Last week a journalist friend, knowing my interest in the oddities of post-Apartheid whiteness, pointed me in the direction of the website of Red October. I was surprised to find that it's neither a Bolshevik uprising nor a tribute to the late lamented thriller writer Tom Clancy. Rather, Red October seems to be a campaign aimed at ending the persecution of white South African people, apparently the only demographic in this country that´s more endangered than the rhino.
‘Join us,’ exclaims the site inclusively, clearly assuming that there’s no need to specify what the entry criteria are. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Well, quite.
Part of Red October’s plan is to raise awareness by instituting a day of action on 10 October in which supporters ‘across the globe’ – by which they mean the bits of the UK, US and Australia where embittered former South Africans live – release red balloons into the sky in protest. Those of you who are in Pretoria on Thursday might want to keep an eye out for a march on the Union Buildings. Unsurprisingly the campaign boasts the involvement of Steve Hofmeyr, who has truly shed his previous incarnation [Jason Donovan + Bon Jovi – charisma x Broederbond] to become the Great White Hope of his people.
I wouldn’t usually waste your valuable time or my own with this sort of twaddle. In the case of Red October, though, there are certain things about the campaign that merit a closer look.
In her book The Aftermath of Feminism, British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie dissects the way in which Tony Blair’s aggressively neoliberal government co-opted the language of feminism in the late 1990s. Part of the New Labour establishment’s strategy, she argues, was to draw on a vocabulary familiar from feminist speech and writing but to convert it into something much more individualistic, creating a sort of deluded substitute for feminism and other liberatory forms of thought, which now pervades the media and popular culture as well as the state. Words like empowerment and choice, which once suggested radical notions like economic equality and reproductive freedom, have been chewed up and spat out to the extent that empowerment now means pole dancing and choice means dismantling the National Health Service.
And this, I think, is why Red October is worth paying a little more attention to. Of course the people who put their material together don’t have the media savvy or, indeed, the grammatical skills of UK spin doctors, but the website is striking nonetheless in its relatively ineffectual attempt to utilise the language of human rights.
According to Red October, white South Africans are an ‘Ethnic Minority’ who are experiencing ‘inhumane Slaughter and Oppression’ (yes, the caps are in the original). In phrasing that could be lifted directly from the liberation years, the ‘people of South Africa’ will ‘no longer be silent’. ‘Other minority groups’ (one wonders which ones) will join ‘in a show of solidarity’ against the government’s failure to enforce our ‘rights’ and provide all citizens with a ‘free, fair and safe country’. Not only that, but they’ve exhumed poor Edmund Burke’s aphorism about evil flourishing while good men do nothing, a somewhat ironic choice for a demographic that spent the worst years of the struggle braaiing by its pools and inspecting its maids for signs of communism.
This claim to oppression becomes hollow fairly quickly once the site starts ranting about ‘the destruction of our infrastructure, our filthy government hospitals, our pathetic educational system, dirty dams and rivers, uninhabitable parks and public areas, dangerous neighbourhoods and filthy streets’. I can think of a few oppressed minorities that would be very enthused by the thought of access to a government hospital, even a filthy one, never mind a park or a bit of infrastructure.
This ham-fisted attempt at adopting progressive discourse continues in the images. The picture at the bottom of the website places itself firmly within a visual language that’s familiar from adoption pamphlets, local government advertising and mainstream gay rights literature. It emphasises diversity: Old (white) people! Young (white) people! Blonde (white) people! Brunette (white) people! All the different types of (white) people one could possibly imagine!
I doubt that this embarrassing rhetoric will convince anyone but that small group of white folk who honestly believe that their skin tone should make them immune to the problems that affect most people in this country. Indeed, what Red October has done is to ignore all the implications of the term ‘oppressed minority’, which any media-literate reader will be perfectly familiar with, in favour of the depressingly simplistic view that numbers matter more than economics. Which is a little bit like saying we should raise money and awareness to protect the numerically tiny group of billionaire CEOs from the teeming mass of everybody else.
No, the point is not that Red October will actually achieve anything, which I can’t imagine happening. The point is that this sometimes hysterical, sometimes hegemonic co-optation of progressive language can have consequences, as has become brutally clear to feminists who have to listen to endless dispiriting arguments about why teenage Miley Cyrus licking a wrecking ball is ’empowering’ for girls. Words and ideas like diversity, minorities and rights may be extremely problematic, but they have their uses. Those of us who genuinely care about social justice need to be certain that they aren’t so diluted by the lunatic fringe that they become meaningless, empty and useless. DM
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Nicky Falkof is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies department at Wits. She's recently returned to South Africa after almost 14 years of living mostly in the UK, during which time she was, variously, a journalist, author, student, semi-professional feminist, radio pundit and singer in a Yiddish reggae band. She tweets (infrequently) as @barbrastrident.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon