But is it racism?


beautiful brutal city of mine
beautiful brutal city of mine

Another year, another viral story about Cape Town’s insidious racism.

This time the story came from a young woman who was visiting the city with her family over the festive season. At some point, she and her family tried to make reservations at an upmarket Camps Bay restaurant, using (as you do) their own black name. They were told the restaurant could not accommodate their party. Suspecting that something was not quite right, they asked a white friend to try and make the same reservation, for a party of same size, on the same night, using her white name. She was accommodated without incident. But the saga didn’t end there: when the family arrived at the restaurant, they were seated, with clear reservations (pun intended), only to be unceremoniously unseated and told that their reservation could not be found. What followed was a series of insult after insult being heaped upon the initial appalling injury. Thankfully, the family did not take it lying down. Complaints were lodged at the time and they and their white friend who made the booking on their behalf have since spoken out on various media platforms.

Which has all reopened the very tired conversation about race and racism in Cape Town. And with that come the denials and the tiresome accusations of race card pulling. A particularly frustrating example can be found in the interview the manager of the offending restaurant gave to Cape Talk. The segment begins with an account of the event from the young woman. The manager is given a chance to respond. Not once does he apologise for the experience this family had. Instead, he proceeds to explain away each aspect of their story, essentially writing it all off as a series of unfortunate administrative errors. What’s worse is that the anchor – who interrupted the young woman’s account often to ask questions of clarity – gives this guy a full hearing and seems to concede that this was a series of ‘unfortunate events’.

I was confronted by another example of this denialism when I told the story to a group of mainly white colleagues over lunch. Cape Town, I told them, can be brutal in its quiet racism. One of my colleagues balked. “You always hear that,” she began, “but I have never experienced it”. Even faced with the absurdity of that statement – here is a young white woman telling me that it might not be racism because she has never experienced it – I felt I was on the back foot. Black people will know this feeling: you experienced something, it was racism, you know in your bones it was, but it wasn’t the kind of racism where you’re thrown in jail or beaten for the colour of your skin. Instead, it was the very quiet kind that when scrutinized can easily be explained away as a ‘misunderstanding’. You know what people will tell you: look for racism and you’ll find it anywhere. So, really, the fault is yours, you’re looking too hard. In such a situation, you are initially shocked. You thought it was blatantly obvious that this was about race. You try to explain this to your detractors, present evidence that will convince them to validate your experience. Which is what I did. I started with another anecdote, courtesy of my aunt. After our December wedding two years ago, my mother’s family (aunts, uncles, cousins) stayed for the rest of the holiday season. One of their stops on their tour of Cape Town included Table Mountain. When the group was in the process of joining the cable car queue, my aunt heard an obviously irritated white woman say “How many of them are there?!” “Lots”, my aunt told her, “so you need to just relax”. There. This, I thought, was inalienable evidence of the crazy-making now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t racism that permeates life in Cape Town. “Well, she could have easily said that about an Afrikaans family”, my white colleague countered. Right, okay. Seeing that she is a woman, I appealed to her status as a fellow member of a ‘designated group’. I pulled the sexism card, ya’ll. “But even though you don’t have proof, you know. It’s like when someone is condescending to you and you just know it’s because you’re a woman and there is no other reason”, I told her. She didn’t seem to buy it. Defeated, I walked away. And then I did that final thing we all do. I questioned myself. Do I see race too easily? Am I too quick to play the victim in situations like this? Maybe it was a series of administrative errors. Maybe that woman in the cable car queue would have said the same thing about a large group of white tourists. Perhaps, perchance.

But then, I realized the absurdity of it all. On the word of a white woman, who denies me my experience because she has never had it, I was denying myself my own narrative. It hit me: this is how whiteness operates. An experience that is echoed by several other black people is declared imaginary because this one white person has not experienced it. And what’s worse is the confidence with which my colleague felt she could dismiss the story. And how quickly her absolute certainty called my own into question.

That is one of the more infuriating parts about living in Cape Town. It’s not just the racism (not that the racism is fun).   It’s that even when you experience these everyday slights which, when taken together can really start to gnaw away at your soul, you are still in the position of the defendant, having to justify your anger and despair.   As the young woman who was on the Cape talk segment said, the word of this single white hotel employee trumps the shared experience of six black people. He was dismissive and unapologetic and failed to even entertain the possibility that some of his staff may have acted out of personal prejudice, even if this prejudice is not sanctioned by the restaurant.

So what’s a way out of this? What I want, as a black person living in this city, is not to win the argument and convince everyone that it is indeed racism. What I want is to be heard when I tell these stories and not have them immediately dismissed as figments of my overactive black imagination. I want it known that these are not stories I enjoy living or telling. I wanted my white colleague to say “That sounds awful”. That’s it. You don’t have to buy it. But you have to be open enough to the experience of the ‘others’ in this city to understand that there are things they live that you cannot know or comprehend. Trust the narrative of the other: it hurt us, and it felt like racism, and that’s all you need to know. Do not engage into a debate with us, and demand further evidence.

