On that “most attractive race” thing in the UCT student newspaper

So, this peculiar thing appeared in the UCT student newspaper, Varsity, earlier in the week:

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A couple of people have asked whether I’d be writing about it. To one, I replied that it was “too silly”. Which it is. But even sillier than this is the news that the Young Communist League are apparently going to report Varsity to the Human Rights Commission (they are “shocked and disgusted“, you see).

For context, a couple of details: To repeat, this is a student newspaper, and it is not edited or subject to any pre-publication controls by any official agents of the University administration or staff. Second, it was published in the opinion pages, and third, it was an accompaniment to this article – in fact, it’s a graphical representation of the results of Qamran Tabo’s straw poll of 60 students.

Yes, 60 students. So, Varsity chose a stupid headline for the graphic, in that “UCT” haven’t voted on anything. Varsity no doubt chose the headline to attract attention, seeing as that is what headlines are for. But an attention-grabbing headline on such a sensitive topic should perhaps be chosen with more care.

As, of course, should be what you choose to publish in the first place, or how much you edit what’s been submitted. Presenting this as quasi-scientific was an error, as the editor concedes.  It’s not just the sample size, it’s also the peculiar way in which the sample was drawn. Tabo chose to survey 10 individuals from each of the following “racial groups”: “white, coloured (culturally), Indian, East Asian, biracial and African”. Now, Tabo doesn’t define how she knew who was who here, and whether they are all self-identified (as “culturally coloured” surely must be). Anyway – let’s leave it at that, agreeing that the pie-chart is a reflection of what these students reported, and nothing to do with UCT as a whole.

But even if it was about UCT as a whole, it’s still possible that – for whatever reason, but mostly for a reason Tabo cites (the preponderance of white people presented as attractive in popular media) – a larger group of people would report this same preference. And this would be a reflection of racism in popular culture, yes, where certain appearances are normalised as attractive, and others not. Furthermore, it’s a great shame that this is so prevalent, and so persuasive, that it’s probably the case that a large number of students (and others) have “fallen for it”, as it were.

It wouldn’t necessarily be racist to point this out, though. Saying “students report that they find race x more attractive than race y” (and please, throughout this blog post, assume the quotation marks around “race”) can simply be reporting a fact. The idea that humans might “rank” races on any characteristic is of course offensive, particularly in South Africa or anywhere (okay, everywhere then) where people have been oppressed as a result of their race. But the author knows this, and starts by reports the fact (for the 60 students) of these preferences, before going on to conclude:

Of course everyone has the right to choose who they want as a romantic partner, but it is interesting to observe how race, which is really just a collection of arbitrary physical features, acts as a barrier when it comes to who we choose to love.

Having been at UCT and in South Africa long enough, I have come to realise that we would have better luck creating a research wing at Med School dedicated to cloning white people to feed the demand than trying to understand the origins of some our supposed “preferences”. Hopefully one day, when the world’s entire population becomes creolised, characters will be the only deciding factor for who we want to date.

And that’s just right, surely? The author decries the fact that these students use an arbitrary characteristic, rather than someone’s character, to determine who they would like to date. There’s nothing racist about the conclusion, and it can’t be racist to report that people do have these (potentially racist) preferences. This really does seem a storm in a tea-cup, caused by little more than a poor headline and social media hysteria.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously argued with regard to the dos Santos and Tshidi cases, even real racist speech should perhaps not be reported to the HRC, and we certainly shouldn’t feed the pitchfork-wielding mobs of outraged folk on social media, because they’ll simply start feeling more entitled to bully us into silence the more they succeed in doing so. I confess I fell for it too, yesterday, when I described this as “embarrassing” for UCT on Twitter.

It is embarrassing, sure – but it’s also embarrassing that our knees jerk so quickly, and so violently, when anyone mentions the fact that people do still think in racial terms, regardless of the fact that we wish they wouldn’t. Outrage won’t make the problem go away, and neither will pretending that people don’t have attitudes we wish they didn’t.

