A Curious Case: The Spear returned as tragic farce

2014-06-09 10:00

Dr Jack & Curtis’ “clowns and poephols” cartoon is The Spear returned as farce. And like the Brett Murray painting, it demonstrates once again that the ANC is adept at using racial conflict to its advantage.

The three-step formula to the party’s campaigns is simple?...

Step 1: Take a genuinely problematic issue (say, public commentary that uses racist tropes about black people and parrots the perspectives of the mostly white elite to criticise the ANC or its leaders), amplify it, and alert all and sundry to its problematic nature.

Step 2: As people bang on predictably about freedom of speech – many denying flatly that racism is at play, or that justifiable cause exists to be angered – structures in the alliance are prodded to issue incendiary statements indicating that the criticism is a slight to all black South Africans.

For maximum effect, take to the streets in protest, even though you control Parliament, almost all the legislatures, most municipalities and the executive governments in each of these. Also ignore that you have access to other mechanisms and channels to direct your countercriticism. This is about the public spectacle.

Step 3: After apologies and retractions are proffered, provide no real solutions, then sit back as racial tensions fester unresolved (in this case the belief that news media organisations are fundamentally anti-black).

The point is to reinforce the belief that criticism of the ANC comes from a place of whiteness – a belief whose persistence is aided greatly by the big ol’ kernel of truth it often contains.

Never mind the anti-apartheid credentials claimed by Murray; never mind Primedia’s CEO, like this paper’s editor, is black, or that the largest shareholder in Primedia is the Mineworkers’ Investment Company (which is, of course, affiliated to the National Union of Mineworkers); and never mind that some of the criticism raises valid issues, albeit in a problematic way.

Whiteness is, after all, a tool that can be wielded by anybody, and commentary stemming from it erodes greatly the credibility of the commenter, at least to many black people.

It makes sense as a political strategy for the tripartite alliance to use this to its advantage. It also allows the alliance to rationalise some of its more alarming proposals, such as a media appeals tribunal.

But I’m not sure it helps the rest of us, whose daily experiences still bear the seemingly unending reprise of centuries of white supremacism.

To start, there was something genuinely unsettling about the speed and militancy of the denials that the cartoon, regardless of intention, only worked as commentary because it tapped into a pre-existing racist trope about the supposedly homogenous, unthinking, grant-dependent masses of ANC voters, 97% of whom are black.

The cartoonists themselves offered the implausible explanation that they were holding the entire electorate accountable, whereas we know for sure that “the clowns who voted them in” refers only to ANC voters. This wasn’t a mistake in execution that left it open to other interpretations. That aspect of the cartoon would have been pointless had the “poephols” not explicitly been made out to be ANC voters exclusively.

This suggests that, despite their play at doe-eyed innocence, the cartoonists and those who defended them are not listening. They are not examining the blinkers that shape their perspectives, which means this farce is likely to repeat in the future.

Also unsettling was how commentary on the cartoon ignored the structural elements implicit in its operating assumptions. The only way the trope about ANC voters exists and persists in a country that is majority black

and where the party enjoys support a little below a supermajority is that these voices are maligned, underrepresented or ignored in media commentary.

But perhaps the most unsettling thing about this entire episode is what it will do for the cartoonists’ credentials. In our unthinking and uncritical society, awash with whiteness, you’re nobody until the governing party calls

for you to be banned. We saw what this did for Murray, whose painting eclipsed an equally explicit painting by Ayanda Mabulu that predates Murray’s and explores similar themes in a more layered and personally connected way.

It’s a sickening testament to the fact that operating from blithe whiteness is a guarantee of success.

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