Monthly Archives: November 2013

One Evening Last Week: Thoughts on Neoliberal Cape Town

Part 1 of (maybe) three posts on Cape Town life. The hope is that whilst the following might come across as slightly negative, there will be hope and smiles all round by Part 3.

Last week I went to an event consisting of talks and discussion around fear, insecurity and division in South Africa. I wont tell you the exact details like who organized it, etc – that’s not the point – but I was encouraged to read that the organization was not a West-funded initiative and has offices in various different communities across Cape Town. In other words, this event wasn’t just going to be a bunch of aloof academics spouting intellectual concepts devoid of any local experience, carried along by the paternalism of the northern hemisphere. So far, so good. I arrived excited to consume the wisdom of local experts, and maybe even contribute to a discussion that is exactly the sort of thing I feel needs to be spoken about more in Cape Town, a city sometimes described as “the most racially segregated and racist city in the country…[where] more than any other city in South Africa, well-to-do residents can live a life that is largely separated from their socioeconomic ‘other’.” (David McDonald, ‘World City Syndrome: Neoliberalism and inequality in Cape Town)

It was an interesting evening, but not for any of the reasons I was expecting. The event was held in a large, tired community centre hall with an acoustic to rival a large cathedral. Already difficult to hear what was being presented, the faulty sound system didn’t help – and the continual stream of people arriving 30, 40, 50 minutes late and unstacking chairs to make more seating, ensured the speakers had to really work to convey even the most basic point effectively. It was only when, between speakers, the organizers explained that people were arriving late because taxi-drivers in Khayelitsha refused to drive to Manenberg (what’s with the perpetual disruption and bad feeling amongst Cape Town taxi drivers?), that I began to realize the struggle involved for many in even just getting to the event – let alone getting there on time. I silently repented for my angry frowns directed towards those making noise. And slowly a rather obvious realization dawned on me – that whatever was said from the stage, whilst certainly not irrelevant, was secondary to the triumph of organising a well-attended event with blacks, coloureds and whites all united around a common theme. It may sound rather mid-1990’s to say such a thing in South Africa, but it really isn’t. Few churches I’ve been to in 5 years of living in Cape Town achieve such an eclectic mix. The only other time I can remember being around such a large, diverse mix of South Africans was whilst enjoying the street meat vibes at Mzolis’ Place in Gugulethu.

The thing is, the speakers’ content was hardly electrifying. Each of the speeches was a traumatic mix of depressing statistics and horror stories. No creative solutions were offered, no vision cast, no hope mentioned. This really irked me, as I felt it was selling short those who had made such an effort to be there. The only hint of a ‘practical answer’ offered midst the drudgery was, “you know, communities must stand together!” This was met by enthusiastic whoops and cheers, which precipitated my second entry-level realization of the evening – that the majority of those attending seemed less interested in political or economic solutions to systemic issues of injustice and division, and were more concerned with sharing personal stories. The fact is, top-down government initiatives aimed at addressing distressing statistics are pretty boring compared to bottom-up movements, such as this, that offer the opportunity to be heard, if only by other fellow citizens. It was telling that when the opportunity arose to pose questions to the speakers no one chose to do so (myself included) – instead, a steady stream of people walked up to the microphone and told of a traumatic experience they had recently had. Each individual was met with warm applause and cheers.

I don’t completely know what my point is. But maybe it’s this: the speakers that evening knew a lot of technical information about their area of study – but no one seemed to care.

Why not? Well I think it has to do with the fact that there are no political, academic or economic answers to hopelessness. And that is the pandemic that seems to unite much of those who live in this city but are being ignored by the aspirations of a neoliberal political system oriented around cold hard cash. Let me explain. The effects of globalization can be seen all over Cape Town in the building of homogenized structures which reproduce separation – “the new airport terminals, casinos, shopping malls…the ever expanding waterfront (with its seemingly endless capacity for new shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities and up-market residences) are…devoid of any organic sense of place or personality.” It may be true that this homogenization, a familiar hallmark of globalization, does have clear financial benefits in that it attracts tourism – an industry which now earns “50% more foreign exchange for the country than gold.” Yet, “from an economic point of view, world city [ideology] has seen heightened levels of income inequalities and job insecurity”, and spatially it has created segregation, through up-market commercial centres and gated residential complexes “serving to further alienate and polarize the non-elite of the city.” Simultaneously, “a new form of geographically peripherized ghettoization” occurs amongst the ‘non-elite’ (a horrid term), apeing the negative effects of institutionalised segregation.

Put slightly differently, neoliberal, world-city policies are just another form of apartheid, still centred on power, but now nuanced by financial rather than racial factors.

So – back to the beginning – fear, division and equality. Are small-scale community-based meetings, attended largely by the economically disempowered, going to effect citywide change in Cape Town? Probably not. But some things are worth doing not because they are effective but because they are true.

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