[Edit]Related: I thought it was a mistake for UCT (the Vice-Chancellor, in fact) to apologise for the “blasphemous” Sax Appeal in 2009. They certainly shouldn’t apologise for this.[/edit]

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.

COSAS is hamster number one

cosaslogoThere is never any reason to expect a new year to be any different from the previous one. The arbitrary shift from December to January is good for a few days off, and for many of us, too much indulgence – but changing minds and attitudes takes longer than that, and isn’t responsive to fireworks and Auld Lang Syne in any case.

So, it’s no surprise to find that – after a mere 5 days of 2013 – we already have (at least) 2 depressing examples of the hamster wheel that is discourse around race in South Africa. Much effort is put into keeping it spinning, but to little effect. And if one hamster dies, another – often indistinguishable from the last – takes its place.

COSAS is hamster number 1. This Black Consciousness movement was formed in the late 70’s to represent black pupils, following the Soweto uprisings. They have many proud moments in their history, regardless of whether you agree with their politics or not. You can read about their history here if you care to. The salient detail for my purposes is that the “organization’s principle aims were the conscientising of students and the wider community to the repressive nature of education in South Africa” (sic).

If you think the construction of that sentence poor, consider this, the first sentence of the recent COSAS statement on the 2012 Matric (Grade 12, the final year of secondary school) results:

The congress of South African students would like to unreservedly welcome the metric result of the class of 2012, this class is the class that reactionary forces anticipated negative outcomes from, as a way to put substance onto their argument which suggest that there is a severe collapse of order in the government that is lead by the ANC, the 2012 result beyond any other thing they are specially recognized by COSAS because they Are a reflection of a narrowing gap in terms of the quality of education between the model c schools and the township and the rural school, and such was made more than visible by the performance of a number of students who scored outstanding result from the lowest quintiles of our schools.

As a friend pointed out, this is a telling example, and “a massive indictment, of what mass education has done for born-free South Africans”. Not to mention proof-positive that COSAS’s work (as quoted above) is not yet done, in that the organisation’s Secretary General is still a clear victim of that repressive education himself.

The statement carries on in that vein (here’s the pdf), and in some respects gets worse when Tshiamo Tsotetsi (the Secretary General) expresses concern that publishing student names and results in newspapers is ill-advised because pupils are then targets for witchcraft: “All of these bad things can come to an end only if these results are no longer published. We would no longer loose our young people through depression or witchcraft.”

One of the leaders of an organisation devoted to improving school education, in other words, believes that children are being lost through witchcraft (and therefore, that witchcraft even exists). And of course, he’s right to some extent, seeing as pupils no doubt believe this too and are therefore victims of something people call “witchcraft”, despite their being nothing supernatural about it at all. But the tragedy is that 12 years of school isn’t sufficient to dispel these superstitions. Or, that nothing in the curriculum teaches skills and principles of reasoning that would help to do so. Worst of all, it’s probable that many teachers believe in witchcraft themselves.

The education system, the Matric results, and the gloating of the Ministry of Basic Education – even in the face of a reality where less than 1 in 3 pupils complete high school – could be the subject of an extended rant. As could hamster number 2, Gillian Schutte, with her recent prescriptive self-flagellation entitled  “Dear White People“. I’ll get to that in a separate post, and for now simply reiterate what I said on first reading her column (with apologies for misspelling Schutte’s last name):

So now non-racialism is racist too

The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) have launched a new advertising campaign. Here’s what many South Africans on Twitter and Facebook have been talking about today:

And in the curious place that is South Africa, this poster is somehow racist. It’s one thing to criticise the very idea of non-racialism – you can argue that a political party that is trying to encourage us leave race out of our analysis is naïve, and you can even argue that non-racialism can’t serve as an antidote to racism because we need to focus on race. But if you believe that race shouldn’t matter, as I do, then highlighting the fact that some people are still inclined to see relationships between different races as wrong – or even simply remarkable – is perfectly consistent with a commitment to non-racialism.

