SA’s most racist city?

2012-02-22 00:00

RECENTLY, a leading Sunday newspaper published a study on race in Cape Town. It drew on the opinions of some politicians to convey the impression that our city is the most racist and unequal in South Africa.

It seems that this has been a recurrent theme with some commentators, certainly in the past few weeks but also in the past few years, or at least since 2006. Given the centrality of race to our history, there is perhaps a yearning to explore this issue even more than we already do in our lived experiences.

Race is an important part of our identity as South Africans. Cape Town is like the rest of South Africa in that it faces the historical legacy of inequality. This is common to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, East London — everywhere. We all face the same challenges of service provision, especially with accelerated urbanisation, where moving targets make many people feel excluded.

But we are all one country and we largely move our healing forward at the same pace.

So it is surprising to me that Cape Town has been singled out. What this suggests is that other major metros have perhaps moved on, in which case I ask that all commentators quickly share the secrets of those miracles with us so that we can join them in the future.

But I fear that this is in fact not the case.

So I have to dismiss that cause and look for answers elsewhere; answers to be found in a broader context. That means I have to ask: why is Cape Town so different from other places in the country?

There is, of course, a fundamental difference. Cape Town is the only major urban centre not governed by the African National Congress.

Because of the way history is written, reconciliation is largely tied to the legacy of the ANC. This is in certain ways legitimate, given the leading role that the organisation played in the struggle for our freedom. But the mistake that commentators make is to assume that that relationship gives the ANC an exclusive monopoly on reconciliation and dealing with issues of racial politics head on.

This has consequences. It means that if these good values are exclusive to the ANC and the ANC does not govern somewhere, these good values are not present.

Therefore, as the ANC does not govern in Cape Town, Cape Town must be racist. An interrogation of this assumption leads to other, deeper revelations.

We see that it has only really got under way since 2006. Before then, the accepted wisdom was that Cape Town was like the rest of South Africa in this way.

Suddenly, when the ANC lost power, racism somehow became much more acute. This has cheapened racial discourse even further. But there is another deeper flaw in all of this: the assumption that governments are the sole agents of reconciliation and if it is the wrong government, then there is no reconciliation.

Government is a leader but in terms of social change it is one of many partners. Until we realise this, commentators’ easy associations with false qualities will deceive them into thinking that reconciliation has already occurred.

It is this deception which makes them think that racial issues that exist in the rest of the country are not the failing of the national government.

Of course, in truth, we have problems in Cape Town, as the rest of the country does. We try to deal with our history, as the rest of the country does.

We condemn racism wherever it occurs: the pain and anguish of very personal experiences that cannot always be measured but are no less real to the individual.

But we also know that we are a partner in social change. We are doing our part to live up to our end of the bargain through the innovative programmes of redress to build a more inclusive and caring city. In fact, unique in the sphere of local government, we have been the only metro that has explicitly made our programme of government one that is rooted in the principles of redress and reconciliation.

Our programme includes building a world-class transportation network, providing services for back yarders, cross-subsidising the poor more than anywhere else in the country, providing basic services to informal settlements, providing economic relief as part of a special jobs project, renaming certain public spaces, and a whole host of other measures.

There is still much to be done but we know that if everyone works together, we can build a better city.

In our mission, however, the last thing we need are cheap accusations founded on faulty logic, unexplored assumptions and the resentment of political losses.


• This article by Patricia de Lille first appeared in Cape Town This Week, a weekly newsletter by the executive mayor of Cape Town.

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