Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 26 June 2014

There’s something about Mmusi: Black anger and white identity in Parliamentary politics

Mmusi Maimane’s been having a bad time of it. But are the critics barking up the wrong tree?

“Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable.”

– Toni Morrison

For the last few weeks, Mmusi Maimane has been subjected to pretty rough treatment at the hands of a number of prominent black people. The Twitterati had their go at him when Lindiwe Mazibuko announced that she was leaving for Harvard in May. After it became clear that Mazibuko had had a less than cosy relationship with Helen Zille for some time before the announcement, she was suddenly a hero to people who had previously slated her as a sellout. Maimane decision to head to Cape Town to replace Mazibuko as official head of the DA caucus was read as a sign of his ‘garden boy’ tendencies – a phrase that is offensive because of the contempt is connotes for grown African men who work as gardeners but that has done the rounds in a frighteningly un-ironic manner of late.

I have been torn about the public evisceration of the kind of black man Maimane represents, largely by older black people (but not only) seeking to police the boundaries of what authentic blackness looks and sounds like.

At the same time, I admit to having concerns about Maimane’s race politics. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his handling of his first big race test as head of the Parliamentary caucus: the Mike Waters tweet.

Waters – a DA MP – was lambasted for tweeting a picture of dogs voting for Jacob Zuma. One of the dogs had its leg up and was urinating on an image of the President. The image was not funny in part because it made no sense, and in part because it was a sad indicator of the level of immaturity in Parliament.

The ANC and the SACP demanded his resignation. The DA went to ground, clearly unsure of how to respond for a few days, and then emerged with a statement in which Mmusi Maimane sought to clean up the mess. He issued a statement saying, “We are in process of reviewing our social media policy. It’s important to put on the table [that] the tweet was in bad taste, not something we stand for. I was comfortable that his apology was genuine. It’s not consistent with the spirit of where we want to go.”

Maimane’s response is focused on how the comment is in poor taste, but stops short of calling it racist. After all, if a black person says something is not racist, then surely that is all that matters. If a black person is comfortable with the apology, then surely no harm has been done. The intent of Water’s actions and what they say about how their author views himself is simply not relevant. In one short sentence, Maimane has cleaned the racism away, providing black forgiveness for a white ‘misdemeanour.’

Yet no one in the ANC, which complained bitterly about the tweet, nor many white commentators in the media, picked up on the real message in Water’s posting. Indeed, it is rare that we as a society pick up on the deeper meaning of racist incidents in which whites say offensive things about black people. There is a knee-jerk reaction, which is for blacks to get angry and to call out the perpetrator as insensitive to black people’s feelings. But there is little analysis about what this says about how whites construct themselves and how racist incidents perpetrated by whites bolster white identity.

This was brought home on a personal note a few weeks ago as I was having a conversation with an acquaintance. We were sharing a chuckle about how Minister Ebrahim ran circles around Tim Harris in one of the pre-election debates. My friend commented on how much weightier the ANC’s intellectual base is than that of the DA. Despite all of its problems, he argued, the ANC’s policy capacity, the ability of its leaders to engage with a wide array of ideas, and to engage with these with depth and rigour, far outweighs that of the DA.

It took me a while to process his comment. Because of the ways in which whiteness is constantly affirmed in our society, my instinctive response was to reject his statement. I pointed out that the DA has a good research capacity, especially in Parliament, and he pushed back. His point – and he was right –was that there is a vast difference between being able to produce a technical document for reviewing a piece of legislation, and being able to intellectually interrogate a set of approaches and world views. It is one thing to correctly point out incidents of corruption and lack of transparency, and another altogether to comment for example, on debates about the role of the developmental state in promoting economic growth in post-colonial societies.

He asked me to name one serious current intellectual heavyweight in the DA, and I could not. This doesn’t mean that they do not exist. The old breed of narrowly defined liberals who are outraged about the party’s new face might have qualified as that intellectual base a decade ago. But today I think there are some questions about where the intellectual capacity of the DA resides.

I do not pretend to be as familiar with the key players in the DA as I am with those in the ANC, and my point is not to pronounce on the matter either way. My point is that my instinctive hesitation in accepting that the ANC has better and more robust intellectual credentials than the DA was an indication of the extent to which, regardless of our colour, we are all victims of the idea that whites are by default smarter, more law abiding, more neutral arbiters of the rules.

So that when a Mike Waters sends a racist tweet and then says sorry for something that may have caused offence, the message he is sending is that he gets to decide what is funny and what isn’t, and he is above the fray, beyond intellectual and moral reproach.

When Oscar Pistorius suggests that he feared a black intruder, what he is really saying is that he is law-abiding and trustworthy and credible. When Helen Zille suggests that Carien du Plessis is a self-hating white because she would consider voting for the EFF, she is saying that self-respecting whites vote for the DA, which is largely made up of – yup – whites.

The point here is that in most situations where blacks demand contrition from whites, what should really be up for debate is not what whites think about blacks, its what whites think about themselves. In South Africa, as in every other place in which white people have historically made the rules and shaped the culture, whiteness only has meaning when it is juxtaposed against blackness. Because black is always wrong, white is by definition always right.

It would be nice if the vitriol that is currently aimed at blacks who are presumed to be doing the bidding of the ‘madam,’ were used to interrogate white people’s sense of identity and cultural self-worth. Perhaps then Minister Sisulu’s intellect would be put to better use than it was in her unparliamentary, and unconstructive attack on the person of Mmusi Maimane. DM


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