their education while fighting wars with the British, and alongside and against their other neighbours. Times were harder then, no one gave them schools, they had to build them for themselves. So what exactly is our problem? We speak of communities, but we would rather burn our own schools down than teach our own children… We have a problem. Relying on state handouts and the equalisation of patrimony will never bring us equality.

    Our problems are the inequalities of our histories. The facts speak for themselves to anyone who would learn them. Our problems began long ago. Perhaps Van Riebeeck should never have landed, for that matter ancient Arab sailors should never have discovered the east coast, not the Portugeuse the West. Dingaan shouldn’t have killed his brother, nor murdered Piet Retief and his band of settlers, nor driven Mosilikatse to terrorise the north, Lobengula shouldn’t have been so harsh on his neighbours, and so on. Nathaniel Isaacs should never have landed in Durban, should never have brokered with then-land-lord Shaka, should never have believed Dingaan after him. German West Africa should never have been. So many hopes and treaties have been broken on our soil, by our histories, but we cannot take any of it back. We should learn from our mistakes. Those long-gone colonial whites, bad as we may make them out in hindsight, were fleeing from their own tortured histories and fears. Three hundred years ago Europe was not a particularly nice place to be, overcrowded, plagues, and with a quarter of the population unemployed and without even the possibility of servitude. When we met them at our shores they had their own past behind them already. We, the autochtonic sons of the African soil, cannot truly claim to have been any more likable in our histories. We have all been colonists at one point or another, even if no one wrote it down or remembers. For that matter it cannot be said that we have ever been particularly interested in other peoples histories. The historic failure of travellers everywhere is to think that they would be accepted where they landed up. Truthfully, so many of us have an inability to relate, the direct result of our self absorbed histories. We have a problem. Acting self righteous, making demands without considering where that which we are demanding will come from, will not help us.

    We need lessons in history. We need dictionaries. An isiZulu word for ‘honour’, a pedi term for ‘morality’, a Xhosa alphabet, a scheme for a traditional education, the vanishing notion that one can (and may even desire to) live an honest rural life without necessarily being impoverished, these simple things would help us more than any unqualified economic gift.

    All of you reading this should be busy reading books instead of this screen. Go make use of your public library. Uplift yourself, help us all.

  2. papa says:

    Again, i repost! stop complaining when the same guys complaining of racism are XENOPHOBIC against their african brothers!! in this world , i have learnt that there are only 2 camps. the oppressor and the oppressed.

  3. Jakes says:

    I don’t think that Cape Town is racist. It is the one city that ANC can not get and that scares them.Yes the city is divided into different suburbs which is the same across South Africa your affluent suburb and your not so affluent suburbs. If you should take count of white people living in Khayelitsha it will probably have the same amount of whites living in Soweto none or the amount of blacks living in the CBD is probably the same as those living in Sandton. What the writer has forgotten to mention is that many colored and black families have started to move into suburbs that was previously affluent.

    You as and individual have to make the choice of where you want to live and the job you want and where you want to party.

    I think the write is RACIST cause he sees things in BLACK and WHITE….anyone that notice black and white is racist in my opinion…….

    • Pumeza says:

      I only started seeing black and white when I moved to Cape Town, almost 3 years ago :/ Its the only place where you get into a meeting and everyone starts to communicate in Afrikaans and they look at you like you’ve commited a sin when you tell them you don’t speak the language. Mean while, most of the people who cannot speak Xhosa were born and bred in Cape Town. I’m not saying Cape Town is racist, its just very different from any other city that I have lived in. I’ve since learnt the unspoken rules, I mind my business and stick to my kind.

  4. Adrian says:

    Anyone who thinks that “whites live in leafy suburbs” and “blacks and coloureds live in townships” in Cape Town, should visit the suburbs of Tableview and Parklands. Lovely houses, lovely infrastructure, HUGE number (and growing) of black people. In fact, visit the Parklands Woolworths and you’ll see 80%+ black faces. Which I personally think is great. But please stop labeling Cape Town as racist in general. It’s about the most idiotic thing you could do.

  5. Paul says:

    Cape Town is certainly segregated! Its undeniable.

    The one or 2 incidences pointed to certainly don’t account for the extreme nature of the divide. Something else is certainly at play.

    What I cant figure out is what keeps it that way. Why were there almost no black people at the Open Book Fair? Were they made to feel unwelcome, or did they just not go there?

