The 2015 #SaxAppeal cover

van_berger_2015-Feb-12
Credit: https://twitter.com/van_berger

This is not a “rage-blog”. I’m not indignant, offended or any of those things by the Sax Appeal 2015 cover that I saw via Twitter this morning. It depicts Christian Grey (a rich white guy who is into BDSM) looking out over shacks where poor black people live.

I do, however, think it was a poor choice of image, for the two reasons I’ll outline below. But first, a general point, which is the actual motivation for this post: there are usually intermediate options between the polarised sorts of shouting at each other that social media seems to encourage.

Criticism is quickly read as outrage, and in a case like this, can also lead to accusations of conservatism, fuddy-duddyishness and so forth. On the other end of the spectrum, those who support the image can overstate its virtues, and not recognise any value in concerns expressed by others.

There’s a gulf between those options, and that’s where I’m speaking from. I was shocked by the image, but I mean shocked in a descriptive sense, rather than as an index of moral outrage – it took me aback. So, that’s a plus for the “good satire” reading, in that being forced to take notice is a good start.

But the cover ultimately misses the mark, and was a poor choice. First, because risky satirical choices are only a smart move if you’ve got credibility as a satirist or satirical publication. Without that, you can appear to be simply echoing the reality you’re trying to critique, or appear oblivious to dimensions of it.

Simply being known as a satirical magazine one isn’t the same thing as people knowing you to be good at that job, and therefore interpreting you in that light – and sorry to say, but I don’t think Sax Appeal been good at it for a while.

Second, you significantly increase your chances of being read uncharitably by virtue of the targets that you pick. In this instance, there’s a context of:

  • 5 years of debate on admissions policy, race and transformation
  • public criticism from UCT academics on the perceived slow pace of transformation at UCT
  • a funding crisis at a national level, affecting the ability of poor students to enter universities
  • a rather public tantrum by a prominent media house owner on UCT’s transformation track-record
  • a university that is situated in a city that is perceived by some as racist

And so forth. In other words, this was a very risky issue on which to push the boat out. I certainly don’t think they were intending to be crude or offensive – in fact, I know some of the people involved, and trust them in this regard – but this was a poor decision.

(Sax Appeal has taken note of the reaction, and posted the statement quoted below to Facebook.)

STATEMENT ON SAX APPEAL COVER CONTROVERSY:

On behalf of the SAX Appeal Editorial Team, we regret the hurt caused by this year’s cover photo.

We understand the concern about what is perceived by some as racist or patronizing undertones of the image; but we would like to state unequivocally that our intention was not to make light of racism or to humiliate its victims.

Our intention was to open up discussion about the problematic power relations in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid has left a tragic divide between rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban – a divide that is still perpetuated daily.

Just as the themes of 50 Shades of Grey allude to power dynamics in sex, our hope with 50 Shades of SAX was to discuss the other power dynamics that still pervade our society. Even though the privileged no longer oppress the underprivileged daily with batons or whips, we hoped that the cover image would inspire discussion about the secretive, underhand ways in which the privileged still get their way.

These issues, including those within the magazine, such as the discussion around homophobia in Islam, the psychiatric profile of God and of golf being representational of white privilege, were included in the magazine to bring about such discussion.

In this way, SAX 2015 has taken a very different turn compared to previous editions. Sensitive topics were not written about to ridicule the marginalized or disadvantaged but to induce meaningful discussion about these topics. These are issues that we did not think we could avoid discussing, but if we missed the mark in our attempt at discussion, we regret the effect that this has caused.

We hope that this perspective might add to the debate that has been sparked on social media and that it might point it in a direction that is critical and constructive around issues of race and socioeconomics.