Let’s end the hurt and humiliation of racism
This opinion column was published in the Cape Times newspaper on 16 January 2012. The Cape Times is a regional newspaper in the Western Cape province of South Africa. This column deals with racism in Cape Town and South Africa.
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Hundreds of responses to news that a small camping site in East London denied a black child access to its premises to holiday with his white friend have again proved that South Africa remains a nation obsessed with race.
This is not altogether an unhealthy obsession because being aware of the racial issues that surround us can only help us to understand each other better. The problem though is that there are still too many of us who hold on tightly to apartheid ideologies. Many of us remain disgustingly racist.
In Cape Town, the debate in recent weeks has focused on how black persons feel alienated in what is the country’s first racial melting pot. Sadly, the debate has mostly been a blame game with little attempt to engage more respectfully with this issue. This would probably require too much: that we simply listen to each other.
The debate has also unfortunately mostly pitted white against black as a contrived mainstream argument. It is obvious that race is not literally a matter of black and white. We forget that there are different shades of black and white. And these are the voices that seemingly are often sidelined in national or local race debates.
Within these in between racial spaces one finds the more complex issues regarding race in South Africa. When I interviewed the mother of the black child – the one denied entry to the camping site – she described herself as “coloured”.
She said that she married a black man from Angola and the boy was their son. She also said that black persons are racist towards her and her children because she is not black. They also discriminate against her family because her husband is not South African. Racism is not only about black versus white.
This brings me to personal experiences of a type of racism – it is very prevalent in Cape Town – whereby persons of colour demean or disrespect persons who look exactly like them. It is an internalised racism that leaves one disgusted.
I’ll never forget a moment when I had walked into the office of a Cape Town-based publisher. The coloured receptionist – apartheid-era racial classification mentioned to emphasise this incident – told me when I entered: “We don’t have vacancies”.
That might be a direct result of a constant stream of persons entering their office looking for a job. But I doubt that was the case. I explained to her politely – hiding how offended I was – that I was there to interview her boss for a story that I was working on. I comfortably have forgotten what happened next.
By now, I am tired of experiencing racism in Cape Town. It has often made me hate the city where I was born. It leads me to reflect on times when I have lived abroad. I was away from the heavy baggage of racism. I felt most free.
Nobody was looking at the colour of my skin first. Not to say that racism is not universal. But I have been in places where race matters less than it does at home. Obsessing about skin colour is small-minded and a boring way to waste your life.
I’ve also noticed that in Cape Town I am treated differently at shops and restaurants depending on which friends I am with. When I am with white friends there are very few questions asked and more smiles on offer.
When I am with anyone who is not white there seems to be a less welcoming approach. Why is someone who is not white despised so much in this city?
There have been times when my black friends and I have been told that we can’t enter a place because of the infamous ‘dress code’ policy. While being turned away we could see persons inside the venue who were dressed exactly like us. When you challenge this you’re suddenly causing a scene or looking for problems.
So we proceed to take our money where we are welcome. But that should not be the case. We should be welcomed in the first place.
The worst part in a scenario like this is when it’s people of colour who discriminate against other persons of colour. They do it with self-satisfactory ignorance. That’s because they are ignorant of the possibilities of freedom.
I have lived in Johannesburg for a little while. I call that city the Most Real South Africa. It’s the country that I want to be part of. It is far less pretentious than Cape Town and it has a sense of confidence that most people lack in the Mother City.
Over here, we still tip-toe around each other. What we really should be doing is live more openly with each other. Live comfortably in our skin and connect beyond the confines of race.
We should also not defend racism. In the ongoing public debate about racism in Cape Town – via the Cape Times and social networking websites – there have been prominent individuals who defensively say that this is not a racist city. In my view, they are clearly not exposed to the everyday racist experiences that so many endure. They are also protecting racists by ignoring that racism thrives in this city.
I have looked at the online comments sections of the articles that I have written. It reveals that there is still so much hatred and discrimination. It’s ugly.
There are other comments though that would make for hilarious stand-up comedy. Speaking of which, a local comedian joked the other night in one of his scenes that “everybody wants to be coloured”.
“Michael Jackson lightened his skin. White people tan to get brown,” was his justification.
He continued: “Trevor Manuel is the only man who does not want to be coloured. If he was black he’d be president.”
Reality is not a comedy show though. On stage, comedians have claimed the right to make fun of us and our faults without being assaulted or called bigots. In real life, the South African Human Rights Commission has started asking questions about why a black child was denied the right to go on holiday at a camping site in East London.
An East London tourism authority, a local political leader and the Special Investigations Unit have all undertaken separate investigations. I have received messages from various persons who claim that there are a host of places in this country where whites are only allowed access.
An acquaintance told me about a school where white children have allegedly made life so hard for black children that there are now only whites left at this school. If this continues, we will never be an integrated country. And we will continue to experience the hurt and humiliation of racial discrimination.