White is still the norm in Cape Town

2014-10-26 15:00

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Although relative privilege makes for an exceptional life in Cape Town, white is still the norm, say these writers

Go shout it from the mountain

Lwandile Fikeni

One morning, we wake up feeling fat. To be sure, we’d felt fat for a while but on this particular morning, it was exacerbated by the fact that our flat overlooks an official state estate that houses one of our reasonably fat ministers.

I’ve heard people say it’s the education minister’s residence and, you know what? It’s not called “ministerial gravy” for nothing.

At all times, a posse of police officers is to be found at the entrance. They are as fat as we feel and just as lazy. With their frames squeezed tightly into their blue uniforms and their blue caps concealing their eyes, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were guarding the house of a modern Al Capone.

Sunday morning squeezes through a dense mass of leaves and flecks of sunlight.

A piebald cat leaps into view and perches on the wall where the electric fence of our gated apartment block separates us from the minister’s house, and the minister’s electric fence barricades her from the rest of the street.

Cats roam freely in our block the way dogs do in Gugulethu, where my girlfriend’s family lives. But the similarities between Gugulethu and Vredehoek end there. If in Gugs a cacophony of cars and children and music and chatter punctuates the existence of its inhabitants, Vredehoek is the absolute opposite.

Our street, on the contrary, is quiet save for the rustling of leaves and the singing of the mild, dry easterly Cape Doctor.

Slowly, we climb out of bed and put on our gym clothes. We make our way up Gorge Road, past the park where bergies’ rags hang out to dry on branches. Further and further up the foot of Table Mountain we climb, as slowly as our bodies allow.

The canopy of trees provides ample shade from the biting sun. “This is where Azure must’ve climbed,” my girlfriend says. “Ah-zoo-ray”. He is the 13-year-old street kid protagonist in K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel, Thirteen Cents. While the book deals with the underworld and ravages of poverty in Cape Town, this picturesque trail is also reflected on Cape Town Tourism leaflets.

Relative privilege makes for an exceptional life in Cape Town. Where we are standing, the mountain looms large up ahead with behind us the sprawling city suburbs and the city; further down, the harbour and the sea. You’d be forgiven if you thought this is all there is to this magnificent-looking city.

Hugged by the bosom of the mountain and the forest, we take a rest. A black man and his two daughters fish for tadpoles in a shallow pool. The father is patient with his daughters and shows them how to catch the slippery offspring. “No, dad, you do it,” says the youngest. She’s up to her knees in the murky water.

In a way, the view offers us a slice of the dream of the rainbow nation: a smidgen of the new black elite enjoying the bitter fruits of freedom in a world that, not so long ago, was the exclusive territory of whites. On our ascent up Table Mountain, the father and his two daughters are the only black people we see, just as we are the only black people in our electric-fenced apartment block.

An elderly couple with English accents descends from above us. Aloof, the granny slips on a boulder. Her husband jumps to grab her. The two of them cascade down the boulder in the gushing stream from the mini waterfall ahead and plunge into a pool just next to us. “White people,” my girlfriend says as I try to fish them out.

“We’re fine, we’re fine,” the man says as they laugh and play in the water. We ask about an alternative trail down the slope and they point us in the direction.

“Is it not interesting that they know more about this mountain, about this country, than we do?” my girlfriend asks contemptuously.

“It’s because they took all the land and stuffed us in townships and bantustans all those years ago, with Bantu education,” I say. “We’re still in the townships eking out a living from the scraps and leftovers of this city,” she says.

“With a fancy car and CA qualification I’m still the girl from Gugs. Even at work. They still want to send me on errands like a maid. That’s the only way they know how to relate to me.”

Right there, the thin veneer of exceptionalism cracks and we realise that as much as a lot has changed for a few of us, we’re still in the same position as before.

