CHRIS ROPER: Race to the bottom
Much of the nuance of discussions of race and racism is lost in the noise of social media — and of populists looking to make political capital
There are a few hot-button subjects that you avoid if you’re a columnist restricted to 1,200 words. For example, while you could make some interesting points about the debates around trans rights and feminism, it’s such a fraught and complicated field that only the foolhardy or the deeply committed would try.
It’s fine if you’re on one side or the other, but if you’re attempting nuance, empathy and the uneasy evolution of meaning, well, forget it. This is one of those areas where the necessary caveats and disclaimers would outnumber the actual words about the topic.
Another area is racism, where the setup around who is allowed to speak, about what, and to whom, is both essential and ephemeral.
And yet there seems to be no shortage of people out there who are talking about it, sometimes in the most reductive terms imaginable. These range from those reacting to it, to those indignantly refusing to confront it in themselves.
We’re not that interested in the latter’s travails, though it is quite amusing to make fun of those who have discovered that delicious, self-serving paradox that is "reverse racism". I’m not sure that, to those who use the phrase to angrily push back at redressing structural inequalities, the term "reverse" means quite what they want it to. And I’m damned sure they don’t know what racism means.
The followers of the EFF, those doughty defenders of tea parties, are very quick to pick on any chink in the media’s ethical armour. They see racism everywhere, and are quick to demand retribution.
Most recently, they picked up on a slip of the tongue by Newzroom Afrika’s Stephen Grootes, who inadvertently said the EFF’s Julius Malema and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi had "killed" Lt-Col Johannes Venter. The two were actually in court to answer charges of assault.
At Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s funeral in April 2018, they were accused of pushing Venter, a member of the presidential protection services, after he wouldn’t let the two drive into the cemetery where Madikizela-Mandela was being buried.
Grootes’s was an unfortunate, live slip of the tongue, and you could probably argue that it reveals an unconscious bias against Malema, a man famous, of course, for dressing in red and telling us that he and the ANC Youth League would be "prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma". And given that the EFF is overly fond of casting itself as an attack force of fighters, you might think that it was the violence it propagates that was more of a spur than racism.
The way people are tossing around accusations of racism can, at times, seem to be about achieving devious ends, rather than improving civil society
Grootes and Newzroom Afrika immediately apologised, but that wasn’t enough for Malema, who tweeted: "I accept no apology from a racist boy. He needs to be taught a lesson. They [sic] should be a consequence in every racist act."
Ndlozi weighed in with: "I’ll tell you where the word that we killed Venter comes from: your bloody unrepentant racist psyche which always sees black activists as Die Swart Gevaar! F**k your apology."
The EFF has a proud history of calling out racist language and actions, and will push for retribution where other political parties are more inclined to sweep things under the carpet. It serves a vital purpose in SA politics, as the party that doesn’t seek reconciliation but retribution. Its approach is scattershot, but consistent. They don’t accept half-hearted apologies, though they don’t really accept heartfelt ones either most of the time.
Some commentators look at issues such as the Grootes slip of the tongue, and think of the fable of the young person who cried wolf. To refresh your memory: it’s the tale of a young shepherd who keeps tricking villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking their sheep. When a wolf does appear and the young shepherd calls for help, the villagers don’t believe him, and the wolf eats the sheep and, in some versions of the fable, the young shepherd as well.
The difference with the EFF crying wolf is that, in the SA scenario, there actually are wolves everywhere, and they keep taking vicious bites out of the sheep daily.
For the EFF, this is like shooting racists in a barrel. (Disclaimer: that’s a metaphor, I’m not saying the EFF shoots people!) The wolves of racism are everywhere, and in most cases, happily carrying on being racist while wearing a fake rainbow collar and pretending to be domesticated.
But is the example of Grootes an actual wolf, or just the EFF crying wolf for political reasons?
In many ways, this is not a question for me to answer, so I won’t try. And the more discerning among you will probably want to point out, right after screaming "Political correctness gone mad!", that the fable is actually called "The boy who cried wolf", not "The young person who cried wolf".
But when you have the EFF standing behind a twitching curtain, waiting to pounce, you need to be extra careful. