Tokelo Nhlapo’s Od-Ed, ‘F*** white people’, in the Daily Maverick of 9th February, is a provocation that begs many questions: Should it have been published? Does it merit a response? How did we get to this point, 26 years after the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela?
Most of the students wearing the ‘F*** white people’ t-shirts are ‘born frees’. How is this to be explained? The Constitution declares South Africa to be a non-racial society. Why, then, the silence from all our elected leaders whose oath of office binds them to protect and uphold the constitution? Why has our President offered only platitudes? Why the silence of all ANC MPs, given the ANC’s leading role in the struggle for our non-racial constitution, with its insistence that South Africa belongs to all who live here? Is a racially fractured society the only future for South Africa? Could the focus on race be a diversion and, if so, from what and who are the champions of the racial focus?
Nhlapo is a Parliamentary researcher for the EFF. What does their silence indicate, not least in the current climate in which even alleged expressions of ‘underlying’ white racism results in instant suspension of employment? If one does respond to any of this, how should it best be done and for what purpose?
I should declare, at the outset, that I was declared to be ‘white’, under apartheid and that in non-racial South Africa I am still officially declared to be ‘white’. However, as a pointer to what follows, my response to Nhlapo has absolutely nothing in common with Don Clarke’s ‘Open Letter’ in the Daily Maverick of 10th February. My only link with Clarke is that we are both deemed to be ‘white’.
I asked whether Nhlapo’s article should have been published. My answer to is applaud the Daily Maverick for having published the piece. Our apartheid history of outlawing critical thought ought to be a constant reminder of the fundamental importance of free speech, regardless of the sensitivities of transient political correctness and the fickleness of popular opinion. Ours is a deeply fractured society with a multiplicity of different views. We already have far too many examples of the post-apartheid State monitoring the entirely lawful activities of organisations and people critical of the government. People with different opinions ought to feel free to express themselves, and all the more so precisely because their views might (currently) be unpopular. Proscriptions on ‘hate speech’ do not put an end to the hatred; on the contrary, they feed the hatred. Hatred is not addressed by driving it underground. We safeguard ourselves by allowing a free expression of provocative views.
Incitement to violence is another matter and a long-established body of law exists to deal with such issues. This should be the only exception to free speech.
It is revealing that, while it’s OK for Nhlapo and the t-shirt wearers who created the original fuss, to invoke the crudest racism against everyone they deem to be ‘white’, social sensitivities do not allow them to use of the word ‘fuck’. Social respectability requires the F*** redaction.
Nhlapo would no doubt dispute that the slogan is racist. This is because he has crafted a self-serving definition of racism in terms of which blacks cannot be racist! He can define anything in any way he likes. What matters is whether the definition is helpful in promoting a better understand of race and racism.
I offer a very different and readily understandable definition that protects no vested interests.
My definition begins with the incontrovertible premise of there being no such thing as ‘race’. This is to say, it has been a scientific truism for some time that, contrary to the previous view, there are no sub-species of homo sapiens. ‘Race’, in the modern world, is a scientific anachronism; a lazy, prejudiced-saturated social construct based on perceptions of skin colour that, moreover, rarely have anything to do with the assigned colour. ‘White’ people are not white and (especially in South Africa) very few ‘black’ people are black.
Used colloquially, ‘race’ is one of many terms describing the Other – the people who are not only different from ourselves – in terms of appearance, language, religion, nationality, region, culture and tradition – but (implicitly) inferior to ourselves. In order to give some credible meaning to this view of the Other, ‘they’ are deemed to be all the same. The stereotype allows for no deviations; homogeneity is a precondition of the Othering. To allow exceptions to what ‘they’ are supposed to be is to destroy the very purpose of imposing a common label on a large number of people most, if not all of whom, are unknown to the person assigning the label. According to this thinking, Joe Slovo, a major figure in the struggle against apartheid and a leader of the South African Communist Part, is no different from Clive Derby-Lewis, one of the two whites who murdered Chris Hani, who, at the time was the leader of the Communist Party. To allow for substantial differences between Slovo and Derby-Lewis is to acknowledge that no one is prisoner of their birth or the circumstances of where they live and the physical experiences of their lives.
