Denying Racism in Cape Town Is About Lack of Empathy

By Luso Mnthali (@lkmnthali)

Having been born in Malawi, growing up in Gaborone, Botswana, called the US home for a decade and now currently live in Cape Town, South Africa Luso details hers and many other black people’s racist experience of Cape Town and perhaps what is worse still the violent ways in which those experiences are downplayed and dismissed. 

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This article was initially posted on Afripop here.

I was on radio the other day, trying to explain to Shado Twala, well-known radio and television personality here in South Africa, how racism personally affects me. I had this great chance to finally tell a wider audience what it feels like to live in a city that denies you so much because you’re black. But I focused too much on how I’d been getting hostile looks from strangers, and being shoved and bumped into a couple of times while walking in my predominantly white neighbourhood. I felt like I blew it. Gone was the experience I had on my first date with the man who would later become my boyfriend. It was here in Cape Town, years ago, when another white man lunged at me and spat out some ugly racist words at me. I won’t say publicly what they are, not now anyway. Because he wasn’t aware of it at the time, I only told my man this had happened years later. It’s not something I want to remember, or talk about, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Possibly because there have been so many incidents of racism in the Cape in recent months. And it’s happened not only when the tourists flood in during the month we all lovingly call Dezemba. Even though, during my conversation with uMam’Shado, we were slightly glib about how the tourists from other provinces annually bring with them a spate of complaints about the ‘Mother City’ as it is known to some. My black South African friends have asked: “Mother to whom, this city? Who does it mother and who is the mother?”

So I felt that, during that conversation, gone were the experiences of friends trying to rent apartments,but being disappointed because of race-based selection or denial. Of friends leaving their jobs and packing up to go back to Joburg after a year or two. Gone were the stories of how even academia works to keep black people out. Gone were the myriad instances of microagression and hostility in a place that renders you both visible and invisible. You’re visible when you’ve clearly transgressed – how dare you walk around with a white man who clearly adores you? What are you doing with him? Or, as some women from a white-owned mainly white-staffed media house asked my friend about me – “How did she get a white guy?”

You’re invisible when you are the street cleaner, or the domestic worker who has now changed out of her servant’s uniform and is chatting with other domestic workers on the bus or in the cramped taxi for the long trip heading home. Or when you’re the black nanny meeting up with other black nannies as you push the strollers and prams of your white charges up the hill, so you can take them to the park with the water feature and guinea fowl running around in the mountain neighbourhood. Your own children, where do they play?

When you’ve been explaining what it is that ails you, what really troubles you about a place, for years and years, it gets hard to do so in a radio interview. It’s what you’ve been talking about for so long that you almost don’t know how to put into words so that they get it. And finally people are listening and seem to understand what’s been going on. It’s in all the papers for heavens sake, you’re not making things up. Finally people believe you. Or do they?

With all the gaslighting that goes on, that sense that the abuse you thought was real all along actually isn’t, because someone can make you doubt it – the real toll it can take has yet to be thoroughly examined. And it is not easy to talk about. So I need people to understand this – the racism we experience in Cape Town as black people is real. We are not making it up. So stop gaslighting us. Stop denying that these experiences happen. Stop placing doubt on our experiences every time an incident occurs. The solution to racism is simple – stop being racist.

As a black woman, an immigrant from Malawi, I have faced countless challenges. One that stands clearly in my mind is when after being told it was ready and had my new permit in it, the man behind the desk at Home Affairs wouldn’t give it to me. I had to have my tall blond German-accented boyfriend stride in and demand my passport back from the person because that person swore at me (yes, swore at me. the F word was used by a male government official dealing with a woman who merely wanted her passport back.)

I was so ashamed. To be black in a country that respects white people’s authority over the actual black owner of a passport. To have had to call on my white boyfriend to help me in that instance. I was ashamed, saddened, disgusted and scared that I would have to live in a place that would constantly ask me to go through such humiliations. And it did. Many times over, in many other ways. We won’t talk about the bullying in the workplace, the being followed around a shop, meanwhile the white person this black security guard has left alone is beeping at the shop entrance. We won’t talk about the things people say as I walk past them, holding hands with a white man. Not just ugly looks sometimes, but also ugly comments. We won’t talk about the concert at Kirstenbosch Gardens where a white gay couple seated in front of us on the lawn, instead of facing the stage, stared back at us directly for five long minutes until we started talking about them: “look at these guys, so lacking inner beauty they must just stare at us” “these people have everything, yet they won’t share a simple lawn with black people” (ja, neh. they ended up turning around, defeated, and we enjoyed the concert without further incident) (but still, hey)

We won’t talk about the many instances of racism and the microaggressions which I have had to scream about alone at home, or rant about on Twitter, or also hear of from friends. And sometimes see those friends leave, go back to Joburg after a couple of years, in sadness and disgust over a place that is so unwelcoming. Where even the Premier can call black people refugees. We won’t talk about it because it is as droplets of water are in an ocean we see every day here in Koloni, the other name for Cape Town.

