Defend Truth


Whiteness: Be like the Big Bull Johnny Clegg, not the small Penny Sparrow


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

It’s not enough to condemn the racism of a person like Penny Sparrow. For us to accomplish what is possible in a space of glorious diversity we must continue the work that Johnny Clegg and others like him have begun.

Johnny Clegg or Skeyi – his clan name – slipped his skin, not only when he departed this earthly plain on 16 July 2019 to become an ancestor, but during the 66 years he lived among us. Clegg’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding, his ability to seek, with respect, nourishment and wisdom from the diversity that lies all around and within us, should serve as a lodestar.

In a recent interview on KayaFM’s Today With John Perlman, the veteran broadcaster asked the cultural icon Clegg: “Johnny, at some time, all of us will be ancestors and there is a strong set of beliefs in Zulu tradition around ancestors. What kind of ancestor will you be?”

To which Clegg replied “All ancestors should be a source of auspiciousness and good fortune. All ancestors should guard their offspring and guard the ones they left behind. They should take care of and be connected, which is hard for them because they are in another place.

“So, the living must remember the dead and they do that through real rituals to say, ‘We are still here, you must look after us, you must abide with us. Don’t go wandering off somewhere and forget about us.’ That is the tension of extended families. How do families keep together? It is usually because some senior member just has that magic that people can gather around and keep things going, keeping together. That is the kind of ancestor I would like to be.”

Johnny Clegg our magical ancestor, the man who crossed the burning water.

Clegg’s plea to us all then, and particularly white South Africans, is to find a way of becoming part of an extended South African family, to find somewhere in the tension of seeking belonging, a new way of being, ways of deconstructing particularly a white self.

To find this path, do not only dance and lip-synch the words of his songs that thread like gorgeous beads through our lives but return in earnest to the immense body of work Clegg has left behind, academic and cultural, and the treasures and wisdom embedded there.

There are also many golden keys to slipping the construction of whiteness and the cultural, social and economic matrix that props it up across the globe.

Also, myriad cosmologies, beliefs, notions of kinship and language will be located and will serve to expand that tiny pinprick that hardly illuminates the narrow intellectual plains of the monolingual, monocultural, and in particular, the white Western world and its views.

In In My Vel (In My Skin), a recently-published memoir by Azille Coetzee, a researcher and philosopher, she recounts a conversation with a colleague, Ann, about the response, by specifically white South Africans, to someone like Penny Sparrow, who died on 25 July 2019.

She too is an ancestor now, but one we should not disturb.

Until she posted a racist tweet on social media in 2016 calling black South Africans “illiterate monkeys”, it would be safe to assume that Penny Sparrow lived a small, brittle and, in the greater scheme of things, meaningless life.

In her memoir, Coetzee remarks that she is surprised by her philosopher friend’s view on racists like Vicky Momberg, Adam Catzavelos and Penny Sparrow and which appears to be in contradiction to the outpouring of outrage on Twitter by white South Africans quick to establish “we are not like her”.

Sparrow, and those like her, says Ann to Coetzee, are convenient scapegoats for other whites.

“I find the fuss so empty and futile, all that it does is allow other white people to feel good about themselves,” Coetzee quotes Ann, also a philosopher.

But surely, Coetzee argues, it is only correct that white South Africans condemn the use of racist insults by the Mombergs, the Sparrows and the Catzaveloses of this world?

Ann responds that the fuss reduces racism to the use of one word, enabling everyone who is white and who does not use racist language to believe they are not racist, that they are somehow free from blame or culpability.

“We individualise the racism, we put a face to it, then we don’t have to examine the systemic problem. A systemic problem that most of us are, in one form or another, part of,” says Ann.

Providing a public platform to condemn one white racist, energises other whites into forgetting “our own sins”, she continues.

Coetzee’s memoir, a search as a white Afrikaner to slip her skin in the Netherlands where she assumes it will no longer matter, is the kind of deep excavation of identity, politics and history Johnny Clegg would be proud of. He was, after all, a pioneer in the field.

Coetzee’s memoir is a vital contribution to the continuing journey of becoming, of understanding the weight of white privilege and, instead of being burdened by its baggage, to turn it into a force for redress and justice.

Coetzee quotes Professor Njabulo Ndebele’s thinking on how apartheid brought with it a sterility to Afrikaans “whiteness” in particular. This in relation to the lack of compassion, concern or rage by the majority of white South Africans at the violence of apartheid or the brutal murder of leaders like Steve Biko by the state.

Ndebele challenges white South Africans to make world history by declaring that the “menswaardigheid” (loosely the “human worthiness”) of the white body is inseparable from the menswaardigheid of black bodies.

Coetzee quotes Ndebele: “Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, sharing the vulnerability of other compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.”

For us to accomplish what is possible in a space of glorious diversity we must have hope and we must have some sense of a future on the horizon. We must do the work that Clegg and others have begun.

Clegg told Perlman that while we, as humans, live short lives, “countries live for a long time”.

“We are born into a situation and then we are part of the problem or the solution. Countries go through seasons; summer, winter, spring, autumn. We are in a winter. I wish for us to find our way through the winter and to find inala, the first green shoots of spring that they can start developing. The young green shoots of spring are the youth. I wish for the youth to have exposure to a good education, to dream their dreams and to find their purpose.”

Clegg, right up until his departure, found the world “very exciting” and that “all of these things which are flourishing in this crazy political environment are a defining moment in the world, not just South Africa.”

Johnny Clegg’s life and death were defining moments for South Africa. As an ancestor we ask him to please abide with us, look after us and to please not go wandering off somewhere and forget us.

But for Johnny to watch over us – along with many, many other great South African ancestors, we must honour them, we must do the work.

Make like the Big Bull. DM


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