What is Cape Town, and who does it belong to?

Cape Town is a contested city. Factions want to impose an identity on it. On the one hand, it is romanticised as the Mother City—a place enriched by its cultural history and racial diversity, a forum for international conventions and tourism, an international landmark of great natural beauty and stature.
On the other, it is damned as a racist city, riven by its cultural divisions, that has historically given preference to whites and coloureds at the expense of black Africans. In that view, it’s a broken place that needs to be mended.

Local politicians exploit these crude perspectives of Cape Town to advance their own political agendas. The messages about what Cape Town is—or should be—are handed down to an increasingly bewildered and resentful public, who are either condemned or congratulated for being Capetonian.

These notions of identity have come to a head in the bitter wrangling over who should rule the city, and how the ballot in the March local government election should be interpreted. The city has been on high alert since the provincial minister of local government, senior African National Congress (ANC) leader Richard Dyantyi, signalled his intention to introduce the executive mayoral committee system into Cape Town.

This was in response to ANC calls to make city government more “inclusive” and “representative” of all people who live on the peninsula. It would shift power away from the Democratic Alliance-led (DA) coalition, which has been governing for the past six months with a slim majority through an executive mayoral system. The coalition claims this would effectively put the administration in the hands of the ANC and the Independent Democrats (ID), overturning the election outcome, and advancing their claim for unity and that Cape Town should come into line as an African city.

A general exasperation about the party squabbles pervades the city, and has done for the past 10 years as mayoral regimes have come and gone. A key element of the current dispute is the differing perspective of the city’s character, and how democracy should work there.


The ANC, in its most recent rhetoric, is adamant that Cape Town is not sufficiently “African” or accommodating to “African” people. Under the former ANC administration, the city’s first executive mayor, Nomaindia Mfeketo, continually tilted at racism from the mayoral suite.

“We must be a city at work first—delivering services in a transformed environment that is free of the racism that continues to raise its ugly head in our community,” Mfeketo told the council late last year, months before she lost the elections.

The assumption is that Cape Town as a city is not sufficiently in tune with the rest of South Africa. It is a view echoed by her supporters in the city and from other provinces. Not enough is being done to give Africans opportunities to settle on the southernmost tip of the continent. While the identity of “African” often shifts according to the context within which it is used, ANC provincial leader James Ngculu is not afraid to spell out his definition.

“Anyone who is not white in Cape Town, whether you are a Capetonian or from Durban or Gauteng, you feel excluded in Cape Town, and the patterns of settlement have contributed to this. But there is also no readiness to register this. Let’s all try to find a way that Cape Town becomes an African city,” he says.

Ngculu complains, to demonstrate his point, that well-to-do black people who go to restaurants as patrons are refused entry or spurned as job seekers. Black students looking for flats are denied accommodation by racist landlords, while whites find lodgings. Black business people are locked out of economic opportunities.

“Politicians have got the responsibility to take up this issue themselves, and I do not think the [DA] mayor, Helen Zille, has done such,” he says. “Resentment is building up against her; she was booed at the Heritage Day celebrations.”


The assumption that Cape Town is out of sync with the rest of the country is rejected by Zille. She believes that Cape Town is an African city already. “The implication is that whites and coloureds are not African. And that’s outrageous: somehow we don’t belong here, somehow we are not legitimate. It’s absolute nonsense,” she says.

The image of Cape Town projected by Zille’s administration is drawn differently. She is much less inclined to spend council money marketing an image to make an ideological point. In fact, the budgets for event management and branding have been slashed.

“I am trying to cut down on symbolism and get to substance,” she says. “Let’s not be chopping and changing mottos and logos. I am not the least bit interested in that. If we get the substance right, all that will look after itself. By substance I mean service delivery, efficiency, the bang for the buck, good priorities, confidence and economic growth.”

Using a more transparent committee system, and opening up council business to the media, the DA administration has successfully created the image of a Mr Fixit with a new broom, sweeping the municipality clean. What comes through is that the ANC-run administration she inherited was limping. It is as if she has held up an X-ray and pointed out the patches of weakness in the previous administration—much to the ANC’s anger, in particular among those leaders who have been found wanting in retrospect.

