I arrived in Cape Town from the UK to work as an intern on a left-leaning news publication, which fitted well with my youth and radical beliefs. I visited South Africa once before, and as a social scientist felt it was intensely fascinating. The democratic project in South Africa seemed to provide inspiration for what Europe needed so desperately: a new political model that has cultural plurality at its core.
The country I grew up in, France, was deeply fractured due to the restrictive understanding of what it means to be French, and failed (and to some extent still does) to capture what a multicultural state should look like.
My frustration with Cape Town, however, was a gradual build-up. The first few years I turned a blind eye and subconsciously protected myself in a bubble of whiteness and privilege. This I justified by telling myself I was not from here and that I was not complicit (even though I was). I was hopeful and naive that things would change; that the rainbow nation was still young and would grow into its ideal.
I was a passive white liberal slipping down a slippery slope, slowly realising that nothing I could do on an individual level would shift the structure enough that it would make a meaningful enough dent in the racist establishment. So, I reluctantly joined the wellbeing-outdoors-yoga-green juice brigade in and around the City Bowl as escapism.
I overcompensated by being extra nice to the people of colour serving my meals, packing my shopping, driving the bus that took me to work, and cleaning my office (I later learnt that being nice is not anti-racism: it merely entrenches it).
After a string of short and failed romances, I fell in love with someone outside of my racial group. Everything tipped upside down, topsy turvy, and the sharp needle of reality burst my ignorance bubble.
Through this experience, I’ve learnt about the many sinister faces of racism, which is a shape-shifting, cunning monster.
These, I’ve learnt, include:
- When my partner came to visit me in the early days, he would get asked by security staff if he was there to deliver food.
- As a couple, you either get treated super well by restaurant staff, or get told the place is fully booked when it’s not, or get seated in the back. There is no neutral response.
- When you go to a gardening centre, an old white southern suburbs man calls your significant other over: "Chief! Where can I find the potting soil?" It hurts, but only by proxy for me.
- You cannot win: if he pays the bill, they’ll think I am after his money. If I pay the bill, they’ll think I am buying his love. It’s an impasse.
- The dry old witch who lives on your street walks her dog at night, and your partner drives you home (we don’t yet live together), and you exchange the evening’s goodbyes, the witch waits and hawks: confused as to why her next-door neighbour is being intimate with who she can only conceive, in her rattled biased brain, as being the Uber driver.
- When you tell a fellow white about your partner, they’ll inevitably ask: "Oh, that’s nice, is he Afrikaans or English?" Their mind cannot even compute love across racial lines.
- Your partner has to sit through lunch hour at a top international tech company where he works, and listen to the possy of white male engineers lament that : "...They’re hiring too many blacks these days." Right in front of him.
- You relish weekends away in Johannesburg, where racial lines are more blurry, and you feel like you can both breathe again. I’ll take concrete jungle and jacarandas over the ocean and mountain any day, no matter how breathtaking the view.
The conclusion my partner and I have come to is that the everyday fabric of life is made up mostly of social interactions, not hikes and tanning on the beach (at least, for the vast majority of people who have a job, or families to look after, and little leisure time).
This very social fabric is more important to us than having a nice view every day. Going forward, before we leave South Africa to other shores, I try to keep calling out interactions I see are problematic (which happens every single day, for the most part).
To be truthful though, I do struggle with rage and am mostly very angry at the status quo in Cape Town, where the sharp contrast between the privileged whites’ blissful lives are so sharply contrasted to the everyday racism everyone else has to endure.
* A pseudonym was used to protect the identity of the writer.