I AM so tired of the cliché that white Capetonians are
racist. I’m sure you’ve come across this platitude before. It’s an old chestnut
regularly trotted out by columnists and politicians that have run out of topics
on which to spout forth.
“Cape Town is racist because a friend of mine once had to
wait for a table in a restaurant while white people were ushered straight
in.” Ever consider that perhaps the
people who were seated immediately may have had a reservation?
Then there’s the line that “Cape Town is racist because a
German tourist I had a drink with said so,” as championed in a recent column by
Khaya Dlanga titled “Cape Town’s Secret White Club“.
How can one argue with such in-depth research, which
involved canvassing the opinion of a single foreign visitor?
My personal favourite is: “Cape Town is racist because it
just looks so European.” Last time I checked, “looking European” and being
racist were not mutually inclusive (although I suspect Julius Malema might
disagree). It’s not Cape Town’s fault that it’s spotlessly clean, the streets
are relatively safe and public transport quite efficient by SA standards.
That’s the fault of the DA.
However, the argument that’s most regularly used to deplore
the alleged prejudice of white Capetonians usually goes along the lines of:
“Capetonians are racist, because they all have a superior attitude.” Or to
paraphrase Dlanga: “Capetonians look at one another as if they’re members of a
secret club. The White People’s Club.”
Now this is where I admit Dlanga has a point, but only with
his first sentence. White Capetonians do look at one another as if they’re
members of a rather exclusive club. But it’s not because they’re racist. It’s
because they’re douche bags who think they’re better than everyone else simply
because they happen to live in one of the most desirable locations on earth.
I can already hear some people howling with indignation that
I am just another racist Capetonian trying to defend himself and those of his
ilk. I admit I do look rather European (which is the fault of my ancestors and
not the DA) but I can honestly tell you: “Know this! I am no Capetonian!”
I was not fortunate enough to be born in the shadow of Table
Mountain. I did not spend my childhood waking up to views of Camps Bay,
breathing the fresh Atlantic air or flirting with beautiful foreign girls on
the Clifton shores.
Sadly, I was born in Klerksdorp (I cannot believe I am
admitting this in public) where the closest thing to Table Mountain was a mine
dump. I spent much of my early youth in decaying mining towns like Stilfontein,
Welkom and Virginia where instead of a daily stroll to the beach all we had to
look forward to was an annual trip to the Vaal River. And the closest we got to
foreign girls was the visiting netball team from Orkney.
While I acknowledge this wasn’t quite like growing up in
Soweto in the early Eighties, it sure as hell wasn’t Bishopscourt either.
can therefore rest assured that I am not a member of Cape Town’s exclusive
white club. I know this because members of the club have frequently gone out of
their way to make this crystal clear to me. Allow me to regale you with some of
For instance, the first Capetonians I met at university
could barely understand me. You see they had never heard a fellow
English-speaking member of their race mangle his vowels (which is one of the
unfortunate consequences of growing up in a mining town).
They thus took great pleasure in getting me to repeatedly
say “I like Sprite.” I couldn’t understand why this was so funny until a kind
soul explained to me that to Capetonian ears it sounded like I was saying “Aaah
Fortunately, after years of Capetonian influence at
University, my flat vowels acquired enough of an inflection that I no longer
stood out to members of the Mother City Elite as a barbarian from somewhere in
the hinterland. With a bit of effort I could even pass for someone from Hout
Bay. Or so I thought.
Just when I began to feel that I’d done enough to transcend
the invisible barrier to Capetonian Cool, one of my “friends” from the Mother
City sent me crashing back down to earth.
“You know what?” he asked rhetorically over a few beers. “I
think you’re a great bloke but I’m not sure we’d be friends in Cape Town.”
“Why’s that?” I asked incredulously.
“Well, to fit into my group in Cape Town you either have to
be extremely rich, extremely cool or extremely good looking,” he told me with
the sort of sympathetic look one would give a mortally wounded puppy just
before it is euthanised.
However, I was not to be deterred. I had ambitions of
finding a little cottage in Hout Bay, buying a Dean Geraghty surfboard and
sending unsuspecting Capetonian lasses into fits of laughter with my hilarious
renditions of upcountry accents.
So after graduation I duly moved to Cape Town where I was
determined to carve out a life for myself. I lasted all of two months.
On my first night in the Mother City, I was invited to
dinner by a former digs mate who lived in Rondebosch. After a few glasses of
Sauvignon Blanc and a discussion about the hubris of Hemingway, I was duly
asked by one of the guests: “So Garth, are you from an old Johannesburg
“Actually, I’m from an old Klerksdorp family,” I replied
with what I thought was my devastating good humour.
You could have heard a pin drop for at least 10 seconds
after my confession. Finally someone changed the subject and asked where I’d be
staying in Cape Town. Apparently Table View was the wrong answer. The guests
left shortly afterwards, one of them muttering something about the misfortune
of having to live behind the “boerewors curtain”, an area I later discovered
was anywhere north of Rondebosch Common. (Incidentally, if you think this
condescension is exclusive to English-speaking Capetonians let me tell you that
there is no snob like the son of a Stellenbosch wyn boer.)
Sadly, such pretentiousness is something that afflicts most
citizens of the whitest Cape. Mention in polite conversation that you’re from
somewhere mundane like Randburg and a Capetonian might even apologise that life
could be so cruel.
Over the years I have made frequent trips to Cape Town for
both business and leisure, and I can confirm that nothing has changed. A few
years ago I found myself chatting to what I thought was a rather lovely local
lass in one of the trendy bars that line Long Street.
Everything was going swimmingly until she asked where I
“You look like a Rondebosch boy,” she beamed.
“Actually I’m a Jo’burg boy,” I answered with what I now
realise was stupid honesty.
“Eeuuwww!!!” is all she said and then turned around and
walked off without so much as another word.
On a more recent visit I attended a craft beer tasting at
the Waterkant where I was introduced to a reasonably well-known former
columnist, who for the sake of anonymity we shall simply refer to as Zam
“Great to meet you Zam, I’ve read your column,” I said,
trying to make up for the faux pas of being publicly introduced as ‘Garth from
She looked me up and down like something the wind had blown
in and for a split second I thought she was hailing security. Fortunately, she
was waving at an imaginary acquaintance in the crowd and promptly disappeared.
Unfortunately I can’t play the race card, although I dearly wish I could.
Now I’m sure there will be at least a few Capetonians who
will deride me as someone who is simply bitter for not cracking the nod with
the Llandudno cool set. However, nothing could be further from the truth. After
all, the purpose of this piece is to defend Capetonians, and specifically those
of paler hue, against the allegation that they are somehow inherently racist.
The fact is that I have never met anyone who hasn’t had
similar experiences with white Capetonians. However, I don’t believe it is due
to some form of congenital propensity to discriminate. I make a point of always
asking non-Capetonians what they think of the locals and the answer is always
the same: “They’re ridiculously cliquey.”
And therein lies my point. Caucasian Capetonians are no more
bigoted than anyone else in South Africa. They just think they’re better than
everyone else. They’re like the rich kids who lived in the best houses,
attended the best schools and subsequently got the best jobs. They don’t look
down on you because they have a specific disregard for you or your kind, they
look down on you simply because they can.
That doesn’t necessarily make them racist. It makes them
douche bags. Generally speaking, of course.
*Garth Theunissen is companies & markets editor at
Finweek. This article first appeared in Finweek.