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Dance of race, class on desegregated beaches will continue for years to come

Clifton Beach
Clifton Beach
Image: Gallo Images

Where race and class mingle dangerously in the bloody heat to test the most broad-minded among us. The temperature is 45.2C. Previous record shattered: 42.4C. It’s boiling hot and nobody wants to talk about the mingle.

It seems as if every Cape Town resident fled their homes that red-hot Saturday. We left early, arriving at Boulders beaches near Simon’s Town about 7.30am before the penguins had even brushed their teeth.

Too late. Already there was not a single parking space available. I dropped the family and walked a few kilometres from where I found parking up one of those streets along the mountain homes.

The common beach was packed to capacity by working-class families, with dirt already piling up and pot-bellied men downing their drinks early in the day. But we discovered a private beach that, despite the sign, is actually not a private beach further down the one-way road.

This is where the white and black middle-classes come early enough to colonise a lovely space with an expensive one- or two-man tent. Here you find UCT types and old white aunties who could not care less what their thin, bone-white legs look like in bikinis.

Surfboards here and there stand up in the rising sun. A few even brought canoes and paddles. Classy.

Soon the people on the overcrowded common beach discovered the so-called private beach. Quickly, the place becomes crowded too. Here was a wonderful transformation under way. Right in front of us sits a Cape Flats granny in charge of four small children while the very young mother of some of them sits there with fancy sunglasses staring blankly ahead of her.

The kids take off for the seawater nearby and the granny pursues the excited little ones. Here you can drown in an instant; there are no lifeguards in the area.

Back-and-forth goes the grey-haired granny as the children run between the open sea and the nonplussed mother of some of them. The old woman is clearly tired; off she runs again as the little boy re-enters the water. There is no food, only syrupy drinks and chips for the day. Should we share our food?

The dirt piles up next to us as bottles and papers are discarded right there. Then the granny takes out cigarettes and smokes away as the light breeze, almost deliberately, blows the exhaled smoke into our sensitive, middle-class nostrils.

One of the little boys decides to pee right there in front of us. It is getting too much and too close. Dirt, urine, smoke and noisy kids.

A polite and subdued discussion breaks out in our group. Should we talk to the family? Ask them not to do this, that and the other? Point out the waste bins and the toilets?

No, says one, that would not be right. They know they don’t fit in with these smug, classy people. It must have taken an enormous amount of courage to even come and sit among the fancy tents and shiny flasks. Don’t embarrass them.

It is a wonderful sight to behold, the SA we desired and fought for: Black and white enjoying the same leisure spaces. Though to be honest, we did not reckon with class at the time. Not too far away we once marched: All God’s beaches for all God’s children!

But this is a different reality now and you can feel the strain. Can we enjoy the beaches together without the smoke, the dirt and the pee? And is it snobbery to go and speak to the granny and her family?

One response to the growing crowds from the common beach was to leave. It is a tactic I hear about often: whites and now also the middle-class blacks come to the beaches very early and leave by midmorning before the masses arrive.

They’ve had their swim and walked their dogs, and now go home to relax in cool, air-conditioned homes. Sundowners in the early evening might bring them back as the taxis and bakkies take home the less privileged before sunset.

It was not complicated in the old days. Muizenberg was the white beach. Strandfontein the coloured beach. Monwabisi the African beach.

Race trumped class and government divided people neatly along the False Bay coast. For several years after apartheid was over, citizens still stuck to their racially defined areas of the past.

Now, thankfully, that is behind us and all our people occupy all our beaches.

It is a fascinating dance of race and class on our desegregated beaches, one that will continue for years to come. Here, too, citizens are compelled to learn to live and leisure together even as we chafe against each other under the heat of a relentless African sun.

As I watch the granny and her family, I remind myself that, not too long ago, that was my working-class parents with us, their children. Minus the pee, the dirt and the smoke.

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