Morality Politics

When a muppet takes on a puppet – Steve Hofmeyr vs. @ChesterMissing

downloadForeign readers, if you want a snapshot of how weird and emotive racial politics in South Africa can get, here’s one for you: A man who thinks that “Blacks were the architects of apartheid” has now filed a harassment charge against a ventriloquist’s puppet.

Chester Missing (whose book I previously reviewed) is the puppet of ventriloquist, comedian, anthropologist (and friend), Conrad Koch. The puppet’s Twitter account has recently been quite vocal in denouncing the racist – and bewilderingly contrary-to-reality – statement captured above, in part because it was made by someone with a large audience (on Twitter, but more importantly as an award-winning musician who has sold truckloads of records to people who like Neil Diamond, but in Afrikaans).

Missing has also been asking Steve Hofmeyr’s sponsors whether they are concerned about the negative impact on their brands that might accrue from being associated with Hofmeyr. According to Hofmeyr and some of his followers (from what I’ve seen, mostly folks who are routinely associated with Afriforum and/or Praag, organisations that are overwhelmingly white and Afrikaans, and who are – charitably – tone-deaf and emotionally crippled when it comes to race), this amounts to harassment and defamation.

I don’t think it’s defamatory in principle, as you can see above. However, as I’ve argued in the past, I do think it’s possible for criticism to be sufficiently abusive or misdirected that it should be reined-in. (Having said that, the issue in the piece linked just above, on Mozilla and Eich, was for me more about picking the wrong target – Eich – rather than his religion and religious beliefs.)

In this case, though, I don’t see anything in Missing’s Twitter stream that crosses any kind of threshold into abuse, harassment or defamation. By contrast, I think that Hofmeyr needs to take responsibility for the statement he makes above, and others he’s made over the years, which give clear credence to an interpretation of racism, as commonly understood. (Conrad Koch has explained why he thinks the most recent statement is racist on his website, in case you’re Steve Hofmeyr or Dan Roodt, and need this explained to you.)

I’ll close with an example of a absurdly wrong-headed understanding of free speech and censorship, from the Institute of Race-Relations’ Frans Cronje (their name is misleading, in that you’d think they’re about improving race-relations, but I’ve rarely found that to be the case).

Why I say it’s wrong-headed is that obnoxious opinions need to be tolerated. He agrees with me on that, or so he says in the last (chronologically) of the three Tweets I’ll embed here.

But he gets there via chastising Chester (without naming the puppet) for trying to “silence” Hofmeyr.

Chester is doing exactly that, in challenging Hofmeyr’s idea that black South Africans are the architects of apartheid. If Hofmeyr chooses to fall silent in shame (or whatever), that’s his choice. The only entity that has the power to forcibly silence Hofmeyr are the courts, and guess what – only one of the two parties involved (Hofmeyr) has approached the courts.

Cronje’s argument works entirely contrary to his objectives here, in that this is precisely an argument against Hofmeyr approaching the police or courts to silence Missing.

To close the circle of absurdity with regard to South Africa’s racial politics, remember that Missing, in this case, is the puppet who is reminding others that Hofmeyr thinks blacks designed Apartheid, and Cronje is the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations.

And, he seems to want Missing to stop criticising Hofmeyr, while having no problem with Hofmeyr’s lawsuit. Go figure, indeed.


@ChesterMissing’s Guide to the Elections ’14

ChesterMissingChester Missing held his Cape Town book launch last night, and he was as entertaining/discomfort-inducing as ever (the latter, at least for middle-class white liberal types, whom he specialises in discomfiting). For those of you who don’t know Chester, he’s a puppet that routinely delivers fine political analysis, served up with plenty of satirical humour.

Conrad Koch is the man who stuffs Chester into a suitcase when traveling, and also the man who books Chester’s gigs, including – presumably – the deal for the book they launched last night, Chester Missing’s Guide to the Elections ’14. I’ve just finished reading it, and while anyone looking to learn anything about who to they should vote for on May 7 might end up disappointed (Chester being an equal-opportunity abuser of all the contenders), those looking for a simple collection of gags at the expense of those contenders may well also feel short-changed – but only because they might be asked to think through some uncomfortable issues, rather than simply chuckle along.

Gags there are aplenty, some of which are rather amusing, supported by some classic Zapiro cartoons. But a key purpose of the book – at least in my reading of it – is as a vehicle for Koch to explore the complexities of racial identity and class in our 20 year-old democracy, and to highlight the ahistorical and apolitical ways in which some of the likely audience for the book (and his shows) might be inclined to interpret South African political theatre.

