Personal troubles and public issues

2012-03-10 11:45

The City Press special report on racism in Cape Town, published on February 12, refers. I was struck in particular by the articles written by Babalwa Shota and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

While the thrust of their articles is about the marginalisation and victimisation of Africans by white people in the city, they both intimate that black people are not helpless.
 
In an article troublingly titled “You will love me”, Shota chronicles her experiences in the cable car on Table Mountain and how she and her friends spoke back and yelled at white offenders.

“My group’s bravado and infantile behaviour might have been fun and funny, but it veiled a simmering anger that so many of my black brothers and sisters have towards snooty white people in this city.”

She concludes with a flourish: “So, my darling Cape Town, a revolt is brewing, and if you continue to dismiss your black children with a flick of the wrist like irritating flies, you will regret it because the darkies are finally ready to claim you as their own.”

And then in a rather inexplicable twist, she writes in another article in the same edition: “ Admittedly, spotting a black man on Camps Bay is like finding an elephant in a money box. However, our skin colour never led to discrimination anywhere.”

Moya also proceeds with a plaintive argument that ends with an assertive punch line: “One good thing about the post-1994 era is that the good old liberals need no longer think or make decisions on our behalf. They can name us, but that is as far as they can go.”

I don’t know why Moya would concede such a crucial aspect of one’s identity as “naming” to someone else, but that’s a matter for another day.

Since the special report publication I have been wondering whether the articles are less about racism and more a reflection of black confusion about how to respond to racism in South Africa, both perceived and real.

To test my hunch, I did a little thought experiment.

What line of argument would the articles have taken if the respective writers had started with the assertive punch lines instead? Could they have told their stories differently?

The more I thought about it the more I became convinced that they would have been forced to answer Lenin’s question: what is to be done?

This is what I find sorely lacking in our public writing. It is one thing to threaten action, and quite another to actually come up with policy proposals. I used to write about the problems of racism in Cape Town a decade ago.

Either the problem has not disappeared, or black people, who actually run the country, have done very little about it.

But even if we grant that the problem has not disappeared, we ought to ask ourselves whether the posture we have adopted in addressing it is sustainable and will yield structural changes in the end.

Individual complaints will no doubt carry resonance in what is arguably the most segregated city in the country, where townships are located as far as 60km from the city.

This is the one city that was designated a preferential area for one group of people, simply on account of their race, if the concept coloured lends itself to a description of race.

Those of us with roots in black consciousness cringe at such descriptions. This is also the city where African people could not even be on the waiting list for a house until 1994. This is the real challenge of Cape Town – a beautiful city marred by a history of racist segregation. Many people carry the scars of this legacy.

But finding “resonance” among people with wounded scars is not the same thing as coming up with policy solutions.

While the former is as easy as shouting fire in a crowded theatre, the latter requires a painstakingly difficult process of social imagination and new investment in new physical spaces.

The question is: what are we doing about it? After all, we are in the majority, we run the government and we make the laws.

The irony is that it is our own government that made apartheid spatial segregation look like a walk in the park by building RDP houses even further from the cities than apartheid’s matchbox houses. It was only in 2004 that the government started to rethink its housing policy away from the RDP towards more integrated cities.

The challenge then is to transform the landscape of our cities in ways that will bring the people of the city together. Cities, including Cape Town, are where the new non-racial nation ought to be concretely imagined.

Harvard University’s local government guru, Gerald Frug, put it this way: “A primary city function, the primary city function, ought to be the cultivation and reproduction of the city’s traditional form of human association.”

Frug argues that “cities ought to teach people how to interact with unfamiliar strangers, how to deal with their terror of the black poor or of whomever they imagine as the mob”.

The sociologist C Wright Mills once made a distinction that is useful in reimagining and remaking our society.

It was between the “personal troubles of individuals and the public issues of social structure”. Societies change by connecting the former to the latter through a process of what he called the “sociological imagination”.

While I will not second-guess the individual troubles of City Press writers, I would also like to urge black writers in particular to suggest how to connect between our personal troubles and the actions required to transform the public structure of our cities so that they are more habitable to all who live in them.

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