Can Cape Town shake off the racist yoke?

2015-01-11 15:00

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Next time you experience racism in Cape Town, call Helen Zille.

The Western Cape Premier has vowed that she’ll personally follow up on each report she receives – and if scores of reports in newspapers and social networks are to be believed, she’ll be extremely busy.

This week the five-star Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa in Camps Bay, and by association the city’s hospitality industry, became the new site of an ongoing debate about whether Cape Town is the country’s most racist city.

The Mpofu family say they were denied a table at the hotel’s Azure restaurant last month, but a white friend of theirs – who called minutes later – made a booking without trouble.

The hotel said the Mpofus’ experience was the result of an “administrative error”.

Many people on Twitter, Facebook and talk radio stations dismissed this explanation and said they, too, had experienced racism at Cape Town’s restaurants – though no names were mentioned.

Outspoken singer-songwriter Simphiwe Dana suggested on Twitter that establishments caught in racist incidents should have their liquor licences temporarily revoked, and that white people needed to boycott these places to really get owners’ attention.

She said there was little point in black people boycotting racist establishments.

“I just don’t see how you boycott an establishment that is glad if you stay away. No impact,” she tweeted.

City Press went straight to the alleged source of the problem. Our reporter Nokuthula Manyathi called four high-end city restaurants to reserve a table for four for today. Her experience was positive in each instance.

Had it been negative, reporter Biénne Huisman would have followed up by posing as a prospective white diner to see if she could get a different response.

Here’s how Manyathi fared:

» ?At The Test Kitchen, voted Africa’s best restaurant at the 2014 World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards: “The lady I spoke to was nice. She said they were fully booked for dinner from now until May 29. Lunch reservations would also only be available from March 19. When I asked to make a booking for March 20, she was very keen to take my reservation.”

» At Reuben’s at the five-star One & Only Hotel – founded by local celebrity chef Reuben Riffel: “I had the same experience – very friendly. They put me on hold for a short while after I asked to make a booking. They did have space and politely took down my reservation.”

» At the Planet Restaurant at the Mount Nelson Hotel, an architectural relic of Cape Town’s colonial past: “They were fully booked this Sunday afternoon, but the receptionist was quick to offer me a slot in the morning. She was polite, asked if my guests and I had any dietary requirements and explained the dining process. She read back my reservation to me to ensure she had jotted my details down correctly.”

»?At the popular seafood spot Balducci’s Restaurant at the V&A Waterfront: “They gladly took my reservation. The restaurant also explained its 10-minute holding policy: if a diner doesn’t arrive within 10 minutes of the reserved time, their table is given to someone else.”

Nobody seems able to say how restaurants and hotels can be censured for racist behaviour.

When asked about measures to clamp down on discrimination at Mother City restaurants, the Federated Hospitality Association of SA’s Cape Town branch said this wasn’t really their problem.

“While we do assist government in driving transformation through black economic empowerment compliance within the hospitality industry to facilitate best employment practices, this does not include advocating or regulating the service levels of members.”

The ongoing debate around Cape Town’s unofficial mantle as South Africa’s most racist city spread from the Twelve Apostles in up-market Camps Bay through the city’s outlying townships this week.

President Jacob Zuma spoke of the city’s history of slavery and colonialism in the run-up to the ruling party’s birthday celebrations yesterday.

Zille, though, rejected the idea that Cape Town was the capital of racial discrimination. “This is a perception the ANC is trying to create because the voters of the Western Cape – a minority of whom are white – have rejected the ANC,” she said.

Zille invited people to approach her with details of racism: “I have a public commitment to follow up on every specific incident of alleged racism in the Western Cape if the details are brought to me.”

“Resolving it (the Twelve Apostles incident) was taken very seriously indeed (by its management). I have urged several people to make dinner reservations at the hotel to go and experience it for themselves,” she said.

*You can contact Zille on She said she and her team would “investigate any specific allegation – not generalisations”.

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