The (unbearable?) whiteness of #ZumaMustFall

It’s an undeniable fact that yesterday’s #ZumaMustFall march in Cape Town was overwhelmingly white. It’s also true that – as I said in my previous post – the “Zuma must fall” hashtag and related tweets have provided an opportunity for some folks to flaunt obviously racist sentiment.

But neither of these features are good reason to dismiss the possibility that many of yesterday’s marchers were fully sincere, aware of their “white privilege” (quotes not because I reject the concept, but because the concept admits to different interpretations), and not at all inconsistent (some have been asking “where were they when the #FeesMustFall marches were happening”, etc.)

First, though, a note on the hashtag #ZumaMustFall itself. I’ve seen comment on social media that this hashtag is an abusive or insulting appropriation of the force generated by the #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall hashtags.

Nonsense. It’s hardly the case that the Rhodes and Fees hashtags were the first to trend in defense of a political goal, and the Zuma one won’t be the last. This is now a standard trope of Twitter and social media in general, and everything is routinely hashtagged.

Whatever your cause is, the hashtag identifying it will rise and fall and rise again, depending on what it’s competing against and the timing of its deployment, and even if RhodesMustFall had never happened but the firing on Nene had, we’d likely have seen #ZumaMustFall – it’s no insult to or appropriation of any other movement.

Second, the criticism of yesterday’s marches as being motivated by “self interest”, where this charge is meant to highlight the contrast between how enthusiastically white Capetonians supported yesterday’s march, and their alleged suspicion or lack of support for the #FeesMustFall and related movements.

I’m sure there were lots of marchers yesterday who are inconsistent in this manner, and who were disparaging and even abusive towards the protests that occurred earlier this year. So yes, there would be some (unknowable) number of potential hypocrites in the marches.

But, you only know if they are hypocrites if a) you think it’s already established that the causes are or should be considered equally worthy of support and b) you know that they were opposed to the other protest movements.

It’s possible to have an argument regarding both these elements, in the sense that a hypothetical person could support some elements of #FeesMustFall and not others, and think that, on balance, they can’t join march X or Y.

You also can’t assume it’s compulsory for anyone to support your cause, and you certainly can’t assume that their lack of visible support means no support for it at all (rather than partial or complex support).

Having said that, of course there is a moral blindness in not seeing that you look like an oblivious and insensitive ass if it takes massive currency depreciation to get you off your ass and into the streets, compared with being roused by the plight of millions of South Africans who are desperate for a fair chance at an education and a fair deal in life.

It’s an empty truism to note that “people only protest when their self-interest is threatened” or somesuch sentiment. Of course they do. But their potential hypocrisy (and, to be clear, actual hypocrisy in many cases) can be treated as a separate issue to whether a particular march or cause is legitimate or not.

And in this case, among all the white protesters worried about the increasing cost of their orders or decreasing value of their international portfolio, there would also have been some who recognise that increased inflation will hurt the poor most of all, and were marching for that reason or related reasons instead.

Then, we might also want to say that any amount of political awareness is surely better than none, and allow for the possibility that once some of those who gathered in the Company’s Garden (yes, very worthy of mockery) will develop more awareness as a result of yesterday’s activity. Baby steps, as they say.

I didn’t join yesterday’s march, partly because I knew how the march and its participants would be perceived, and partly because I was watching the new Star Wars.

Have we really reached a point in our political debate where the overwhelming whiteness of Cape Town’s march was problematic enough that it might somehow be more progressive to go to the movies than to join the march?

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.

16 replies on “The (unbearable?) whiteness of #ZumaMustFall”

I agree with what you say but there were additional reasons for the whiteness of the march (it was more of a gathering). Firstly, it was on a non-work day for most, unlike for example the anti-corruption march earlier this year. There are higher levels of 9-5 employment amongst whites so they found it easier to attend. Secondly there was lack of transport opportunities for people without their own cars. The organisers should have laid on buses from outlying areas as they did for the anti-corruption march. Let’s hope they do so in future.

It’s just that the majority of the population don’t know the extent of the damage Zuma has done to the economy of this country and that they had nothing to gain by the march. They will only see it’s affects in a couple of months time when it will hurt their pockets. But then they will march asking for increases. I don’t think that this march will do anything about removing him as all his back-boneless ministers have agreed that he had done nothing wrong.

Wow that is badly written and full of assumptions. I for one full supported the students marches once i understood their grievances properly. Secondly its a capricious to say that white people only reacted because their money was affected. They acted because it was the last straw. I personally got involved because for the first time, i saw black and white both finally agreeing on something and wanting to work for change. Furthermore, the issue is what should be the focus, not the colour of the peoples skin! Comments on twitter like “Any March that is dominated by one race, is then racist” The comment used to try discredit yesterdays march. Oh really genius, then has every march before been racist against white people? I think not. Clearly we have a problem. Clearly we as a country have been dealt a blow. What amazes me is that instead of supporting the white people for finally getting of their privileged asses and getting involved, they are attacked for nothing more than being white and have their privilege shoved in their faces. I will march again. I will shout at the top of my lungs till i am heard. Why not support me, because i want the same thing you do. My fing white skin should have nothing to do with it.

Well, it’s certainly badly-read, regardless of the quality of the writing. You’ve missed the point in a spectacular fashion, seeing as I’m criticising exactly the assumptions you’re ranting about.

