How to write about Cape Town

Andrew Donaldson on the proper form to be followed in features on whiteness in the Mother City



IT was the Roman writer Pliny the Elder who observed “ex Africa semper aliquid novi”, a phrase that over time has frequently been used in reference to the continent as a place of evolving mystery and wonder.

There is, however, one remote corner of Africa where nothing is ever new, a place where the absence of change and the lack of progress loom as large as the granite massif that dominates its topography. As Pliny himself may have observed two millennia later: “Suffert privilegium est in perpetuum.” There the privilege endures forever.

His would not be a lone voice. Putting Cape Town in its place is a popular pursuit, and the field grows ever more crowded as social activists, public intellectuals and media types contribute to an angry din.

Do not feel “left out” or that, as a woke person, you have missed this particular bus. It is never too late or too passé to pile in where a cause célèbre is concerned. Hop on up and let rip. This is a democracy, after all, and it’s about the numbers: the more the merrier when it comes to being on the right side of history. After all, can a self-righteousness that is so selflessly shared still be considered self-righteous?

Before putting pen to paper, though, it’s worth noting that, as with any discipline, certain conventions have emerged and these must be respected. Here then, and with apologies to Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, is a helpful guide to writing about the Mother City and its whiteness. 

It is important to be from somewhere else. Living in the mountain’s shadow means white Capetonians (for that is their colour, even if it is not) take their privilege for granted. It is as if the CA number plates blind them to inequalities that are routinely regarded as the worst in the world. Upcountry visitors are immediately struck by the oppression they see around them. It is not known in their communities.

It’s best to come for a holiday. That way, you can enjoy yourself and get the social justice warrior stuff out the way at the same time. It’s like beating about the bush with two birds. Take note of fellow patrons at waterfront restaurants as you tuck into the seafood platter (grilled crayfish, deep-fried crab, prawns, mussels, calamari tubes and the catch of the day.) Count the black folk. Not the waiters, obviously, but the black folk sitting at the tables. Consider the dearth thereof.

This may seem anathema to some, but an obsessive preoccupation with race is necessary as you trawl in vain the upmarket fun spots and trendy “leisure hubs” for signs of the integrated society you believe the city should be. Continue counting. There are white people everywhere. What’s more, they appear to be enjoying themselves. This is the worst form of racism. Do they even know what’s happening in the townships?

Do not for a moment consider that most Capetonians may shun these “playgrounds” for the tourist traps they are. Avoid at all costs visiting the lower middle-class suburbs. Honky headcounts are difficult here what with non-honky heads getting in the way. It is true that racial profiles of such areas exist. Observatory’s, for example, is (according to one community newspaper) roughly 39% white, 40% black (of which 60% are foreigners), and the rest a mix of other races. Ignore such figures. Who in their right mind wants a holiday in Observatory?

Avoid also the shopping centres, especially Canal Walk at the end of the month when the place heaves with the black middle classes pushing trolleys stuffed with groceries and shiny packages from the boutiques. These people are probably also foreigners and so don’t count. Besides which … Canal Walk? Africa’s third largest mall? It’s a sprawling mess in a hyper-Venetian vernacular so bling it looks as if it’s also down from Johannesburg. Where it was put together by Dali Tambo. So it’s just like home for upcountry visitors. 

Adhere strictly to the canon. This is imperative. 

When writing about the townships, mention must be made of “apartheid spatial planning”. Avoid any suggestion that physical features (mountain ranges, the sea, etc) and the scarcity of land on the peninsula may also have played a part in this planning. Do note that the townships are always “dry, dusty and windswept”. These places are “on the fringe of society” (even when they are not); they are “remote” and “marginalised” and yet “only a few minutes away” and “just down the road”. Similarly, they are “invisible” and “out of sight” to some while “glaringly obvious” to others. They are “overcrowded” and “conditions” there are “appalling”. All is a “crisis”: housing, water, employment, sanitation, education, transport, safety and security. “Misery” is forever on the hoof, poverty “stares one in the face”, crime is “rampant” and the streets are “riddled” with gangs. Sudden death is “a way of life”. 

