Racial brawl is Cape Town's past and present

TO Molefe

Considering its history, it was fitting that the Cape Quarter mall in the Cape Town suburb of De Waterkant was the site of a dust up between a drunk sexist, classist, racist white guy and the black guy who was the target of his vitriol. The fight, which currently has over 150 000 views on YouTube, echoed the history of the suburb, where, just metres down the road, at Gallows Hill, blacks who rebelled against enslavement and racial subjugation were hanged publicly and their corpses displayed to discourage copycat rebellions.

Yes, I know those hanged probably self-identified as Malay, Khoikhoi, or as a member of one of the many peoples who speak isiXhosa. "Black" is the catch-all I use to reject the subdivisions of oppression created by imperialist colonialism and apartheid to divide and maintain dominance over the oppressed.

Somehow, despite this history, the memories of oppression specific to places in Cape Town such as De Waterkant and Gallows Hill have been erased stealthily in the intervening years. Even the name of the mall where the fight took place, Cape Quarter, is a whitewashed nod to the area's history as a slave quarter, before their descendants were forcibly removed and the area officially cordoned, until recently, a whites-only settlement.

If an alien from another planet were to have witnessed the fight, it would have scarcely understood the broader social and historical context. But, given the erasure of this past, I suspect that even many of the over 150 000 who viewed the video and perhaps even the combatants themselves did not fully appreciate what it represented.

Righteous indignation

The reactions I've seen to the video, wherein a black guy knocked a white guy unconscious for calling him the k-word, were congratulatory. The white guy had it coming, they said. Even a Member of Parliament, the Economic Freedom Fighter's communications head Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, suggested the black guy's reaction constituted an exemplary response to such a provocation.

Indeed the white guy's behaviour was appalling. According to eyewitnesses, the guy and his friend were taking an unreasonably long time to use the ATM. When asked to hurry up, they hurled sexist abuse at the women who'd urged them to hurry. That's apparently when the black guy stepped in and he himself became the victim of the white guy's racist abuse.

Even afterwards, after he'd been helped to his feet by the security guard, the white guy who was knocked out apparently continued to hurl abuse at the security guard who'd helped him.

Drunk, not stupid

But let's step back and unpack the incident. Even in his drunken state, the white guy was acting out a historical sense of entitlement to the physical space and social status conferred to him based solely on the fact that he is white and male, and the people with whom he was interacting were not.

I'm not clairvoyant. I say these things as a matter of factly because we humans are beings whose behaviours, without some kind of intervention, go with the grain of the social systems and economic arrangements into which we are socialised. And Cape Quarter, with its history linked to slavery, white supremacy and anti-blackness, is today a physical embodiment of those social systems and economic arrangements.

In Cape Quarter, as in many other places in Green Point and the Atlantic Seaboard, blacks are typically servers at the restaurants and coffee shops, checkout attendants at grocery stores, and red-and-black-clad security guards. Typically, although this is changing slowly, the patrons are white.

It is this changing dynamic that overturned the drunk white guy's delusional sense of place in the world.

In the queue behind him at the ATM, women, some black at that, refused to be cowed by the fact that he is white and male. They discarded how the socioeconomic history implicitly embedded in places like Cape Quarter dictates they should behave by publicly telling the white guy what in his behaviour was socially unacceptable. That irked him enough to set off his tirade.

And when a black guy stood with them against him, that really overturned his white-male supremacist world, so he lashed out, aided by alcohol that lowered his inhibitions but certainly did not create his sense of entitlement and racial superiority.

Beyond this brawl

Despite all the applause the black guy has received on social media for his actions, I suspect this might not end well for him. Management at Cape Quarter, who have apparently “banned” both men from the premises, say no one from the South African Police Service has requested the surveillance video yet, but they do plan on co-operating fully should they be approached.

Both men likely have criminal charges to answer should the other lay charges – the white guy for attempted assault and crimen injuria for his alleged use of the k-word, and the black guy for assault, although he could potentially plead self-defence.

However, beyond these immediate consequences, there remain questions for the Cape Town city council and residents about the kind of city we want to live in. Everyday the city's nearly 400-year muted history of racist oppression rears its head, sometimes violently, as it did in the Cape Quarter incident or the attacks on Muhammed Makungwa and Cynthia Joni and “Ethel”.

Often, the history manifests in subtle ways, like the families in District Six threatened with evictions or the persistence of the city's racialised neighbourhoods where in some instances black residents are the victims of government-sponsored indirect racism. No one, not the government nor residents, has a real plan on how to deal with this history. But a good place to start would be smashing any pretences about how this city was built.

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