As befits his training in social anthropology, Koch intends for the book “to explain why we should learn to understand voters’ motivations on their own terms”, rather than according to assumptions about what those motivations might be – whether those assumptions are the result of propaganda or our own prejudices. The book is, in this sense, a useful complement to Eusebius McKaiser’s Could I vote DA?, which (although more narrowly focused on one party) also highlighted the centrality of understanding the historical and psychological context in which political messaging is interpreted.

The second section of the book offers a potted history of South Africa, and the 10 pages dealing with South Africa pre-democracy are as effective a rebuttal to white folk who think apartheid a thing of the past as one could imagine reading in a comedic book. The point of the section is not to invoke lashings of white guilt, but to remind readers that if they don’t acknowledge the ongoing effects of racial discrimination, they can’t understand apartheid.

As I said in a previous column,

I did benefit from apartheid, as (on aggregate) all whites did. But I still benefit, because of the cultural capital, the confidence, and from the fact that the vast majority of people in power at my institution are white liberal males, just like me. How could I not have benefited and continue to benefit? After all, isn’t that what apartheid was designed for?

However you end up voting – if you vote at all – it’s useful to be reminded, as this book reminds us, that it’s not only our political leadership we’ve got to keep an eye on. We should also keep an eye on each other, and on ourselves, to make sure we engage with each other fairly and honestly, rather than according to well-rehearsed stereotypes.

Here’s Chester Missing at the EFF manifesto launch:


Chester Missing and the authority of race

0d3e82a33a17e75f79fd2ef6c1caf5cfOver at Africa is a country, T.O. Molefe has written a very interesting post on whether Chester Missing is blackface. If you don’t know Chester Missing, he’s a puppet controlled by political satirist Conrad Koch. Read Molefe’s column if you’re at all interested in South African racial politics, as much of it is generally relevant, even for those unfamiliar with Missing. A key point can be found in the conclusion, where Molefe points out that the choice of Missing’s race (which is ambiguous, but probably black) can’t be trivial or accidental. Someone as thoughtful as Koch appears to be made a deliberate choice to use a black puppet (or one who is definitely not white), and

At the very least Chester Missing is an embodiment of the fear, unwillingness or inability of liberal-minded whites to use their own voices, faces and words to talk publicly about this country’s racialised privilege.

Deep Fried Man (another South African comedian) left a comment to Molefe’s piece that I thought astute, in which he pointed out that it’s easier for a black comedian to get away with saying certain things than it is for a white comedian to say those things. Molefe was sceptical of this claim. My response is perhaps of interest to the people who read Synapses, so I’ve copied and pasted it below.

I’m not a comedian, but Deep Fried Man’s comment rings true to me as someone who does comment on South African racial politics by other means. T.O. – you ask: “What makes it easier for Loyiso Gola and other black comedians to satirise SA’s political landscape and harder for you or Koch or other white comedians to do the same? I’m not convinced it makes sense in the same way that, say, gravity makes sense.”

So, from the perspective of a columnist & blogger who is a) white and b) critical of various elements of SA’s political landscape, including both ‘whiteness’ and ‘the idea of whiteness’, it certainly seems easier for black columnists than it is for me, on some topics. This is a simple matter of self-preservation and the increasing volume (in both senses) of online trollery and insult.

Take the perennial “is Cape Town racist” discussion. A black columnist can claim that it is, and they will (mostly) just get shouted down by white racists. As the (to my knowledge) only white columnist who argued that Cape Town is in fact racist, I got shouted down by white racists as well as by some who style themselves as Biko-ites or somesuch, telling me I was being patronising and so forth, and that I don’t really have any right to make those claims. And then there are others like Vice who also provide reasons for me to shut up, even though I don’t find those reasons compelling.

So, even if you think a cause important & worth advocating, there might be less second-guessing and potential pitfalls for those who are falling into the stereotype of speaking about issues they “own” (such as black comedians talking about a “black political party”). The risks are more easy to identify and combat.

The broad point is that there are various constraints on public commentators of various sorts. Being thought a troublemaker is one, being thought a traitor another, being thought irrelevant yet another, etc. So it’s at least possible that in the complicated intersections of race & class and all that, black comics/columnists could experience different pressures than white ones do. Of course it won’t make sense in the way gravity does, but that’s a rather high bar to set.