By contrast, which is never less than “sharp” (watch the fingers!), the white suburbs are “green” and “leafy” and “luxurious”. Even the pavements are “verdant” and “lush”. Here, the “homes” are “mansions” and never “houses”; they are “grand” and “palatial”. They are maintained by an “army” of servants. They are “hidden” behind “impenetrable” walls. Despite this, conscientious passersby will immediately recognise them as “monuments to privilege” built by the iniquities of the past. Which continue “even today”. This is a “travesty” given that it is “[insert number here] years since the advent of democracy”.

And who lives there? Why, white people. And what kind of people are these white people? Very, very “white”, of course: they are routinely described as “hypocritical”, “liberal”, “selfish”, “racist”, “spoilt”, “supremacist”, “naive”, “exclusionist”, “privileged”, “ignorant” and “insensitive to cultural practices” like the slaughter of animals on beaches, for example. They don’t mix with “black people”, their kids have no “black friends”, let alone “black boyfriends” or “black girlfriends”. They have no “black colleagues” at work and there are no “black members” at their golf clubs. Instead, white people “sip strawberry daiquiris” at “fancy” restaurants. Quite a few daiquiris. Which explains why they are “oblivious” to the fact they are “walking a tightrope” on “a knife-edge” with their “brazen” claims they may now be targets of discrimination. These notions are always “misplaced”, “misguided” and “laughable”. This is “unquestionable”.

Above all, though, these white people are “arrogant”. To such an extent that the arrogance must be described as “breathtaking”, “staggering” and “supreme”. They are arrogant because they “believe crap like Cape Town has been voted the best tourist destination and city in the world for the umpteenth time, according to the Guardian newspaper in the UK”. 

Much of the last sentence was cut and pasted from a recent “hard-hitting” opinion piece that more or less “nails” the issue. But can you see where the writer has erred? 

Yes, that’s right. He has inadvertently disclosed to the reader that it is in fact visitors who routinely regard the place as being fabulous and not the residents themselves. Don’t make the same mistake. Opt instead for the curt and direct: “White Capetonians are smug bastards.” Dispense with attribution. One must have the courage of one’s own convictions if one is to be courageous.

The writer (who shall remain anonymous) is a learned person. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, and specialises in international political economy. As such, he understands the rigours demanded of academic research. Which is why he has been holidaying in Cape Town for at least 20 years in a bid to determine how crap the place is. 

Where he gets it right, though, he is “spot on”. He has, for example, sought credible and reliable testimony: “When I asked my son whether he enjoyed living in Cape Town or Johannesburg the most, his answer was rather telling. Johannesburg, Pappa, he insisted. Why, I inquired? Because in Joburg I can see black people driving Ferraris and Porsches. By implication, he cannot and won’t see this in Cape Town.”

Well, not unless Papa lets him hang out at night clubs of the sort run by ex-convict and playboy tycoon Kenny Kunene in Green Point. Here the boy would not only have seen the Patriotic Alliance’s former secretary-general roll up in some really top-of-the-range wheels but also chow down on sushi off the bodies of naked women. Which is clearly a cultural practice that, like killing animals at tourist attractions, should be encouraged everywhere.

Getting to the “heart of the problem”, as it were, it is important to blame the Democratic Alliance for all the city’s social ills. Point out, as Pappa has rightly done, that the party is not interested in “fundamental transformation” and the “economic emancipation” of the black majority. 

Ad hominem attacks on Helen Zille may no longer be nescessary, especially as her premiership of the Western Cape is shortly to end, but mention of her “slavish adherence to colonialism” will certainly add a particular vibrancy to your argument. In this regard, it is obligatory to emphasise that, after “almost nine years” under a DA government and Zille’s direction, the province still experiences the sort of problems that are rife in parts of the country where the ANC has been in power since 1994. Don’t however put it like that.

Under no circumstances may there be mention of any progress claimed by the party. Not the fact that unemployment is lower here than elsewhere. Or that matriculation results are better. Niks. Nada. Fokol of the sort. Nor, in fact, should there be mention of the extraordinary difficulties the city faces. Like the fact that Cape Town’s population has increased by 30% in the last decade, an influx of all classes that has severely strained resources. Don’t discuss the routine sabotage of commuter trains, which has further burdened the city’s economy. 

Lastly, and this is perhaps most important, do not, under any circumstances, mention that you will be returning for your holiday next year. Capetonians already take this for granted. All of them. And they have this to say: “You’re welcome, but don’t forget your wallet.”


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