Cape Town is not racist

Nov 30 2012 13:06
*Garth Theunissen

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.

You 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 my experiences.

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 laahk Spraaht.”

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 family?”

“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 lived.

“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 Vilson.

“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 Jo’burg’.

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.


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