    Why don’t black people attend Cape Town’s fantastic markets, galleries?


  6. peba says:

    themba sounds like a neo-liberal coconut, phil is a denialist and mike, well, at least you an honest racist, not hiding behind some ill informed liberal agenda. i’m from gauteng, cape town is racist! whats worse is that they got colored folk to believe they better than african people, but not as good as white folk. at least in joburg we’re fighting the real war, class and poverty. here y’all still have to sort out your race issues before you can even begin to sort anything else out. well, y’all do have great scenery and awesome wine 😉

  7. Will Bruere says:

    I do not doubt for one moment that Lwandile experiences Cape town as racist and I decry that there are venues in Cape Town with the backwards policies that he writes about. I have never been to Asoka and since reading your article, I will never go there. We should all stand together against discrimination of this kind.

    I understand that there are still instances of racism in Cape Town, but to make a sweeping statement that bundles everyone into the same bag, is also a form of racism.

    I feel that he ignores the integration that is in place in other suburbs. Cape Town is not only the city bowl and Khayelitsha.There are so many other suburbs.
    I challenge Lwandile to visit suburbs like Rhuyterwacht (traditionally a white worker suburb, now a cohesive society of many races) and Parklands (a new suburb with a very integrated community). Those are suburbs that I have frequented over the last few months, but I am sure they are not the only ones.

    I used to live in the cbd between 2010 and 2013 and I experienced it totally different. To me it seemed like the true new South Africa. Every Sunday morning I would read my newspaper in a coffee shop with citizens of all colors. We would have discussions with each other of the rubbish in it. During weekday lunchtime the offices would empty their doors and people will go out for lunch. not in groups of white and blacks, but mixed groups. I miss living in the heart of the city.

    I understand that people experience their surroundings differently and I do not want to diminish Lwandile’s experience, but I have to remind him to visit Longstreet at night. The bars and the clubs there are melting pots of race. One big party.

    i also have to mention that I see more and more mixed couples. I fall in this category and have been in a loving relationship with a lady with a background and color extremely dissimilar to mine for the last two years. We live together in harmony. Yes. Like Ebony and Ivory.

    It has become almost trendy to call Cape Town racist and my beloved city has become an easy target with the white Madam in charge. An interesting fact to bear in mind is that the ANC did very well in the past elections within the CBD which to me mean that the CBD is more integrated that we give it credit.
    I agree we have to make more progress, but articles like this seems to divide more than bring together.

    • John_Doe says:

      Parklands? I think you mean Darklands, as it is known amongst people who live or consider that area for residence. I even know someone that told me that they would’ve loved to live in the new Parklands, what with its great prices and good design, but unfortunately it is now Darklands and the value of the place will DEFINITELY go down. Who wants to buy a home that will lose value, he asked me. Here in Cape Town, I have been referred to as a coloured person often, and even worse, some of my friends, my white friends, mind you, would sooner refer to me as a coconut. I hate it. I never thought my skin tone would be such a good prison.

  8. Alton says:

    Alton Samuels Its a statement, but its unjustified nature deems it nothing more than an opinion. One that is based on assumptions fueled and overshadowed by comparisons of past injustices. Its an opinion that resonates a sentiment and the type of behaviour found across South Africa, not only in the Cape. Its an opinion that actually projects a picture of poverty among previously disadvantaged folk – not just a specific race! Yes, it correctly eludes to the effect and products of apartheid, but also indirectly points to the fear deterioration in light of our current economic and political climate. Its an opinion with the aim to find a person, class, area or anything to blame for our past and present circumstances. Its an opinion that does not tell half of whats true or false; in fact, its an opinion that insinuates bigger problems and issues and fail to make us see the context. But, it remains an opinion that ought to be heard.

  9. Mo says:

    Brilliant piece. I grew up in the Helderberg just outside Cape Town where the racial divide is even more apparent. I get the feeling that many people simply don’t want to acknowledge the struggles of people of colour and the effects it has even on current generations. Apartheid after all was meant to hold us back physically, economically but also mentally. I am a recent social science graduate so I have been fortunate enough to be equipped with a set of skills that however unfortunately, aren’t always grasped well by others. Many, not all, but many white Cape Tonians have this blase attitude towards matters of wealth and race and how the two are intertwined. I am a firm believer in the fact that you cannot deny racism, because by doing so you deny the struggles of our people and the continued sharing of visible evidence of white privilege. Trust fund baby paradise

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