Lele Mehlomakulu has something of a love-hate relationship with Cape Town, a city she has lived and worked in for 12 years.

She adores its beauty, from its white beaches to its famed Table Mountain, the leisurely pace of life and a belief that crime is less of a concern than in Johannesburg. Yet as a black South African living in the southern tip of her country – in the one province where black people are not the majority – there can also be a sense of not quite belonging and having to cope with racial undertones in and around the city.

“I don’t feel as excluded as before, but you feel excluded because [some] people are just carrying on life here as if 1994 never happened,” says Ms Mehlomakulu, the head of human resources at a fund manager.

Since apartheid ended, Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, has often found itself embroiled in controversies over the slow pace of racial transformation. At worst, black people have described it as a racist enclave – remote from the rest of the country geographically and structurally. Capetonians, the majority of whom are “coloured” or mixed race, say this has more to do with perceptions than reality.

But what is clear is that the city’s image in terms of race is hindering the ability of businesses in Cape Town to recruit and retain black professionals in the heartland of the nation’s asset management, tourism, insurance and retail industries. And the debate is likely to become more highly charged as the ruling African National Congress this year looks at ways to accelerate transformation nationally amid complaints that many areas of the economy remain dominated by whites.

For businesses deemed too slow to transform, the ramifications could include being excluded from government contracts. The struggle to lure black professionals also means companies in Cape Town risk missing out on a key pipeline of clients and talent – the burgeoning black middle class.

Chart: The geography of race

“Anyone who tries to tell you that it’s not a problem needs to understand that if more than 80 per cent of your country’s population . . . sees Cape Town as not an option for their career progression, we’ve got a talent problem,” says Guy Lundy, head of Accelerate Cape Town, a business think-tank. “That’s why we need to address it, but we need to do it rationally rather than emotionally.”

Accelerate Cape Town was set up five years ago around the time that three companies – Old Mutual, BP and Shell – moved their headquarters to Johannesburg, triggering fears the city was “falling behind”. The organisation, which has 45 corporate members, intends to promote Cape Town and make it a corporate destination of choice.

Tackling the problem of attracting black professionals is a crucial element of that, Mr Lundy says, and the think-tank hosts quarterly networking gatherings, predominantly for black professionals, to alter perceptions.

Companies are increasingly feeling the pressure to accelerate transformation and see the need for it, he says. “But they face an uphill battle, because you have companies that are able to attract people, but then in many cases they aren’t able to keep them,” Mr Lundy says.

Location, history, demographics and the legacies of apartheid are all blamed for the problem. Western Cape is the only one of nine provinces where black Africans are not the majority – mixed race people known as “coloureds” are – and it was the only region of country to experience slavery. Black Africans make up just 28 per cent of the economically active population of Western Cape, according to the Commission for Employment Equity, compared with 55.6 per cent for mixed-race people and 15.8 per cent for white people.

Although treated poorly under apartheid, coloured people were a notch above Africans and the Western Cape had a special employment law that meant they had to be hired before black people, unlike in the rest of South Africa. Coloured people tend to speak Afrikaans – the language of the apartheid regime – and some resent the perception that they are not “black enough” under the ANC.

White Capetonians, meanwhile, are blamed for being slow to adjust to the post-apartheid era, partly because of their relatively isolated existence.

Many of the structural barriers created under apartheid remain in place in Cape Town, with white residents living in leafy, affluent suburbs, many mixed-race people living in scruffy “Cape Flats”, and the majority of the black population in ramshackle townships.

In her human resources role, Ms Mehlomakulu – who hopes to retire in the city – witnesses the challenges first hand.

“It’s not only about [black people] feel they don’t belong, the second reason is they think they can build a better career in Johannesburg,” she says. “A third thing, which is crucial, is when you recruit someone to Cape Town, it’s not the person you recruit, it’s his or her family as well.”

Further complicating the equation is that black Africans in the city are predominantly poor, meaning it lacks the social options a city like Johannesburg offers middle class black people.

“It’s way beyond racism, it’s a cultural thing. I know there are components of race, but culture, a way of doing things and the language, they create barriers,” says Thapelo Mahlangu, a black member of staff at another financial company. In many Cape Town offices, Afrikaans is the prevalent language, a potential barrier for black staff.

After moving south five years ago, Mr Mahlangu spent every weekend flying to Johannesburg. Now it is just once a month, but he says that “peace of mind” comes only when he travels.

“Any time I land in Cape Town, honestly, I feel my heart slowing down,” Mr Mahlangu says.

Cape Town is also unique politically as the only city run by the opposition Democratic Alliance, which has struggled to shed the perception among many black people that it is a “white party”.

Patricia de Lille, the mayor, addressed race in her newsletter last week, acknowledging “we have problems in Cape Town, as the rest of the country does”. But she complained of a “lazy logic” that because it was not governed by the ANC it must be racist.

Ms Mehlomakulu says there has been slow progress, but believes it could take decades for genuine transformation to occur. “The structural things are going to be a long time, because it’s not just the companies who are going to have to change,” she says. “It’s the people themselves.”

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