This morning, a friend of mine posted an article about racism in the accommodation industry in Cape Town. I have experienced a variation of this: some years ago, before I took my husband’s white last name, I was frantically trying to book accommodation for a surprise anniversary trip, in the middle of May (off-season). Of course, I filled out those enquiry forms using my own black name (as you do). I heard back from three who told me they were fully booked (in May, off season, by the way). The other guesthouses didn’t bother to respond. When I enquired once more using my husband’s very white name, I heard back from the silent guesthouses, and from at least one of the previously unfortunately ‘fully booked’ places that suddenly had room at the inn for us. I hadn’t shared this story but seeing people commenting on my friend’s post and sharing their own stories, I felt the need to share my own, briefly and hesitantly, nervous about the possible denialism to follow. There was no denialism. All of the comments agreed – this is awful and says terribly things about this city and this country. And I felt a little shift in the weight that’s been on my shoulders since last year’s banner year in Cape Town racism. It doesn’t fix the racism, but it takes away the added burden of having to constantly explain and justify one’s pain. If we can, as a city, as a country, agree to this – trust each other’s pain rather than adding to it – then we will have taken one step forward amidst all of the backward stepping that abounds.

19 thoughts on “But is it racism?

  1. Hi Rumbi, i feel your pain! racicism is disgusting! i agree wholeheartedly with you, but here comes the but, i feel you are over reacting to the white girl saying she has not experienced it, if she has not experienced it, then you cant say that she is nullifying your experience, she just has not experienced it!!! but i have and am truly sorry for your pain!


    1. Thanks for your comment Jacynth. I think what she meant when she said she hasn’t experienced it is that she doubts it’s not just overreactions or misunderstandings. It was framed in such a way that I had to argue my position and defend. And that’s what bothers me. You don’t have to have experienced it, but it’s not okay to call another person’s experience into question because of it.


  2. For a long time, I have assumed that Capetonian whites are basically progressive, but that integration in the city hasn’t advanced as fast in this city because the social and economic forces that have driven integration in Gauteng (where the black middle classes appear to be more concentrated) are not so advanced here. But it seems, given recent evidence and experiences like yours, and anecdotes from younger friends telling me that their circles are not nearly so progressive as I might have imagined, that I have been wrong – and that ‘good old-fashioned racism’ does indeed persist in this city. I am sorry that anyone has to have experiences like this – extremely unpleasant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interestingly enough one of the identifiers of sociopathy is empathy – the inability to afford another psychological visibility or to appreciate the pain they are feeling, or the pain you are causing them. I believe that there’s something profoundly disfunctional about not wanting to see or empathise with the wounding caused by apartheid, and the structural racism that endures in SA. Despite being a democracy racism is still entrenched in land ownership and the ownership of wealthy – take a look at who owns most of the wealth of SA – the Ruperts, the Oppenheimers, the Wieses. In this context being told that your lived experience is bullshit, and that you must get over yourself is extremely disfunctional. It is selfish, stupid, thoughtless and cruel.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a white male in Cape Town. Originally from Zimbabwe. There is no denying that there are lots of racists white AND black everywhere in this country. Black racists don’t have to be as undercover about it as there is virtually no repercussion for not liking white people as there is for not liking white people. I am truly sorry for your experience of racism in Cape Town, the place that has come to be my home. I am someone that has chosen not to be racist (despite my upbringing) and often strongly rebuke a few of my older relatives if they ever say anything racist (because let’s face it they are old and racist). My issue with this is that we have decided to call Cape Town racist. Why do you have to call Cape Town racist? You cannot call Cape Town racist because you can show a few examples of racism. What about all of the examples of complete opposite of racism? I have a few mixed race marriage friends and some engaged mixed relationship friends. I don’t think to myself… oh no she’s with a black or coloured guy. I think to myself “Yay, good for them! I am happy that they are examples of true reconcillation”. I am not denying your experience, perhaps what I am saying is that you need to find the rest of us too and don’t tar us with the same brush because we are white and from Cape Town. That would be racist.


