On the Clifton controversy

Marie-Louise Antoni writes on what actually transpired on Fourth Beach over December

In what appears to be becoming something of an annual tradition, the summer holidays in South Africa were once again marked by a beach-related racial outrage palooza. This year huge prominence was given, in both local and international media, to the alleged return of apartheid-style racial segregation to Cape Town’s beaches, or to be more precise, Fourth Beach in the wealthy suburb of Clifton.

The controversy unfolded as follows. On the evening of the 23rd of December, ANC Western Cape secretary Faiez Jacobs was having a picnic on Clifton Fourth beach – an annual occasion he claims to have done for the past six years without any problems. He was with a group of about 20 friends, including former anti-apartheid activist Fatima Shabodien, when they were approached by security personnel from the company, Professional Protection Services (PPA), just before 8pm who informed them the beach was closing.

On 24 December, a Twitter user posted a photograph and short clip of two white security guards standing beside black hawkers in Camps Bay. No context was provided although it was alleged the security guards were harassing hawkers for their permits. This tweet would later go viral.

On 26th December the ANC Western Cape released a press statement on Jacobs’ experience. This warned that “those who want to reintroduce apartheid, including the DA with its devious policies to entrench white privilege, that we will not allow it…. We will not allow beach apartheid to return. Never again will our beaches be segregated.”

Jacobs further commented on his Instagram account under the hashtag #AllGodsBeachesforAllGodsPeople that this was part of a “sneaky illegal strategy for the reintroduction of apartheid spatial laws in our province” and “part of a bigger drive by the DA to restrict the access of black people to resources and facilities to which we are all entitled.”

Both SAfm News and the SABC’s Radio 2000 tweeted that Jacobs called for a protest “at all beaches” in the Western Cape.

The following picture of a bulky white security guard, in a bullet proof vest, accompanying law enforcement on the beach, also surfaced on social media and was widely published by the press.


Twitter proceeded to light up with indignation, and the narrative that this was a cause worthy of righteous anger soon found favour among South Africa’s Perpetually Appalled, providing ample fuel for subsequent politicking.

The ANC was “outraged”, Patricia de Lille was “appalled”, and the City of Cape Town was “investigating”. Minister Nomvula Mokonyane stated that “no spaces are for the exclusive use of any citizens based on their race, gender or creed.”

Chairperson of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs Mr Phillemon Mapulane condemned “this barbaric and racist act of the unlawful removal of beachgoers by the private security company purportedly acting on the instruction of the City of Cape Town. We wish to assure everybody that South Africa will never return back to the apartheid years where black people were restricted from gaining access to certain public spaces.”

A recently formed “lobby group”, the Black People’s National Crisis Committee led by Chumani Maxwele, organised a protest for the night of 28 December – attended by some hundred protesters – where the sacrificial slaughtering of a sheep was performed on the beach before flashing cameras. One of the protesters was interviewed on television wearing a t-shirt bearing the words “Kill All White People”. It later transpired a word had been blocked out of the camera frame and the t-shirt in fact read, “Kill All White People Supremacy” – with the word “people” ironically crossed out.

Maxwele told reporters that "The offering of the sheep is calling on our ancestors to respond to our trauma at the hands of white people over the years".

Deputy Minister of Police, Bongani Mkongi, and the City of Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato, were also on the beach that day, along with the SAPS’s anti-gang unit and metro police. Plato in a statement later said senior SAPS officials prevented the City and SPCA staff from stopping the slaughter.

Picture: The sacrificial sheep posed next to a placard bearing the words ‘Run Racist Run’, the title of a book by Radio 702 talk show host Eusebius McKaiser. 

The media inevitably placed the story’s racial angle front and centre. The Weekend Argus described the incident as one where “black people were allegedly chased off the beach”, and the notion that “Black People Were Chased Off” surfaced in countless online and print publications, even making its way overseas.

The story appeared in the South China Morning Post, the BBC, The Sunday Times (UK), The Sun (UK), The National (UAE), and The Malay Mail (Malaysia), among others.

