The Spear: Black anger and white obliviousness
- Osiame Molefe
- 24 May 2012 06:33 (South Africa)
I can’t remember how old I was when it happened. I was at least young enough that I couldn’t see out the car window without taking off my seatbelt. So I didn’t see what set it off. But when my dad, forced to the shoulder of the road by a bakkie, opened his driver’s side door, the word rang out like cannon fire.“Kaffir!”
Of all the insults in the expletive-laden rant that the bakkie driver, a white Afrikaans-speaking policeman, hurled at my dad, that word stung most.
Powerless and fearful of what might happen next, my mom, siblings and I watched the large man take my dad by the scruff of his neck. Thankfully that was where it ended, with an apology from my dad. We drove home in silent shame at our powerlessness and teeming with anger that we had no choice but to swallow. This was not an incident of road rage or an officer doing his job. It was racism. But this was Pretoria in the early 90s, so it was to be expected.
That man who traumatised my family so, for no reason other than a palpable hate for the colour of our skins, has today disappeared. He’s blended into a fallacious rainbow nation amid accepted apologies that were never offered in the first place.
Was it he who the other day asked, after the second attempt at saying my name, “Don’t you have a nickname?”
A few weeks back, I found myself growing angry listening to a panel discussion on SAfm about online racism and the now infamous racist model tweets. One of the panellists, Afriforum’s Kallie Kriel, repeatedly pronounced Tshidi, the name of one of the models, as “Tee-dee”. He had no problem saying Jessica, the name of the other model.
At the same time as Kriel was denouncing racism, regardless of the colour of the racist, he was displaying a more insidious bigotry that black South Africans have been forced to endure. In this country, you’re likely to find more Tshidis than Jessicas.What reason exists for Kriel’s inability to say Tshidi other than the casual dismissal that says you can get along just fine in this country without learning to say African names, or languages? If he wanted to say it properly, he would have learned how to do so.
In that moment, I was angry not just about Kriel’s mispronunciation. I was angry at all the other times my own name was mangled before and – without my permission – shortened to “Os”. I was angry at the adjustments I had to make to survive in a Eurocentric work and university culture, whereas that culture made little adjustment for me. I was angry at how others who could not make the adjustments fell by the wayside. I was angry for these and the many other slights and humiliations, overt and subtle, that I, my dad and other black South Africans have had to endure without remedy.
For as much as white South Africa says it is opposed to racism or committed to building a united, non-racial South Africa, that commitment has largely been non-performative. Those familiar with this will realise I’ve referenced Andile Mngxitama.
Mngxitama’s views are radical, but that does not detract from this being a valid point.
Colonialism and apartheid cloistered opportunity and privilege behind walls of whiteness. Even today, to access that opportunity, blacks need a dompas that says: you’re acceptable. You’ve left your tribal, savage ways behind.
When apartheid’s walls were removed, only one side shifted toward the other. Where being black means constantly changing, evolving and moving to find a place in aworld not designed for you, being white means remaining unmoved. Worse, it also means being oblivious to that lack of motion or the adjustments the other has had to make.And when you do become aware of it, seldom does it mean wanting to give up the privilege.
This is why many black South Africans are angry, and this is the nerve that Murray’s painting struck.
Regardless of the artist’s intentions, The Spear became a proxy for the anger over the many unremedied injuries, large and small, that blacks have suffered at the hands of whites and for the lack of cognisance of these offences. By taking on traditionalist African practices and black sexuality (one of many possible interpretations of the painting), doing so in a way that challenged African conservatism, and because of the still unresolved anger, Murray’s painting became open to interpretation as “yet another white phallocratic avenue for bragging about European civilisation”.
That same anger insulated an equally “offensive” painting by Ayanda Mabulu from the same kind of backlash, once his ignored work re-entered the public consciousness.
Some might view this anger as something black South Africans need to “move on” from or get over. After all, whites voted “Yes” in the referendum. Whites happily participated in the first free-and-fair elections in 1994 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission thereafter. Whites volunteer their time in townships and support affirmative action, mostly. But beyond that, the commitment has been largely non-performing in that it does nothing to dismantle white privilege, creating a space where even valid white commentary on black figures is received with anger.
