Cape Town.Cape Town has a unique ability to wake the sleeping paranoia, the foe which a conscious-of-it black person always has to to actively conciliate when said conscious-of-it black person comes to Cape Town from a city such as Johannesburg, where it is usually resting or unbothered if not sleeping.  (Except that one time at Spetada in Rosebank when the owner told my friends that ”All you black girls just need a fuck” after they complained about a roach in their food.  Retribution is now the type of food that is being served at Spetada.  Since the story came out a few weeks ago, that restaurant has been visibly empty.  I’ve been to The Firs 5 times in the last 2 weeks and every time I walk past, there are 2 or 3 tables at most.  Today at about 5pm when I walked past, nobody was there.  Joburg if this is your doing, thank you)

Back to Cape Town. Before a visit to Cape Town, you actively try to train your mind to feel safe, that nobody is trying to render it inferior or disabled in its perception of things as soon as you advance on the streets adjacent to Strand Street in the City Bowl. You sit down at a restaurant full of laughing white faces and your mind actively pinches itself to remember that they are not laughing at you. You try to hide the shock or fear or protean weirdness of being the only black in the room.  You are served by a too-familiar-too soon black barrista whose demeanor is so exblockquoted, it does not know what to do with itself. You speak Xhosa to said black barrista but the Xhosa does not exist behind his thick Shona lips.  You enjoy four hours of wifi, good coffee and delicious but underserved salad.

Bill time.  The white owner with a cute face prints your bill and you take out your wallet and go to the till.  It’s R85 and you give him your card and say ”make it R100”.  His face frowns and you wonder if he has heard you under the loud Kendrick Lamar.  He gives the card machine back to you with your card in it and you notice the amount is still R85.  You look back at him and repeat, ”make it R100”.  His eyebrows return to their place on his cute face.  He smiles and says thank you.  You punch your pin in and you wonder if he thought you were not going to tip him because you are black. You tell yourself to relax and stop trying to fulfill a notorious prophecy.

You leave and walk the streets, passing many a tattooed, bearded and juice worthy white man and young women with the sweet scent of youth, tanned legs and stylish insular looking sunglasses. Some of them are walking with cute dreadlocked black guys with iPhones in their hands.  You walk until you get tired because you are not used to walking.  Your body is shocked and tired but relieved to be using its legs at a leisurely pace, on tarmac and not on mall floor. You walk into another restaurant to rest and have a drink.  It is full of more white faces.  This time they are not drinking coffee. The sun is setting and the wine and spirits are flowing to accelerate the laughter.  You feel reassured by the number of black waitresses holding notepads inside the restaurant. They look at you but nothing registers. You look back trying to lull the sleeping foe inside of you. You remember its insecurity.  Their eyes talk to each other about you, but not to you.   The foe rises but doesn’t end up in your facial expression. One of them tells another to seat you and she seats you and leaves you. She leaves you to go and stand at the entrance of the restaurant to go and assume her position as host, where she watches you watch her. You caress the foe inside while you pretend to play with your phone. Some time passes and you look back at the black waitress and she looks back at you or what feels like past you. Your fingers shake as the foe aims for the surface of your lips. You look back at her again and she instructs a white male waiter to attend to you with her eyes. He comes to you, eventually. The foe is settled by the m’am at the end of his sentence and his reassuring arm on the back of your chair. He takes your drink order and you calm down, putting the foe to the bed it is used to. Nobody brings your drink. You search the room for the nice waiter and he is busy with other people. The foe groans. You don’t acknowledge it. 10 minutes pass and still you don’t have your drink in front of you. A beautiful white waitress, as beautiful as Cape Town likes them, hovers around your table. She touches your shoulder while talking to the people next to you. The foe puckers up and wonders why your shoulder felt the touch of a stranger. She walks away and, as if she remembered something, turns around, takes a deep breath and places her face uncomfortably close to yours and her hand resumes its position on your shoulder. ‘’Can I help you?’’ she asks. You respond with an unprepared smile that you have already been helped.

She takes another deep breath and walks away then she changes the route to where she was going and comes back to crouch next to you.  ”No, I’m going to help you now. What did you order?”, she says. ”Oh, I already ordered from that guy”, says your mouth while you point to the waiter who took your order. ”Everybody is confused about you”, she says.  ”But it’s okay, I’ve taken over and I’m going to be your waitress. What would you like?” The foe stands up but becomes dizzy from confusion. She touches your shoulder again. ”What would you like? Don’t worry about it.”, she says noticing the confusion on your face.  You give her the order again and she leaves. A heat hotter than the 33 degrees in Cape Town roasts the foe inside of you. You look around and everyone is having a great time. If feels like someone has just turned the TV on after you’ve heard bad news.  You forget you were hungry.

