Guest Column

The sting in Tumi Morake’s tail

2017-09-22 14:18
Tumi Morake (File, Gallo Images)

Tumi Morake (File, Gallo Images)

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Sisonke Msimang

In the last few years the question of race has dominated the headlines in the South African press. As a younger generation has pushed back against the rainbow nation rhetoric that accompanied the reconciliation era, there have been increasingly robust conversations about white supremacy, black identities and questions of group justice and injustice.  

These discussions have often happened as South Africans were responding in real-time to events of discrimination and blatant racism. 

When an unknown real estate agent named Penny Sparrow commented on her disgust at black beach goers in Durban, she became famous and was sacked. When young white students at the University of the Pretoria were photographed dressed in black face and dresses stuffed with cushions to simulate black women’s buttocks, they faced a storm of vitriol from black and white people alike, and faced disciplinary processes.

When students threw shit at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the nation was locked in conversation for almost a year about the meaning of symbols of racists and colonisers.  

So I have found it puzzling that comedian Tumi Morake’s comments have caused such a controversy on Jacaranda FM. Morake compared white South Africa collectively to that school-yard bully that steals your bike and won’t give it back and then wants you to share. When contrasted with the sorts of debates this country has witnessed in the last few years, Morake’s comments were banal. 

Despite this, Morake has been subjected to an unprecedented amount of hate and vitriol on social media. Her co-host had a gig cancelled because of his association with her. AfriForum – an organisation that advocates for the preservation of white privilege – clashed with her on-air and threatened a boycott, and an obscure furniture shop pulled its advertising from Jacaranda.  

Yet the furore about Morake’s comments takes place in a society where very little has changed for most black people. Research shows that the majority of black people have absolutely no casual contact with whites. Dr. Kevin Durrheim has conducted decades of research into racial attitudes amongst South Africans in public spaces. He notes that it is only “lower status Black people who have no contact with Whites.”  

It can be tempting to deny the resilience of racial hierarchies when you look at the newspapers. The success of middle class black people is trumpeted everywhere, and incidents that report on the friction between black and white South Africans in middle class spaces, fill our headlines.  
All of this creates the impression that there is more progress and movement towards changing race relations than there actually is.  

In some ways then, the Jacaranda matter serves as yet another example of how the conversation about race in South Africa is profoundly middle class in nature.  

South African media house are not preoccupied with the structural and racialised experiences of the majority of black South Africans. Instead they are obsessed with the fear and fragility of whites, and with the reactions of middle class blacks to those projections. 

They are more concerned with questions of racial integration that are largely social in nature and have little to do with the day to day reality of poor black South Africans who would never dream of cracking jokes about whites in front of whites.  

Middle class views and conversations are not unimportant of course – but they are not the only discussions worth having about race and the future of our country.  

Still, the case of Morake shouldn’t be dismissed simply because on the surface is seems like yet another example of white entitlement. It is obvious that the Jacaranda affair is not simply about thin-skinned listeners who simply haven’t been paying attention to the country changing around them.  

At heart, the anger amongst Jacaranda listeners tells us about the micro-ecology of segregation.    

While public spaces across the country may be free for all to use, at a micro-level South Africans have learned how to use those spaces differently according to race.   

Black and white South Africans have learned to avoid one another with the implicit understanding that sharing space but using it at different times will keep the peace. We have developed a new set of unwritten rules: Whites party at this night club on Fridays and blacks take over on Saturdays; or whites arrive at the beach early and leave when blacks begin to arrive.  

At the cafeterias in our universities and workplaces whites sit that side while blacks side over there.  

South Africans have learned to respect the new laws decreeing public spaces belong to everyone. There are no more signs on benches, no more segregated beaches. Still, we understand for peace to prevail, we must stay on our sides of the racial divide: on this side of the room or on that side of the beach.   

When black people contest spaces – when we begin to appear in spaces deemed to belong to whites – then whites often experience this as an encroachment. They often feel as though they have lost something. 

This is irrational of course – the fact that people of various races are dancing next to you in a club has no impact on your ability to dance. Yet time and again in social surveys this notion of loss is invoked by whites in particular, when they have to share space with black people.  

It is this sense of loss that has fuelled the response to Morake. Since she joined Jacaranda in July, this showdown has been brewing. 

The disproportionate response in the last few weeks makes it clear that it wasn’t Morake’s comments that got her in trouble, it was the simple fact of her: a black woman DJ on a white station who was comfortable enough in her skin and in the space she was newly occupying to say what she wanted to say. 

Morake signalled the end of Jacaranda as a place of solace and an enclave of segregation for whites who had learned the new unwritten rules of segregation. She should have gone and been funny on MetroFM or PowerFM. Instead, she broke the rules. 

So Jacaranda became yet another contested space; another site of white discontent. It was only a matter of time before disgruntled listeners – feeling the loss of a station they thought belonged exclusively to people like them – found a reason to attack her.  

One could read all this as depressing. It isn’t. The story has a hopeful ending. Jacaranda has stuck by Morake. Why? 

Well, it turns out that its owners – Kagiso Media – are black. The furniture store is small fry compared to the kind of black money that can own a chain of media outlets.  

The lesson? South Africa is changing, even when it appears not to be.  

- Sisonke Msimang writes about race, gender and democracy. Her first book, Always Another country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (Jonathan Ball), will be published in October.  Follow her at @sisonkemsimang.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    tumi morake  |  racism  |  jacaranda fm
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