Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
4 November 2009

Cape Town a racist city?

In our little visdorpie an argument is raging about whether Cape Town is a racist city. The argument was sparked by a report written by Dr Sabie Surtee and Prof Martin Hall of the UCT Development Policy Research Unit, which found a widespread belief amongst black African professionals working in Cape Town that the city is “hostile to black people”.

Premier Helen Zille dismissed this report by stating that it must be judged against the background of a broader ANC propaganda campaign which fuels the “myth” that Cape Town is a racist city hostile to black Africans. It was fanned by a small politically connected black business elite who are unhappy that the DA city and provincial government are preventing them from corruptly benefiting from state tenders – despite being African and ANC-aligned.

She argued that the methodology of the study was flawed because it focused on only a few companies and interviewed only African employees whose feelings and views were not subject to critical scrutiny and verification with reference to the “facts”. While Cape Town has its share of racists (like everywhere else in the country), it was those who stated that Cape Town was a racist city who were themselves racist as they were making pejorative generalisations about a whole city based on the views of a few.

It seems to me the Premier is being somewhat disingenuous.

While she might have a point that the racism narrative is being fueled by the ANC and its cronies who are unhappy that the DA is in charge of the city and the province – depriving the ANC-aligned elite of automatic access to lucrative contracts – this does not address the larger issues regarding the structural racism and dominant culture of white superiority in Cape Town.

It would have been more honest (and politically more astute) for the Premier to engage openly with the report of my colleagues and to recognise that many Africans do feel alienated and marginalised in Cape Town and that this is at least partly because of racism. This is about more than access to tenders or ANC propaganda and goes to the heart of what we mean when we talk about transformation.

The Premier’s response is unfortunate as it dismisses the sincerely expressed feelings of all those Africans interviewed for the report. “You might feel discriminated against and marginalised because you are black,” she seems to say, “but what you feel and experience is not real. Let the madam tell you what you should really feel and how you should really interpret the experiences of racism you have encountered in our city.”

This is familiar territory for everyone who has been at the wrong end of racial discrimination in the new South Africa.  Unfortunately many white people, secure in their own white world and uncritical about their own assumptions of “merit”  and “fairness”, wrongly believe that racism is by and large a thing of the past and that black people are “too sensitive” or are “imagining” the racism they experience every day. Such individuals do not realise that their world view and experience of reality is shaped by often implicit (but unspoken and unexamined) assumptions about white superiority and black inferiority.

These assumptions remain largely unexamined because they are not seen as part of a specific white dominated culture. In a place like Cape Town still dominated by a white hegemonic culture, only “others” are seen as basing their experience of the world on problematic assumptions. Because the white hegemonic assumptions are so deeply embedded in our city’s culture, they appear normal and natural (“it is just the way life is”) while the experiences of those who do not share the same culture and hence do not rely on the same unspoken assumptions are dismissed as “wrong”. Their experiences are not accepted as true, because it does not accord with the way in which we ourselves experience the world.

When a black person is denied entry to a venue, treated with disrespect at a shop or when a black person complains about being made to feel unwelcome at the workplace, it is assumed that this has nothing to do with racism. Either the black person must be to blame (she was not “properly” dressed, she was “making trouble”, she was being “difficult” or “lazy”), or the insult is dismissed on the basis that it was not based on race but on the idiosyncrasies of the individual who acted badly.

If we really want to engage with deep transformation, we need to be honest about the fact that different people from different races and cultures often experience the world differently. We need to accept than when such a large group of African professionals say that Cape Town is hostile to black people, there is something wrong – even if we cannot easily see this because it does not accord with our own experience. Denying that anything is the matter is deeply insulting and dehumanising. It dismisses the real lived experience of a group of people just because they do not experience the world in the same way as their white counterparts.

Moreover, Zille’s response is particularly insulting as it comes close to dismissing all the black people who complain of racism in Cape Town as dishonest and corrupt. That is called “blaming the victim”.

Surely a more honest response would have been to take the complaints seriously, to admit that there is indeed a problem and to propose ways of addressing the very real concerns of the many black people who have made Cape Town their home. Like an alcoholic who can only begin to manage his illness after admitting to having a drinking problem, Cape Town can only begin to address the problem of structural racism when its leaders admit that there is a problem in the first place.

Merely blaming the ANC – no matter how tempting that might look – just reinforces the same old patterns and do not bring us closer to a solution. Such a solution would require some critical self-reflection on the part of those of us who are not African, perhaps by asking: what have I done to understand the reasons behind the alienation felt by many Africans in Cape Town and what have I done to address this.

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