    1. Hi Tyrone. I am from Zimbabwe too. I’ve lived in Cape Town for about 12 years now. I am married to a white man and have white people in my life who I love dearly. My experiences, as a black person living, loving and working in this city has led to me to my conclusion about Cape Town. Cape Town in by no means the only racist place in this country. But what makes it especially bad here is the idea Capetonians have of themselves as liberal and progressive. This idea that those racists who beat black people up in the streets are just bad eggs, and the rest of the city is fine is deeply problematic. If you see a black family at a restaurant and are taken aback by their presence, their loudness. If you’ve ever made a comment about all of Khayelitsha being at the beach on New Year’s day. All of that seemingly innocuous stuff that communicates to black people that they are not welcome, they are not wanted is part of the problem. But because in Cape Town, we are liberal, we generally don’t beat black people up, we don’t see these quiet, silent acts as racism. And that’s my problem with Cape Town. If you’re not part of the problem, great. I know plenty of white Capetonians who are. But I think I would appreciate it if those white Capetonians who know they’re not racist wouldn’t spend their energy defending their own non-racism and spend a bit more time looking at the subtle racism experienced by black people in this city and challenging other white people. In other words, instead of leaving the comment you did here, why not write to the 12 Apostles or to Cape Talk in response to the interview they did. Isn’t that more important than convincing me that I am generalising? just my two cents.


      1. I hear you but of course I didn’t know about this till I read it here today. To be honest though, I feel like black people being loud and white people not liking it is more an issue of culture than of race. Not to detract from racism but I think there are similar issues between the quiet, reserved and private demeanour or the British (type) people and that of the Italians or Greeks for example who are more loud and larger than life. Loudness is more of an issue where more British people think it’s extremely rude whereas other cultures embrace it completely as normal and fun. For example my grandfather hated Americans for the same reason. They were loud and he didn’t like it at all. Sounds silly but that is how he was, in his mind they were loud know it all liars every single one of them. Sounds pretty close to racism except it wasn’t against black people it was just general prejudice. Add to this the fact that the British culture has been built on class-ism as well as racism in the past. In the right circle I would be shunned as coarse, low class etc etc.

        I would write to 12 apostles if I thought it would make a difference. Perhaps if I was richer and went there once or twice in my lifetime they might even listen to me. There are many places in Cape Town which are just outright snobby to be honest and 12 apostles is one of them. I went there once and felt pretty out of place and looked down on maybe it was just me but when we showed up with our toddler dressed in shorts and slops I felt like I was being looked at like the hired help. Maybe it is just me but I do recall feeling like that.

        My advice: do what we do everywhere else. If we don’t get the service we want, we take our money elsewhere.

        Perhaps you could petition 12 apostles to give to provide a night’s entertainment to the family in question to make up for the “misunderstanding”.


    2. Tyrone, i think your heart is in the right place but can you not see that you are falling into the very trap that Rumbi is describing ? Of course volume of speaking can be a cultural thing but in SA it is 99% of the time a racial thing.

      It seems to me that the racial dialogue is extremely under developed in CT. until people acknowledge that we live in a deeply racial society (ie all of SA, not just CT) it will be easier to recategorise views/statements/outlooks as culturally based or wealth based or “class” based or any other number of alternatives to what it really is: racial.

      To some extent i understand the situation the whites of CT find themselves in. The demographic history largely precluded black/white interraction on an equal level and demographics have also resulted in the WC being largely non-black governed. The old Nat election slogan of “swaart gevaar” remains a very real concern for very many.

      The problem is manifest and deep-rooted though. The city risks becoming a pariah within South Africa and that long term will have terrible consequences for the city and the country.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m coloured & loud. If people have a problem with my loudness, I know it’s because I’m being loud, not because I am coloured. So saying it is about race 99% of the time, maybe points to your own preconceptions.

        Now I’m not saying that it isn’t about race at times, because I have experienced that too. But I have also fell just as annoyed when I am dining out & I am seated next to a group of loud white men or women.

        But this is not the case here. I must be honest. When I first read the story my gut went, this sounds shockingly like racism & it is quite upsetting. I have experienced many blatant instances of racism in my life & it does hurt.

        However we do have to be careful as well about trying to understand each others’ cultures etc, because I do think that at the moment people are ignoring the good because of the bad in SA which is making everyone extremely edgy & very intolerant of each other.


      1. It seems highly unlikely that a well-known restaurant would have gotten away with excluding blacks for so long. Consequently, we must ,in the absence of similar experiences ,give Azure the benefit of the doubt. On this point I note that Goodwood Sports Club(where I USED TO BE A MEMBER)does not have any black members or any black members of staff, does not hire its facilities out to blacks or allow blacks to attend its functions. In addition, it posts racist jokes on its website(like the one in which a black petrol attendant delivers the desired response after being sworn at and threatened in the Afrikaans language)but no-one seems to care. Has to affect us, it seems!


  5. Sometimes I speak to service industry personnel in French or with a French accent to get them to treat me as a bona fide customer; thank you, Cape Town. At least Bloemfontein doesn’t try to dissimulate its racism under pseudo-etiquette.


  6. This is a very valid post, there is so much denial and a conscious effort from many to pretend that racism doesn’t exist when it clearly does. One would like to hope things were different, however, hope alone will do nothing, a conscious effort and raised awareness may in time help. My heart goes out to those affected, you don’t deserve it and I admire your resilience toward it!

    Liked by 1 person

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