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26 June 2017 21:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Judgment Day: On black rapists and white innocence

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

That a judge in post-apartheid South Africa has to use terminology that harkens back to a centuries-old stereotype about black male sexual danger should tell us something about ourselves. That she feels confident to say that her racism is nothing compared to the “bigger issue” of gender violence should make us worry about racism masquerading as concern about African women’s well-being. That we think white male violence is not also endemic should make us ashamed.

Given the already strident voices that we hear calling for the death penalty and indeed the racialisation of crime in the South African media, Mabel Jansen’s comments must be taken very seriously.

Mabel Jansen is fundamentally different from Penny Sparrow and Matthew Theunissen because she holds a public position. Her private prejudices are a matter of public interest because she is a judge. In Jansen we see what critical race theorists mean when they say that racism is prejudice plus power. Apartheid wasn’t simply racist because some whites had anti-black views; it was racist because that hatred was legislated and backed up by institutional power.

Jansen has probably made hundreds of judgments involving black people; most of them will have been poor and of course many of them will have involved sexual offences. Every day she has performed her job, and on each of those days she has been racist. It is important to remember that as Eusebius McKaiser suggests in Run Racist Run, “racism isn’t restricted to what we do. Racism is also intimately about who we are. […]Racism has seeped into the character of the racist even when we do not see the racist performing racist action. As he goes no to say, “racist action comes from somewhere rather than being a random nasty event over which the person who committed it has no control”.

This is a crucial statement. We have, in Mabel Jansen, a racist character. The judge is therefore infinitely deserving of public outrage, and all South Africans who believe in justice should be outraged. Jansen’s role as a judge is especially ironic given her views. One of the greatest travesties of the negotiated settlement was that it did not sufficiently address the racist belief systems that were at the heart of apartheid. As a result, we had a generation of judges who carried out apartheid law, whom we inherited in 1994. Jansen, however, is a new judge. She became a judge in 2013 and before that served as a chair of the Pretoria Bar Association. She has been a silk since 1984. In other words, this is not a deranged member of the legal profession who has been sidelined by her peers. She is an individual in good standing.

There is no question that in the coming week she and her defenders will try to explain away her racism. Already she has suggested that her racist words were taken out of context and has claimed that she is being attacked. Already one newspaper group has suggested that the death of her husband (the details of his death and when it took place are not clear) has something to do with her racism.

Sensible South Africans will not believe this. The judge will have to go. It would be best if she resigned rather than subjecting the country to a long and dramatic hearing process, but we are not a country known for good leadership in this regard.

Even as she leaves the legal profession in disgrace, we will need to address the elephant in the room, which is that Jansen’s is an especially sneaky but common form of racism; the sort that masquerades as concern for black women. In her Facebook postings she claims that all black men are rapists and child molesters. When she is challenged for her racism in this regard she dismisses the concerns of her detractor and says she is talking about, “the bigger issue of rape”.

Already there are those who are agreeing with her, suggesting that she is merely pointing out “an uncomfortable truth”.

The contours of racism have always been gendered. Black women bear the brunt of patriarchy, of course, but in the racist mind, black men are brutal and highly sexed. Jansen’s words come out of the classic Black Peril narrative. Black Peril was the name given to the social hysteria that swept through white settler colonies in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It involved fabricated and sensationalised accounts of white women being raped by black men. Black Peril narratives were responsible for colonial and apartheid laws against “race-mixing” and often led to the incarceration, flogging or execution of black men.

Jansen takes a page straight out of this history in her Facebook postings addressed to Schutte when she writes, “Gang rapes of baby, daughter and mother a pleasurable pass (sic) time… They are simply now in a position to branch out and include white woman (sic). No Gillian, the true facts are definitely not those espoused by the liberals…”

The judge’s sweeping generalisations are appalling, of course, but they are also cast as fact. Her belief that these are “true facts” will be crucial for those seeking her dismissal. Jansen believes – as all racists must – that it is a “true fact” that black men believe “a woman in just there to pleasure them, period”. If she thinks that, how likely is it that an African man standing before her will receive any kind of justice? How can the presumption of innocence operate in the face of such alarming bias?

Jansen goes further, suggesting that black “mothers are so brainwashed they tell their children that it is the father’s birthright to be the first”. She also says she “has yet to meet a black girl who was not raped at about 12”. In matters concerning adoption, guardianship and child welfare, if all black mothers are brainwashed, and all African girls are raped by the age of 12, again, can a black woman ever stand before this judge with any sense of dignity and subjectivity?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the judge’s messages relates to her tone. She writes with urgency. She is passionate and driven. She is speaking out of a sense of mission and purpose. One gets the sense that Jansen believes that if she does not speak about this, about all of these “true facts”, then black men will never stop, and women – all of us, white and black alike – will continue to be victimised.

This is unsurprising in one sense. Self-righteousness goes hand-in-hand with racism. This is why racists so rarely apologise. They think they are right. Often, they also believe that their actions are motivated by a desire to “tell the truth”, or to combat social ills. Mabel Jansen has already begun to cast herself as a hero in the fight against sexual violence, as a way to justify her racism.

Never mind that white privilege keeps matters like rape and sexual violence against white women and children and nongender conforming people from public view. Never mind that white survivors of family violence tend to have more choices about whether and how to report their rapes and violations and therefore have far more confidentiality than black survivors and victims.

Never mind that white privilege allows white men to evade prosecutions, and keeps police out of white homes except in the most dramatic circumstances. When you live behind a high wall it is much harder for the police to simply barge into your home than when you live in a shack. And as we saw in the Oscar Pistorius case, white men in our society are generally given far more leeway than anyone else. One needn’t wonder for too long about what might have happened if a black man had been shooting guns in Tasha’s in the middle of the day as Pistorius did.

White male violence goes unchecked and unreported and is therefore hidden from public comment. In other words, we have a national political culture in which white men’s violence escapes comment while black male violence is fetishised and amplified.

Outrage over Jansen’s coarse racism should not overshadow the “true facts” in this matter. Her views remind us that gendered racism has always disadvantaged black men. Our analysis of racist sexism and sexist racism must be nuanced enough to understand that it has disadvantaged black women too and that these disadvantages have different contours and different material and economic implications.

Her views remind us that we live in a punitive culture in which black male misconduct is dramatised and sexualised by the very institutions that are supposed to mete out justice, just as black female victimhood is exaggerated and instrumentalised by people who don’t care about black people’s lives. Her views remind us that the Black Peril has not disappeared. We must be wary when racists dress themselves up as protectors of women’s rights in order to make moral claims that can never represent the struggles of black women. Our apartheid past is still present but out of the flames that engulf this career I hope we can build a future that is better and stronger than our present moment. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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