You must own the mountain
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.