You must own the moun­tain

CityPress - - Voices - MARIA PHAL­IME voices@city­press.co.za Phal­ime is a doc­tor and au­thor who won the in­au­gu­ral City Press Non­fic­tion Award (2012)

I’ve al­ways made a big deal of my birthdays and this one was no dif­fer­ent. I had spent the morn­ing be­ing preened and pam­pered at a lo­cal day spa, and later I bought a flat­ter­ing out­fit to com­ple­ment my freshly buffed body. By the time my hus­band and I ar­rived at the up-mar­ket seafood restau­rant on Cape Town’s At­lantic Seaboard that evening I was look­ing for­ward to a con­tin­u­a­tion of the five-star treat­ment. We were at one of those “spe­cial oc­ca­sion” restau­rants: the ones where the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture is just so, and the pa­trons speak in hushed tones so as not to cause a dis­tur­bance in the air of so­phis­ti­ca­tion hang­ing over the space.

The evening be­gan as planned with a bot­tle of MCC to toast the oc­ca­sion. After a del­i­cate sal­mon starter I ex­cused my­self from the ta­ble to “pow­der my nose”. As I walked to­wards the ladies’ room a man was stand­ing be­tween two ta­bles di­rectly in my path. “Ex­cuse me,” I mum­bled, fully ex­pect­ing him to sim­ply step aside and let me pass. He turned to look at me and asked, “Can I get another chair?” My ini­tial thought was: Why is he ask­ing me about a chair? But be­fore I’d even com­pleted the thought the an­swer bub­bled up from that place of know­ing so fa­mil­iar to black peo­ple. He thought I worked there.

The metaphor­i­cal slap must have regis­tered on my face be­cause he fid­geted and quickly added: “Sorry, I thought…” There was no need for him to fin­ish the sen­tence.

We both knew what he thought: What rea­son could there pos­si­bly be for a black per­son to be at this es­tab­lish­ment ex­cept as an em­ployee, to fetch his chair, serve his food and clear away his plates?

It didn’t mat­ter that on that spe­cial oc­ca­sion I felt like a mil­lion dol­lars. In his eyes I was sim­ply there to serve his priv­i­leged in­ter­ests.

This was the only oc­ca­sion where I’ve had an overtly racist en­counter in Cape Town, but I’ve caught enough cu­ri­ous side­ways glances to re­alise that my pres­ence in the main­stream of Cape Town so­ci­ety prob­a­bly elic­its ques­tions such as: Who is she? Why is she here? White is the norm here. Un­doubt­edly. A part of me was re­luc­tant to write this ar­ti­cle. After all, I am mar­ried to a White English­man and we have two cafe-au-lait chil­dren. One could ar­gue I’ve bought into the no­tion of a white en­clave on the south­ern tip of Africa. But in an odd sense the make-up of my fam­ily has given me valu­able in­sight into the na­ture of the beast.

I have spent count­less hours at lily-white braais and din­ner par­ties and I see how com­fort­able life is here. The Cape Town of the priv­i­leged class has changed lit­tle over the past 20 years, and I don’t see it do­ing so in the fore­see­able fu­ture. Why mess with a good thing? The blacks are where they’ve al­ways been – on the pe­riph­ery, both phys­i­cally in the town­ships on the out­skirts of the city as well as so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally.

The only way the character of this city will start to re­flect a true African city is if we, black pro­fes­sion­als with the means to make our pres­ence felt, come in from the pe­riph­ery and in­fil­trate the main­stream of the city. Our ap­proach can­not be to re­treat up coun­try, to “the real South Africa” be­cause “Cape Town is racist”. This only per­pet­u­ates the sta­tus quo and cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion where there are never enough of us to make a dent in the con­scious­ness of this city.

Some may protest, say­ing: “Why must it be up to us? Why must we take steps to le­git­imise our pres­ence in the coun­try of our an­ces­tors?” I get that; it an­noys me too. But I also un­der­stand hu­man na­ture – we only change if we are un­com­fort­able enough to change. There is so much com­fort here that I bet if you told a white Capeto­nian that the city alien­ates black peo­ple they’d be per­plexed, of­fended even. Ex­pect­ing them some­how to have an epiphany in the night is wish­ful think­ing.

As black peo­ple we dis­em­power our­selves by plac­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity for caus­ing a shift in race dy­nam­ics at the doorstep of white peo­ple. This ef­fec­tively places our fate in their hands, leav­ing us pow­er­less and dis­en­fran­chised and ul­ti­mately angry and frus­trated. By leav­ing or stay­ing away we are ef­fec­tively say­ing: “You’re right. We don’t be­long here”.

We can­not al­low our­selves to be cowed. Ma­hatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” We must be the change we want to see in Cape Town. We are never go­ing to be in­vited in, so we must just show up, and keep show­ing up – ev­ery­where – un­til we can no longer be ig­nored.

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