That’s what this poster does. It simply highlights the fact that some people would look twice at an inter-racial couple, and reminds viewers of the poster that in the ideal DASO future, this wouldn’t happen. As I pointed out in a Twitter exchange, my regular interactions with students at the University of Cape Town confirm that it’s simply not true that South Africans don’t need to be reminded that inter-racial relationships are okay. Yes, they (they meaning the DASO target audience, ie. youth) might be well aware that the Immorality Act has been repealed, but this doesn’t mean that social pressure to date people with similar pigmentation has disappeared. It’s still a very real pressure, which I hear about (or overhear people talking about) on a regular basis.

This is perhaps again simply an instance of the Twitterati imagining that they are the only arbiters of good sense and reason, imagining that they speak for everyone. And one is sometimes fearful of that possibility, seeing as the Twitterati can say some profoundly stupid things. I was told, for example, that it’s “racist to presume non-racialism is about who you have sex with”. As I said in reply, this poster is but one example of what non-racialism would entail – namely that nobody would care if people were having an inter-racial relationship.

Was the poster meant to include depictions of every possible instance of non-racialism to avoid being racist? It seems that it should have, which would have made for a pretty large poster. And even if it had tried to, someone would still have come up with something that’s wrong with it. Perhaps the art direction was racist, or perhaps it’s somehow sinister that the DASO logo covers the black woman, and not the man (this is not a joke – someone did say that. It does so happen that the black woman has breasts, which is a more likely contender for why the logo was placed where it was).

Should DASO’s poster have featured two white people? Of course not – that would be racist. Should it have featured two black people? Of course not – that would have been described as desperate. Should it have featured a gay couple, whether inter-racial or not? Perhaps (although that would also have been described as desperate) – but one can understand that they did not, partly because the majority of the market is heterosexual, and partly because they might have been cowed by the amount of (obviously unjustified) offence that would have caused.

What this sort of thing goes to show is that if you want to find a problem, you’ll do so – regardless of the intellectual contortions necessary. As I said at the start of this post, it’s entirely possible that non-racialism is misguided, even impossible. But making the claim that this poster is racist – in the context of inter-racial relationships being an actual issue for some – is an entirely unsympathetic, and unjustifiable, analysis.

UPDATE: The stupid doesn’t stop there. The African Christian Democratic Party say the poster is “shocking” and promotes “sexual immorality”. Furthermore, “in a country with high levels of Aids and an overdose of crime, especially the high incidence of farm murders this year, this poster sends the opposite message to the country than needed”. (Apologies to the ACDP for initially mis-attributing these quotes to them.)

Does it matter if you’re black or white? #CensusSA2011

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

On October 10, be ready to stand up and be counted. Well, you’ll need to stand up at least for as long as it takes to let the enumerator into your home, for that day marks the start of South Africa’s first census since 2001. There’s no question that conducting a full census costs plenty of money – R3 billion is the current estimate – but they also provide valuable information.

Racial nationalism and white guilt

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

Samantha Vice argues (pdf) that whites should feel guilt over apartheid, and also that “blacks must be left to remake the country in their own way”, while whites should live as “quietly and decently as possible”, refraining from offering our views on the racial fractures in the South African experience. Her arguments merit a fuller discussion than I’ll offer here, but those readers who are sympathetic to my views on racism and identity politics will most likely agree that some intuitive opposition to these conclusions can be expected.

First, because framing a complicated situation in terms of clumsy (and in my view, uninformative nearly to the point of meaninglessness) categories such as “white” and “black” encourages an association between people who have nothing in common besides the arbitrary concentration of melanin in their skin. And second, because even if Vice is right that white people should feel guilt, how will anyone know that we feel this guilt, and how can we move past this guilt, unless we express it – thereby violating her preference for us to be silent?

Guilt, shame and regret are certainly part of a spectrum of appropriate responses to having done wrong, and it’s undeniable that a political and economic ruling class – exclusively white – treated black South Africans as a resource to be exploited, rather than as fellow human beings. But even during the worst days of apartheid, some people who were white in appearance were not white in beliefs or behaviour, and I can see little reason to insist that a person like Joe Slovo, for example, should be (or have been) required to feel guilty about his whiteness.

