Cape Town So Cliquey?


“How are you finding living in Cape Town so far? I asked an acquaintance I met a few weeks ago at a friend’s farewell party. “Cliquey,” she responded. This is the umpteenth time I hear someone who has recently moved to Cape Town say that. She explained to me that she was based in Johannesburg previously, making it clear that she had never experienced feeling excluded in a city until she moved to the mother city.

When I hear the word clique, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a bunch of pretty (but mean) blonde girls in pink who won’t let you join their group unless you ‘fit in’ (lol let’s blame the movies I used to watch growing up!). The Cambridge English dictionary defines a clique as a small close-knit group of people who do not readily allow others to join them.

So is Cape Town cliquey? If yes, what is it that makes Cape Town so cliquey? Is it the geographical set-up? Is it because there’s so much to do that people are happy to do those things with the same people – again and again? Is it classicism? Is it competition between various groups?

I decided to ask a few people in my network if they believe whether Cape Town is cliquey or not, and why. Most of these people moved to Cape Town either for further study or employment purposes. Therefore, their experience of their home towns is most likely to be their reference point in describing the topic of impenetrable Cape Town circles. #degreesofseparation

*Disclaimer: this post is not intended to provide any biased opinion, but rather offer some varying perspectives.

Some acquaintances explain that clique formation has to do with how Cape Town was designed. Spatial planning and subsequent social divide in Cape Town is a real issue. Certain racial groups occupy less developed areas at the peripheries of the city; other groups are closer to the mountain with good schools and infrastructure. Furthermore, even within the geographical locations, factions still exist: the academics at UCT versus the young professionals; the cool kids versus the hipsters; the running fanatics versus those who prefer a particular sport or going to the gym.

Some groups (let’s avoid saying cliques) hold certain characteristics (education, assets, access, etc.) and if you don’t have these, you cannot be accepted/acknowledged/recognized in the group. Many people I had discussions with thus speak to classicism in the city. Cape Town has a polarized and distinct elite base. There exist academic class, working class, asset-owning class etc. In other words, “birds of same feather stick together”. For example, a friend from university reckons that in university, people identify with people they went to similar schools with. Schools are clearly generational – the brothers club circles are tight! These private school social cliques filter even beyond varsity. This implies then that the public school kids will probably find one another and stick together. Therefore friendships are based on this ‘commonality’.

A friend offered the opinion that the city in and of itself was designed to keep people and groups separate. “Many Capetonians who are born here don’t move around much so they don’t know the alternative. They rarely have gone through the pain of being alone and isolated in a new city. So the thought of accommodating others isn’t important to them. Thus they won’t place effort in getting to know the new girl at the office. Furthermore, the city is driven by a façade of coolness or European-ness and various cliques want to maintain this façade.” This then perpetuates the tendency not to mingle with other cultures and classes. So even as a migrant to Cape Town, one could easily end up adopting this culture – consciously or otherwise.

Others posit that human beings generally are self-centred by nature. Humans tend to move around circles/ groups where not a lot of sacrifice is needed in terms of understanding those different to them. It’s easier to bond with people with the same worldviews – people who go to the same church; agree with you on politics, etc. In other words, it is “costly to be open to others: it requires being often misunderstood; being challenged on your opinion, etc. it opens up a lot of ‘dying to self’ and probably requires more energy to do so, so we choose the path of less resistance.” #issacomfortzone

Are people holding certain insecurities that they refuse to risk exposing if they make their circle bigger? Some are of the opinion that people look for groups that validate who they think they are. There’s a pull to seem popular by hanging out with ‘cool’ peeps. They might value the status and reputation that comes with being associated with a particular group, over character. On the other hand, people think cliques form when people feel safe to be vulnerable in certain groups (e.g. due to insecurities). Apparently it’s good to have a smaller circle of solid friends you can count on. Humans desire a community that will be a safe place for them. We want to go where we are accepted.

The most popular reason I heard in discussion is that people are just comfortable in their circles. No one likes change. It’s easier just to hang out with people who went to the same university, like the same sports, music, etc. Some people just ‘don’t have time’ to round the different circles. Cape Town has a lot of ‘types’ – outdoor, eclectic, art lovers, etc.  and cliques are based on these preferences.

I have friends who moved to Cape Town for work and say it was hard to make friends with other young professionals (especially those who studied at UCT and are clearly used to the cliquey nature). They had to find other ‘outsiders’ who were not part of these crews, which took between 6 to 9 months. How much longer for people who are generally not out-going!? One friend added, “Even in the event where I do meet a Capetonian for the first time and make plans to meet up again, this either never happens, or we meet up but keep our circles mutually exclusive. People are not intentional about making new friendships here!” One friend reckons this is because some circles are competing against each other in various facets of life.

Apparently, most groups want to protect their space: there is a territorial aspect to cliques. Some believe that certain groups already feel ahead of the rest and don’t want to have to adapt to accommodate others. Some groups do not want new members to take a spot in that group for fear of outside influences setting new norms. Like Europe, Cape Town is set in old ways unlike say other big cities in South Africa (e.g. JHB) which are moving faster.

Others just reckon that groups are a norm and exists across all species – it’s just how life goes! For example, a friend who moved to Cape Town from another African country shared how she made friends initially with fellow countrymen or other international students. She found that South Africans new to Cape Town seemed to make friends with other South Africans who experienced the ‘newness’ of the city in a similar manner. Perhaps connecting with those we can relate to is also a coping mechanism.

It seems that cliques are convenient for many reasons. Unfortunately the alienation and exclusion of others is a real negative spillover effect. Are we allowing the city’s history to rub off on us? Or are we just living out our social lives how we genuinely deem appropriate?

What about the existence of cliques within the same racial and religious groups? Part 2 of this topic will cover this and also delve into arguments supporting that Cape Town is just like any other city…

I’m going to park this conversation here for now. In the meantime, do offer your opinions in the comments section below, and I’ll incorporate them in the next post!




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5 thoughts

  1. Really nice article. I was particularly snapping fingers when you used the words “comfort zone” as I’ve been reflecting on the same thing about cliques. I always feel uncomfortable being boxed or fitted into a group, I feel like it affects my growth as a person and I love learning from different kinds of people. I’ve never looked at Cape Town that way but now it makes sense why it is so difficult to get a big break in this city. Very insightful article!


  2. Came here because I read the 2nd article first. I love this, one of the first articles I read that didn’t feel like it was “attacking”. This has been on heart for a while and I’ve actually spoken to my boyfriend saying that when we get get married I would like to go live I another city (will probably be JHB based on his career path) to experience life outside Cape Town (I’ve been born and bred here) and the differences people always speak of.
    Love this…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Natasha!
      Thank you for sharing a bit about your own feelings as some who is Cape Town born and bred! I do hope you and your partner will have a lovely experience in the next city you move to 🙂
      Please feel free to follow/subscribe to the blog to get notifications about new post via e-mail.
      Looking forward to more comments from you!


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