At the Cliff Edge

2014-11-06 15:05

Gareth Cliff's Infamous Tweet (www.timeslive.co.za)

Gareth Cliff’s now infamous tweet, which asked who was paying for Senzo Meyiwa’s funeral and which suggested that Meyiwa was an untalented footballer, has generated a significant amount of press coverage in the last few days.

My interest in this episode is how race has become an issue. I genuinely believe that irrespective of how distasteful people may have found Cliff’s tweet, the racialised reaction (and equally racialised counter-reaction) to it is indicative of a dangerous dialogue that has become all too common in South Africa. The Cliff incident is the first of many where I have borne witness to prominent, supposedly clever, people engaging in the worst forms of race reductionism.

Earlier this month, in the context of Kganyago Lesetja’s appointment to head up the South African Reserve Bank, I argued that:

‘‘White privilege and cadre deployment are different, but essentially similar, manifestations of … racial reductionism … Racial reductionism is … a mechanism of explaining people’s beliefs, thoughts, and actions, by ascribing predetermined values and preferences to all people who are of the same race group … It is a crude, one-size-fits-all, analytical tool that is fuelled by stereotype, anecdote, and prejudice, rather than reasoned analysis. It robs the individual of their complex identity and singular agency … it forces them into boxes, from which any attempt to escape … is beaten back ...’’

As I went on to say:

‘‘Everyone can be, and usually is, (guilty of race reductionism) especially when responding to racial prejudice themselves … (For example) cadre deployment … is the infusion of the party’s interests (into) state life. It is … not a racialised concept (per se) but (is when) operationalised by the ANC (given) upwards of 70% (its) members are black ... What this means … is that where black … appointees fail, it is not cadre deployment … that is criticised but, rather, measures of redress … (and, erroneously) all black people (too).’’

This is important because:

‘‘Reducing all black people – irrespective of their individual merit and story – to the worst construction of badly applied cadre deployment is the site of much of our racial strife. The fact that cadre deployment, as a system, is predetermined to be a failure (because merit is not considered …) seems to escape most critics who misguidedly think of it as being the fault of redress, or worse black people themselves. So too, black people may be inclined to develop hardened, race reductionist, attitudes towards ‘their’ critics who rubbish every black person as being ‘yet another’ token appointment.’’

As I emphasised in that article, and emphasis here, race reductionism is something that all people can be guilty of. And that’s because it’s so easy. In a divided society, where structural reasons previously prevented integration, and which are perpetuated by largely unchanging patterns of economic ownership and social attitudes, our worst impulses tend to inform our beliefs. The absence of information is as dangerous as ignorance of it.

Thus, the knee-jerk reaction to reduce Cliff to his race, and attacking his (legitimate) question (of state expenditure on a funeral during a significant economic downturn)  as a by-product of his whiteness, is as unfortunate as Cliff’s seeming lack of empathy and understanding for people’s need to mourn. Especially if, as it was suggested to me, mourning in the way it has manifested is (culturally) important for (some) black people in particular.

However, I also acknowledge that Cliff’s eagerness to question such expenditure may have been because he is white and in white culture (whatever that is) such expressions of communal grief are rare. It may be exacerbated by Cliff’s belief that (black) South African footballers are not as good as their white foreign counterparts and are, thus, less deserving of the outpouring of grief that Meyiwa’s death occasioned.

But I choose my words carefully. I do not say that Cliff’s question is motivated by his race. I say it may have been. Likewise, I am deliberately not using Cliff to speak against white culture or all white people – neither of those things are homogenous. And, equally, I am cautious of how I treat the subject of mourning within South Africa’s black communities.

Qualifying everything may seem exasperating but a blithe generalisation can, and has, proven to be the innocent act that gives way to more detrimental ends. The point is that we cannot merely shut down or shut out people because of their demography. True, some of our attention should be spent on deconstructing their identity – it does influence their thoughts and beliefs. But, to only focus on their identity, and use that as a substitute for genuine engagement for the, is analytically lazy and intellectually irresponsible. We need to learn how to accept race as an aspect of our engagement. But, we also need to learn how to move beyond it. Especially where it may – and often is – used to hide inconvenient truths.

As I said then:

‘‘Only through genuine understanding (and engagement) will progress be possible: otherwise the racial fury that fringe politicians thrive off will only become more popular (and mainstream); and the hope of a truly united South Africa will be lost forever.’’

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