She returns and you ask, ”but what were they confused about? Why were they confused? What was confusing about my order”.  She sighs and again tells you not to worry.  You close the menu that you don’t intend to order from and call your friend to come and fetch you.  You look at the menu for the name of the restaurant and you start to accept what is happening.  The Gin and Tonic won’t go down.  Everything is just too hot.  The black waitresses leer at you from their posts.  TV land continues. The white male waiter’s arms are full of plates.  The waitress comes back and you ask for the bill.  She returns with it and while you are paying, you ask her what just happened again.  She sighs again and says ”believe me, it’s got nothing to do with you.  It’s all internal.  Nobody knew whose table this was and nobody wanted to take it so I volunteered”.  ”That doesn’t make me feel better”, you say.  You say some other things that I don’t remember.  She apologizes in a sincere way while holding the card machine with your card in it.  You have cash in your bag and wonder who to protect in this crucial moment – the foe inside of you, the loyalty in this girl’s eyes or the reputation of the next black person that comes to that restaurant and doesn’t tip for the same reason.  You accept that this has just happened because you never, for one second, forgot who you are and where you are.

It’s hard to write these types of posts. I don’t wanna be that guy that’s saying what has been said before but I also believe that an idea is normalized through repetition, by many accounts of the same thing happening.   This was a strange situation that while not overt, still had an insidious air about it.

// Comments (5)
  • Mpho says:

    I have to say, this post couldn’t have come at a better time. I went to wine bar at the end of last year and was so impressed with it that I couldnt wait to tell me big brother about it. I went on and on about how stylish and hip the drinking hole was and how impressed he would be by it. So last week Friday, the day had come, the day I’d been waiting for to show him this place with an amazing wine list and patrons that were just the right age and it was my treat.

    We approached the already filled stoep that had eyes fixed on us pretty much asking themselves if these people were lost. We were greeted by 2 fellow black faces at the door who were probably wondering the same thing. As we walked into the lion’s den, my “FOE” came to the surface nagging me, begging me to grab my brother by the arm and run.

    I searched the bar to find at least one familiar face that would sympathise with me and as I expected there was none. I became so angry with myself for not facing the uncomfortable stares and loud laughter. I walked out feeling a little ashamed at what seemed to be a feeling of surrendering to this “normalized reputation” that Cape Town has.

  • hlengiwe says:

    Hi Milli. I live in CT and I have stopped thinking about myself as ‘the only black’ – it’s tiring. This paranoia tends to take over our lives if we entertain it too much. I have a self conscious personality anyway, that on its own is enough to deal with.

    But I’m still wondering what the appropriate response is for someone genuinely in that position.

  • Luis says:

    Well to those places that act like you should not be there I proclaim with my royal blackness yes, yes look at me! I am your royal highness so look at me and take in this fine specimen and human perfection. And yes if the urge to kiss my toes catches you, do so. Then you go o. To act like there is a secret that they don’t know, some cosmic joke they didn’t get told about. That maybe you own this restaurant or hotel. Why else are you so comfortable and so sure of your position? Confidence kills them.

  • Nomfundo says:

    I live in Cape Town and I can testify to similar experiences. I must be honest though that you do get to a point where it doesn’t even offend anymore…its to be expected.

    I have no control over what others will think of me and my blackness. All I can control is how to react to it. And so I refuse to be limited in terms of where I can go and cannot go in this city. I will go wherever I feel like going, and I will anticipate the bullshit at some places where they are notorious for it (Asoka, Jade Lounge,) and I will not let the bullshit win.

    My main gripe is the way Black people who live in this city have succumbed to this and are actually excluding themselves from the predominantly white social scene
    The only way it will stop is if we show up and occupy these spaces, until it’s drilled into their consciousness that black people in Africa are not lost!

  • Aphiwe Ngcai says:

    Dear waiters and waitresses,

    There is a rotten problem in the service industry and its rancid stench has to be aired out. Why are restaurant owners being unadmonished for their dismal salaries to you, their waiting staff? Why must black patrons take the fall for this injustice? LET ME BREAK IT DOWN FOR YOU:

    1. The history of the black worker is one where compensation comes at the cost of ashy knuckles and toil.
    2. There is no thank you or reward at the end of a working day.
    3. You get paid. Finish and klaar. It is absurd to ask for more.

    And so, why must patrons not only finance your restaurant but salaries as well in the form of not only mandatory but exorbitant tips? A tip is a thank, one given when deserved, it is not dished out like a feeding scheme. Tipping is a culture shock: our grandmothers never got tipped spending their golden years as maids, my father never got tipped for the work he took home, I have never been tipped for the years I’ve spent at varsity to qualify me for an entry level job.

    So fine, resilience is our thing. We’ve pantingly caught up with Western culture and humbled ourselves, we tip. Just as we were getting comfortable, our presence acceptable, the servant being served, we now have to compete with white patrons! ASK YOURSELF:

    1. Do I have a thriving farm passed down to me for having a surname marked by the massacre of our forefathers?
    2. Do I have a trust fund which I could limitlessly access from age 21?
    3. Is my salary not below that of my white colleague who is less qualified but earns more than me?
    4. Are my responsibilities not beyond mothering a dog(I still don’t get this)but financing a family back home who gave up their last rands so I could get an education?

    I cannot give you more than 10%, my money is not that disposable. Instead of directing your anger at me, how about the boss who is content to see you carry a tray for more than 5 years but has not seen it fit to promote you? How about the boss who is on his/her 4th franchise yet you aren’t even on your 1st house, how about directing your valid frustration in his/ her direction?

    Dear waiters and waitresses, I am not your employer. Please stop looking for a salary from me.

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