On the “caged woman” on the back of a bakkie

The racial debate attracting the most opinion and anger in South Africa right now was sparked by this photograph:

Photo: Denise Rens/Oos-Kaap Plaaswerkers Opstand/Facebook

Some folk on social media are desperately reaching for an analysis of this that eliminates race and structural power imbalances from the situation. Others are focusing on the cage (it’s a sheep pen) as the primary problem. They are both wrong.

On the first response: of course it’s true – or seems to be true – that this was an ostensibly voluntary transaction, where a pregnant Linda Steenkamp needed a lift into town, and Johan Erasmus offered her one.

Steenkamp is on record as saying that she chose to sit at the back, because it was hot in the front, and she wanted to feel the breeze. Erasmus reports that he had his briefcase and papers in the front seat, but that the issue of space in the front didn’t come up, because “he and the lady had barely spoken and that she climbed onto the back right after the cage was loaded”.

And here’s the thing that the apologists don’t seem to be recognising – of course they didn’t speak about it, because it’s a rural South African norm that rural black farm workers and and residents travel as 2nd-class citizens in this fashion, with the baas (boss) in the front (and the baas is usually white).

This being the norm doesn’t make it a universal practice, of course. And it certainly doesn’t make it right – Steenkamp might feel more comfortable there because that’s the way it’s always been, and Erasmus might not see the problem with it because that’s the way it’s always been. Such is the nature of deeply ingrained – and natural-feeling – race-based power imbalances.

We can’t pretend they they don’t exist, or that Steenkamp had any other choice (or was aware of how this choice is an expression of South African racial politics), by pretending that this was a fully voluntary transaction. Doing so is obtuse, and flaunts a lack of awareness of how deeply rooted these problems are.

Similarly, if you watch the video contained in the link above where Steenkamp explains the situation, it’s impossible to ignore both her deep discomfort at being made a spectacle, but also how she seems to be being “coached” through the process by another baas, this time a white woman.

Then to the cage, which I find a very interesting distraction. Leaving aside the issue of power dynamics and lack of agency, once she sits in the back (thanks to the entrenched, and racist, norms at play), the picture suggests that there is no (safe) space to sit besides in the “cage”.

And yes, it is the fact that Steenkamp is in a “cage” that brings the problem to life in a visceral, visual sense. But the “cage” is here at the same time a distraction (in that it was unavoidable, once sitting in the back), as well as crucial, in that it’s highlighted the real problem.

It’s once we start noticing that it’s a problem that it feels natural for Steenkamp and Erasmus to travel this way without the visual prop of a cage that we become more aware of the issue.

And, it’s once we can – in some future South Africa – travel on the back if we like, or in the front if we like – without having to think about these issues that we’re making progress on solving it.

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.