Picture: The headline of the story as it appeared on the BBC website:

Agence-France Presse took to Twitter to post an article about the story and crafted its tweet as follows:

“A fresh race row has erupted in South Africa after a private security company allegedly ordered black beachgoers to vacate a fashionable Cape Town beach over the Christmas holiday.”

The Sunday Times in addition commented in a thundering editorial headlined The ugly ghosts trying to keep Clifton white by night:

“Once again there were shades of our troubled past so often re-enacted on SA's beaches. Once again the spectre of Penny Sparrow loomed over the festive season. While not as blatantly racist as the former estate agent's comments about "monkeys", this week's actions spoke loud and clear. It was as if the man in the bulletproof vest [see above] had brought along the signs that once infested our beaches. The ones that read ‘Whites Only’.”

In one report the PPA denied having acted alone when it cleared the beach, and insisted that law enforcement had asked them to assist after two 15-year-old girls had been sexually assaulted. “If anyone claims they were on the beach and chased away they would have seen that it was absolute mayhem and that Law Enforcement were really doing a great job to stabilise the situation – we did not close the beach,” PPA CEO Alwyn Landman told News24. “If the secretary of the ANC for the Western Cape were really present he would have seen that it was law enforcement that closed the beach and not PPA security.”

The general media consensus was that the problem was a racial one, and the protestations that this was about crime not race were discounted. The alleged problem of the sexual abuse of young girls on the beach was dismissed because the allegations were not “confirmed or proved” as Marianne Thamm put it in the Daily Maverick. “Either way, even if there had been a report of a crime, it is not PPA’s place to deal with it.”

Though widely reported and commented on it was clear as fog, from the conflicting accounts contained often in the same reports, to what actually happened or what led up to it.

Crime in Clifton and Camps Bay

The first point to make is that it is clear that Clifton and Camps Bay have been faced with an escalating crime problem. “There’s been a very bad decline in policing in Camps Bay,” said Bernard Schäfer, chairperson of the Camps Bay Community Policing Forum (CBCPF). “I’m talking about a literal collapse within SAPS in terms of our shift capability.”

And while there is a perception that Camps Bay is well-resourced, the police station is in fact dilapidated and in a terrible condition.

“We’re sitting with a police shift volume of members that are often half to a third of what we had in 1950. So we’re supposed to have six members on duty, which is unchanged since 1950, and I’m lucky if I have two members on duty. And some days, like today, the entire shift just booked off sick and did not come to work,” he said.

Law enforcement are also “thin on the ground”, although they are present. They however usually leave by 20:00 or 22:00 in the evenings, before much of the anti-social trouble starts.

Schäfer said street gangs came into the area and started moving onto the beachfront. These groups ranged from young kids to adults of around 25 years old, and they are “armed with knives, harassing, robbing, stealing handbags from restaurants, and mugging tourists when they walk along the beachfront”.

He added there was an increase in contact crime, and with SAPS not responding, more and more of this crime was going unreported.

The caretaker of the Muslim shrine outside Bakhoven – the kramat of Sheikh Noorul Mubeen – was attacked and robbed by five men. When he called SAPS, nobody picked up the phone and so he had to hitch-hike to the station. Once there, the police never took his statement, nor did they have a vehicle to send out, and instead turned him away. A Swiss woman who had been raped was similarly turned away, allegedly by the same shift.

This view on local crime is supported by former DA ward councillor Jacques Weber. On 30 December, he commented at length on the controversy in a Facebook post:

“Over the last few years the Homeowners who live in and around Clifton beaches constantly raise the issue of criminal activity and anti-social behavior taking place around the area, especially on the beaches late at night. These issues were often drunk persons entering the area at all hours of the night, the increased use of illegal substances such as drugs on the beaches and in some cases physical fights which often occurred in the parking lot or on the beach. These issues were raised during my time (Ward Councillor) around 2014 – 2016. Back then various meetings were hold (sic) with all enforcement agencies (City & SAPS) and increased patrols were setup but would never address the issues which were taking place due to a lack of manpower or operational times within both above mentioned services.”

