The Clifton fourth beach debacle shows up many of our moral ambiguities, such as indefensible levels of income inequality, access to land — even communal land — and concern for the lives of animals vs people.
Anger has long been one of South Africa’s official languages. When constructively employed, it is one of the most powerful languages on Earth and one of the few forces that affects change.
It’s a language that transcends racial and ideological boundaries — but it’s a language most authentically spoken by the poor. When the wealthy speak anger they often fail to convince. This was proven once again in the furore that enveloped that whitest, most pristine and untouchable of enclaves: Clifton’s fourth beach.
Anger was eloquently and effectively spoken during the #FeesMustFall and #ZumaMustFall protests. But it is ill-equipped to deal with spontaneously erupting, unforeseen racist incidents such as the Clifton beach incident. To recap: a private security company appeared on Clifton’s fourth beach on December 23 and told some beachgoers to leave because the beach was “closing”.
The racist nature of the incident triggered anger. The incident dominated local news over the festive season. The beach became a theatre of the absurd, a reality TV show and a microcosm of the problems besetting our large, beautiful country.
The drama was heightened when activists threatened to slaughter a sheep on the beach, claiming this would be a cleansing ritual that would allow them to communicate with their ancestors. But what was meant to be cleansing became both very murky and very clear.
Whether the actions of the security company were racist remains a matter of dispute. But context means it’s understandable why those who interpret the security company as racist do so. South African beaches are contested spaces. The beaches may not belong to anyone but South African beaches come with a long history of legalised exclusivity. Because of the history of excluding groups from beaches, asking anyone to leave a beach at least hints at racism. The actions of the slaughterers met with racist responses of the crudest kind.
The Clifton beach incident is also intimately connected with the larger question of land ownership and access to land. The actions of the private security guards suggest that the beach resembles private property and requires protection against “invaders”. They re-enacted the actions of the first Dutch settlers who shamelessly abused the local Khoi population. One woman, seemingly a Clifton resident, yelled at the activists, saying that this land was not their land and that they had killed everyone as they travelled south in Africa.
The activists claim they wanted to communicate with their ancestors. It is difficult to believe that they did not also want to provoke. The need to provoke is of course part of the need to protest and the right to protest is constitutionally protected. Not all methods of protest are constitutionally protected, however. Whether this particular form of protest is constitutionally defensible is a matter of debate.
It wasn’t necessary for the activists to slaughter the sheep if they wanted to provoke or to draw attention to the racist nature of the white beachgoers or the private security company.
Regardless of the true intention of the sheep slaughterers, the one thing the killing of the sheep did illustrate was that many of the beachgoers and local residents were likely to be more concerned about a sheep than about poor people. It is unlikely that the residents would have displayed the same intensity of outrage about babies dying of malnutrition in the poor townships not far from them. Tourists and residents pleading for animal rights and for not having their peace disturbed the day before Christmas might have forgotten that having undesirables removed from the beach means they are sending a message: there is no room at the inn.
Clifton is a microcosm of the crude inequalities in South Africa, most dramatically reflected in the wealth inequality of the big cities. But Clifton is also the most extreme example of such wealth. In 2016, the average price of a house in Clifton was R33-million. This tops the list of ultra-wealthy South African neighbourhoods. The mere existence of Clifton and the exclusionary property prices wrapping the entire Atlantic seaboard should anger those with a social conscience. The exclusionary nature of these suburbs is simply unsustainable, both politically and morally.
My romantic imagination has always associated Clifton with a time before I was born, the Sixties, or more specifically, with a group of progressive Afrikaans writers called Die Sestigers. The group of friends included Ingrid Jonker, Uys Krige, Breyten Breytenbach and Andre P Brink, who regularly gathered on Clifton beach. In their barefoot bohemian youth these writers dreamt and wrote about a freer South Africa.
The deceased among them will all be turning in their graves if they knew that, 25 years after liberation, every effort is still being made to keep the beach and the splendour of its surroundings the prerogative of white people.
Professor Mia Swart is a research director at the Human Sciences Research Council