I have to admit that I did not read the report on which the Cape Times based its “Cape Town is a racist city — study” banner headline last Thursday (October 22 2009). I did try to get a copy of the report, commissioned by the Employment Equity Programme and conducted by Sabie Surtee and Martin Hall, but was not successful.

What is clear to me, however, is that the headline and the story do not quite match up. Obviously, headlines have certain constraints and one is not able to be as subtle or as nuanced in a headline as in a story.

So what are the salient points of the story?

  • Cape Town is seen as hostile to black people, while white people still benefit from being appointed to top posts in the city.
  • African people are under-represented in management positions “in comparison to their overall contribution to the South African workforce”.
  • The mainly African people interviewed for this survey thought that coloured people were their competitors for positions and that there was “marked antagonism towards coloured people” among the people interviewed.
  • According to the Cape Times report, in the five retail companies surveyed, 65 percent of top and senior management appointments or promotions went to whites in 2008, but only 10 percent went to black people. At junior management level, the paper reported, 27 percent of the opportunities went to whites and 36 percent to blacks.

    I did not read anywhere in the story that the authors of the report called Cape Town racist, but I suppose that is what the sub-editor who wrote the headline read.

    After reading this article, I am again convinced that we remain a country pre-occupied with race. It seems that every time we cannot find a reason for anything, we blame it on race.

    It is clear that the problems in the Western Cape have its roots in apartheid, when the province was declared a coloured labour preference area and Africans had to have permits to work and live there.

    Thankfully, we no longer have a situation like that and we can all live and work wherever we want to in South Africa. However, I found myself thinking after reading this report: why is it such a crime for the Western Cape demographic to be different to the national demographic? And why must businesses be compelled to meet the national demographic targets in the Western Cape?

    Surely, it makes sense to have different targets for the Western Cape? This pre-occupation with reaching national demographic targets is probably part of the reason why coloureds in the Western Cape, who make up the majority of the population, feel that they have no future in South Africa and continuously appear to be turning their backs on the ruling ANC in support of opposition parties.

    I also realise why the researchers did this particular report but surely, if you speak mainly to African people, you are going to get a particular perspective only. Why did they not speak to quite a few coloured and white people also? By excluding them from the research, it seems to send the message that they are part of the problem and could not necessarily contribute to the solution.

    Newspapers, and the journalists who work there, have an important duty to realise the seriousness of their influence on society. By using inflammatory headlines like “Cape Town is a racist city”, they are effectively saying that people of Cape Town are racist and that does not serve anyone’s purpose, except maybe selling more newspapers, but even that is debatable.

    A headline like that probably only has the effect of making sure that people who feel uncomfortable with reading or discussing the issue of race, will not buy the paper.

    I am a strong proponent of a continuous discussion on the effects of race and racism on our society today, but it depends on how we conduct that conversation. It definitely does not help to accuse an entire city of being racist. That is the quickest way to end the conversation.


    • Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He received an international media award for this project in New York in October 2006. His personal motto is "bringing people together", which was the theme of One City Many Cultures. It remains the theme of the Cape Town Festival and is the theme of Race. Ryland has worked in and with government, in the media for more than 25 years, in the corporate sector, in NGOs and in academia. Ultimately, however, he describes himself as "just a souped-up writer".


    Ryland Fisher

    Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is...

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