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Not easy being black in the colonial Mother City

Cape Town, 23.05.2006: Solly Moeng photographed in Queen Victoria Street for the Cape Times series on Racism. Picture Andrew Ingram

Cape Town, 23.05.2006: Solly Moeng photographed in Queen Victoria Street for the Cape Times series on Racism. Picture Andrew Ingram

Published Aug 20, 2014


Cape Town’s social fabric is a moving target, writes Solly Moeng.


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The piece by Kine Dineo Mokwena-Kessi (“Black in Cape Town? Brace yourself”) was quite thought-provoking. In reading through it, I found myself wondering whether, after several years in Cape Town, I had become blasé and simply “internalised the oppression” and made peace with the ingrained colonial mindset in Cape Town.

Despite not having grown up in Cape Town, have I become like the “local blacks” who are often accused by other blacks of having accepted their place in the order of things?

But, have they really, and can this be said of all of them? If they have, what then would one make of the many protests that one witnesses in local black townships and informal settlements, demanding better services and a better life? Or, perhaps, the protesters are outsiders – refugees, as Madame Premier would have it – most apparently hailing from the Eastern Cape?

Cape Town has never been an easy place to put a tag on and to push into a pigeonhole. It is like a moving target. If you point out the negative, someone else will quickly point out all the things that, arguably, seem to work better here than elsewhere in the country; and the beautiful outdoors; ah, the scenic beauty. It has everything; the good, the bad and the ugly.

On the one hand, to many South African black people who live in places like Joburg, Cape Town is a racist city; untransformed and still operating as if 1994 never happened. For good measure, they’d throw in the terribly bad weather, which is said by some to be bad all year round, except for a few sunny days here and there.

Don’t ever try to persuade them otherwise; their minds are made up. On the other hand, many black people who hail from elsewhere in the diaspora – Africa, Europe, North America and elsewhere – consider Cape Town the best, safest, place to be in South Africa.

In fact, many of them find it easier to be accepted by Capetonians than by the general South African black populace, who they find unfriendly and generally xenophobic. Capetonians seem to be generally less threatened by foreign blacks (often described as “harder working” and “peaceful”) than they are by black South Africans.

Perhaps there is substance in the outcome of a recent survey by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (in partnership with the South African Local Government Association, the Gauteng Provincial Government, and the universities of Joburg and the Witwatersrand) which found that 35 percent of Gauteng residents want foreigners out of South Africa and are hostile towards people of other races, and homosexuals.

To many black South Africans (excluding those who were born and raised here) Cape Town is good only as a summer holiday destination; even then, there is always a risk of receiving bad treatment in hospitality places for simply being black; or of bad weather preventing them from going up Table Mountain or frolicking on Camps Bay beach.

Trying to defend Cape Town to such black South Africans is often an unwinnable battle because there are ingrained perceptions about the Mother City being anti-black or black unfriendly.

Writing in the Financial Mail this month, Ron Derby (a black man) had this to say: “I often joke with my friends in Cape Town that if I ever found myself living in their city, I would have become something of a ‘white boy’.

“By that I mean buying a bike (ouch), joining a mountain-climbing club and perhaps upgrading myself to become something of a wine connoisseur.”

He concludes: “Maybe my ‘white boy’ living is going to have to be put off a while longer, until I can either live with the fact that I’ll be adding to Cape Town and the Western Cape’s growing socio-economic ills or until I can afford a Camps Bay address. But is that solving the problem?”

The truth, however, is that many things that Cape Town gets accused of are true. There is racism here, and the weather can be bad. I have experienced both phenomena. Maybe I’m a sucker for punishment.There are white, Muslim, and coloured people who hold some really bizarre ideas about black people, and who seem to enjoy giving them a hard time at work, in restaurants and other areas of life.

I’ve also heard unemployed coloureds blame their failure to find jobs on their historic scapegoats, blacks.

Such people should be thrown down the toilet and flushed away because they do not represent everyone else.

But, on a serious note, it takes a truly lazy mind to lash out at every other white, Malay or coloured person for bad treatment received from a white, Malay or coloured person. The corollary also holds true; it takes a truly lazy mind to make a general statement about black people after experiencing bad conduct in one or a few black people.

I have seen whites, Malays and coloureds stand up to criticise racist behaviour by some who look like them. And I have heard black people make unsavoury general statements about white, Malay, or coloured people; statements I would never want to identify with.

So, maybe Cape Town is indeed a complex matrix. We’re all plugged-in, or not – depending on how one takes life; but we have to navigate this Mother City with care. We choose how we respond to things that get thrown at us all the time, but in doing so, we should take care not to make statements about innocent people that should in fact be attributed to individuals, bad apples as it were, who only resemble them physically, but whose conduct cannot reasonably be taken as representative of everyone who resembles them.

The temptation to generalise is too easy. And racism is harder to pinpoint today; it is more polite, it smiles at you as it pushes a discriminatory knife in your back. I have experienced that in the corporate world.

But this is an important conversation; by the look of things it will stay with us for many more years. Each one of us has the responsibility to correct our family, friends and other associates whenever they make remarks – thinking they’re in safe company – that only perpetuate negative preconceived ideas about others.

* Solly Moeng is a reputation management and strategic communications specialist in Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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