UCT Disrupting Whiteness

Dear Premier Helen Zille,

Disrupting Whiteness is an anti-racist student organization based at the University of Cape Town. This submission explains our reasons for supporting Reclaim the City’s campaign to stop the City of Cape Town’s sale of the Tafelberg plot to a private developer.

Our work tries to engage the problem of racism in South Africa, particularly among white Capetonians. In our view, the persistence of racist attitudes here is inextricably linked to inequality and spatial injustice. This submission is shaped both by our personal experiences as well as our political work.

In South Africa, socio-economic inequality is a stark reality. Divisions of this nature are particularly visible in urban contexts where radically different physical spaces are in close proximity. Globally, we are accustomed to justifying such differentials in economic terms. However, in this context we must acknowledge that socio-economic and spatial inequality is inherently racialised.

Cape Town CBD and suburbs such as Seapoint and Greenpoint are known as predominantly white, wealthy areas. However, working class people of colour- many of whom were born and grew up in Sea Point- form an integral part of these communities.  Apartheid saw Black African, Coloured and Indian people forcibly removed from the city bowl and Sea Point and pushed to the margins of these areas. Although communities like Sea Point relied on their labour, people of colour were not acknowledged as community members and denied secure living conditions.

The apartheid fallacy of “separate, but equal” justified the reservation of prime city land for white people, initially in explicitly racial terms. While such directly racist exclusion has since been abandoned, the close connection between race and class in South Africa and a lack of restorative justice means that economic barriers effectively entrench the same exclusions. In this context of racialized socio-economic segregation, well-located state owned land is a scarce and invaluable resource which must be used to undo this legacy of apartheid geography. This must be done if we are serious about tackling racism and creating an inclusive city.

Apartheid was driven by the ‘laager mentality’ with paranoia becoming an endemic part of the white South African psyche. The “swaart gevaar” was a dominant myth through which whites justified isolation and the entrenching of privilege. Physical separation meant few opportunities for challenging fallacious beliefs about the unknown “other”. The continuation of spatial segregation in the post-apartheid landscape has sadly meant that many of these false beliefs have gone unchanged.

The reality is that many parts of Cape Town remain at best superficially integrated. As under apartheid, a very real danger exists that inequality across racial lines will be perceived as a function of inherent racial differences, bolstering racial misunderstanding and prejudice. This sort of thinking has reared its head in the course of Reclaim the City’s campaign to #StopTheSale. Objections to Reclaim the City have in many instances scarcely veiled racist assumptions. For example, many have argued that affordable housing on the site will become a “slum” and decrease property values in the area. This is a deeply concerning view. In responding to it, we defer to the words of one domestic worker who queried why employers fear this as a consequence of working class black people living in Seapoint, when they are willing to entrust these same individuals with the immaculate care of their own homes and children.

Thoughts like the above will unlikely be altered when spaces for interracial engagement remain limited and radically skewed by vast differences in economic and social power.  The testimonies of working class black and coloured people in Seapoint cannot be ignored. Workers have described experiencing racism, prejudice and stigma. Due to the insecurity of their position in the neighbourhood, they have also expressed that it remains difficult to speak out about such abuses.

Such structures of inequality at the level of interpersonal dynamics both constitute and characterise broader patterns of power. Domestic labour is a deeply complex and exploitative industry that brings the racial politics of our country most starkly into the home space. Studies conducted in post-apartheid South Africa worryingly replicate the results of early research in this area (see, Cock 1980) suggesting that little has changed. We are drawn to the story of one of the Seapoint domestic workers, who today continues to live in the tiny servants quarters to which she was initially confined because apartments in her block were reserved for whites. Young white children are conditioned into a sense of false superiority (the little “baas” complex) when raised to accept that those adults with whom they intimately share a home space must return each night to tiny, materially inferior servants’ rooms, unable even to be visited by their children.

How might this situation be different if workers and the wealthy were able to live alongside one another, with equal security and claim upon space?

Rethinking demands shifting the geography of reason and contesting social structures with a view to prioritising the common good. This is arguably reflected in a 1995 submission to the Constitutional Assembly by the Masiphathisane branch of the ANC, largely made up of domestic workers in a similar position to those who have spoken from seapoint. As part of this submission, women said that “there are many thousands who live lives like our members and who are looking for a South Africa that will be new and just for people in the backyards also.” In a powerful five-page document, they detail the view that democracy is meaningless where inequalities in wealth and power allow their employers to continue controlling their everyday lives. On this basis, they challenge the precedence of private property rights protecting the rich in the Interim Constitution.

This is the sort of submission we believe you must remember in making your decision. The vision of the women of Masiphathisane has not yet been realised, but their argument is revealing.  For the common good it is necessary to think beyond property interests and profits to make a decision that in this case is socially oriented. It is necessarily to centralise the views of those who continue to be most marginalised in our city. You have been offered an opportunity to try for more genuine social transformation in an inner-city space and your people have provided the advice on how to do it. We urge you: listen.

This past Sunday supporters of the Reclaim the City movement chalked their vision for an inclusive Cape Town onto the Seapoint Promenade break wall. One young artist offered to colourful words: “We have been separated too long.”  This, in essence, says it all.

The members of Disrupting Whiteness


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