Re read it and I retract my statement about it being badly written. The rest i guess just adds to your point.

Thank you, Jacques.

I wonder how many of the people labelling others who chose to attend the march as “hypocrites” also marched with the #FeesMustFall students, marched for the victims of Marikana, etc.? Unless they marched for those causes themselves surely they too are hypocritical if they criticise others who did not.

I have a feeling that sometimes we are going around in circles. For example, some black people have said they avoid the Franschhoek Literary Festival because it is “too white”, but the FLF remains “too white” because black people avoid it. Same with the march yesterday. It was too white because many people of other races chose to stay away, although seemingly they supported the cause. Why? As far as I’m aware, the marches were organised under the auspices of Section 27, an apolitical organisation that is not ‘white’.

Does anyone know what the racial demographics were like at the march in honour of Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu which took place around the same time?

Absolutely right that the issue remains valid irrespective of the prevailing pigmentation of the marchers.

The defense response reinforces that by focusing on the red herring of “whiteness” rather than the character and competence of the person under question! I saw no comments along the lines of, “you’re wrong the President is an excellent leader”. Why not use #1’s achievements to slay the white dragons?

Also the critics provide no clarity on when you should march for the first time, on turning 18 you must march every time there is an issue? If you miss one because of… a relative is on their deathbed, your church is in session, or that Mnet show (oops middle class bias showing thru) is repeating, then it invalidates all future marches? Heaven forbid you’re watching the All Blacks in protest against Apartheid and Heyneke and someone marches? Or two different marches happen at the same time…

But what is missed by most is exactly that black faces were absent. It’s a false assumption that absence equals anything! What does it mean when your average black dude that wasn’t constrained by chores, transport, family matters doesn’t pitch? Perhaps like Jedi’s that person saw where it was going and decided opposition does not equal a stroll along a street? What if I’m conflicted between the man and the party and attendance is misconstrued as opposition to the party?

What is significant is that whites did march, that blacks didn’t march and that no-one is debating the qualities of the man! Which means… everyone agrees the person isn’t the right person in the right place & time?

I disagree with a previous commentator that it’s a poor piece! I think it’s a vital piece!

One can understand that criticism of this protest is in part driven by justifiable resentment – how nice to be able to protest only because you couldn’t get a ticket to Star Wars, as opposed to because you can’t even afford a ticket to Star Wars.
And the difficulty for white people who understand their privilege is that there is often no obvious way to distinguish your actions from the similar actions of people who don’t understand, except to abstain altogether (and maybe add to the chorus of criticism). It’s a discomfort I am fortunate enough to be able to afford, and am willing to afford because I understand (a bit).
But the easiest response to criticism you don’t understand is to avoid it altogether. Collateral damage isn’t always avoidable, but maybe the country could benefit from being a little bit more patience with the naive but well-meaning. I think also of the #IAmStellenbosch crowd, who didn’t ‘get it’ but were at least willing to put themselves out there with what seemed like a noble motive.

Were the marches of the #FeesmustFall not inspired by ‘self interest’?
I have been to Europe several times during the last 30 years. The Europeans, without the “benefit” of black exploitation were and are on average decidedly more wealthy then the whites of SA. The same obviously applies to the US and I believe to Australia. While the whites in this country were obviously privileged compared to the other races, on the whole the policy of apartheid was wealthwise disastrous for the whites. I am saying this to put ‘white privilege’ in perspective.

As I say in the post, of course any march is driven – at least in part – by self-interest. But having said that, putting white privilege “in perspective” is often part of the problem, because doing so often involves denying how influential or important it is in any analysis of South African politics. It doesn’t matter how disastrous it might have been for some whites, because that’s morally trivial compared to how disastrous it was – and is – for black South Africans.

I agree, Jacques, the only reason I brought it up is so often the issue of white privilege is accompanied by a sub-text of “if it wasn’t for the exploitation of the blacks, whites would have been much poorer, they wouldn’t have achieved what they have”. In MHO that is a fallacy. And I think that doesn’t apply to some whites only but most of them in general.
One would have hoped that by now, after 21 years, most of the preciously disadvantaged would have achieved some measure of decent living. There is now a middle class which, according to Leon Louw, is already larger than the white population, but there are still many millions who live in abject poverty, mainly thanks to economic, labour and education policies which stymie economic growth and concommitant employment. Not to mention the billions lost due to corruption and theft.

That is the most horrific revision of fact that I have ever heard. Whites all over the world are beneficiaries of the blood, sweat and tears of other races. Ask yourself what they are doing being citizens of Africa.

Zuma must fall is the same as Mbeki must fall or any other black leader.. White people tolerated Mandela because of what he could mean to them in regards to privilages acquired under Apartheid..So it doesn’t care who it is as long if it is an African person serving the interest of all in the country, he must fall because that means white interest are not up in front.. This cant be good for whites so they must fall Devide and rule.. demonise them,,,, corrupt ,,,incompetent and all this negative attributes are given to black leaders so they must fall. Only black leaders that promote white interest are promoted like the Buthalezis ,,Shangaries .. Savimbis and so on,,, they are held up high.. So like the Arab spring Zuma must fall are all creations to serve white interest..

I support all these calls and accept that some are more selective. So what? If I define myself by never doing anything hypocrites do, I am allowing THEM to define me.

And the movie? Give us a review.

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