Being black in Cape Town can seem potentially lonely and alienating. When I walk into a restaurant, bar, or club in the Cape Town city centre I often notice one or two other black faces. Unless you choose to visit what is widely known to be one of the predominantly “black” institutions in Cape Town, a sea of happy white faces will confront you.
It is not uncommon to go out to one of the beaches in Clifton and only see white bodies spread on the sand. It is also not uncommon to visit a museum or the opening of art exhibitions and only see a handful of black people in the crowd. Many black Capetonians choose not to frequent spaces that used to be “white only” under apartheid. Consequently these spaces continue to be whites only spaces. There continues to be a separation between what people consider black spaces and white spaces. The same is true for spaces that are considered black; very few white people choose to frequent such spaces.
There are many reasons why black people do not inhabit these predominantly white spaces. Fear of being discriminated against (it still often happens), being mistreated, receiving bad service, and generally being made to feel as if you do not belong or as if you are invisible are some of the reasons often cited by black people for not occupying predominantly white spaces. Many city centre establishments are also more expensive and because of economic apartheid many black people are economically excluded from such spaces. And generally the more expensive the establishment, the more unwelcoming it will treat black patrons. I have listened to black friends and acquaintances complain about some of their negative experiences at different locations in the city of Cape Town. I have never heard my white friends complain of similar experiences. These are all valid reasons not to go to predominantly white spaces. It can be painful and emotionally charged to be confronted by this kind of exclusion and prejudice, which makes them hard to deal with.
But no one said the struggle for justice and equality will be easy. That is why I contend that despite the danger of experiencing racism, maltreat, and bad service in spaces dominated by whites black people should insert themselves into predominantly white spaces. We need to fight for and assert the freedom promised by our Constitution. Although it might not always be comfortable black people need to insert their bodies into these spaces. Black people need to be more aggressive about physically owning spaces in Cape Town. Black people need to be vocal about mistreatment, and not just shrug it off as “another day in the city.”
The presence of black people often makes white patrons and white owners ‘uncomfortable’ in institutions that are used to having an almost exclusively white clientele. This is especially true if there is a critical mass of black patrons and not only the odd black face making white patrons feel good about embracing diversity. But this is not the black person’s problem to deal with. Black people need to resist being chased away from establishments by subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ‘you don’t belong here’ gestures. Black people need to be more vocal about mistreatment at these establishments and call institutions out for their bigoted ways. There are so many channels, both formal and informal, black people can challenge predominantly white institutions for their racism.
By insisting that black people insert themselves into predominantly white spaces, I am not underestimating the trauma and the indignity of racism. After experiencing mistreatment it is perhaps an instinctive need to protect yourself that make people threaten to never go back there again.
I think black people should not shy away from confronting these emotionally charged and possibly humiliating problems head on. Instead they must let the establishment know what they are doing is wrong; raise hell if it is warranted, but promise to come back. They must put an establishment to terms and demand an improvement in service. They should threaten such establishments with exposure in the printed and social media. They should threaten to approach the Human Rights Commission and take up the racial discrimination.
Threatening never to come back lets the establishment off the hook, especially if you are not going to take the matter to social media or lodge a formal complaint. Black people often let establishments and people in establishments get away with racism and mistreating black patrons because black people often don’t want to start trouble. The fear of a little bit of trouble will always prevent people from voicing their grievances and blacks need to rid of themselves of that fear.
Establishments must realise that the people have the power to call them out on their racism. Mistreatment and racism at predominantly white establishments is an unfortunate legacy we have inherited from apartheid, but here it is, we need to have strategies to deal with it and ultimately change it. This change will not happen while black people let white establishments mistreat them and then say nothing or just threaten never to return. Black people need to hold white institutions accountable.
It is very easy to say, why don’t black people just go to black spaces where they won’t experience any racism or mistreatment. It is easy to have this separatist way of thinking and doing things, but this is exactly what apartheid was about. We are living in a new era now, one where we should all be busy with the project of rebuilding a non-racist, non-sexists, and non-homophobic society, and having separate spaces for black and white people goes against these ideals.
South Africa is 20 years into its democracy and we should really be working harder to integrate South African society and to smash both the overt as well as the subtle forms of racism (the latter often being invisible to many white people) that still permeate our city. Also, black people who live in Cape Town should be able to experience ALL of Cape Town, not just the places in which black people are tolerated. All who live in this city, not just a few, must experience the beauty of Cape Town and its establishments. It is terribly unjust how people from different parts of the world are made to feel at home in Cape Town, while the locals, who make this city work, can’t enjoy the city. It is not unheard of to meet black locals who say that they were born in Cape Town but they have never been on Table Mountain or they have never been to Robin Island and express wanting to go. This is all linked to people feeling like they can’t enjoy some of these Cape Town institutions because they are often treated like they don’t belong to the city.
This upcoming summer and beyond, I challenge black people to insert themselves into the predominantly white spaces that they are yearning to visit. Black people should resist the intimidation by white institutions and insist on their black presence be felt all over this city. To black people all over Cape Town, this is your city.
Written by Lwando Scott