Clifton Beach, the ugly power of white privilege, in cahoots with black elites defending a class disposition

People protest at Clifton 4th Beach in Cape Town, where black people were removed by a security company on December 23. A T-shirt worn by one of the protesters has caused outrage among some readers. Phando Jikelo African News Agency (ANA)

A week ago, an incident at Clifton Beach, the nesting grounds of the super-wealthy at the foot of Africa, reminded South Africans how polarised our society remains.
There was an uproar over reports that private company PPA Security had allegedly closed down Clifton Fourth Beach at sunset last Sunday.

According to mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith, private companies have no right to police public spaces and that PPA was not acting on the city’s authority.
According to PPA, whose services are paid for by the residents of the area, they merely accompanied law enforcement officers after two teenage girls were allegedly raped.

Chief executive Alwyn Landman told News 24: “We were requested to accompany law enforcement as our tactical officers are highly trained and skilled professionals. If anyone claims they were on the beach and chased away, they would have seen that it was absolute mayhem and that law enforcement was really doing a great job to stabilise the situation – we did not close the beach.”

This incident naturally ignited anger and lobby group, Black People’s National Crisis Committee, staged an event that included the slaughter of a sheep. Activist Chumani Maxwele, who gained prominence in the UCT #RhodesMustFall campaign, said: “The offering of the sheep is calling on our ancestors to respond to our trauma at the hands of white people over the years.” He went on to say: “These private security guards are hired by the Clifton Taxpayers Association; they are actually briefed to not allow black people who look like they are from the townships on to the beach.”

PPA has subsequently made it clear it will no longer assist the metro police at Clifton Fourth Beach.

What Maxwele said next is perhaps the crux of the matter: “This is typical racial profiling. You cannot stop people from going to the beach and deem them a criminal just because they are black.”

The Western Cape was initially investigating claims of an incident of attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl, which was prevented by beach-goers who reported the incident to police. According to police spokesperson Brigadier Novela Potelwa, “preliminary findings of the SAPS investigation indicate that no rape was registered at Camps Bay SAPS”.

The ongoing saga, which now has the EFF staging a night vigil on the beach claiming black people’s rights to access public spaces, has taken many twists and turns. It confirms that, 25 years on, the struggle with racism and white privilege continues. This cannot be written off as a single event, but is a fulcrum of racial and class divide in defence of white privilege. It is not about the beach, it is about the failed transition in which apartheid beneficiaries continue to claim a superior identity.

What does the Clifton Beach incident teach us about South Africa? Is it reminding us all of the power of privilege? What is privilege? One definition reads: “Privilege is defined as a benefit or set of benefits that members of certain social groups have. These benefits are usually unearned and they are easy to take for granted when you have grown up as a member of a privileged social group. Think of privilege as being issues that you do not have to think about on a daily basis.”

Yet we must not confuse privilege with white privilege. Clifton Fourth Beach lays bare the undeniable reality of white privilege. A definition of white privilege reads as follows: “White privilege is the societal privilege that benefits people whom society identifies as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political or economic circumstances.”

Regardless of how South Africans seek to stick their heads in the sand, white privilege lives in post-apartheid South Africa. Clifton unravels the power of class definition in a society that cannot shake the prominence of a racial and class divide.

While there are conflicting opinions and views on class definition, it is commonly accepted that “a social class is a set of subjectively-defined concepts in the social sciences and political theory, centred on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle and lower classes”.

What white beach-goers experienced in arguably the holiest beach week in Cape Town was that their class disposition inflates the notion that their presence at the beach supersedes the access of others to public spaces.

Clifton Beach is teaching us that for many, speaking up against racism is merely empty rhetoric since we rely on our class power to maintain apartheid boundaries.

Clifton also unveils the hypocrisy of the black elite, who are thriving off the peripheral benefit of white privilege. While most thought white privilege is exclusively for the benefit of the apartheid-configured white identity, we have, in the past 25 years, learnt that white privilege thrives in a symbiotic atmosphere of the presence of the unconscious black elite.

Clifton Beach reminds us that the pre-1994 consensus protests, eternalising the race-based divide of binaries of a white and black community and separated by privilege, in what I termed a buffer zone of an economically-privileged group, was created to act as an insurance policy for the ongoing upkeep of white privilege. I have long concluded that the buffer zone group makes up the new black elites. The latter has no problem with white privilege because it does not threaten them, provided they stay in the defined lines of what white privilege determines is their breathable space. In fact, they seem to enjoy the fact that there are so few of them in this unique space.

Clifton Beach also lays bare that privilege can determine what constitutes animal rights. South Africans have not yet come to embrace the cultural rituals of the less privileged. Despite centuries of practices that constitute a fundamental belief system, the Africans’ practices are sneered at and the rights of the animals considered sacrosanct.

We must ask what freedom means when privilege rules the roost and white privilege controls the access. Why is it unacceptable to slaughter a sheep as a cultural and faith practice?

When PPA last Sunday acted on the power of privilege, why is it that all leading figures in our society are silent?

Where is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership in all this? Well, it is absent as always – only prevalent during public relations walkabouts at Camps Bay, while a stone’s throw away, a failed transition has been laid bare. May this year continue to expose the uncomfortable truths we need to face as a country.

Clyde Ramalaine is a Political Commentator and Writer.