'Is this our new maid?'

For some people, Cape Town is another country. It’s not just the juxtaposition of awe-inspiring natural beauty and horribly skewed social relations.

To many black people, the Mother City is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
The city’s backwardness is often signalled in that dreaded question: “Where are you from?”

A recent visit to the local gym reminded me of the two worlds of Cape Town. I was picking up my son at the childcare facility and so was another gymgoer. As we waited for our respective offspring at the door, her boys ran up to her, glanced briefly at me, and asked: “Mommy, is this our new maid?”

The woman and I stared at each other silently across the gulf of South Africanness. I wondered if her kids would go through their lives thinking all black women are maids.

Is this just a Cape Town thing? Middle-class Africans often lament that this city is downright unfriendly and that they are unwelcome. There’s some truth to this because apartheid town planning sticks to Cape Town perhaps more than any other major city.

But sweeping generalisations that Cape Town is a racist place oversimplify. After all, the “new” South Africa can be a confusing place, with its race-meets-class realities, and the confusion knows no boundaries.

My sister, who owns a house in northern Johannesburg, was recently asked by her neighbour whether the “madam” was at home. She humorously reassured this embarrassed neighbour that post-1994 South Africa requires a bit of an attitude adjustment.

Take my friend Jenny. One morning at a tidal pool in St James, this conversation unfolded:

Woman: “Who is your little one?”

Jenny: “The one in a turquoise top.”

Woman: “Oh, you mean the blonde?”

Jenny: “No, that one in a turquoise top.”

Woman: “I see. Is she adopted?”

Jenny: “No, she is mine.”

Woman: “Oh, now I get it; your husband is black?”

Jenny: “No. In fact, I am single and have never been married.”

Another friend, whom I will call Patience, lives in Newlands. She has little regard for Helen Zille, but she loves the efficiency of the city. Yet when white shop or restaurant managers ask her if she is from Cape Town, they make her feel like a stranger in her own city.

Tina runs a beauty shop in Mowbray, the Dreadlocks District, and lives in the Cape Flats township of Philippi. Her clients range from those at posh downtown hotels to those of us who frequent her Mowbray salon.

“My business is recession-proof because women are suckers for beauty punishment,” she declares.

She’s happy with her living and working arrangements. She can enjoy a fabulous nightlife in the city, with “a 24-hour minibus taxi service from the nightspots right up to your gate at R20”.

Why pay high rent in the city, she asks, when she can have a cheap and comfortable home in Phillipi?

Meanwhile, at Mzoli’s on any given weekend, you would be surprised at the number of affluent young Africans.

There are so many BMWs outside this meat joint, you would think that the Cabinet was meeting in Gugulethu. 

The nascent African middle class is less assertive here than its counterparts in Johannesburg largely because of the legacy of skewed economic relations. Real estate downtown and in the historically white suburbs is simply beyond the reach of those who do not have access to both income and historical wealth.

We should also remember that, not long ago, black Africans were excluded, by law, from working and living here.

The legacy of “coloured labour preference” makes it even harder to undo the damage in both economic and psychological terms.

In Johannesburg, the interaction of old and new money is a business imperative that has contributed to creating a non-racial middle class, and black people are still able to assert their own identity with an assured self-confidence.

Because of inter-generational wealth, Cape Town can continue with historical privilege and ignorance seemingly unthreatened by broader changes taking place in the country. In short, it is business as usual. But this is not sustainable.

Until there are new non-racial settlements, new jobs and new markets, much will remain the same, and many white kids will go through life assuming that all black women are maids.

Palesa Morudu is a writer based in Cape Town

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