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Acts of ‘spectacular racism’ distract us from our relentless diet of unspectacular racism


Pierre de Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he is head of the Department of Public Law. He writes a blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The incident in which white University of Stellenbosch law student Theuns du Toit was filmed urinating on the books and laptop of a black student was yet another example of the kind of ‘spectacular racism’ regularly featured in media reports in South Africa. While such acts of ‘spectacular racism’ rightly cause outrage, it is important to go beyond the headlines to reflect critically on the conditions that make such acts possible.

Acts of “spectacular racism” such as that perpetrated by Stellenbosch law student Theuns du Toit last weekend when he urinated on a black student’s desk, inevitably lead to widespread condemnation of the incident by politicians, human rights bodies and any institution (such as a university) linked to the incident.

It inevitably also leads to an outpouring of anger and contempt from a large section of the public, and – more often than not – to attempts by some white South Africans to minimise the seriousness of the incident, or to deny that the incident was racist at all.

None of this is particularly surprising.

It is not as if the management of Stellenbosch University was ever going to issue a statement defending the actions of Theuns du Toit. Nor was the university management ever going to take responsibility for helping to create an environment in which it was possible to happen, or accuse the taalstryders from Gelyke Kans of promoting white supremacy at Stellenbosch.

Even the attempts by some white South Africans to minimise or deny the racist nature of such incidents make “sense” if one understands that such responses are often animated by feelings of white racial solidarity (felt by people who claim to not see race), or by anxiety that they themselves could be held accountable for the less spectacular expressions of racism that they lacked the knowledge or humanity to recognise, or the intelligence to hide.

And it goes without saying that outrage, disgust and contempt are entirely appropriate (if not quite adequate) responses to acts like that perpetrated by Theuns du Toit. 

Such acts do not only aim to humiliate the targeted black victim, but also serve in a particularly primitive way as an assertion of white supremacy, something, as Steven Friedman recently reminded us, that is deeply embedded in the way society works.

But I worry that the obsessive focus on acts of “spectacular racism” by the media, politicians and the Twittering classes may make it easier for individuals and institutions to delay (or avoid) any reckoning with the deeper problems of which these acts are mere symptoms.

Because not many people are stupid enough to get caught on video performing acts of “spectacular racism”, it becomes easier for individuals and institutions to mischaracterise the problem as merely a case of a uniquely bad (or troubled) person doing something shocking and completely unexpected. 

This allows the school, university or employer, and family members or friends of the perpetrator, to distance themselves from the perpetrator and his or her act. Because they may genuinely find the particular act of “spectacular racism” objectionable, they may genuinely believe it when they claim that “this is not who we are”.

I am reminded here of Jeanne Goosen’s 1990 novel Ons is nie almal so nie (translated into English by André P Brink as We are not all like that). In the novel, the child narrator, Gertie van Greunen, recounts episodes from her life with her mother Doris and other family members in a working-class neighbourhood of Cape Town in the period shortly after the National Party came to power and began implementing “grand apartheid”.

As a naive child narrator, Gertie often exposes or mimics the racism and bigotry of those around her without fully realising its implications, producing much of the painful and sometimes bitter humour in the book. 

In the scene that gives the book its title, Gertie’s mother, Doris, offers a cake to her neighbours, the Williams family, on the day that they move out of the house from which they had been evicted in terms of the Group Areas Act. She runs after the neighbour’s car with the cake in her hand, protesting: “We are not all like that.” Instead of the expected gratitude, Mrs Williams rolls up the car window and the family drives away “without looking at us even once”.

Because of the spectacular brutality inflicted on the Williams family by the apartheid state, something that Doris seems genuinely to find objectionable, her claim that “we are not all like that” may not be untrue in the strictest sense. But Doris lives in a world of casual racism, sexism and bigotry, and largely goes along with (at times even seems to embrace) the basic tenets of apartheid.

