Bungalow, racial classification, Zille and Twitter outrage (again)

Earlier this month Mike Dzange, a waiter at a Camps Bay restaurant called The Bungalow sparked a Twitter debate and quite a few columns when he opted to include “2 BLACKS” on the docket of a couple he was serving.

The couple was black, as was the waiter – and while that doesn’t preclude the possibility of the waiter himself having internalised some racist attitudes (here, simply meaning that he might never use that shorthand for white couples), it does make it less likely that he was intending to demean this couple.

Both the restaurant and the waiter claim that he does use this shorthand for couples of all descriptions. I’ll leave aside two strange things about this: first that it’s taken years (he’s apparently worked for the group for 8 years) for this to bubble to the surface, and second, the fact that using “2 WHITES” wouldn’t help, as Cape Town restaurants are often occupied by only – or predominantly – white patrons, meaning that this method simply wouldn’t be useful.

Obviously, they should stick to table numbers alone, as they claim they will do in future. And – also obviously, from my point of view – the waiter should not be at risk of losing his job over this, as he apparently is. [Update: he’s been reinstated, after a brief investigation during which he was suspended.]

Enough preliminaries. What I want to focus on is the most recent example of Helen Zille, the Western Cape Premier, getting herself into trouble on Twitter (or, being accused of having done something outrageous on Twitter). In a now-deleted Tweet, she said

She’s clearly – to my mind, at least – pointing to an inconsistency, given both that the ANC-dominated national government uses racial classification, and also that many of those who were offended by the waiter’s racial classification might hypothetically not be those that complain about the government doing so.

The DA will be taking no action against her for the Tweet, with Mr James Selfe, the Federal Chairperson, saying

Mrs. Zille is involved in a serious conversation about race and if you have a racial classification in one part of our society it makes no sense not to have it in another. I think this does not infringe our code in any way and we certainly have no intentions of taking any actions against her whatsoever.

One could argue with both Mrs. Zille and Mr Selfe’s view here. It might make perfect sense to have classification in one part of society and not in another. We have a far higher levels of poverty among black citizens, and poorer graduation rates – to mention but two things – and these sorts of factors offer potential arguments for classification, the likes of which you won’t find in “reasons to identify the race of restaurant patrons”.

As is often the case, part of the answer here depends on your framework of analysis. If you think the same fundamental principle always applies (i.e. no racial classification), you’d get one answer. If you think we should be pragmatic, or utilitarian, you’d get a different answer.

But the tweet is simplistic, unsurprisingly for Twitter. As I’ve argued before in relation to her infamous “refugee” Tweet, her Tweets are often poorly-considered, given the medium and its propensity for short-circuiting people’s ability to calmly reflect on thing.

This, however, does not excuse, rather than simply explain, people misrepresenting what she says, as the Sunday Times did in awarding her their “Mampara [fool] of the Week” award, saying:

One might, on the basis of her previous statements, attribute various beliefs to Helen Zille, and then use those as grounds for interpreting the tweet to mean something prejudicial, race-insensitive or whatever.

You might do so poorly or well, on the basis of good information or bad, making good inferences or bad ones, etc. But unless you’re going to do the work of showing that her tweet meant something other than what it says, you’re guilty of a misreading, and a prejudicial one at that.

And, what it says is simply that there’s an inconsistency. Whether she’s right about that (as discussed above), or whether she herself is inconsistent, is another matter. It’s those two topics that you’d hope a newspaper would discuss, rather than taking cheap shots through misrepresentation.

So,  on the second issue, is she herself inconsistent, given that the party she’s a loyal member of, and used to serve as leader, has itself recently discussed introducing racial targets?

Gareth van Onselen (the author of the piece linked immediately above) suggests that she – or at least, her party – might well be.

Calling something “institutionalized racism” is certainly pejorative, which points to her having the view that, just as the ANC’s racial classification is bad, so is racial classification of the sort that Mike Dzange is “guilty” of.

And, she would be inconsistent if she accepted the DA’s recent policy shift, while decrying the ANC’s racial classification (and, Dzange’s).

But, just as we can make a distinction between racial classification for the sake of equalizing economic and educational opportunities (or outcomes, if you’re that way inclined), we might well be able to make distinctions between the ANC and the DA’s approach to racial classification.

And it might also be the case that Zille doesn’t agree with the DA’s policy on this in any case. Twitter won’t help us decide – but it sure will help us judge, regardless of what we know.

That’s understandable for the average user, even as we might hope for more considered reflection. We should, however, expect more from our newspapers.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.