For many, white privilege is a difficult concept to understand, mostly because it averts the eyes of those who enjoy it from seeing it. But The Spear came to our aide again in providing us with a clear example of the phenomenon where two men who committed an act of vandalism were treated in glaringly disparate ways. It was no coincidence that the one head-butted and body-slammed was black and the one treated genially, and almost allowed to go free, was white.
It does not matter that the security guard was black. He was a representative of a system that associates black males with criminality.
In addition to the lack of action, FW de Klerk’s interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour demonstrated that it is fair to question whether white commitment to building a united South Africa has ever been genuine or as honest as it should have been.
De Klerk claims to have made a “profound apology” for apartheid, yet during the interview perversely clung to the belief that the system was created in the interests of justice for black and white South Africans. I can accept that as a young man he genuinely believed this. Socialisation is powerful and can blind one to the glaringly obvious. But for him to now look back and still claim the same, in the face of irrefutable evidence that justice for blacks was the last thing apartheid had in mind, renders his apology hollow.
I know he is not alone in thinking an apology and dismantling apartheid as a formal system absolves all sins. He’s also not alone in believing that apartheid was not that bad. To back this claim, proponents tally up deaths under apartheid and compare it to Jewish deaths in Nazi Germany. They compare methods by which the deaths were inflicted and relative rights and wrongs under each regime. They do this to avoid the fact that the commonality was a deep racial and ethnic hatred that relativism can’t wash away.
With Samantha Vice’s paper on whiteness, I thought we had reached an important point in the reconciliation process. Whereas Mngxitama argues Vice’s paper to be yet another example of white, non-performing anti-racism, I thought it an avenue to performance, if taken further.
But many whites were too angry at Vice’s answer to even respond, let alone respond honestly, to her question: what role do whites have in post-apartheid South Africa, given the grievances committed in their name?
Vice’s answer, from her individual perspective, was that whites should feel shame and withdraw from society. But fear, self-interest and, paradoxically, shame drove the closing of ranks and shouting Vice down to avoid dealing honestly with the question.
The consequences of this lack of white engagement are too gruesome to imagine.
I am chilled at how many black South Africans allowed political forces to whip up and abuse their legitimate anger at white immutability to protect a man who has acted in a manner that dishonours the African traditions and the office he hides behind. One after the other, the ANC and its alliance partners tapped into this black anger to the point where some were calling for Murray’s head.
I am chilled because it was this kind of anger and its cousin, fear, that in the past has been used in the gruesome offences humanity has visited upon itself. Over and above the massive levels of inequality, youth unemployment, the failing education system and corruption, which are all serious too, this points to disaster ahead. DM
- ANALYSIS: the DA's battle to buddy up to the everyman
- SA's very own ‘Made in Israel’ war of words
- Limpopo textbooks - only the beginning of basic education's woes
- Fixing the criminal justice system starts by rooting out corruption at the top
- This time Cosatu rebuts the divisive youth wage subsidy with words, not stones
- The broad church means the ANC is too big not to fail
- Opposition MPs stake their claim on foreign relations morality in Tibet debate
- Lindiwe Sisulu's message of change
- Crisis or challenge, school infrastructure is nowhere near where it should be
- Political forecast for the week of 18 June: E-tolls, looming strikes, eurozone meltdowns and premiers on bikes
- PSC report could be straw that breaks some premiers' backs
- Art in a sling: Breaking walls and building a nation in paint and print
- Fighting graft with faith: Western Cape religious leaders talk corruption
- Basic education: Some gloom, some doom and a mountain still to be done
- SA's new political tool: Freedom of Cape Town for the Obamas
- Education: Waiting for the dam to burst
- Mthethwa to challenge Western Cape community safety bill
- Public sector unions and government set on a collision course
- Cabinet's mid-term report card: F for fail
- Despite objections, government stands by e-tolling
- Zwelinzima Vavi: Political consciousness leaves quietly
- E-education: A virtual dream for many public school students
- Cape Town's vision 2040
- The Spear: Black anger and white obliviousness
- Employment: Western Cape model provides glimmer of hope
- Brainstorm: The state of income inequality in South Africa
- Reporter's notebook: Decoding the Democratic Alliance
- As one struggle continues, the other should not be forgotten
- Analysis: The youth wage subsidy should not go the way of the nationalisation debate
- Another internecine war rocks the government
- Analysis: DA's young Turks tackle the race issue
- Despite indications to the contrary, South Africa's democracy is growing up
- South Africa: War criminals' holiday destination no more?