There is no fundamental questioning of the “way society works”, or of the advantages the system bestows on her. When Doris therefore says that “we are not all like that”, she is also lying to herself, a lie that makes it possible for her (and for the reader?) to look away from the fundamental brutality of the world that she is a part of.

The focus on acts of “spectacular racism” may also reinforce wrongheaded ideas about what racism is and how it works. As Steven Friedman points out, it is a mistake to assume that racism is only about “the few who openly express contempt for Black people”. 

Instead, racism is about “the way society operates, the way in which racism operates in the routines of life”. He also points out that:

“This racism operates even if no one calls Black people names or defiles their belongings or uses violence against them. It works even if the vast majority of white people, particularly those whose decisions affect others, genuinely believe that they harbour no prejudices against Black people.”

To understand the ways in which racism “operates in the routines of life”, we need to consider the ideologies, structures, systems, institutions, rules and attitudes that structure or guide those routines, and how these all operate in tandem to centre certain white ways of being in the world.

But I think it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that these “routines of life” that centre whiteness are often further reinforced and policed by other white people who may use subtle and not so subtle acts of “unspectacular racism” to co-opt other white people into acts of shared racism.

If you are white, you probably know that I am talking about those situations where another white person who does not know you from Adam will start talking to you as if you obviously share their racial prejudices. 

The more “subtle” ones would do it in the form of “jokes”. Others will dress up their racism as political opinions.

Such interactions will often have a subtle hint of menace about them, as if the speaker is daring you to contradict them. In some cases, such speakers appear to be taken aback, even angry, when you object.

Last, the media’s sharp focus on acts of “spectacular racism” may also be a mistake because it fails to recognise the enormity of the harm caused by the “slow violence” caused over time by the relentless stream of “unspectacular” and systemic kinds of racism, sometimes caused, as Friedman argues, by white people who “genuinely believe that they harbour no prejudices against Black people”.

Rob Nixon uses the term in relation to environmental degradation, but I find the term helpful when thinking about racism. 

He explains that “slow violence” is “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales”, and cautions against the study of violence being led by the spectacle-hungry media, instead drawing attention to the “attritional lethality” of slow violence. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Use of the word “violence” is part of the narrative that is unhelpful in the debate around unacceptable human behaviour.
    We talk of racism as if it is something that can be fixed, particularly subtle acts of prejudice – a better description of how human beings behave towards one another.
    The challenge is to sensitise people to how our prejudices play out as regards people of other races, religions, sex etc and how that is harmful to both others and ourselves.
    Extreme language used in this debate merely serves to alienate the very people who are the target of such debate and exasperates the problem.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      The use of the term other ‘races’ is also not particularly helpful. I learnt that there is a single race which is the ‘human’ one, and what ‘distinguishes’ people is their ethnicity or nationalities which they have adopted or appropriated. Think of the current Russian/Ukrainian war (that is what it is despite the desperate efforts to call it an ‘intervention’!) in which one with a overwhelming power dominance, has decided it is o.k. to terrorise and invade the territory of another . It also partly answers the question of whether people other than ‘whites’ also harbour ‘prejudices’ about ‘whites’ or other groups for that matter – yes they absolutely do ! The difference being that in situations of ‘power’ relations, they in most instances, are unable to exert the same dynamics as those situations described by Pierre.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I am utterly sick and tired of the way racism is portrayed by you academics as solely white on black. Yes, that is a fact – white people are racist. Spectacularly, subliminally, insidiously. Whatever. But please, oh please, can you deal with black on white racism – even if for no other reason than a goddam change of literary diet? I mean, does peeing on another kid’s desk equate to the panga murder of an elderly farmer and his wife? FFS.

    • John Laurence Laurence says:


    • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

      Come-on Pierre, take on this request, do the research and let’s hear if there is another side to the coin. The notion (allegation) that because I was born white and grew up in a white society I’m a racist is just so unfair. Yet, that is what you imply. For the record, I refuse to accept guilt by birth. In south Africa, many blacks are murderers (not a racist statement, read the news), but it would be unfair to claim they all are murderers, don’t you think?

