Ferial Haffajee

Old white men, a younger white woman and the state of black outrage

2015-05-15 09:19

Ferial Haffajee

Why is it that an old white man (Allister Sparks), a younger white woman (Zelda la Grange), a sentence and a set of tweets can make a country stand still? Today, we are likely to be enraged by another somewhat younger white man, the artist Willem Boshoff. It will be the third time this year. Or perhaps the gazillionth. It’s how we roll.

Usually brilliant, Boshoff appears to have traded his usual muses (the elements, the human condition, subtlety) for Steve Hofmeyr’s Facebook page if his latest work at the Venice Biennale is anything to go by. It is awful: a piece of spitting sculpture in steel with 24 lines of text headlined by the title: “I am proud to be labelled racist in South Africa if it means that” and then it lists 24 sentences starting with “I am revolted by ineffective, dim-witted 4x 4 politicians” and so on, and so on, to the line that pissed me off most “I could scream in frustration when jobs are given to unqualified people” – the narrative against employment equity is frustrating.  I wonder if he is conscious of privilege and of apartheid’s legacy imprinted on us, cruelly, like the branding on a slave.

Any economist worth their salt will tell you that, all told, employment equity has been a success. In parts, the work of art is simply wrong, as race thinking often is. Take this line. “I can’t stand that more and more tourists are avoiding us like the plague” – in fact, last week, the World Economic Forum said SA was climbing up the rankings.

Stop and glower

You only have to get on a plane to Durban or Cape Town, hear the cacophony of accents and know who is coming here. So, now, the country is going to stop and glower at Boshoff as it did at Sparks and La Grange for days. As if he matters that much. Why do these revelations matter that much? I was peeved, but momentarily, at Allister. As a regular reader of his books and columns, he had long lost his spark and independent spirit. I rode the Zelda wave, but only to be part of the race in-crowd. Now, I want to get as far from them as I do from wordy treatises on the role of whiteness in South Africa.

Why is it not possible for in-power, empowered black people to treat these incidents as the remnant work that needs to be done by a people formerly in power? This is the work of people who lack race-consciousness and privilege-conscience or who have lost it. It is small in the bigger work of nation-making and country building that exercises us.

Every day, I watch South Africa being distracted this way as if it is too hard to stare our Gini coefficient (the wealth gap in which we beat the world), rampant crime and a struggling state in the face and engage instead on the terrain of what is called white supremacy these days. As if it is too hard, unless you are Julius Malema, to stare a President in the face and ask: why are you taking us backward and not forward? Why are you breaking us? Not building us. It’s a question we should ask of ourselves as we stop and swear at yesterday.

Raging at remnant racism

White people are, by population statistics, a diminishing minority, yet the South African lexicon still treats the generalised topic of “whites” as majority power – it is a narrative that does not know South Africa is comprised of a black majority in power and with say over everything from the fiscus to the cool. Think Bonang. Cassper.  Minenhle. Do we celebrate how lovely we are as deeply as we rage at remnant racism?

Perhaps it is easier to take a sentence about apartheid’s founder Hendrik Verwoerd, a set of tweets which revealed Zelda la Grange to still be the naive poppie that Nelson Mandela found in his presidential wing, and now Boshoff’s terrible piece of art and beat it into submission.

Maybe, this and the catharsis that is offered when a colonialist statue is ripped off its plinth provide black South Africans with the sense of being in power they were robbed of in 1994. (I say “they” because I am part of that growing minority who revere and appreciate how Nelson Mandela made us a nation, all of us who live in it.)

Of course, there is lots of work to do to overturn apartheid properly. But perhaps if we beat up old men, tweet Zelda and pull down colonialist statues, we don’t have to stare our country and ourselves in the face and do the really hard work of grappling with political power and the psychology of liberation. That a country can stand still and shout at its ghosts, as we do, suggest that the essential work Steve Biko taught in the Seventies, of being whole, of knowing who you are and what you are,  is forgotten by a new generation.

Freedom is precious

I see a generation saying it is enslaved in a system of white supremacy – I feel I live in another world in one country; my freedom is precious and I would yield to nobody, especially 21 years after it finally arrived. I imagine no white supremacy because freedom means I don’t have to countenance it any longer. And if found, you can today, kick it away like a cowboy boots away a piece of tumbleweed in a Western.

For if you know your worth, and your country’s worth, then history is heeded, known and dealt with.   You use power (political, economic and social) to alter its path and perhaps begin to see that his legacy of non-racialism and country-making, of self-esteem and bravery should not have been buried with Nelson Mandela.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press and author of the forthcoming book called What if there were no whites? If you haven’t seen the Boshoff work, it will be in City Press on Sunday.

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