Here’s what should have happened in the 17 years since then: Cape Town, the country’s oldest city with its reputation for being cosmopolitan, ought to have led the way in racial unity. It didn’t happen. Far away from verkrampte Pretoria and even more conservative Bloemfontein, Cape Town failed us. Her people withdrew into their racial enclaves and passed each other warily on the street.
I spent two and a half years in Cape Town before I fled for Johannesburg, like so many other black professionals (ahem). It wasn’t just the stories you’d hear about people of colour being turned away from nightclubs, or how the only other black people in your work place were generally the cleaners. It wasn’t even the near complete absence of racial integration.
What drove me slowly mad was how racism was an elephant in the room that you could not talk about. How white Capetonians would cringe and turn away when the topic came up, or look at you in blank confusion and ask why you were so obsessed with race. It was how, yes, there is racism everywhere in South Africa but in Cape Town it is not possible to even discuss it. And how Cape Town, with its pristine beaches, its lofty Parliament buildings and history of activism, was somehow supposed to be better than that.
And in our haste to one-up each other in the Being Right game, South Africans have singularly failed to stop and listen to each other. It’s the black professionals like myself who fled the city, generally for Johannesburg, and didn’t consider what the glib statement “Cape Town is racist” really meant, and how a generalisation like that was itself prejudiced.
- From “The black professional is not dead,” in The Mail & Guardian.