Black in Cape Town? Brace yourself
She's travelled the world, but it’s only when living in and navigating Cape Town that 16-year-old writer Kine Dineo Mokwena-Kessi discovered she was well and truly black
Cape Town - One thing that I’ve learnt is that when asked your opinion on Cape Town, it’s a trap. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly sweet old Afrikaans tannie in the queue at Woolies; it doesn’t matter how cute the foreign dude on the MyCiTi platform is – always be on your guard.
The “Cape Town question” is delicate and answering it correctly is like having Parkinson’s and walking a 50m tightrope above a pit of starving lions.
When people ask me what I think of Cape Town I go through the foolproof MFDAR – mental flow chart to determine the appropriate response:
Is the inquirer Capetonian? – Yes.
RED FLAG! Black or white? White – Abort! Abort! Default to NO mode: unless you have time to engage in an in-depth conversation explaining how you’re not a racist, jump to: “Uhm… well, it’s very beautiful.”
Then proceed to talk about that beautiful hike up Lion’s Head and how beautiful Clifton beach was last Sunday, and (if you’re feeling particularly ambitious) hint at what a beautiful job the DA is doing. In short, everything is just so exasperatingly, insufferably BEAUTIFUL.
Black – Interesting dynamic. Don’t go on a full out Rambo-esque aggressive riff on how fundamentally racist the “Republic of Cape Town” is. The Black Capetonian is a victim of internalised oppression. It’s frustrating but forgivable. Default mode: gentle coercion. This is still their home after all.
From Joburg? – Yes. You may just have found a friend, but remain sceptical.
Black or White? White – I wouldn’t risk it. Default mode: tactful. Jump to: “Cape Town is so relaxed so it’s great for a holiday.”
Please note: in the case this Caucasian individual is a foreigner, you can play this one of two ways:
* Completely traumatise the German exchange-student who, with the best on intentions, came to save the starving children.
* Be nice and don’t ruin their holiday. All they wanted was a peaceful day at the beach.
Black – breathe a long sigh of relief, you’re among friends. Default mode: Lift the floodgates of honesty. Tell them about that racist incident at a coffee shop and feel free to omit that joke you’d cautiously added to make it seem like you weren’t angry about the whole episode when really you were fuming. Exchange notes on the “blackest” hang-out spots.
Warn each other about where you’re most likely to get (intentionally) bad service. Give them a hug and wallow in the scent of camaraderie and shared experiences – scavenge every ounce of strength in this encounter.
I admit, it’s not a completely foolproof system but it’s seen some promising results. I didn’t always resort to flow charts to in an attempt at diplomacy. I wasn’t always so cynical; I have Cape Town to thank for that.
My first visit to the city was in April 2011, a year before I moved here from Joburg to join my mother.
I was so very young, so very impressionable, so very excited about the mountains that seemed to go on forever, the ice-cold beaches sprinkled with penguins, the train ride down to Simon’s Town where quirky vintage shops sprawled out on to windswept cobble streets.
But what I loved most was the vibe of the city itself. Its infrastructure was impressive enough to be important without being intimidating. I’ve never been in a place so quaint and so acutely aware of its quaintness, presumptuous in its sense of history. It didn’t feel like London where at any moment you could be chewed up and spat out for breakfast and eyelids wouldn’t bat.
It didn’t feel fraudulent like Dar es Salaam, a work-in-progress planted on vibrant, dusty, over-crowded streets trying to be something it wasn’t.
It didn’t feel anally clean like Geneva and not quite as impractical or anxious as Joburg. Cape Town was comfortable in its smidgen of self-awareness and confident in its controversy. I really did love Cape Town. But our honeymoon period was short-lived. I think I woke up one day and I knew it wasn’t going to work out.
Betrayal can make you fall out of love just as quickly as you fell in it.
Cape Town is the Matrix and I’m Neo… Dineo. I was just another unconscious mind plugged into the system. Asleep and enjoying my slumber at that.
Sure, I noticed that I only had white friends but I didn’t mind. I was at the French School of Cape Town, so what did I expect? Besides my friends have always been mostly white so it never occurred to me that I was perhaps missing out on an entirely different experience, one where I wouldn’t feel like I stuck out so much. I was enjoying my uniqueness.
Sure, I noticed that I received interesting reactions at certain restaurants, but the stares ranging somewhere between objection and shock didn’t outright bother me. In fact, I found it amusing. But following in the footsteps of Neo, the day would come when my mind would be unplugged and I would be flushed out of the system for good – and it wasn’t polite about it either. I got slapped in the face by consciousness and just like that I was propelled into an alternative reality. And I’ve never felt so alone.
I don’t remember the exact moment I became well and truly black, in the conscious sense of the word. The process of gaining consciousness is like those first sickening moments of being on a rollercoaster: gradually going up and up and up, tension building. And just when you think about turning back, you panic – you realise you can’t. That’s when it drops you. And you have no choice but to commit.
Cape Town is harsh like that. It’s a strangely isolating city. Suddenly I was burdened with opinions I couldn’t voice with my friends in earshot. They were still my friends but now our difference had become gruelling, almost adversarial.
I started seeing my environment through glasses tainted with criticism. The uniforms the parking marshals wear at the Mount Nelson were racist. Why was Cecil John Rhodes still perched on the UCT steps? How do those kids feel about going to a school named after Jan van Riebeeck?
Perhaps it was presumptuous of me to compare myself to Neo. I’m not “the chosen one”, the prophet sent to change the world; change is a collective force. I am simply one infiltrator of the Matrix from the outside in… I’m still working on the flow chart.