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The Spear: Black anger and white obliviousness

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

The artistry, or lack thereof, aside, Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear, now defaced, will go down as a symbol of this moment in South Africa’s reconciliation process. So much overlaps in this one painting that I probably won’t capture it all here. The net effect, though, is chilling.

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

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