Cape Town & race – ‘We still behave as if we’re not free’

2012-02-14 09:28

Brian O’Connell, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, grew up in District Six – a mixed-race suburb of Cape Town – in the 1960s. Race ­Classification, a notorious apartheid law that bizarrely designated your ­official colour as “white” or “non-white”, was not really on his radar.

“I didn’t experience racism as a child,” says O’Connell from his office overlooking the campus in industrial Belville. “I may be coloured, but you’ll find members of my family who are black. There was a Muslim uncle who ran the shop down the street and black relatives who lived across the road. We did not see race. We were all poor, that’s what made us equal.”

O’Connell remembers when this changed. Stretching out his arms to show the gap between blacks and whites, with coloureds in the middle, he says: “It was when you grew up and tried to look for a job that you realised places such as Tamboerskloof and Sea Point were off limits for you.”

Rush hour in the city centre goes some way to explain why Cape Town’s race relations are different from anywhere else in the country.

Walking to the Grand Parade, site of the main train station, are scores of black and coloured workers on their way home. But at the station ­itself, they split up. Most coloured commuters hop on trains to ­Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats; black people head for the Gugulethu and Khayelitsha platforms.

Today in the Western Cape, more than 50% of the population ­describe themselves as coloured. They were not always the dominant race, but the 1960s Jobs Reservation Act encouraged coloured people to settle in or around the Mother City.

Western Cape Cosatu secretary and ANC leader in the Cape Town Metro Council Tony Ehrenreich ­explains: “There was a special dispensation to reskill coloured people as artisans. Those days if you were an electrician or a plumber, you were considered larney in the coloured community because you had a skill for which you got paid more. Black people were the ones mixing the ­cement, while you got on with the more important part of building the house.”

Ehrenreich blames the better deal that coloured people had under apartheid for the fact that in 1994, its architects, the National Party, won the Western Cape with the support of the coloured vote.

That South Africa’s first democratic elections saw a provincial win for the party that kept racism alive for 40 years still shocks O’Connell.

“This is what they did to our ­people. They explained how the ANC government was going to take away the few privileges coloured people had. They distributed pamphlets to show how coloured people would lose their grants under the new ­government. It was an argument we couldn’t win.”

According to Western Cape ANC leader Marius Fransman, the effect of the National Party’s divide and rule tactics remains the chief cause of racial tension between black and coloured people in the Western Cape.

“The DA is playing into the racial divides of the province. They are ­exploiting the insecurity people have about the dangers of a black ANC government.”

The fact that Fransman is coloured is exactly why he was chosen by the ANC to lead the party here, tasked with winning back the province from the DA. A tall order, given he is also deputy minister of international relations and cooperation.

During our interview in the state protocol lounge at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, Fransman makes a startling and frank statement.

“Cape Town was racist under the ANC as well. It is not as if it started with the DA,” he says. “Cape Town is racist and the ANC did not do enough to change it.”

Today there is a smattering of black and coloured people who enjoy Cape Town’s fine restaurants, fancy clothing shops and bars with breathtaking views, but these places remain largely the haunt of whites and tourists.

Says Fransman: “You won’t see a lot of our people at places like the V&A Waterfront. They see that as white territory.”

Attempts by the ANC government to build integrated communities have had limited success, says Ehrenreich. Coloured people, he says, even go so far as to reject opportunities to live in better conditions in former black areas.

“Our people don’t want to stay there. They say why must they go and stay with black people? They’d rather end up in a shack in a coloured ­township than a brick house in ­Khayelitsha.”

But if, as Ehrenreich says, many coloured people remain racist ­towards black people, there’s a flip side too.

Racially loaded comments like ­coloureds will die “a drunken death” if they don’t transform, made by an adviser (ironically called Blackman Ngoro) to then mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo, alienated voters from the ANC. More recent comments by ­government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi, who said coloured people were “overconcentrated” in the Western Cape, didn’t help either.

“And then,” says Fransman, “there was the policy of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.”

“Let sleeping dogs lie” was the ­formal name of the ANC’s game plan before the 2006 municipal elections, which saw the city change hands from the ANC to the DA.

“The ANC felt the communities in coloured ­areas like Mitchells Plain were ­already voting for the whites ­anyway, so we couldn’t make any inroads there. It was decided we wouldn’t bother with them; it would be a waste of our time.”

Apartheid spatial planning lies at the heart of racial division in Cape Town, says Cape Town mayor ­Patricia de Lille.

She started her working life at a paint factory on the outskirts of Cape Town. Today she lives in Pinelands, an upper-class, integrated suburb.

“It is not the kind of thing you can change overnight, but people still live where they used to live under apartheid. That entrenches division,” she says from her glass-walled office with amazing views of Table Mountain.

O’Connell agrees. When the community he grew up in was moved ­under the Group Areas Act of 1965, it was scattered and destroyed. It is a loss, he says, from which that community has never recovered.

“It was the most damaging thing apartheid did to us.”

O’Connell predicts that employment equity targets, prescribing severe limitations to the employment of coloured people in the provincial and municipal governments, will only serve to keep race problems alive.

For this he blames government.

“We have been liberated; we can take off the shackles of racism now. But now we have employment equity imposing rules that bind us the same way we were bound under apartheid. So yes, politically we have the power, but we are still behaving as if we are not free.”

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