“The constitution says that all South Africans have a right to living in a safe and secure environment,” he said. “However, as we are aware this falls within the mandate of SAPS which has failed year on year to ensure this, and this is the exact reason why residents are having to turn to the private sector to secure themselves”.

Shäfer did not wish to comment on PPA, because the forum had not been involved with their appointment. He however said the CBCPF and some prominent members of the Camps Bay’s business forum had for a number of months been putting together a legal and structured solution for community safety with law enforcement officers.

“We were in talks with the City of Cape Town’s rent-a-cop system, and we were actually quite a long way down the road in getting that right,” he said. “We were planning to possibly augment that scheme with existing local private security.”

“We suddenly heard and were told that PPA were being hired and so we desisted from any further negotiations,” he said. “The funding for our plan was going to come from the business forum and of course the minute we heard that they’d contracted with another party, it was pointless for us to continue with the talks.”

Schäfer said that a few weeks later, some residents in the Clifton community then also hired PPA, a move he describes as somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction. He however said the “shockingly poor level of SAPS policing” had created this vacuum, where the community wanted to try other initiatives.

16th December

The second point is that in the reporting on the controversy there seems to be a conflation with events that took place on the 16th December, a public holiday, and those of the 23rd December. In his Facebook post, Weber said he believed the image of the security guard on the beach had in fact been taken on the former date, and not on 23rd December, when Jacobs was there. To his knowledge the beach had been closed on the 16th by both law enforcement and private security because of what he termed a ‘gang fight’. He posted a screenshot from another Facebook account dated 16 December (6:38pm), which stated the following:

“So this just happened… sitting on 4th Beach Clifton and the entire beach was shut down by Law Enforcement Officers and by the looks of it, Private security as well! Everyone was asked to leave as a large group of drunk people were on their way to the beach and LE were concerned about our safety. This group had apparently attacked Lifeguards already! This is high season in Cape Town. How can an entire beach be shut down? #cliftonshutdown #cliftonbeach #SA2018”

University student Abide Raselabe was also on the beach on 16th December, and at the time he posted a series of tweets about the events. When contacted for comment, he said he arrived at the beach with his friends at around 4pm. “From the moment we got there we could see there were a lot of drunk children,” he said. “We didn’t mind it initially, but as the evening progressed they started falling over, crying, and screaming”.

People allegedly complained and asked security and law enforcement to deal with the problem. “There was also a huge crowd on the side of the beach making a noise and causing trouble, and these were the same people that were with these little drunk 13-year-old, 14-year-old girls,” he said.

Raselabe said both law enforcement and private security were telling people to evacuate for safety reasons, and they started clearing the quieter end of the beach before moving onto the rowdy side. “They were going to end with them in case they started revolting or anything like that,” he said.

“At around 17:45, they came around and started telling us they are evacuating the beach because it’s not safe, and apparently someone was sexually violated which is very possible because those little girls were with older men that were feeding them alcohol and all that stuff”. Politicsweb has seen footage taken that evening of young girls – one appears scarcely more than eleven years old – drunk and stumbling while being led from the beach by metro police.

Schäfer also made a clear distinction between the two evenings of 16th and 23rd of December. He described the events on the first date as a “massive incident and riot almost”, where there were allegedly multiple reports of assaults, stabbings, theft, fighting, anti-social behaviour, and general hooliganism. He in addition confirmed the ongoing problem of underage girls arriving at the beach with older men.

23rd December

Beachgoers who were at Clifton Fourth the following week, on the night of 23 December, described this particular evening by contrast as calm and incident free. Radio presenter Celest Anthony and two of her friends arrived at the beach to catch the sunset and were not planning on staying for long. She said the group had been there for an hour or two when a security guard approached them to close the beach. None of the friends witnessed any law enforcement present.

Anthony said, “We then saw messages circulating on Twitter saying black people were asked to leave the beach. Now, I took a picture of the sunset. And in the picture you can clearly see in front of me two huge white families.”

