Tony Jackman
Tony Jackman

Black and white and seeing red all over

At first, having returned to Cape Town after years away, I saw red when I saw all the white faces in restaurants and theatres. Where was the real change so many years after 1994? But then I read Sandile Memela’s diatribe against “white” theatre at the Cape, and I started to think.

When Memela writes of the need for transformation in the theatre in the Western Cape in particular, his observation is accurate, as far as I can see. There seems to be only a small percentage of the general audience that is not white. But what does he mean when he urges transformation? Must theatre managements have colour quotas? And if, say, the norm became to mount productions in which roughly half of the cast were white and the other half black, what then of the audience? If still mostly white people pitched up to pay to see the show, would those people somehow be out of line? Or is the potential black theatre audience out of line for … well, seemingly having no interest whatsoever in theatre regardless of whether the lead actor is Susan Jones or Vusisizwe Ngwema? Anyway, it may be more about economics than taste, given that it will take many more years for the earning powers of blacks and whites in Cape Town to achieve parity. This never was going to happen overnight.

But even if 50% of Capetonians had the same earning power as many white people have enjoyed for decades, would they go to the theatre in any significant numbers? This is untestable, but it would be useful to this debate to have an answer. So, when somebody attacks “whites” for “not transforming” by going to the kinds of restaurants or theatres they like to go to, what are they accused of? Are they responsible for the fact that few black Capetonians seem to have much interest in the theatre? Are they accused of keeping restaurant prices high to keep out the “riff-raff”? Is that why a steak costs hardly less than R150 these days? I could name any number of restaurants whose doors are open to all (of course) but who mostly only get bookings from white people.

Why must the restaurant “transform” if they’re hitting the market of a particular demographic and thereby making a living? If theatres are 90% or more full of “white people”, why must the theatre management “transform”? And how would they do this? Should they refuse to raise the curtain if a colour quota has not been reached? Must people of other races be bussed in? Must people of one culture be persuaded to attend a show in which they have no interest? Must theatres refuse to mount plays by, say, Noel Coward, Harold Pinter or Terrence Rattigan, in which the cast are inevitably white folk? Is it undemocratic to want to watch performances of the works of some of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, so many of whom were white and who wrote about people from their own communities who, yes, were white?

And where are middle-class black and coloured couple going when they eat out? Dare one suggest the Spur? And a steak at the Spur ain’t cheap. So, erm … is the lesson here not that it’s mostly gullible whiteys who’re suckered by all that poncy, pretentious stuff about something being nestled on a bed of something else before being drizzled on? There are times, let me tell you, when I’m in one of those fine dining establishments and my wife and I look at each other and say, “maybe we should have gone to the Spur”. Because often the fare just ain’t up to either the price tag or all the pretentious crud that goes with it, and at the Spur you know exactly what you’re getting for your buck.

Maybe there’s a lesson in this, for poncy whiteys, in getting back to basics. BUT there is a clear market for the pretentious stuff, so … why the hell shouldn’t they have it if that’s what they want? Hard-won democracy grants you and me the freedom of association, the freedom to make our own choices. The Spur or the Nellie, which is it? Honey, they’re equally valid in law. And it’s only food.
Personally, I’d prefer to be in a restaurant or a theatre where there was a world of different kinds of people, different cultures, different colours, and I believe that the Cape Town restaurants and theatres of 10 years time will have a much broader palette than they do now, because we have a new generation of kids of my daughter’s age who will be in their 30s by then and they’ll be going out and about as we do now. They’re the wonderfully blessed generation who were tiny tots when democracy arrived. They’ve been to school together, shared books and teachers and lives. That is where the real change is happening — these Model C kids even have their own New South African accent, haven’t you noticed? There’s a whole new future up ahead, and it doesn’t even sound the same. Can’t wait.