He could feel regret at being associated with other whites, of course. And more to the point, he could feel regret at the ease with which we fall into these binary oppositions of white shame and black anger, whereby the reality of individuals living in a system of economic asymmetry – with class divisions defined by race – is obscured via treating the proxy for class (here, race) as being the route to resolving inequality.

People are angry because they are poor and marginalised. They are not angry because they are black. And those who should feel shame are those who contribute to that inequality and oppression. Many of those people – most of those people – were white, but that’s no longer obviously the case, in that people like Julius Malema are currently doing a fine job of opportunistically exploiting the poor for personal gain.

This is not to say that an awareness of privilege is unimportant. But an awareness of the benefits one might have had (and perhaps in some sectors, continues to have) as a white person, or a male, does not have to invoke shame. What it can do is to inform your outlook and judgements, in that you can be more or less aware of how your assumptions are coloured by that privilege. Someone who is unaware of these biases could, for example, think that it’s (somehow) blackness that causes crime or lower pass-rates at school, rather than poverty or a legacy of unequal education.

Racial nationalism is not a route to eliminating racism. It perpetuates the notion that we are defined by arbitrary characteristics, and imprisons us in worldviews that prop up that notion. And of course, a rise in black nationalism will correlate with a rise in white nationalism, as evidenced by the lionisation of General de la Rey, the prominence of Afriforum, and last week, the assault on Professor Anton van Niekerk in his office at Stellenbosch University.

Prof. van Niekerk wrote an op-ed (in Afrikaans) discussing the musical “Tree Aan!”, which revolves around the lives of soldiers in the South African Border War of 1966 to 1989. His concern related to the Afrikaner nationalism expressed by the musical, and in particular, the way in which the Border War itself is being re-cast as a heroic battle against a communist onslaught rather than a battle to perpetuate white supremacy.

Abel Malan, a member of the Volksraad Selection Committee (VVK), an organisation that hopes to establish an Afrikaner homeland, arranged a meeting with van Niekerk on Tuesday morning. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss the article, but what ensued seems to have been less of a discussion, and more a violent reminder to van Niekerk of the consequences of betraying “his people”. Van Niekerk ended up with several bruises to his face, broken spectacles, and a fair amount of unsolicited interior decorating in his office.

The VVK and other sympathetic groups interpret the events differently. A spokesperson for the Verkenner (Pathfinder) movement claims that Malan was provoked by van Niekerk’s “patronising and insulting words about the Afrikaner”, and the VVK’s Ben Geldenhuys also suspects that van Niekerk “started yelling” at Malan, described as a “reasonable man”. But seeing as Malan apparently told SAPS officers that he “did the job” and an unnamed VVK member apparently said that “Stellenbosch doesn’t have enough security to protect Anton van Niekerk”, it doesn’t seem implausible that Malan was somewhat eager to consider himself provoked.

In one of the more peculiar responses, the website Praag tells us that the “fistfight … can be directly attributed to the division and intolerance which the Naspers monopoly has sown among Afrikaners”. It seems more likely that the assault is the result of Malan and his sympathisers being unwilling to live in a world in which – at least by their lights – their interests and culture are under threat. But this assault exposes the problem with racial nationalism and the politics of identity in general, in that it inclines toward intolerance and extremism.

As any of us who were around during all or some of the decades when the Border War was fought can attest, there was certainly no shortage of hysterical rhetoric regarding the “rooi gevaar”, and the possibility of their being a Communist behind every bush. However, this can’t be allowed to obscure the fact that legislated apartheid began two decades before the war in question, and that the war was precipitated by South Africa’s refusal to withdraw from South-West Africa (Namibia) as well as their implementation of apartheid legislation in that country.

