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The black professional is not dead

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay fled "racist" Cape Town too. But who's right and who's wrong in this furore?

When famed poet Ingrid Jonker left her apartment in Cape Town in July 1965, walked pass the candy-striped red and white lighthouse near Three Anchor Bay, and drowned herself in the sea, she couldn’t have guessed what would happen next. She probably didn’t think her work as an Afrikaans poet would go on to guide a nation away from the apartheid she despised.

She wouldn’t have thought a prisoner named Nelson Mandela would become president some three decades later and step up to the podium at the opening of the first democratic parliament in that very city to read her poem, Die Kind.

And she couldn’t have cared very much at that point, to be quite honest.

Jonker had long been subjected to a turbulent mental and emotional torture, thanks in no small part to her father. A leader in the National Party, he abandoned Ingrid and her sister, considered her an embarrassment and said when she died: “As far as I’m concerned they can throw her back in the sea.”

Alienation can drive you mad.

But even Jonker might have wished, that dark night, for something better for her city 47 years after her death. It’s not looking hopeful. If the latest Twitter spat about racism in Cape Town is anything to go by, the postcard-perfect Mother City is proving to be a locus for a discussion that South Africans are desperately in need of having—but terribly ill-equipped to do.

The latest furore between Western Cape premier Helen Zille and her detractors, particularly songstress Simphiwe Dana, has received national and international attention. And it belies that historic moment, when the first black president used the words of an Afrikaans poet who was spurned by the apartheid government to unify his people.

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.

It was those who took umbrage at the accusation of racism and didn’t for a moment think how petty their cold logic was in the face of the hurt they were encountering. (Is “other cities are also racist” really a defence you’re proud of? Or the hair-splitting of “what exactly do you mean by ‘Cape Town?’”) It’s even those who attacked popular radio personality Anele Mdoda who dared to point out on Twitter that this was a bigger issue than the DA, and that there were perhaps more important things to fight for.

We’re ever ready to go to war to defend our opinions. We’ve learned plenty from the struggle but not nearly enough from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I know what you’re thinking when I mention that watershed, but somewhat doomed, process in our country’s transition. “The TRC? Please.” For many the TRC was a sadly one-sided affair: exonerating whites who went through the motions to gain an amnesty for wrongs they never really repented of, while blacks were asked to forgive and move on.

Of course the TRC was hugely successful too. But its failure in parts has had a remarkable effect on South Africans. It has made us distrust the notion of forgiveness.

Which is startling if you think about it. An entire component of human relations and understanding has been largely left out of our dealings with each other in a fractious and hurting post-apartheid landscape.

Zille’s response has been typically pragmatic, after the rage her initial unfeeling statements drew. “Give me details of the racist incident and I will investigate.”

But how does one investigate “the locations of the cordoned heart”, as Ingrid Jonker so heartbreakingly put it in Die Kind?

I’ve had this conversation with enough white Capetonians to know the answer. It’s when we put down our weapons and step out of war mode. It’s when we stop trying to defend ourselves and try to start understanding. And for the black professionals like myself, it’s when we restore our faith in the concept of forgiveness. For all of us, it’s when we can lower the cordons in the locations of our heart.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.


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