Prince Mashele

Kunene has a place in history

2010-11-22 14:15

The saying “history is the best teacher” has indeed become trite. Surprisingly, no one reminded us of history in the brouhaha that followed the revelations of the infamous party hosted by Kenny Kunene, at which sushi was served on naked bodies of hired black women.

In history, there was a time when Kunene’s behaviour was considered normal. The only difference is that such behaviour was associated with white slave owners, and black people were victims.

Before slave trade was abolished in Great Britain in 1807, it was common to see slave owners flaunt their wealthy status by subjecting blacks to a Kunene-like dehumanisation. In his book, The Martyrdom of Man, Winwood Reade vividly paints the picture of that dim period:

It had been the custom of the Virginian or West Indian planter, when he left his tobacco or sugar estate for a holiday in England, to wear very broad hats and very wide trousers, and to be accompanied by those slaves who used to bring him his coffee in the early morning, to brush away the blue-tailed fly from his siesta, and to mix him rum and water when required. (Read, 1872: 281)

These Virginians and West Indians were British citizens, owning vast tracks of land and hordes of African slaves in the New World. They occasionally visited their mother country, Great Britain, to enjoy and show off the wealth they had accumulated from tobacco and sugar plantations in the faraway lands of the Americas.

Human possessions

The slave owners did not mix their own rum, nor did they use their hands to brush away irritating flies; they owned slaves who did all of this for them. They saw and understood money as an instrument that gave them the power and right to reduce other human beings to mere possessions.

If the slave owners were to regain life and jump out of their graves today, the only thing that would shock them would be the colour of Kenny Kunene’s skin. They would be puzzled to see a black man – Kunene – wearing a very broad hat, like them, and enjoying the “privilege” of treating black women like slaves. Instead of mixing rum, Kunene’s “black slaves’ offer their naked bodies as plates on which their “masters” enjoy sushi.

In the same way that those Virginian and West Indian planters represented the barbarism of their age, Kenny Kunene represents the depravity of our time. Just like the slave owners, he views money as an instrument that gives him the power and right to reduce other human beings to mere possessions.   Essentially, Kunene is a black incarnate of white slave owners who used to derive great pleasure from the humiliation of other human beings.

History also teaches us that it often takes extreme brutality for conscience to be provoked into action. And so was the rise against slavery in Great Britain.

While it is understandable that such names as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce have become indispensible material in the construction of epics, the pioneering actions of Granville Sharp appear first in the great chronicle of white activists who fought gallantly against slavery.

Granville Sharp was the first to challenge British slavery law, and he went to court to argue for the freedom of a black slave who was abused terribly by a heartless slave master. Armed with tones of evidence, Sharp won.

In the age of Kenny Kunene, is there any lesson we can learn from the generosity of Granville Sharp’s heart, and from the determination of his humane courage?

Morality can defeat wealth

From Granville sharp, we learn that, if men and women of conscience stand up, it is possible to defeat that which scars the moral face of society. In Great Britain at the time, few believed that it was possible to abolish slavery. Similarly, there may in our society today be few who believe that the barbarism of materialism embodied by Kenny Kunene can ever be defeated.

We further learn that human conscience cannot be indifferent to injustice. White as he was, Granville Sharp was troubled by the inhumanity suffered by black slaves. And so must all South Africans with a conscience be troubled by the plight of the poor black women who were subjected to degradation by Kenny Kunene and his fiendish friends.

In the same way that the Virginian and West Indian planters were forced to adopt new ways of spending money, following the abolition of slavery, we have a responsibility to make the rich in our society to spend their money in ways that do not dehumanise other human beings.

Money or no money, we must never allow the rich to make the poor brush away flies, or mix rum and water, or avail their naked bodies to serve sushi. From history we should learn that morality can defeat wealth!

- Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research ( and a member of the Midrand Group

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