- Africa goes hi-tech: But where are all those keen investors?
- A warning for mankind: Beware the new Big Brother
- Gents, rape isn't a thing that only other men do
- Partisan dust-up over rights of the disabled goes nowhere
- Eish, DA!
- SA news media: under pressure AND under magnifying lens
- The ANC and the battle for the 'born-frees'
- Fighting shadows: How money corrupts the ANC - and its plan to stop it
- Analysis: Will the ANC seriously consider party funding this year?
- Zuma is worst president ANC has ever had
- Tough lessons for Zille from refugee tweet debacle
- Top 10 battles raging within the tripartite alliance
- Cosatu defends 'principled position' at secrecy bill hearings
- Protests are a sign of ignorance of democracy's power
- Zimbabwe torture victims turn to SA courts
- The turbulent waters of the NPA's Zim email-strom
- Ladies and gentlemen, the contemplative Ms Mazibuko
- Refugee reactions show that South Africans stand apart from Africans
- Analysis: Steep learning curve for alliance in Western Cape
- Race is just a useful marker to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy
- UCT's admissions policy unearths middle-class black angst
- Analysis: Vavi hangs Zuma out to dry
- NGO hauls Motshekga to court over school infrastructure
- Cosatu also exploits the poor out of self-interest
- Cape Town ready for Cosatu city centre shut down
- Eastern Cape pupils picket for libraries and sanitation
- Wednesday: Over 35,000 expected in Cape Town CBD instalment of Cosatu-led nationwide protest
- Frivolous comparisons to apartheid are the only thing worse than apartheid
- Analysis: Radebe's egg-dance fails to impress as bumpy road awaits
- Analysis: The Constitutional Court is the next cow to the abattoir
- How voters' right to know is bought and sold in SA
- Helen Zille's sore spot
- Sex and sexuality in a time of societal malaise
- Cosatu takes anti-corruption fight to Free State
- Cosatu and corruption, the phantom menace
- Eat, the beloved country
- Who will take responsibility?
- Cape Town, world racism capital 2011?
- The ANC has only itself to blame for bad press
- New adult channel stokes South Africa's porn conundrum
- Carrots, sticks and Zille's latest HIV misstep
- Analysis: Just how liberal is the DA?
- Russell Tribunal deliberates Apartheid Israel amid "kangaroo court" claims
- Mogoeng's first day on the job
- Never mind creation, Gordhan's mini-budget focuses on job retention
- There is, thankfully, a Pedi word for big 'misunderstanding'
- Malema’s economic freedom lecture: Swansong or come-back hit?
- African leaders meet to talk job creation and labour standards
- Diversity a trump card as more endorsements come in for Mazibuko
- Rights groups cry foul as South Africa resumes deportations of undocumented Zimbabweans
- The day of the Archbishop's ire
- The DA's surprising proposal on domestic worker rights
- Mazibuko's star rises as she outlines her plan for the DA parliamentary caucus
- ANALYSIS: The Western Cape takes the thought leadership in job creation - now all we need is action
- ANC makes U-turn on secrecy bill - and lives to tell the tale
- Secrecy bill: to be or not to be - we're about to find out
- President's day of fun and amusement in Parliament
- Public Protector on participatory democracy, secrecy bill and her office's powers. And the country in trouble.
- Vettel victorious at Monza
- WikiLeaks cables go public, unfiltered
- Sisulu stands by decision to appoint Yengeni to defence review committee
- Vettel leads home a Red Bull 1-2 at Spa-Francorchamps
- Belgian Grand Prix: Preview
- Democratic Alliance eyes 2014 national elections with economic policy promise
- Analysis: Time for a fresh look at SA's global competitiveness
- Analysis: Missing history, lacking context bring back the great white-tax debate