Zille claims the ANC, in reaction to her coalition’s survival, has launched more than five attempts to unseat her government, including entertaining a proposal to redraw Cape Town’s municipal boundaries to tip the balance of power. She also claims that the provincial government has tried to make inroads into the city’s traditional responsibilities.

“They keep on bringing something else out of the hat. Every time we repulse an attack, they come with something else from a different angle,” she says.


The latest and the most potent intervention is the move by the ANC-controlled province to impose a new mayoral committee system from above. It has stirred Cape Town deeply. It also raises the larger question of whether opposition parties, which are in the minority on a national level, can survive in a country so dominated by the ANC.

The DA coalition, fragile as it is, is hedged in on all sides by the majority party, so the temptation for the stronger party to topple its weaker opponents off their toehold of strength in the Cape can only be great. But if the ANC follows through with its plan, it will be seen as refusing to accept the results of the March election. Protest is coming from all sides, overtly and from behind the scenes.

“I don’t think one can bypass the ballot box at any time; if we try and do that, we are on the slippery slope towards undermining the democratic process,” says Dr Charles Villa-Vicencio, veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and executive director of the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation. Calling himself a loyal ANC supporter, he has pleaded publicly against Dyantyi’s move, calling it unprincipled and suggesting it will be a litmus test of the ruling party’s commitment to democracy.

But Stephen Friedman, research associate at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, is wary of making this incident a “litmus test” of South Africa’s post-apartheid progress. He points out that the DA is also guilty of opportunism. The very system of mayoral government to which the DA is clinging at all costs in Cape Town is the one that it explicitly decries in its policy documents. In its election manifesto, the DA states very clearly that it considers the executive committee system—the one the ANC now wants—as the legitimate form of local government.

“The fact of the matter is that the DA has been running Cape Town on a system which they claim vigorously to oppose. This is a problem,” says Friedman. “Both the ANC and the DA have created the impression that as far as they are concerned, municipal structures are means to an end, and they can be chosen on the basis of the political advantage of the moment.”


Friedman is critical of the ANC’s move. But he also wonders about the depth of the DA’s image of efficiency.

“Efficient in terms of what?” he asks. “You can have an administration which is extremely efficient at balancing the budget, putting financial controls in place, but on the other hand lamentably fails to connect with the community or meet its needs ... I should imagine that this particular DA would not be very efficient in connecting with the people in the townships of Langa and Khayelitsha for example.”

The DA certainly would have to work hard to placate community leader Kenny Tokwe, of Imizamu Yethu, the cramped township climbing up the mountainside in Hout Bay. Tokwe has represented, at different times, the ANC and the South African National Civics Organisation. He is now a community development worker, liaising with the province, paid a stipend by the taxpayer to help sort out his people’s problems. He declares that the DA “doesn’t give a damn about black people”.

Tokwe has been involved in a long-standing battle with the mainly white ratepayers’ association of neighbouring Hout Bay who wish to contain the sprawling township so that it does not spill over into their back yards. It is a microcosm of the post-apartheid conflict between rich and poor, landed and landless. About 10 000 shack-dwellers live there on an inhospitable slope, under a knot of illegal electric wires. There are no toilets for at least 1 300 families higher up the mountain, which means in winter the sewage washes down the slopes and into the water table.

In summer, families scramble over rocks to safety when fires destroy dwellings. A stone’s throw away there are multimillion-rand mansions with rolling lawns, sailing boats and stables, spectacular views of mountain ridges and seascapes, and suburbs of DA supporters.

Losing direction

While mayor Mfeketo was in power, Tokwe had a powerful ally who backed his plans to expand Imizamu Yethu on to forestry ground, and committed the government to finding the homeless shelter, including migrants from the Eastern Cape. Now that she has gone from office, and the DA is in charge, he feels there is a political vacuum where the city government was. He believes that with the ANC at the helm, the city of Cape Town was on its way to becoming a haven for black people; now, with the DA in charge, it is losing direction.

