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Is Cape Town Racist?

Far be it for me to answer that question definitively – its quite a loaded question, ehh? I have only been here for 2 weeks — but in my limited time, I have had some interesting conversations about race with both white and black South Africans. Earlier this week, the New York Times published a piece, In Cape Town, Many Blacks See Echoes of White Superiority, which asserts that Cape Town is divided between the races — more so than anywhere else in South Africa – basically racist.

Before I came to South Africa, I asked a lot of friends and colleagues where I should go: Cape Town or Johannesburg? I knew these were two big cities in South Africa, but didn’t know which one to visit. Spot on — everyone I asked responded in the affirmative for Cape Town. Why? I got a range of different answers from its safer to its prettier to its just the best place to visit if I was going one place in South Africa.  But, then I started to get conflicting comments from people while already traveling. In Sydney, I was told by some Australians that Cape Town would be “very dangerous .. you can’t even take a cab down the street” and “oh, make sure you watch yourself there” and then as I mentioned before, a local cab driver warned me to be careful in Cape Town.

After I read the New York Times story, I started thinking about my trip to Robben Island, Langa Township and my observations and conversations while here. When you arrive in this beautiful city hugged by the mountains and Table Bay, you are quickly reminded that this country has a tense history with apartheid. On the drive from the airport into downtown Cape Town, you pass by Langa on the right and a premiere South African Univeristy on the left, University of Cape Town (UCT).  When you are out and about downtown or at the beach, there is a healthy mix of white and black South Africans, but after my visit to Langa I started to question the racial tensions in this country: How is it these black families –  many with young black children – live here day in and day out while wealthier black South Africans enjoy life free of the township?  I was struck by the divide between black South Africans themselves.

While out one night having a drink, I started talking with a black South African who offered me a drink. I gladly accepted and then he blurted out: “Why do all these white people think I am an escort? Do you? I am an educated black man who has a good paying job, but I still get looks from white people at this club like I should not be there.” It was the first time I had heard that type of comment — I had been out a few times and seen a nice mix of white and black South Africans. This comment made me think more about the comments made in the New York Times piece. I decided to ask a few others; below is a sampling of the responses I got from local South Africans asking them about the racism issue (note: these are paraphrased responses to the best of my memory):

White South African: He thought the article was plain American rubbish. He told me that Cape Town gets a bad wrap because its the only province not governed by the African National Congress; instead, its the Democratic Alliance‘s Helen Zille, the former mayor of Cape Town (world mayor of the year in 2008), who is the head of the Western Cape government as its premiere. He also pushed back on the assertion by telling me that Cape Town now has a black mayor, Patricia de Lille.

Interracial Gay South African couple: The white South African immediately got defensive and pushed back saying that it was no more racist than anywhere else in the country. He said there were plenty of opportunities and used his black boyfriend as an example. However, his black boyfriend looked right at me and said, “I agree, its racist here. I get looks at places I go to … asking why I am with a white man.” This prompted me to ask, “Do you get more looks because you are gay or because you are with in a white relationship?” He responded quickly that it was because of the color of his skin. I asked if he could give me any examples, but he was busy trying not to upset his partner at this point. But, I found it quite illuminating that when I asked the racist question, the white half of the couple got defensive and the black gentleman immediatley agreed.

Black South African:  I asked my black South African tour guide who was raised in Cape Town and has lived here all his life the same question. He thought about it for a few minutes and then said, “I feel like people are more racist towards me outside of Cape Town, not inside. People are accepting and are comfortable with us here in Cape Town. I give tours all the time and never have a problem getting into places in Cape Town. It’s when I go outside of the Cape Town area — when I go into a resurryanct, the white guy who works there looks at me like I shouldn’t be there.” So, I asked him, where he thought these racist undertones are coming from. He responded that its from people who don’t know Cape Town. What does that mean, I asked? He couldn’t articulate what he meant, but it was clear that he felt very comfortable in Cape Town, no problem.

Now, I am not trying to come to any conclusions about the racial undertones of Cape Town or South African for that matter. The New York Times piece was very timely while I was visiting and prompted me to ask the question. With the current racial debate in the United States about the recent killing of Trayvon Martin, I was telling a former colleague earlier this week that South Africa is also grappling with its own racial issues.  As I was ending my evening one night, I stopped and bought a hot dog outside a popular hang out that was still thumping at almost 4AM. It was filled with mostly black South Africans who were pouring out hungry looking for something to eat. I sat there chatting with two young black South African women who were serving the other black South Africans — and it represented best what I have observed in South Africa.

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