Voices

Restaurant racism: What happened when a respected academic had enough

2015-09-16 09:45

*This article was updated on September 23 2015 to include the response by Spur Corporation chief executive Pierre van Tonder (see below)

**This article was updated again on October 07 2015 to include the reply by Xolela Mangcu (see below)

For a long time, I had been promising myself to take up what seemed like an excellent lunch offer at the Hussar Grill in Rondebosch. So I finally decided to go there and mark my students’ essays over a piece of steak, which normally goes with spinach and butternut.

Somehow, the meal was served without the spinach. When I enquired about the missing vegetable, the waiter said it would not be ready for a while. So he brought me a packet of chips. “On the house,” he said, rather happily.

I really did not mind. The steak was the real object of my desire, so to speak.

To my surprise, I was presented with a bill that included the missing spinach. Surely, and from a purely contractual viewpoint, I could not be expected to pay for something that was not served?

The manager would have none of my “attitude”. After a brief altercation, he walked briskly towards the door and gestured for me to get out, in full view of his patrons, one of whom was a prominent University of Cape Town (UCT) academic.

He also seemed befuddled. All the while, the manager was impatiently hollering at me to get out before he called his security. At that moment, I was overcome by a feeling of vertigo – of an endless fall, if you like.

And so a lunch hour that had started on a hopeful note ended in a moment of public embarrassment – and self-doubt. But why was I feeling guilty when I was the victim of wrongdoing? This is how black people were made to internalise oppression in the 1960s, until Steve Biko came along.

This is the phenomenological experience of racism that no amount of class analysis can ever grasp.

But I have had enough of these experiences in Cape Town to try to reach a theory about them – one which I partly derive from a friend – and which ties in with why it is so difficult to transform the Springboks.

The Boks, the anti-black philosophy department at UCT and the racist restaurants constitute what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called a “habitus”.

These are the deep-seated, taken-for-granted values and dispositions that guide the daily conduct and treatment of people or, as Loïc Wacquant put it, “the way society is deposited in persons”.

In South Africa, such deposits have accreted in racialised forms over decades and centuries. Having a black person step into a restaurant, or speak of African philosophical traditions, or not to have a white-dominated Springbok team is resisted not because it is undoable, but because it is culturally unimaginable in a racist world.

I have often been asked if I am being targeted by restaurants because of my support for the Rhodes Must Fall movement. In some ways, that would be better.

But what we are talking about here is something more pervasive and insidious. It is the very structure of meanings and feelings passed down over generations that continue to be reproduced in invisible, individualised settings.

The resurgence of racism also explains why university students are turning to Biko. Looking at the protests taking place all over the country, you would be forgiven for thinking we are in 1968 or 1980. I lived through the 1980s. It scares me to think that, as a country, we would knowingly go down that path again. For black people, there is the option of suffering silently. But then again, that does not seem to be too much of an option. What we really need are more white voices.

Mangcu is an author and associate professor at UCT. Restaurants seem to hate him


The response to Xolela Mangcu by Pierre van Tonder, chief executive of Spur Corporation:

It was not about race, Mr Mangcu

Dear Mr Mangcu 

We read with interest and initial concern about your experience at The Hussar Grill in Rondebosch, Cape Town, on September 10 in “Spinach, chips and race” (City Press, September 13 2015). 

We take your comments very seriously and investigated the issue as a matter of urgency. Below are our findings: 

Our waitron indicated he made you aware of our lack of spinach and that a fresh batch was being prepared prior to you receiving your meal. 

This is contrary to how you reported the incident: “Somehow the meal was served without the spinach.” He also indicated that to make good the lack of spinach, as he did not want you to have to wait for the fresh batch, he increased your butternut order to a full portion and offered you an additional side product of your choice. You gladly accepted these offers and chose to order the side of chips, which were served accordingly. 

We understand that you enjoyed the meal without further incident. On receipt of the bill, you were unhappy about paying the R110 and requested a discount due to the lack of spinach. 

After a discussion, our manager agreed to discount your bill to R68. You were not happy with the R68 and chose to voice your concerns, as well as saying “This is a racist restaurant!” to other patrons. 

At this point, our manager was trying to protect his business, other patrons and waitrons from your tirade and offered you the meal as complimentary. 

You continued to vent your opinion to all, paying no heed to the manager’s continued attempts to appease the situation. 

On getting no positive reaction from you, his only option was to ask you to vacate the premises, which you would not do. He had to threaten to call security to persuade you to leave. 

We agree that not having spinach as an accompanying item to your meal was not acceptable. 

We believe, however, that we made every effort to make it up to you. We also found that our management did not treat you in a racist manner in any way whatsoever and reacted professionally to your inappropriate behaviour. 

We cannot condone such actions in our restaurants and believe our manager’s actions were warranted and necessary to defend the business, our other patrons and our employees. 

It is unfortunate that you chose to distort the facts in the manner you did and we see your so-called reporting of the incident as seeking sensationalism to justify your poor public behaviour. 

We have never been a racist company and do not condone racist behaviour in any manner or form – neither from our employees nor our customers.


Xolela Mangcu's reply to Pierre van Tonder:

I eat what I like

The Spur Group’s chief executive, Pierre van Tonder, makes several claims about my experience at Hussar Grill in “It was not about race, Mr Mangcu” (City Press, September 20 2015). He will most likely not repeat them under oath. His allegations against me are based on hearsay evidence from an employee who is probably desperate to save his job. He claims I told other patrons “this is a racist restaurant” and “continued to vent my opinion to all, paying no heed to the manager’s attempt to appease the situation”. There were no other patrons in the restaurant, except a distinguished University of Cape Town professor of constitutional law – and the person with whom he was having lunch.

The only thing I asked – from the manager and the professor – was whether it was proper to be expected to pay for something I had not been served. The professor said, in his view, that this seemed like a breach of contract.

As I was talking to him, the manager pulled me by my arm, threatening to call security.

After leaving the restaurant, I emailed the professor and asked if I could have dealt with the matter differently, given that black people are often made to feel guilty for registering complaints about their ill-treatment. He described the manager’s behaviour as “not how you treat a customer”.

Against this observation by the professor about the manager’s conduct, Van Tonder’s statement that his manager was appeasing the situation is exposed for the misrepresentation it is.

Instead of trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened, Van Tonder and Spur have chosen to defame me by broadcasting their misrepresentations in City Press and on Facebook.

Editor’s note: There will be no further correspondence on this issue

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