  • John Strydom says:

    “If you are white, you probably know that I am talking about those situations where another white person who does not know you from Adam will start talking to you as if you obviously share their racial prejudices.”
    I would very much appreciate it if our black readers and writers might want to comment on whether this happens among black people too. I suspect it may. Maybe it’s just human.

    • Andrew Johnson says:

      Well if you read some Face Book groups, this is very much the case, some very radical contributors who abuse moderate contributirs for being, basically, “too soft” on the the Whities.

  • Paul Mathias says:

    Thanks Pierre, a good read and very much on point.

  • Cedric de Beer says:

    Good article. As I read it, I predicted the kind of response there would be in the comments, and I found them there. This is not (all) about personal prejudice. When a well know investment advisor tells us to stop blaming Apartheid because he also grew up poor, he ignores the fact that that the schools and University and jobs that were open to him, were not open to black South Africans. Therefore his claim of an equal start is racist (even if he has not personal animosity). When whites, who make up 8% of the population but occupy 65% of management positions say they are discriminated against in the work place, they are either ignoring the facts, or believe that whites are that much better (which is racist). The whole point of the article is to show that these are issues that still need to be confronted in addition to the acts of blatant racism. And yes, it is a form of slow violence.

    • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

      I guess one finds what one looks for. But a coin has three sides and you cannot escape that. So, no, I for one will not accept the guilt that PdV and you want to project on all whites.

      FurtHer, in modern day SA, whites absolutely are being discriminated against in the workplace, and that discrimination is legalised, just as it was under Apartheid. The fact that there remains a predominant number of white managers, doesn’t equate to no discrimination. We are on our way out – by law

  • Dewald Snyman says:

    On a recent trip to the US I was having a burger and sat at a bar, after a while other people joined and we started chatting. Immediately on learning that I am from SA they started making racist comments about what they see happening in SA. I explored the topic in the discussion and realised that (At least for myself and those surrounding me), we are much more sensitive about the topic of racism in SA.

    My children are still young but they don’t see colour – they do however notice when people are rude to them for no reason. Urinating on someone’s desk is an indication of his upbringing and he should be made an example of – as should those engaging in corruption, sexual violence and abusing access to public funds.

    A boy of maybe 10-years old once told me that all white people should be put in cages, I wanted to respond that “we are not all like that” – but he hated the stereotype he had of me. So I just stood there, kept quiet and considered my place and my future in SA.

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    They way you have structured this makes it almost impossible to debate the matter without falling into one of the well laid traps that would define the responder as just another white racist. No matter what the white responder says next they are probably racist to some degree because you have cauterised all the obvious avenues for discussion.

    Pissing on someone else’s possessions is profoundly abhorrent and disgusting and should be punished accordingly. To turn this incident into an argument suggesting widespread deeply entrenched and intractable white racism intellectually lazy. Lazy as in click bait lazy

    Circumstances are important. On the related issue of the culture of hazing and / or initiation of any sort, this is a scourge upon society and has been throughout history. It is tolerated and even encouraged in some some situations. I had better tread carefully here. It very often goes hand in hand with excess testosterone driven toxic masculinity. Destructive often archaic cultural distortions. Frequently manifested by the “breeker” / ruggerbugger mindset to mention just one. It is a fact of life. If both parties involved in the incident had been white (as frequently happens in this type of environment) then not another word would have been said. Not everything is racist in its origins, but this is never even considered.

    We all need to learn to roll with the punches and stop turning every puerile spat into a crime against humanity.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    DM’s attempt to ‘moderate’ intemperate/coarse language in its discourse, by asking other readers to ‘intervene’ is not working very well … I think of the inclusion of statements like the acronym FFS, in one response, as but one example !

