Cape Town & race – Colours of Cape Town

2012-02-11 12:23

If an older person of Xhosa descent asks you where you’re from and you reply “Cape Town”, it’s almost guaranteed that the standard response will follow. “No Xhosa person is from Cape Town, my child,” they will say.

As a young person you may not appreciate the implications of this line. The irony is that the majority of black Capetonians are Xhosas – what fellow Capetonians meanly refer to as “The Transkeis” when they are guzzling beer around a braai on a lazy Sunday. And it’s true. Many of the people who erect corrugated iron shacks and inhabit RDP houses in the Mother City are Xhosa migrant workers from the Eastern Cape.

That’s how it was 50 years ago and that’s how it is now. And the distinction in this city is very clear – there are the Madams and there are the Eves.
You would be forgiven for thinking you were in Europe were you to wake up in Camps Bay. The only people of colour you are likely to see at the restaurants overlooking the beach, at least during our short stay in the city, are the waiters, the hawkers and the odd beggar.

In fact, there seems to be a certain unwritten rule that prohibits black people from venturing into certain parts of the city at night. They just disappear after office hours – like migrants only there to make a living.

“But that’s exactly what we are,” says Lindelwa Mthimkhulu, a 52-year-old domestic worker who makes her way from Nyanga township to Rondebosch each day.

“I’m here to work so I can make enough money to go back to my marital village in the Eastern Cape and retire peacefully.”
This peculiar acceptance of “us” and “them” is something most residents of this city seem comfortable with. Even a high-ranking black city official would not be drawn into the discussion, becoming flustered to the point of panic when we asked for advice on places we should visit when in town.

So we were on our own then. That was fine. We’d anticipated a week of trouble when we left Johannesburg on a mission to find out what it was like to be a darkie in Cape Town, and whether there was any truth to the widely held perception – certainly among black people – that it is the country’s most racist city.

In December, the Cape Town race relations issues reared its ugly head on Twitter in the now infamous Hellen Zille vs Simphiwe Dana bout. Up until last week, Zille – the premier of the Western Cape and leader of the city’s ruling DA – was still fielding insults for using the term “professional black”.

During a live business briefing at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, Zille told host Peter Ndoro she had “merely pointed out to Miss Dana that she is a respected black professional” and
should stop acting like a “professional black”.

To an outsider, our national obsession with race is understandable, but it can seem overstated.

A Nigerian working at The African Barber Shop on Long Street, who wants to be known only as “Ken”, says the country’s racist past is to blame for perceptions of racism now.

“I think South Africans worry too much about race. To me, this is just a normal entertainment area (Long Street’s club scene).

“I don’t think anyone is prevented from going anywhere here,” he says.
Singing a similar tune is Shooz Mekuto, spin doctor for the city’s biggest football club, Ajax Cape Town. He’s unmoved by the victim mentality of the darker-hued residents.

“People just need to grow up and change how they do things. It’s really about self-confidence and economic power, nothing else,” says Mekuto.
“Nobody stops anyone from having a good time anywhere. It’s just that because of the past, people still have those hang-ups that this place is for this one, and so on.”

Mekuto lives in a complex in Parow, which he describes as a former white right-wing stronghold. When he arrived a few years ago, he introduced himself to all his neighbours regardless of their race.

“It’s just fear and hang-ups from the past. If someone doesn’t greet me because they have a problem with the colour of my skin, then it’s their own problem.”

We park ourselves at the Tuscany Beach restaurant on Victoria Road in Camps Bay. Our waiter, Francous, a likeable fellow from Mpumalanga, keeps the drinks coming.
Most of the black waiters we meet at restaurants – like Genesis Maduya from Hudson’s Burger Joint in Sea Point, who hails from Malawi – are migrants.

We ask Francous why, it seems, there are so few black locals working as waiters in the city’s restaurants. Francous thinks local black people look down on this kind of work.

Over the six days we prowled the restaurants, beaches, clubs and markets of the Mother City, we dined, wined, lunched, drank and laughed in all those places where blacks are apparently not welcome – Long Street, Greenpoint, Camps Bay ...

Admittedly, spotting a black man on Camps Bay beach is like finding an elephant in a money box. However, our skin colour never led to discrimination anywhere.


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