Prejudice – a preconceived negative opinion without commensurate knowledge, thought or reason – is integral to all such stereotypical labelling.
Racism is prejudice based on the presumption of race, in the same way that sexism is a sexually-based prejudice.
Ignorance is often parent to prejudice. Everyone knows that apartheid was an attempt to perpetuate white supremacy and that it, like the racialised colonialism that preceded it, was defended by those it privileged. What is hardly known is that, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century with Bishop Colenso, there have always been a small, though significant, number of so-called whites who fully identified themselves with the oppressed black majority. Nelson Mandela often explained how his experience of the protracted Treason Trial that began in 1956, when he, along with a number of whites, faced the death penalty, helped make him aware that the struggle against apartheid was much more than just a struggle against whites. Nonetheless, not many people know this.
Even fewer know that the Freedom Charter, embraced by both the ANC & EFF, was drafted by a white. Similarly, largely forgotten, is that the ANC stood firm in its anti-racist commitments by not giving into the African nationalists who attacked it for being led by whites and Indians (who were, additionally, communists). The Pan African Congress, formed in 1959, was the breakaway party created by this Africanist faction within the ANC. Unlike the origins of PAC, many more people have heard about the Rivonia Trial of 1963. What is not well known is that whites were amongst the Rivonia accused and that one of them was sentenced to life imprisonment, along with Nelson Mandela and several others.
This little dip into our recent history draws attention to the failure of the current leaders of the ANC who, apart from an occasional regret over the rise of racism, do nothing to counter the growing popularity of presenting a monolithic Whiteness as the enemy. The struggle veterans who are still alive are undoubtedly the people best placed to remind the forgetful and inform the born frees of our history and of the crudities of those who seek to colour-code contemporary conflicts. We are fortunate to still have in our midst many people who devoted their lives to the struggle to liberate South Africa. Many of them literally risked their lives; others lost their limbs, sight and arms, while still others spent many years in prison or exile. We need to hear from them. Urgently and loudly. They are the most credible of witnesses.
Regardless of who might have said it first, it remains true that:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
A t-shirt proclaiming ‘F*** white people’ would have been unthinkable even a year ago. Equally unthinkable would have been an OpEd defending this provocation as a reasonable reflection of ‘black pain’. What might lie behind this escalation?
The answer is complex. I offer the following as starters: The escalation relies on an ignorance of our history fed by the silence of those who know better. These interacting factors have served to embolden those who have a single word for the decay – and disappointments – of South Africa in 2016: Whiteness.
The silence of the ANC – along with that of the SACP and Cosatu – compounded by the silence of the veterans feeds into the binary narrative that sees a South Africa economically unchanged after 22 years of freedom: the ‘whites’, who still own the economy, are rich while the ‘blacks’ still bear all the burdens of poverty. As with all stereotypes, this particular one can’t allow for the many blacks who are anything but poor.
Who benefits from hiding or obfuscating this inconvenient complexity? Continuing to racialise South African poverty has two main beneficiaries. First is the black elite. They are more than happy to hide behind black poverty. The emphasis on blackness makes it easy for them to demand a proportionate representation in both the ownership of all economic sectors and all the top occupational strata. The second beneficiary is capitalism. Poverty, unemployment and inequality are all universal hallmarks of the capitalist production of wealth. What could be more convenient for the rich of all colours than for these ills to be attributed to unreformed Whiteness – also perceived as systemic, structural racism – rather than the conditions inherent in the very system that makes them rich?
I can pose these various questions – which can then become part of an ongoing discussion – only because Tokelo Nhlapo was moved to write his piece and the Daily Maverick chose to publish it. The reported rush to take action against the t-shirt and its slogan runs the danger of succeeding. Closing down free speech because some find what is being said offensive is short-sighted.
It is far better to know what is being thought and felt. Reasoned arguments based on accurate information is the best antidote to the current outbreak of racist abuse; abuse that provokes even more abuse in a never ending vicious cycle of reactive racism.
Let’s hear from the ‘good people’ who have thus far chosen to remain silent. DM
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Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC), having returned home in 1994 after spending the previous 28 years in England. His other paid work since my return has been as a Parliamentary researcher for the ANC and as the National Research Officer for the South African Municipal Workers Union.
"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