As published in The Daily Maverick
The nation’s favourite teddy-bear impersonator, Barry Ronge, recently wrote that “although Breyten Breytenbach has a point when he calls South Africa a ‘kleptocracy’, can we take someone seriously who doesn’t even live here?”
In response, we could perhaps ask whether we should take someone seriously if they think that the validity of someone’s point of view has anything to do with where they live. It’s not because the Daily Star is published in the UK that we can dismiss their warnings of a World Cup “bloodbath” in the wake of ET’s murder. Rather because their warning is premised on hysteria instead of a measured analysis of the situation.
Logically, there is no difference between playing the race card and playing the authenticity card – they are both simply ways of dismissing points of view without engaging with the arguments behind those points of view. When a black critic of government is called a coconut, the simple slur is effective, as it hints at a lack of understanding and commitment to the grand Nationalist project of the ANC. When a white critic is labelled “untransformed”, what is really meant is “racist”.
These are all ways of silencing dissent and discouraging criticism because the casual attribution of these labels hints at a long history and at complex ideology, without ever holding those labels themselves up to scrutiny. They are lazy, but unfortunately still so very effective. This is partly because many journalists don’t feel the need to contribute to the enlightenment of readers. They are instead happy to sell copy by playing to stereotypes and by reinforcing prejudice.
It is prejudice, because claims that are not based on good reasoning are simple habitual bleating, and come from the same unreflective space as the prejudices we usually recognise as sinister – such as those about race or gender for instance. A broader concern, though, is whether we stand the best chance of defeating those sinister prejudices if we allow ourselves to let the more subtle forms of prejudice go unchallenged.
The bare facts of this particular case allow for a simple resolution. If a South African resident’s lived experience makes him more of an authority on South Africa than Breytenbach, would the same apply to Brandon Huntley, the notorious “victim” of racial prejudice currently fighting to retain his recently-granted refugee status in Canada? Again, no, because we have reason to believe that Huntley’s arguments are opportunistic and self-serving, whereas Breytenbach has a history of reflective engagement with South African politics – whether or not we agree with him on the current issue.
It is, of course, true that we tend to pay more attention to the contributions of people who live or work in the area on which they are commenting. But we should not confuse this heuristic with a genuine evaluative judgement. Because there is so much to read, we are often forced into time-saving strategies, and filters for determining what we should spend time on. One of these heuristics would be to grant less authority to the words of a foreigner (not that it’s clear that Breytenbach is one), and more weight to the words of a local. This is the nature of the attention economy.
However, we should remember that these heuristics were never intended to take the place of detailed consideration. We should certainly remember this in cases where we know people may be reading our own words as a function of their own, similar heuristics, and that they might, therefore, take what we say seriously – including, sometimes, subjecting it to a bit of analysis.
Ronge’s dismissal of Breytenbach’s point of view is premised on three claims, two of them overlapping. First, Ronge claims “that it is much easier for a man who divides his life and time in at least three different countries to take the moral high ground when discussing a country of which he is no longer a citizen”. I imagine that many foreign correspondents would be alarmed to hear this. They would be out of a job if their editors applied this principle.
In fairness to Ronge, the key element here is presumably intended to be the “no longer a citizen” clause. But then we would need to account for the fact that other émigré journalists and writers – Czeslaw Milosz comes to mind – could still be taken seriously in the countries of their birth, long after having taken up citizenship elsewhere. We do this by reflecting on what they say, and on whether the evidence supports their claims – not by pointing out that they are citizens or residents of a particular country.
The second and overlapping claim is that Breytenbach’s “history gives him permission to say whatever he likes about SA and then if the proverbial ‘mango’ hits the ANC fan, he still has places to go”. But all of us have permission to say what we like about SA – it’s not the speaker’s fault if his words carry more weight because of his history, unless he is using that history to claim illegitimate authority. To demonstrate that the speaker is claiming such authority again requires looking at their arguments, rather than identifying their pedigrees.
This claim also includes the hint of an argument regarding privilege, expressed in “places to go”. To that, all we should be inclined to say is lucky Breytenbach – and lucky Ronge, who presumably also has the means to leave if he so chooses. It’s always good to have more rather than fewer options. In Breytenbach’s case, the exercising of one of the options available to him was part of a complex history of engagement with this country, and it is difficult to understand how it signifies the lack of understanding Ronge wants us to attribute to Breytenbach.
The last claim is that “that-was-then-and-this-is-now”, and that Breytenbach’s struggle history notwithstanding, he fails to understand that the game has changed. According to Ronge, it’s no longer about race, but rather about power and money. First, it’s always been about power and money – and the fact that both of those were historically granted and denied along racial lines. Second, Breytenbach’s use of the word “kleptocracy” gives some indication that he is aware of this.
There are, in other words, many ways of playing the man instead of the ball. The race card is one such way, but the authenticity card – made possible through the nonsense of identity politics – is simply another way to get us to pay less attention to what people say, and more attention to ways of ignoring their arguments so as to retain our existing prejudices.
While South Africans try to figure out where to go from here – what songs to sing, whether Malema is comical, tragic, or sinister – we could benefit from thinking carefully about all the factors that got us here, as well as those that can help us build a more inclusive and enlightened society. Seeing as we know that mindless prejudice is one of the key factors that got us into the continuing mess, it is surely obvious that mindless prejudice is the first thing to try to eliminate.