Talking about Race Without Ending Racism

By Anna Majavu · 22 Feb 2012

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The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been campaigning furiously for the past two months against the assertion that Cape Town is racist, after this was again thrust into the public spotlight at the beginning of the year by acclaimed singer Simphiwe Dana’s tweet that “no matter how famous/ rich you are, you’re still a 2nd class citizen if you’re Black in Cape Town”.

After Dana asked DA leader Helen Zille for proof of the change she often trumpets, Zille responded, now infamously, by telling Dana that she had demeaned herself by acting like a “professional Black” instead of a Black professional.

Zille was heavily criticised and just weeks later, the DA’s student organisation, DASO, suddenly put out a series of posters on Facebook, one featuring a very young Black woman and an older white man – both at least half naked - and the slogan “in OUR future, you wouldn’t look twice”.

This was dubious given that the only metro city in South Africa where an inter-racial couple still attracts unwanted negative attention is Cape Town, which for the past six years has been ruled by the DA. It is also arguably the city where white male DA supporters are least likely to pair up with Black women, judging by the shortage of inter-racial local couples out on Cape Town’s streets at any given time.

Still more dubious was DA youth leader Makashule Gana’s claim that the DA’s highly centralised central ‘war room’, which pens all of the party’s advertising jingles, had no hand in the poster.

After much public debate and biting parodies of the poster, DA youth federal chairperson Mbali Ntuli penned an open letter, purportedly to clarify the poster’s meaning. Explaining that “race still matters”, Ntuli went on to say it was DASO’s duty to fight for young voiceless people to be able to have conversations about race. The poster was “intended to start that conversation” said Ntuli.

If any group of young people in South Africa are voiceless, it is the Black poor and not those on university campuses where the poster was to be distributed. Ntuli’s explanation made less sense than the poster itself.

Andile Mngxitama, the founder of the new Black Consciousness movement, Blackwash, saw the DASO poster as “selling the politics of racism as anti-racism”.

The DA has avoided talking about how institutions in its base, Cape Town, are structurally racist, he says.

“We don't want to talk about racism, we need to end racism. I don't know how the DA can talk about racism when its actual practice in the city is driven by an anti-black racism. Just compare the conditions of black townships with the splendour of the city, which is white. Of course the DA shares the same ideas with the ANC on the place of blacks, it is just that the anti black racism of Cape Town is more acute and vulgar” says Mngxitama.

“Instead of dealing with the structural racism that defines Cape Town, the DASO patronises blacks with vile posters that re-inscribe white power and in some way are a true reflection of what the DA stands for” says Mngxitama.

Jared Sacks, a Cape Town activist with the Take Back the Commons Movement, agrees.

"Structural racism cannot be measured through individual instances but must be understood as something that encompasses the lived experience of every black person in Cape Town” says Sacks.

The Occupy Cape Town movement Sacks is part of was recently repelled by hordes of police from an attempt to hold a housing summit on a public field in Cape Town’s upmarket white Rondebosch suburb. On the other hand, when Khayelitsha pastor Xola Skosana held a 15 kilometre mass march on public roads from Gugulethu to Khayelitsha last year to proclaim that “Townships are Hell” there was not a single police officer to be seen.

At one point during her Twitter war with Dana, Zille called on people to bring her cases of racism to “investigate”. But Sacks says this misses the point.

“From the paranoid reaction of rate-payers in Rondebosch to the way insurance companies penalise you for parking your car in the townships, racism cannot be understood by the number of times in which it occurs. If one really wants to understand racism in Cape Town, one must begin to think in terms of how the colour of one's skin determines the nature of every social relationship" says Sacks.

Tellingly in her description of the meaning of the poster, Ntuli also wrote that the poster had created a situation where “for the first time ever the DA youth is dominating the headlines”.

As anti-racist thinkers point out it is quite possible for white liberals who claim to champion racial diversity to advocate for a ‘multi-racial’ society without divesting of white supremacist thinking about Africa or Blacks.

The DA’s public obsession with denying white privilege (bizarre as that is in a post-apartheid state), and promoting a notion of colour-blindedness where opportunities are dished out based on “merit” without acknowledging that white South Africans literally walked over Black citizens to get a head start has been popular with white voters in the past – but the tiny percentage of township votes for the DA indicate that this message was not popular with Black South Africans at all.

With the 2014 elections approaching, the DA faces a new conundrum – it has been in power in Cape Town for six years without making any strides in improving the lives of Black residents from both the townships and the ghettoes. It has frequently blamed its failure to deliver houses on allegedly uncontrollable influxes of Blacks from the Eastern Cape.

But it also needs hundreds of thousands of new Black voters. Millions of rands in funding from undisclosed sources, shrewd advertising jingles and a receptive contingent of journalists – along with the ANC’s abject failure to deliver on its promises – gave the DA an increased share of the vote in the 2009 and 2011 elections.

But if in 2014, the DA only increases its share of the “Black vote” by a tiny percentage, its dream of taking power will never be realised, since the refusal of Black people to vote for it then will signal that Black voters do not see the party as an alternative to the ANC.

The DA’s chances in 2014 are further jeopardised by the fact that while the ANC is delivering poorly and slowly, it is not doing any better. The Blikkiesdorp (Tin Can Town) transit camp – now in its sixth year of existence with no sign of it being temporary as was promised – was dubbed a “concentration camp” by mainstream international newspapers during the 2010 World Cup. There is no obvious improvement in township life while there are obvious signs that Cape Town is a racist city - the segregated living areas, schools, workplaces, supermarkets, and public parks. No city administration in charge of such a vastly segregated geographical area can plausibly deny that racism exists in their city.

The DA therefore has to seem less denialist by talking about race. At the same time it can’t talk about racism or white privilege and certainly cannot take steps to dismantle racism because it must still appease its base - the white elite who own the vast majority of the companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The DASO poster was likely a crude experiment in beginning to figure out how to send a message that the party embraces race diversity – to talk about race without ending racism.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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interracial bob
22 Feb

References Needed

"...judging by the shortage of inter-racial local couples out on Cape Town's streets at any given time." Really? Who is doing the judging?

Respond to this comment

23 Feb


How can you provide references in a op-ed article? This is not an academic journal piece.

Also, it is obviously her judgement which as the writer of an opinion piece, she is entitled.

My own view from my own experiences in Cape Town corresponds quite closely with what she says. Observatory is the only place in Cape Town where you might find some interracial couples.

24 Feb

Sloppy Work

I thought SACSIS was about analysis, not personal opinion. Going to the beach is no substitute for serious research.

I'm not saying you're wrong, but your opinion is unfounded.

You expert this sort of thing from the mainstream media, not from this source.

Mike Thurgood
24 Feb

Talking about Race Without Ending It

It's all very well to attempt to compare a clean city with arguably not so clean townships, but Cape Town is an international venue for tourists. It would be ridiculous to allow them to believe that Cape Town is a dirty city, and lose their custom. Tourists also bring a lot of sorely needed foreign capital into South Africa.

As for mixed couples not being in favour in Cape Town, if the author had bothered to find a few of them and interview them for their viewpoints, her comments could have given her argument more weight if the conclusions had confirmed her viewpoint. As it is, she has partly wasted her time in useless arguments. And as for omitting to mention that Cape Town is an international city for tourists to visit, she certainly knows how best to miss her tricks!

In effect, her article was nothing less than political claptrap.

Respond to this comment

14 Jul


Come on Mike you criticized the author and did not address the subject matter of the article. Address the subject matter of the article please or shut up we don't need who you think you are.