She said people “often jump on racial bandwagons”, but not once had she felt violated or racially-discriminated against. And while she understood the deeper significance of beach access for black and coloured people, everyone had been asked to leave. “No-one came and said to black and coloured people ‘Leave the beach’,” she said. “And so it has turned into a racial issue. It immediately again became about ‘white people don’t want black people on the beach, so they asked us to leave’.”

Her friend Lee Davidse, also a radio presenter, said the beach was closed at 9pm, at nightfall, and not 8pm as suggested by media reports. He said the group was merely upset that the beach as a public space had been “closed”, but also understood that “a secluded beach is not a very safe place after dark”.

“We were not at all upset that we were asked to leave based on the colour of our skin because there was no indication that this was a racial issue,” he said. “The guy who asked us to leave was coloured just like us. There were also two or three groups of white people sitting in close proximity who were also asked to leave, so we were quite certain this was not a racial issue.”

In a statement, executive mayor Dan Plato said that it had “become clear over recent days that a security organisation operating at Clifton beach had no authority to ask anyone to leave Clifton beach”, but that they had “asked people of all races to leave, and did not single out any race groups”. He added that it had also become clear that “opportunistic political organisations have ignored this fact to drive a highly divisive and politicised racial agenda”.


To sum up then there clearly is a real crime problem emerging in Clifton and Camps Bay, and this had led to the communities in those areas employing PPA. Schäfer observed: “When we have moms with babies being attacked on the beachfront, and we’ve got guesthouses that tourists want to check out of because they’ve been attacked walking back from the restaurant at night to their accommodation, those are grounds for the community saying ‘enough is enough’.”

“The people that are being stabbed and fighting at midnight who need SAPS intervention are not residents of Clifton”, he also noted. “These are visitors, and whether they’re from the Cape Flats, the township, Durban, or Switzerland, it is irrelevant. Every member of the community that comes to Camps Bay deserves to be safe, and deserves to have a modicum of policing in place.”

Weber said in his Facebook post that in his opinion both the SAPS and the City of Cape Town should take their share of the blame. “The politicians can play tennis and throw the ball into each other’s courts all day long, but the fact remains that many beaches around the City are unsafe and at night there is a large element of antisocial behaviour taking place which is not being addressed by those appointed,” he said.

He however emphasised that this did not give any private security company “the right to infringe on the constitutional rights of residents or any person and this must be dealt with immediately.”

On the face of it the incident on 23 December was a case of a private security company over-reaching, and acting beyond its powers by clearing Clifton Fourth Beach at nightfall, in reaction to the mayhem of the week before, and an ongoing problem of a lack of effective state policing of criminal or anti-social behaviour. The central premise of the story that travelled around the world – that black beachgoers were targeted on account of their race – was entirely false. The argument that the story of the alleged sexual assault on young girls could be discounted because no charges were laid with the SAPS misses the point that these incidents had occurred, even if not on the 23rd December, and these were not necessarily only stranger, but also acquaintance rapes.

South Africans all across the land are fed up with crime. Poor policing, a failing criminal justice system, and an incapable or unwilling state have forced citizens to seek alternative solutions for protecting their lives, loved ones, and property. The poor bear the brunt of this burden. Some even suffer the indignity of temporarily losing themselves to the madness of mob justice, while those with the means instead place their faith in private security.

This is what lies at the heart of the Clifton controversy. And yet politicians and the press have once again pitted white against black and, occasionally and somewhat closer to the mark, the haves against the have-nots. With election season coming up, this is hardly surprising. But the trend is relentless, and it is deflecting attention away from urgent problems and real solutions. It is also dangerous, and becoming immensely tiresome.

The country’s fraught history and time of segregation is still a traumatic memory for many people. And it must be especially painful for those whose material circumstances remain unchanged despite all the promises of a better life. But using this pain as a tool for stoking racial tensions is unconscionable. In this era of weak opinions and strong Wi-Fi signals, we should be wary of amplifying the agitators among us.

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