So here I was on radio being asked to have a larger conversation about the things I and many others experience in this city. As black people we are constantly asked for proof of this racism we talk about. To be asked for proof assumes that I don’t know my own mind, or that this thing isn’t in the news constantly, not just in December. It assumes that there must automatically be a distrust of the message and the messenger. To be honest I’ve talked enough. Many have also talked. And some keep talking in very nuanced, intelligent ways. They are better at explaining what ails us all than I am. There are also those that have enough empathy or self-reflection to say that things must change, and that the responsibility lies with them. Some can surprise you. But isn’t that the whole point of this exercise? To not throw people away as hopelessly mired in a system of thought, in a greedy and odious, rejecting and exclusive, backward mindset that results in treating other humans as lesser beings. We as black people everywhere, and as media practitioners, keep writing about our condition. But I always wonder who is listening. Some are playing to the gallery, but some are seriously trying to make a difference with their cerebral, well-researched and considerably more erudite arguments. We talk of racism as a global phenomenon, we see people are being killed in the US, denied jobs and opportunities there, denied the right to live in dignity, to own the spaces they simply walk in – simply because, they are told, that by virtue of being black, they don’t belong. In the US the young people in the movement are trying to figure out new tools with which to dismantle the hold of racism there, but in the local context we have not tried to use new tools with which to dismantle it.

When we get emotional it feeds into an outrage loop, losing impact. It is as though we’re supposed to be unemotional, clinical, scientific and data-driven even about something that affects us not only psychologically, but economically, physically and emotionally. It affects where we live, how we live and love, and who we are as human beings. I realise that those racism denialists care not a jot about this, so they ask for proof and data, clinically and coldly, as though they themselves are involved in great scientific analyses of their own lives, especially as lay persons. Their experiences are said to be valid just because they breathe, or say they feel pain. We are there, black women and men in Cape Town, and until someone dons blackface to caricature us, urinates on us, klaps us or beats, or pangas us or denies us a seat at a table in a restaurant somewhere, and the media picks it up, we apparently have not actually experienced what we are experiencing. It is the most frustrating thing to be told you are not in pain, or you have not been affected, or are being tormented by something, when in reality you are. This is called gaslighting, and it is a tool of oppressors the world over. When we are told the city doesn’t have a race problem, this is gaslighting – denying racism and denying the pain that this causes the people who live in this city. Because it’s not only black people who feel this pain, it’s white people also who know that there is a problem here, and who are in solidarity and who also do not want to be accused or also seen to be in league with the racists. All this racism, yet there are no racists? How is that possible?

And that is the heart of the matter. We have a general lack of sympathy for others, and more importantly a lack of empathy, in this country. However, in Cape Town there’s an acute case of this ailment. An admission that these things occur, and at too frequent a rate and too high a volume, shows empathy. Not guilt – empathy.

The conversation we should continue to have is one that includes those who exclude us. One that says the people who are the problem have to be part of the solution. Black people may not have entirely forgiven, and nor will they ever forget and shouldn’t ever be asked to forget. That is also a problem in this country – white people telling black people to forget what was clearly a crime against humanity. This certainly makes it seem that enough white people have little empathy for those who do not look like them. They need to do better. Can we have that discussion about greater empathy, not only of whites for blacks, but of all of us for all of us?

About Luso Mnthali: Born in Malawi, grew up in Gaborone, Botswana. Called the US home for a decade, currently live in Cape Town, South Africa. Books and travel, arts and culture addict.

33 Comments
  1. it pains me to learn that black people are still experiencing racism as intensive as you have described it, especially because cape Town is constantly been put on this pedestal as the best place to represent the beauty of what we’ve come to know as the free South Africa,it’s also proves to be true the saying that goes “what is beautiful on the outside may be rotten on the inside”. having said that I think it’s every black person leaving in cape Town who is experiencing racism to continue to shine the light on this disgusting practice instead of moving away this cannot continue to happen,not while we still have breath in our bodies

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