There have been only a few instances in my life where my reflex response to a situation has been to throw up. One of these occasions was last Monday night − and the impulse lasted almost three hours.
The Cape Town Partnership (CTP) presented a “debate” on including Cape Town’s citizens in World Design Capital projects. According to the World Design Capital website, the World Design Capital is an international biennial city promotion project that is held in a different city every two years. It highlights the accomplishment of cities that have used design as a tool to improve social, structural and economic life. This year it is in Cape Town. The debate was held at The Assembly, which on most other nights is a club.
According to the Partnership’s website, it “was formed in 1999 as a non-profit (section 21) organization to mobilize and align public, private and social resources towards the urban regeneration of Cape Town’s central city”.
I was excited. Here was an opportunity to engage constructively on this controversial topic with people at the top level of the CTP. The invitation, which I received via email, said the debate would be around including “people from all walks of life” in World Design Capital projects.
I wasn’t sure what all walks of life meant, but I had a feeling the bouncer outside was there to limit those walks. I walked upstairs, and was immediately struck by confusion.
First up, with the exception of about 15 of the 250 people there, everyone was white. Where was the rest of Cape Town? Granted, the majority of them live out of the city on the Cape Flats and in the Northern Suburbs, but with words like “ordinary people” and “active citizens” in the invitation, surely they would have been informed about the event through flyers and posters, and public transport would have been organized for them?
I was lucky enough to meet the project manager, Caroline Jordan, at the bar, where I was redeeming my soft drink voucher (why is Appletiser never included as a soft drink?) and could ask her the questions directly.
How was the event marketed?
Social media – Twitter, email, Facebook.
What about the people in Delft who don’t have Twitter and email?
My maid has email.
What would you suggest as a solution?
Flyers, posters in taxis, information sharing through the many participants you apparently engage with …
Okay, we’ll think of that next time.
Why was there no public transport?
We are near two transport hubs, the MyCiTi Bus and the train station.
Would you, as a woman, go back to Khayelitsha on an empty train at 9pm? I didn’t think so.
That was the start of an unrelenting tirade of patronizing, racist and exclusive sermons that were to follow.
The panel for the “debate” was made up of mostly foreign-educated Africans, the ones whose origins white people question because they are so “well spoken”. At disgusting race-quota bars and clubs, they are the ‘right type’ of black people.
The discussion, which a friend described as a group wank, went on for two hours, and for much of it I had to hold back from rolling on the floor with laughter.
The event began with an introductory address by the Partnership’s chief executive, Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, where she presented a video montage of “average” Capetonians looking very happy and grateful to the city for all it has provided. There were jolly beggars, most of whom have been kicked out of the city by police. The montage also showed a group of coloured teenagers in school uniform, but they were not here, and neither were their parents. The majority of the coloured population lives on the Cape Flats, where they were forcefully relocated under the Group Areas Act and in many areas on the flats, residents face the risk of death by a stray bullet every day. But that wasn’t included in the montage. The teenagers were used to sexify the diversity and harmony of races and classes in the city. They were marketing ploys; they create color, but few people see the true colors of their situation when they head home and out of the city bowl.
It was difficult to listen to the inspiring rhetoric of inclusivity and accessibility–which was just one drum short of a rousing version of Kumbaya–when a look around the room showed the contrary. This event was possibly one of the only chances the public would get to engage with the top level of the Cape Town Partnership.
Makalima-Ngewana is a town planner and was one of the key role players in developing Cape Town’s Central City Development Strategy (CCDS) in 2008. She is clearly an intelligent woman and appears to have good intentions. But she created a lack of clarity about her links to the ’hood. She reminded the audience that she grew up in a township, that she is one of the people. Yet when she was questioned on stage about why there was no marketing on the Cape Flats, she suggested that the relevant audience member stay behind to give her some contacts. It seems she’s not very engaged with the people who live in the areas with which she has a connection.
South Africans need to be more engaged in active citizenship, said Gavin Mageni, who heads up the South African Design Institute at the South African Bureau of Standards. Mageni comes from Marikana. Whatever came out of his mouth after he revealed this was irrelevant, because he is from Marikana. Are you from Marikana? No? Then shut the fuck up.
A challenge came from a German academic that in a country referred to as the “protest capital of the world”, and where there were 540 protests in 50 days last year in Gauteng alone, the statement about the lack of active citizenship in Cape Town was naturally problematic. Strikes are a form of active citizenship, probably in its purest form, as they manifest the basic democratic rights of assembly, freedom of expression and political engagement.
“No!” said Mageni. Violence (aka strikes) is not the answer! Fist shaking. Exclamation marks.
