South Africa

South Africa

Letter to the Editor: Bonfire of the Sanities

I used to wonder about Jewish people caught in the Holocaust: why were they still in Germany? They didn't read the papers or find the yellow Stars of David sinister? Then I heard how one can boil a frog without it noticing by slowly increasing water temperature until the unsuspecting amphibian's eyes pop. What is accepted becomes acceptable. By GUSTAV SWART.

On Tuesday the 16th of February, members of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Rhodes Must Fall movement (RMF) left ‘Shackville’, a tin structure built on campus to protest problems in the residence system, and entered a nearby dining hall. After requisitioning food, because an army marches on its stomach, the students removed pictures of white people from the walls and put them on a bonfire. Nuremberg style

Twitter erupted with the obvious Nazi analogy because of the destruction of Art, but I believe such a comparison misses the point: it wasn’t about the painting, however distasteful that was, it was about the people in the paintings. RMF trumpeted online that “Whiteness is burning” and that “Offensive art at UCT going up in flames”. But what made a series of drab portraits of former alumni, administrators and dignitaries “offensive”?

The day before, RMF defaced and ceremonially hanged a bust of Barnard Fuller, one of UCT’s first female students – another relatively inoffensive figure (whom most students probably couldn’t identify or describe). This was different to attacking statues of controversial historic figures like Cecil John Rhodes and Jan Smuts: these people were attacked because they were white.

There is something very powerful about the mauling of a human being’s image. From Iraqis beating pictures of Saddam Hussein with their shoes to the ripped Polaroid of an ex-lover, there’s a powerful sense of hatred, rage and hooded violence to the act. The presence of “Whiteness”, normally a description of structural inequalities in a racist system, was in this instance simply representations of white people and that was enough to make them “offensive”.

The peeling paint was pointed toward the cameras and there was something viscerally disturbing about watching those faces burn. Those pale, pale faces. But then I’m pale too, maybe I was supposed to find the footage unsettling. My sister and I were also reminded of the Nazis’ rallies… not by the burnt art but because of echoes of what she called “the making of the Uncitizen, the Alien and the Other”.

This brings us back to Jews and frogs.

Please don’t think I’m about to go all “White Genocide” on you: I am in no way claiming that whites in South Africa in 2016 are facing slaughter (however enthusiastic certain online voices may be on the subject). That said, the level of vitriol deemed acceptable today seems much higher than it was a year ago and far beyond that of the super-sensitive nineties. I could cite any number of examples, but if you’re reading this piece on this platform you’ve probably noticed too (and if you write for this platform, you might have contributed thereto – hem hem). I ascribe much of this to the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the governing party’s attempt to shore up its left flank by ginning up racial animus… and the advent of Twitter, where Grace and Nuance go to die.

And Hate Speech turns to Hate Crimes: that’s why we criminalise it (not to spare people’s feelings). As we saw starkly demonstrated last October during the Fees Must Fall campaign, white bodies are still physically safer in South Africa when it comes to police action… but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Over the same period, we’ve also seen a number of public assaults of Caucasians, from the Elsenberg sjambokking incident to the hapless defence attorney in Mpumalanga to the allegedly ”provocative” witness at the stripping of the “Zuma Must Fall” banner in Cape Town.

Such crimes occur with the roles reversed of course, with whites cruelly reliving the depredations of the past, but there’s one key difference between these near-lynchings and the acts of public pariahs like the Waterkloof or Reitz Four: there were police present for most of them and yet there were no legal repercussions. In a very real, practical sense, society condoned those acts by treating them not as crimes but as unfortunate events, the inevitable consequence of History and White Privilege.

That might feel like a leap, but right now there exists footage of the sympathetic and engaging young man from “Luister” lashing his peers and we treat this as a quizzical feature of public life in the Republic. Chumani Maxwele allegedly manhandled Mariela Kirova, a lecturer in UCT’s Maths department, and the case against him has stalled (Full disclosure: the alleged incident took place next to my aged mother’s office and close to where my then-pregnant sister works, so I do have skin in the game. UCT refused to comment when approached). Ample footage exists of the culprits in the Mpumalanga and Cape Town assaults – and of the police failing to arrest anyone. Does my premise still feel like such a leap?

Identity and notions of power underpin the definition of “violence’ “in vogue with “Fallists” and the “Woke” movement (a well-meaning movement of ultra-progressives who seem to have just discovered prejudice and White Privilege and really need to tell the rest of us all about it). “Violence” is interpreted as systemic discrimination perpetrated by the powerful – and the reaction thereto, even if physical, is by definition not “violence”. So the failure on UCT’s part to provide sufficient student housing is violent, but any actions on the protesters’ part are not… even if they involve arson, looting and the odd bout of pushing and shoving.

I invite you to watch the footage of this man being pulled by his tie by an angry crowd and then decide if it depicts ‘violence’ as you understand the term. Despite his suit and elevated social position, he has very little power or privilege in this scene. It’s important to note that in the same period, many more black South Africans died in examples of crowd violence far out ripping these in horror or heft… but those attacks mostly occurred for reasons pertaining to criminality while these were motivated by race.

The paintings on RMF’s bonfire were chosen the same way. In comparison to the events cited above and the rising tide of South African public violence, they shouldn’t matter… but they do. While the attacks on human beings were largely ignored, the obliteration of representations of a race of South Africans has been followed by a chorus of gleeful congratulation and encouragement (when Mankind’s primitive descendants scrabble Kubrik-style through the ruins of Civilisation, it will be Twitter’s fault).

The rhetoric is escalating as I type (with some truly awful contributions from right-wing locals and Americans, for some reason) but again there’s a key difference between the repeated anti-white slogans and the bile spewed by Penny Sparrow back in January: she was (correctly) reviled from coast to coast while these prolific manufacturers of hate speech go unremarked and unchallenged.

Well, I’m remarking now, I guess… but my opinion will be easy to dismiss as an anxious jeremiad borne of bourgeois smugness. Yes, I am definitely privileged and that places certain civic responsibilities on me, but I want to believe that it doesn’t rob me of my voice, safety and dignity. All three were threatened in that bonfire of the sanities. Those feeding it were reminiscent of Hitler’s Brown shirts not because the fuel was Art, but because it represented people. It wouldn’t have happened a year ago – we’ve gotten used to this new temperature.

Our triumph is that we can adapt to anything. Our tragedy is that we do. DM

Photo by Herbstrose via Flickr.

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