White folks + shoe polish = The edge of South African 'discourse'
- Richard Poplak
- South Africa
- 07 Aug 2014 12:32 (South Africa)
Here we are again: another absurd South African “debate” regarding another undebatable subject. Yesterday, two white University of Pretoria students were smeared across Twitter dressed in the guise of black domestic workers. Of course, white South Africans are allowed to don blackface, and others are allowed defend the donning thereof. But just because we can eat ice-cream for breakfast doesn’t mean we should. RICHARD POPLAK holds his nose and dives in.
Idiots before breakfast: this is what “social media” offers the bedraggled denizens of the twenty-first century. One presumes that idiots have always existed, but that in the past they existed in idiot-specific silos somehow distanced from the rest of humanity. These days, the idiots are fired into the midst of us, lashed as they are to the weaponised tip of the apps on our phones. How else to explain the enormous kablooey caused by images pulled from Facebook depicting two female University of Pretoria students dressed up as black domestic workers? All the tropes are lovingly—or should I say, hatefully—sculpted into shape: the doeks wrapped around heads; the wide unthinking grins; the shelf-like buttocks tilted prominently toward the lens. Thick gobs of black polish have been slathered on white skin: Project Dumb-Ass is complete.
It is a strange time to be gazing at this sort of thing. Barely a quarter of a century has passed since this country ditched legislated racial segregation for some other form of racial segregation; Apartheid is not memory but history for our blackfaced antagonists. Still, the black female body exists for them as something to be parodied: what shocks, I suppose, is the unfathomable distance between the models and their marks. For these young women, black domestic workers are characters, like Goofy or Minnie Mouse—we learn, once again, that the very people who spend their lives working in white middle-class homes are as ethereal to their economic superiors as a talking mouse. And yet we also identify in the pictures the livewire frisson of the forbidden: there appears to be something gloriously freeing, something intrinsically youthful about this specific form of political incorrectness.
Perfectly legal political incorrectness, we should note. One of the elements of South African life that has changed in the last twenty years is that we’re allowed to say and do things—within bounds, of course—without getting sent to maximum security prisons named after neo-Nazi prime ministers. Our two blackfaces have not broken the law. But they have broken a sort of covenant, an unwritten agreement not to prod the wounds of our past in order to get a free Jager-bomb at the local pub. Newly removed from the bounds of parental authority, two young women failed to read the hieroglyphs etched into our tenuous social structure. For that they will have to pay, and no one will be satisfied when the price is tallied.
Every time something like this happens, South Africans are reminded of how raw we’ve been sandpapered by our past. But there is something more in the image of those two girls, something that poses dozens of questions that we’ll probably always fail to answer appropriately: how do we cross the divide to the other side? Is this an act of garbled empathy? As everyone’s paragon of racial reconciliation, Steve Hofmeyr, put it on Twitter, “Black wear skin lightener & whites tan. Blacks straighten hair & whites curl”—there are slivers of time in which we all want to explore what we’re not, is how I read Die Hof’s elegant mini-missive. But he’s got it all wrong, because he isn’t interested in the cultural power of white versus the cultural powerlessness of black—skin whitening is aspirational, whereas tanning emphasises whiteness. No, no—to dress up black is always to mock.
The minstrel has always played a formative role in white South African entertainment; this recent, superb N+1 piece on boeremusiek reminds us how deeply linked is South African blackface—an entire genre, a whole freaking oeuvre—to the American varietal. Scheme this:
The minstrel hit, “Jump Jim Crow”—the most popular song in the antebellum US—was introduced into the Cape in the 1840s and minstrel-type shows subsequently all over the country. From the 1860s onward, a string of American minstrel acts toured the country, bringing with them Civil War songs that directly influenced Afrikaans folk music (a few were reworked note-for-note and sung with new Afrikaans lyrics). Crucially, they introduced two mainstays of boeremusiek, the concertina and the banjo. “Blackface minstrelsy was a big component of white entertainment throughout South Africa, in literally every small town in the nineteenth century,” says [South African musicologist Willemien] Froneman. “And not only groups touring from the States or England—those groups were made up of local people.”
So there you go—another strike against our screwed-up culture: Leon Schuster hauling his fat ass across the screen dressed up as Sambo has a precedent; a full list of South African minstrelsy would cost this publication about 40,000 words, with a further 80,000 of unpacking, excluding footnotes. But I’ll say this much: blackface, in whatever guise, can never be an act of genuine subversion, because it is always reactionary. It is always enacted in the shadow of an ox-wagon.
Sure, a number of white South African artists flirt with the tropes of blackface: Brett Murray, Die Antwoord, Conrad Bothas. In all cases, the work is meant to offend, to provoke. And something struck me as I gazed at the image of the two morons from Tukkies while drinking my morning coffee: what if this is some kind of performance art project? What if these ladies are a sort of re-upped Tracy Emin plus Friend-type power couple—what would I think then? It would be bad art, certainly—gauged to elicit a reaction in the cynical way of 90s British conceptual art, which was across-the-board kuk, IMHO. On the arm of one of our models, the black “skin” is so sloppily applied that it could be understood as a statement—I can never be black, I can never understand black, so I will misapply black.
What am I saying? I guess it’s this: Must we, at this stage of the South African democratic project, read idiocy as art? Are stupidity and insensitivity things we should put in a gallery: a wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities of our own fucked-up behaviour?
We have no choice but to move forward—every time we take a step back we have to figure out how to rig it in our collective favour. So I propose an art gallery of South African stupidity, a building devoted to the enactment of racial stereotypes that remind us of our foetal id, of the miasma we swim in every day in our tentative and botched way of becoming a different, properly reconciled country.
Have we properly faced our own filth? I’m not sure we have. Which is why every time two idiots decide to do something idiotic and the results of their behaviour reaches us on our phones, we engage in a different version of the same old conversation all over again. I’m not saying that we should celebrate this crap. I’m just saying that we read it as deeply and as reverently as we would read art. And then, perhaps, the idiots will no longer own us. We’ll finally own them. DM