Appeal for colour: Sample colours on a wall in a Cape Town suburb were defaced. Picture: SEAN O’CONNOR
Appeal for colour: Sample colours on a wall in a Cape Town suburb were defaced. Picture: SEAN O’CONNOR

Choosing a colour to paint a wall ranks as one of the most vexing challenges of the suburban era. Perhaps that’s why grey is the go-to palette suggested by paint makers Dulux and Plascon as their "colour of the year" for 2017. It is, undeniably, the colour painted over the former rainbow nation.

SA’s economy gurgles down a fetid grey drain and captured state institutions exude a morbid pallor as their patrons habitually use shades of grey — unaccountability — to cloak their maleficent ways.

Grey is the colour of the end of the fire, the end of a dream. Grey is when people give up and resign themselves to things gone wrong.

The colour sums up the building development orgy under way in Observatory, Cape Town, as an objector neatly pointed out in powerful graffiti. Like nearby Woodstock, Obs is a site of considerable change, where a rash of builder’s cranes scratch away the last inches of available sky.

A wall on a new local student housing development (owned by the same dude who bought an entire street in Woodstock and turfed out the long-time residents) has been painted with a few sample colours – Mineral Mine (describing the scrap economy), Monarch Pass (for a chief who passes nought but wind) and Midwinter (probably somewhere inside the lost soul of the ANC).

A smart**s with a spray paint can renamed the samples as Nazi concentration camps — a demand that the neighbourhood consider what is happening to it as a brutal contempt for life. The words hurt, they’re meant to. Nearby the artist scrawled "think rainbows".

Grey is the perfect fence-sitter’s palette, waiting for tiresome scandals to fade away. It’s the colour of suits, of passing-the-buck, somewhere between the certainties of black and white. Grey is "wait, I’ll get back to you". Grey is an unspent budget and an unanswered phone call. Grey takes no responsibility, it has no personality.

Grey wears you down because it is so deadly boring and repetitive (yes, I’m deliberately trying to recreate the effect). It is pure tedium, absolute bureaucracy — there should be a grey tint called public service, home affairs or SARS helpdesk.

Grey’s only real advantage is that it makes other colours look good in comparison — an entirely accidental effect.

So, how to effect change? Plascon and Dulux are no help at all, because they are so "on trend". The trend is getting us nowhere.

Dulux’s "colour designers" (now there’s a career) say Steel Symphony is their fave colour. It’s grey! It should be painted over Parliament, where Plascon’s Gathering Storm is another popular grey option.

A hue by Dulux called Night Jewels could be used to decorate the interiors of PetroSA, whose employees "lost" a cool R15bn. The SABC or Prasa might benefit from three coats of Rich Black – an actual tint by Plascon, but probably nowhere near as apt as their beautifully named Evasive White.

According to Plascon’s stylistas: "In an increasingly noisy, fast-paced world, we look to our colour of the year for calm. [Go Plascon, you’re on the right track!] Looking neither to the past nor the future for inspiration, in 2017 we find everything we need to inform us wholly in the present. [Losing you there Plascon. Plascon come in.]

"We begin to find more harmony with our connected world; whether we are turning it back upon itself for our protection, playfully immersing ourselves in its possibilities, [OK Plascon you’re gone, I’ve lost you], or welcoming new sympathetic design into our home."

Apparently, their colour of the year, In the Mood, "is a connection to the outdoors and the open landscape beyond; there is no divide; we are sheltered, but free." In the Mood is basically beige. It says: do it, because you’re in the mood. Use taxpayer’s money to pay for police brutality at Marikana. It’s a colour for cowards, the grey of the brown world.

The anti-Nazi graffiti is an iteration of a familiar frustration. While, understandably, the City tsars are keen to densify the major arteries heading into the Cape Town central business district, these buildings put us in the shadows, quite literally.

There are no off-sets, no green spaces, just more units, more traffic, less sky. They are in the hands of developers, not visionaries. Extractors, not givers.

Observatory, a historically diverse neighbourhood with a proud heritage of struggle for liberation, now has clogged streets as trucks and forklifts block the way at will as behemoths are erected.

It is going to get worse when the R4bn "upgrade" to The River Club starts in 2018. This venerable Victorian complex straddles valuable acreage along the Liesbeek River and accesses a swirl of highways and byways. It is set to be turned into something resembling Century City, says a shocked neighbour who viewed the developer’s plans at a community meeting.

It’s in a flood plain, but the developers can get past that by bringing in more earth. They are planning "residential, retail and commercial components including a hotel, gym, shopping centre, offices, conference centre and schools".

Hey, at least we get another gym! We can treadmill and cycle our way to Armageddon. The River Club is, disturbingly, part of the City-owned Two Rivers Urban Park, which the City elders are also considering to develop.

It comprises 200ha in total — big enough to change things in a rather permanent way.

This will, in my battered opinion, pave the way for the annexation of the much coveted Oude Molen Eco-Village, also on state-owned land.

It is a green lung and home to a community of thriving and established small businesses, nongovernmental organisations, artist communities, smallholders and schools that is just too well-placed not to develop into low-cost housing, which will soon get chucked out the window as people realise there’s more money in "trendy urban lifestyle units".

Tenants at Oude Molen have been threatened by development for years and have achieved global recognition for their mixed-use, low impact and sustainability-oriented plans.

Many of Cape Town’s townships are far away from employment opportunities. Development is inevitable. Space in the city is limited by the ocean and the mountains and rents have gone through the roof.

The city has around 16,000 listings on Airbnb, more than any other city in Africa and half of SA’s entire listings. People have bought flats and houses for the express purpose of letting them out on Airbnb and are making a killing — for now.

Airbnb is banned in Berlin, restricted in New York and under threat in Paris because of the way it has affected housing markets, which is what it is doing in Cape Town.

It also makes things grey, as every room imitates another, every space strains towards the hipster aesthetic — clean, minimal and void. You could
be anywhere.

Capetonians are selling their bonded homes and moving to the peripheries, taking the sprawl with them. Up the west coast, there’s a megamall in development, near Melkbos. It’s a ghastly grey ghetto. Grey is the colour of the commute from there, exhausted faces staring from buses on choking streets.

But even as those in power choose grey, the citizens who wield the power will not be cowed by their choices and demand the full spectrum. We choose Hope Green, Courage Red, Determination Blue, we choose Truth Orange and all the bright colours in between.

Please sign in or register to comment.