It seems that in Mageni’s opinion, entrepreneurship is the one and only key to active citizenship. Striking miners and by extension unions are thus the absolute antithesis to his value system, which is built on self-reliance and DIY citizenship. Basically, if you have to strike for your right to serve a master other than yourself, you have failed the test in his opinion. Also, as an entrepreneur, the market is ostensibly your best friend, which is why, for him, unsettling the economy through strikes is “selfish” and “anti-social”, because the market will provide. At least as it does for him.
Then there was the film director Sunu Gonera. The man has some good credentials − he was awarded a scholarship to a private school in Zimbabwe and now makes documentaries. He went on a long stroking session about how he has made it in Los Angeles. “One day I was talking to Clint Eastwood” … “I go up and down between LA” … “I have dinner with some of the best film directors in the world.”
He tells his story to “boys at Bishops” and “boys in Khayelitsha”, because he wants to show them that if he could make it, they can make it. That’s motivating in theory, although it dismisses the fact that most of the children in Khayelitsha will not receive scholarships, because their classroom windows are broken and their teachers don’t get paid much and many of them risk being stabbed for R10 on their way to school. Most of those children will not have the opportunity to excel in the classroom.
The theme for much of the conversation was that in order to be an active citizen, all South Africans need to be self-made entrepreneurs and need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
But if they aren’t able to do that, they shouldn’t worry, because a major benefit of the Partnership’s activities is job creation. But what kind of jobs are we talking about? Promises of jobs are irrelevant when it’s addressed on its own; having a job does not automatically get you out of poverty. What will alleviate poverty, for example, is when structural issues like the cost of housing and healthcare are addressed. But the upper-middle-class panel, with their clearly skewed politics, didn’t care to tackle the issue on such a deep level.
Anyway, Mageni, whose profile picture on the big screen looked like it came from an underwear ad with clothing superimposed on his body, looked dapper in his red tie and suit.
In order to get to where he is, “young people need to stop having this sense of entitlement”.
They should to want to live and be happy in their own area, create a community they want to be a part of, and not necessarily want to go somewhere else (read: into the white city centre).
So, they should be super chilled out in council flats in Heideveld and Bishop Lavis, neighborhoods without a blade of grass in sight, where their sons are forced into joining gangs and their daughters run the risk of rape every time they walk out the door. They are there because of history, and they will likely remain there for generations to come. But they have to fix the situation themselves, because they must not have a sense of entitlement. Entitlement? Mageni spits in the face of entitlement!
This kind of conversation about entitlement is dangerous because it ignores the structural dynamics against which poor people had to struggle daily while it propped up the middle class. But in a situation where the vast majority of the audience comprised these people, who were and remain supported by the poor, there was no challenge to this.
After the discussion was over and the panel came off the stage to be photographed and interviewed on video, I cornered Mageni. But from the get-go he was not interested in my questions and challenges on strikes, because he is From Marikana and I Am Not From Marikana. The 2012 Marikana strike, it seems, is the only example of a strike in South Africa’s history, and therefore means, as far as he is concerned, that all strikes are violent, regardless of who opens fire first. It is not because of the lack of access to and discussion with top-level management and boards of mining companies. No, it is purely the fault of trade unions.
Every challenge thrown his way was discredited because he lost 10 family members in Marikana and I have never been to Marikana. Actually, I said, I’ve spent years working in Marikana.
The non-argument ended with him shoving his finger in my face, shouting with unashamed vitriol “Who are you? Who are you? Who are you to tell me about strikes? Who are you?”
Then there was an awkward moment where we both tried to descend the narrow stairs at the same time. You first, my king, I offered. All I heard as he walked away was him mumbling about who I might have been.
I left the Assembly with a broken heart. The opportunity to engage with the city’s people was not only wasted, but the charade was offensive. It was clear that it was only the people who could afford to get down town at night on a weeknight were those who were entitled to steak or veggie wraps in recyclable brown paper and a voucher for a soft drink.
I doubt the video of this event is going to go up on the CTP’s website any time soon. Maybe next time it’ll be honest and call a debate a “spiel”, and instead of “all walks of life” claim that it caters to the upper-middle class from Tamboerskloof and Newlands.
The CTP should probably just be honest about its agenda − continuing to design a more tourist-friendly European City, while keeping the unwanted and unsightly on the other side of the mountain. Or it could at least pay the poor and marginalized for their casting as extras in diversity ads. And its execs should definitely, definitely, make sure all their maids have email.
* This post first appeared on The Con. Images: Hasan Wazan.