Thursday, January 21, 2010

Racism in Claremont

Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams, Cape Argus

I heard an interesting interview on the radio, while driving from George to Knysna. It was with a woman who posted a “For Sale” sign up in her restaurant window, in Claremont, Cape Town. But the sign added, “White buyers Only”. Then underneath the printed sign, she added in hand-written print “Order of the inspector”.

Now, besides the fact that this, in itself, is rather strange in supposedly free, democratic South Africa, the woman who owns the business (whose name is Zikusooka Wamono), is black.

Her story goes as follows: First, she rented a place in a less than desirable area. Business was bad, because of the fact that passing vagrants, would urinate in the alley leading to her restaurant and loiter there. She tried putting up a fence to make the alley impassable. The barrier she had erected got taken down by the council. Business went from bad to worse and eventually she decided to close it down and look for other premises.

She chose upmarket Claremont. She found a suitable site. She designed it, equipped it and furnished it, at considerable expense. However, at every stage, she was pestered and harassed by the police. They visited her at odd hours, demanding changes to this and changes to that. They have opposed her application for a liquor licence. It was clearly harassment. But she soldiered on.

Eventually, after unbearable frustration and constant intimidation, she put the “For Sale” sign up. The police officer had told her that “over his dead body” was she going to open her restaurant, because a black-owned businesses would bring “indecent black people”. His advice to her was to sell her business to a white. And that is the reason she put up the sign in her window.

I called Zikusooka, just to express support and solidarity with her. And to say to her unsurprised I was that she had been subjected to this treatment and how unbearably racist my own experience of Cape Town has been, as well.

She told me that the policeman concerned was, in fact, not white – but “coloured”, or mixed race. That didn’t surprise me either, because the racism of this place is not the preserve of the whites alone. It is something which is the common vocabulary of everyone who lives here. It is largely unchallenged. It is considered acceptable. It is constant. It is widespread and it is encountered right across the board and it is completely debilitating.

Although I was warned about it, when we decided to move here some years ago, I have to say, I had no idea how serious and how widespread a thing it is in this City. I had no idea that it would be everywhere. In the supermarket; in the school; on every road; and in every suburb. Naked, unashamed and unapologetic racism. There is a thin veneer of integration, but it is a sham. You can see it is a sham when you go shopping. You can see it is a sham when you visit a restaurant or the beach or the gardens at Kirstenbosch. Or when you drive down a road. You can see it is a sham when you examine who teaches what, in which schools. As I say, it is across the board. White, coloured and black. Everyone.

So, I salute the courage of Ms Wamono. She told me that she is on anti-depressants and she did this out of complete desperation. But she remains unbowed. She is going to fight, until she has no breath left in her. I salute her and I have told her that when and if she finally opens her doors, that I will be amongst her first enthusiastic customers.

That being said, I have one hesitation. The reasons given by the other side, for opposing the granting of a liquor licence need to be listened to quite carefully and assessed. They argue that it is because of her previous business and the negative effect it had on the area, that they are opposing this application. I am not in any position to judge whether those allegations are true or not. But what I am sure of, is that she has been harassed this time. And it looks very likely, given the racially skewed context of Cape Town, that what lies behind the harassment, is racism.

And there is one other thing which may be at play here. Her name and her accent sound Ugandan. And you know how much we love Africans from other parts of Africa, in this neck of the woods!


  1. As a born and bred Capetonian it is very sad for me to say that your assessment of racism here is 100% accurate.

  2. Very good article Michael. I can tell you countless incidents involving racism that I have witnessed since I moved here. Neighbors who didn't want blacks living next door to them, or the bookseller in one bookstore in Sea Point who told me how savage blacks are and how they only understand violence. I've heard it from mixed-race individuals towards blacks too. Very disheartening--I came to this country thinking there was greater dialogue between races, greater openness about problems, but now I am not so certain.

  3. Sad. But it got me thinking.
    My conclusion: I reject the label “racism” and all other –isms.
    There are two kinds of people in this world, those that harbor baseless hatred and those that don’t. It’s been like this since the beginning and will probably always be so. Groups of people hating other groups that look different or think differently. And when they all look the same they form tribes and go to war. And when they all belong to the same tribe and have the same faith system they put their kids in houses at school or form sports teams - artificial divisions to create rivalry, an excuse to go to war.

    Some of us have evolved to live and let live and some have not.

    Do what you like. Do it quietly and don’t hurt people animals or nature.

    All this from a right-wing, occupying, apartheid, Zionist! Go figure….