So regardless of the good intentions of some soldiers in this conflict, it cannot easily – or perhaps even plausibly – be characterised as a noble battle to defend democracy and constitutionality from a Communist threat. This is because South Africa was no democracy at the time, and because it was fighting to keep imposing something equally undemocratic on South-West Africa. The fact that Cuba and the Soviets were involved in opposition to South Africa’s goals doesn’t transform those goals into noble ones. This is the message that van Niekerk was trying to convey, and the message that resulted in his attack.

Reading some of the responses to this incident leaves one quite despondent regarding the willingness of some South Africans to even attempt admission of past wrongdoings, or to participate in building a non-racial democratic country. Van Niekerk is a “Lippy Liberal” who has “met his match”, and “hopefully many more will follow”. The Pathfinder movement is “proud of the valour shown by its leaders”. The implausibly named Jéan-Paul Jéan-Jacques Louis-Pierre (which does turn out to be a pseudonym for Mattheus Lötter) asks whether any steps are going to be taken against van Niekerk, seeing as his letter is an “attack on the history of white students”.

Well, sure, it’s is an attack on your history, but that’s only because it’s “your” history rather than simply “history”. And while the actual history can be told in various ways, any honest retelling will expose shameful details regarding the actions of all the nations and political bodies involved. These honest retellings and the conversations that might ensue cannot be silenced, for doing so leaves us unable to move beyond racial nationalism. If anything, it moves us closer to dividing the country into various categories of “us” and “them”, each of those categories no more principled than the last.

So I think white people like Malan certainly should feel shame. Not because of anything to do with their being white, but because they feel compelled to shut their ears to civilised disagreement, and because they are willing to do harm to others upon hearing competing narratives regarding South Africa’s history. It is of course unlikely that he or his sympathisers are capable of shame in this regard, at least for the moment, and there’s little that I – a lippy liberal, no doubt, with Afrikaans heritage to boot – can say to make this point to them.

Except perhaps to say that I understand their fear of black nationalism, but only because I fear racial nationalism in all its forms. We are in the end only – and all – mere people, afraid that our futures might not meet our expectations. But any attempt to secure a prosperous and healthy future that begins with forcing others into silence is likely to fail, and to make us see enemies where they might not exist. There’s no shortage of real enemies, after all – and we find out who they are by talking to each other.

Eastwood does Oprah

A couple of nights ago, the Doctor and I watched a feature-length episode of Oprah directed by Clint Eastwood, titled Invictus. It was somewhat like going to a church service (at least as far as I can recall) where everyone is hopped-up on Ecstasy while trying to channel the spirit of the Dalai Lama – such was the overwhelming schmaltziness of this account of how Mandela saved South Africa with an oval ball. Parts of it were good – here in South Africa, much chattering occurs around the authenticity of accents when movies feature local characters, and both Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon did a good job in this regard. Also, some of the action scenes (rugby scrums and so forth) were appropriately animalistic (in general, though, the rugby scenes were rather devoid of tension or spectacle). But in what appears to be a concerted effort to win a couple of Oscars, Eastwood lays on the cheese to such an extent that at one point the Doctor remarked “this is more than cheesy – it’s an entire fondue!”.

A sad index of life in South Africa (for some)

A month or so ago, Thelma’s father died. Thelma cleans our house every week, and has done so for 7 years. So when she asked to borrow some extra cash to travel to and arrange the funeral, we had no hesitation in helping out, and also resolved to tell her on her return that she should consider the money a gift. Today was her first day back, and at some point in the late morning, she handed S. a piece of paper – a certified copy of her father’s death certificate.

Having experienced a similar bereavement myself (semi) recently, I know the need for such bits of paper well, in terms of winding up estates and transferring bits and pieces of a life into another name. But in this context, it seemed little more than an index of mistrust – the mistrust that many of the people Thelma encounters still today feel towards people in her socio-economic class and – to not beat around the bush – people of her race. Some of her employers may have demanded such a piece of paper – and I couldn’t help wondering if, over the years I’ve known her, I’ve ever given her reason to think I might demand one too.

I think not, and I certainly hope not.