“An African city,” he says, “is where all people who are Africans, black and white, can enjoy equal rights and be treated as fellow South Africans, where people cannot be denied [sic] to stay wherever they want.”

Tokwe appears to have little in common with Pastor Tommy Klein, a former African Christian Democratic Party councillor, who ministers to the coloured community in Ravensmead and Uitsig, many of whom he says are anxious about the arrival of poor black people in the city.

“I don’t think that coloured people are racist,” he says. “It just relates to the fact that these people are taking our jobs, and we need to sit down and talk about it. People are coming from the Eastern Cape, and the perception on the ground is that they are taking our jobs and our houses. It’s the bread-and-butter issues. I can tell you this much: our people feel very threatened.”

Klein spends much of his time in the Ravensmead police station, helping the community with its problems—in particular, addiction to the drug tik and rape and murder, ills he blames on the high unemployment rate, exacerbated by the influx of black migrants from the Eastern Cape. Each year, 16 000 people arrive in Cape Town looking for accommodation and work; the council says there is a backlog of 400 000 housing units. The hunger for land results in frequent land invasions, some violent.

Democracy at stake

As chairperson of the local anti-crime forum, Klein says he has his finger on the pulse of his community, which he claims is upset by the ANC’s assault on the DA coalition. He is preparing his protests, on their behalf, for the promised public participation process.

“Democracy is at stake—if they have a re-election tomorrow, the ANC and the ID will get the hiding of their life. People will vote because Cape Town is at stake.

“I enjoy the culture in Cape Town as you really you get all races here and people can work together, but I think sometimes the ANC, through their politics, want to make more of the blacks than the coloureds,” he says.

Up on the University of Cape Town’s campus, a retired maths professor, George Ellis, has also weighed into the debate. In 2004, Ellis won the prestigious Templeton Prize for research into the understanding of divinity; he was an anti-apartheid activist who actively opposed separate development in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I think the problem is that the Africans who are coming in think they should be running everything instead of trying to take some cognisance of the fact that, basically, for the last 300 years Cape Town has been a mixture of a coloured and white area,” he says. He believes the bottom line is effective service delivery, an area where he views the previous ANC administration as having failed.

“What the ANC is doing is outrageous. For the first time in four years the city council is working properly and they are trying to stop it happening,” he says.

Sense of exclusion

Villa-Vicencio, for all his criticism of the ANC’s move, is adamant that more needs to be done to discuss the sense of exclusion felt by black people in Cape Town, highlighted by leaders like Ngculu in this latest move. Calls for more dialogue about Cape Town’s racial tensions, and its apartheid past, come frequently from community leaders.

To her credit, former mayor Mfeketo held “listening campaigns” to assess the mood of Capetonians. Zille is now writing a series for the local media on how to heal racial divisions. The danger is that both preach to their own band of converted, and further alienate their detractors.

Ironically, it has emerged that the desire to topple the DA-led council has its roots in another political contest, which is playing itself out behind closed doors within the ANC alliance. Senior sources say that the party is split in the Western Cape over the strategic virtue of changing the system.

This divide mirrors the fault lines running under the wing of the ANC in charge of the provincial government, led by Premier Ebrahim Rasool, and the camp characterised as “Africanist”, which controls the provincial executive, led by Ngculu and Mcebisi Skwatsha. The latter are pushing for a solution which is considered unpalatable to ANC members who wish to build a more racially inclusive, broader-based party to take on the DA in the 2009 provincial elections.

In the meantime, as the political crisis drags on with its social and administrative ramifications, Cape Town loses time and credibility, all the more important for preparations for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Andrew Boraine, formerly city manager and now chief executive of the Cape Town City Partnership, an organisation that connects the city to its communities, is dismayed at Cape Town’s reputation in other parts of the country.

“The view is not so much of a racially divided city but of a basket-case city, where we don’t take ourselves seriously ... We have not got our act together, we are incompetent, we are filled with corruption and we can’t sort our politics out. We are coming off quite a negative base, I think, and we are all collectively responsible for how we have handled local government transition here,” he says.

This article was funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa through a media fellowship for the author

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