Except now we experience the misfortune of the pigment of our skin in larger waists and beautifully lit restaurants and quiet streets, on Weylandts furniture and in open-plan offices, hoping that some day, one day, things will truly change and we won’t be so uncomfortably self-conscious in the country of our birth.

Fikeni is a Cape Town-based freelancer

Lwandile Fikeni and Maria Phalimeshare their experience of being black in the Mother City. Picture: Denvor de Wee

You must own the mountain

Maria Phalime

I’ve always made a big deal of my birthdays and this one was no different. I had spent the morning being preened and pampered at a local day spa, and later I bought a flattering outfit to complement my freshly buffed body.

By the time my husband and I arrived at the up-market seafood restaurant on Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard that evening I was looking forward to a continuation of the five-star treatment.

We were at one of those “special occasion” restaurants: the ones where the ambient temperature is just so, and the patrons speak in hushed tones so as not to cause a disturbance in the air of sophistication hanging over the space.

The evening began as planned with a bottle of MCC to toast the occasion. After a delicate salmon starter I excused myself from the table to “powder my nose”. As I walked towards the ladies’ room a man was standing between two tables directly in my path.

“Excuse me,” I mumbled, fully expecting him to simply step aside and let me pass. He turned to look at me and asked, “Can I get another chair?”

My initial thought was: Why is he asking me about a chair? But before I’d even completed the thought the answer bubbled up from that place of knowing so familiar to black people. He thought I worked there.

The metaphorical slap must have registered on my face because he fidgeted and quickly added: “Sorry, I thought…” There was no need for him to finish the sentence.

We both knew what he thought: What reason could there possibly be for a black person to be at this establishment except as an employee, to fetch his chair, serve his food and clear away his plates?

It didn’t matter that on that special occasion I felt like a million dollars. In his eyes I was simply there to serve his privileged interests.

This was the only occasion where I’ve had an overtly racist encounter in Cape Town, but I’ve caught enough curious sideways glances to realise that my presence in the mainstream of Cape Town society probably elicits questions such as: Who is she? Why is she here?

White is the norm here. Undoubtedly.

A part of me was reluctant to write this article. After all, I am married to a White Englishman and we have two cafe-au-lait children.

One could argue I’ve bought into the notion of a white enclave on the southern tip of Africa. But in an odd sense the make-up of my family has given me valuable insight into the nature of the beast.

I have spent countless hours at lily-white braais and dinner parties and I see how comfortable life is here. The Cape Town of the privileged class has changed little over the past 20 years, and I don’t see it doing so in the foreseeable future.

Why mess with a good thing? The blacks are where they’ve always been – on the periphery, both physically in the townships on the outskirts of the city as well as socially, economically and culturally.

The only way the character of this city will start to reflect a true African city is if we, black professionals with the means to make our presence felt, come in from the periphery and infiltrate the mainstream of the city.

Our approach cannot be to retreat up country, to “the real South Africa” because “Cape Town is racist”. This only perpetuates the status quo and creates a situation where there are never enough of us to make a dent in the consciousness of this city.

Some may protest, saying: “Why must it be up to us? Why must we take steps to legitimise our presence in the country of our ancestors?” I get that; it annoys me too.

But I also understand human nature – we only change if we are uncomfortable enough to change. There is so much comfort here that I bet if you told a white Capetonian that the city alienates black people they’d be perplexed, offended even. Expecting them somehow to have an epiphany in the night is wishful thinking.

As black people we disempower ourselves by placing the responsibility for causing a shift in race dynamics at the doorstep of white people. This effectively places our fate in their hands, leaving us powerless and disenfranchised and ultimately angry and frustrated. By leaving or staying away we are effectively saying: “You’re right. We don’t belong here”.

We cannot allow ourselves to be cowed. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” We must be the change we want to see in Cape Town. We are never going to be invited in, so we must just show up, and keep showing up – everywhere – until we can no longer be ignored.

Phalime is a doctor and author who won the inaugural City Press Nonfiction Award (2012)

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