Remnants of Apartheid: Musings on Class & Race Dynamics in 21st Century Cape Town

One moment that sticks with me from my trip to Cape Town is from when my two friends and I went to a bar to get drinks. A grinning man came over and proclaimed that he knew we were American before he headed to the bathroom. When he returned, he asked if we wanted to know how he knew. He pointed to each of us and said what (he thought) our respective ethnicities were and then, gesturing to all three of us, he said he knew we were American because we were all friends. Our integrated group signaled to him (and perhaps to the numerous people who gave us strange looks during our time in South Africa) that we were not South African. I didn’t notice until my friend pointed it out, but most groups of people we saw were ethnically homogenous. Not all, but most.

The U.S. still has plenty of issues when it comes to racism, but ethnic integration within my friend groups is something I have always taken for granted. That guy at the bar was the only person from South Africa I met who actually talked about race. Funnily enough, a similar encounter happened to me at 2013 Oktoberbest in Namibia when a Peace Corp volunteer approached my group of friends and said she thought we were American because we looked “well integrated.”

Cape Town is a beautiful and fun city that offers seemingly endless entertainment, but I felt uncomfortable for most of the time I spent there because of the social issues I noticed. I was shocked by the intense class divisions in Cape Town (and South Africa in general). On the bus ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town, I saw the slums on the edge of the city; tiny homes made from corrugated sheet tin and cement blocks were cramped impossibly close together. I also wasn’t prepared for how racial the class divisions in Cape Town would be. Essentially, in every restaurant we went to, the owners and managers were white while the servers, janitors, and cleaning ladies were black. But in some of the more expensive restaurants, the only workers that weren’t white belonged to the cleaning staff – the out-of-sight workers. I almost felt like I had traveled back in time. The divisions felt very white/black as Cape Town was not as diverse as I expected it to be for such a hot international destination.

Along the waterfront, which hosts a high number of swanky hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of the patrons were white while the security guards stationed outside every establish were armed black men. It was unsettling how no one I met there ever acknowledged the racial class divisions, but they were clear to see if you cared to look. De jure apartheid is over, but it hasn’t been too long since it existed; the remnants of de facto apartheid still exist.

I still had a fun time in Cape Town, and I think some of that is owed to the buffer and privilege I had by traveling in an international, mixed group as opposed to on my own. I couldn’t ignore the racial and class issues, particularly the high number of homeless people. It was such an intense change from Gaborone, Botswana where I’ve only seen two homeless people during the several months I’ve stayed there. I’m relieved I didn’t end up studying abroad in South Africa, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit. I definitely feel more at peace in Botswana.

photo credited to Dewyk Pretorius.
photo credited to Dewyk Pretorius.
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One Comment

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  1. Great post. I really love this entrye. I’ve experienced something similar attending a predominately white university where most of the staff are hispanic/latino and on several instances I’ve been mistaken for a university employee while waiting for the bus to go/come from school. While visiting SA I was also glad I had decided not to study there. Even though Bots has its own issues I feel more comfortable and safe here. Anyhow, kudos! 🙂

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