  • Johan Buys says:

    I cannot deny the advantages my white skin bestowed on me. It was not my fault and I cannot undo it but it is real and it persists 30y later. I have however always and still do treat all people how I expect to be treated; but to a point and then I am ruthless as I don’t turn the other cheek for anybody. I understand demands for justice.

    Probably if I were not born white I could have been a “terrorist” and a very effective one. More than likely I would in 2022 still be bitter; I get where this comes from.

    None of this “when we”, stuck in history helps our future at all.

    My kids are post Apartheid kids. They were discriminated against and told so (university admissions and in careers), because they inherited my skin. Ja that is reparation people will shout. When does it end? My grand children, my great-great grand children? Never?

    • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

      Our family have had the exact same experience. The older generation has in time benefited from their whiteness, the kids are post-Apartheid but they pay the price… for how long indeed?

  • Manfred Hasewinkel says:

    These incidents of ‘spectacular’ racism are important because they serve as a setback to any gains made in racial reconciliation. Theuns Du Toit’s extreme act of bullying was racist because his victim was black. The ‘unspectacular’ racism amongst white people is persistently whittled away, in particular in the workplace. Unfortunately, these acts of ‘spectacular’ racism derail the SA project every time. Black people naturally lose trust in white people & white people tend to retreat, motivated by self preservation. It all comes down to trust.
    PS. The extreme reference ‘White Supremacy’, is used far too frequently. The label either serves to disable any opposing argument from the outset (an act of bullying in itself), if not to align the user to the safe haven of the ruling woke spectrum.

    • anton kleinschmidt says:

      Look at this another way
      Consider the alternatives
      Maybe this was not spectacular racism
      Maybe this was spectacular stupidity
      Stupidity that lurks in all of us
      Stupidity of the type seen in young men
      Barely out of adolescence
      Prone to peer pressure
      Drunk on too much beer
      Boosted by excess testosterone
      Showing off to their buddies
      Marking out their territory
      Doing what young men often do
      Freed of parental control
      Doing what society does nothing to stop
      Behavior steeped in toxic history
      Consider possibilities beyond your worldview
      Consider that you might be wrong
      I will consider if I am wrong
      Which I am often am
      Because there are no absolutes.

      • Manfred Hasewinkel says:

        PdV’s ‘unspectacular racism’ was certainly the enabler for Theuns du Toit to bully Babalo Ndwayana by his action, i.e. he felt safe. It’s unlikely that Du Toit would have done this at a UCT res & even less likely at Fort Hare because in each of these cases he would have been in the minority. Du Toit is an adult of voting age & it beggars belief that even in a drunk state in 2022 he did not have the intellect to realize the potential consequences of his actions. I remember that peeing on other people’s property was a popular pastime in the 70s & 80s amongst certain sectors of SA society but we’ve moved on. Unlike PdV, while no human being is perfect, I refuse to find a white racist under every bed. That is just not true.

  • Dragan KostaKostic says:

    What has this to do with racism ? Urinating on the books and laptop of anyone is unaceptable. Think he has a drinking problem that is the only excuse something so disgusting He should be sent to rehab!

  • Chris Marshall says:

    Racism, like many other isms, manifests bias – and until we all accept that bias is omnipresent, even necessary – we will fail to properly address it. The first step, perhaps, is to recognize our biases and to not allow them to influence our behavior.

  • Johan says:

    “…or accuse the taalstryders from Gelyke Kans (sic) of promoting white supremacy at Stellenbosch”

    What is the link between taalstryders and Gelyke Kanse, and racism? White people is a minority in the Afrikaans speaking community. Many coloured and black Afrikaans speaking people would benefit from Afrikaans as language of learning and teaching. Furthermore, are all languages per se racist, or is it only true of Afrikaans? Of hang die onderrok van vooroordeel teen Afrikaanssprekende blankes hier uit?

    I support the general notion of the article – we all could benefit from self-reflection on and awareness of our own personal and unique biases.

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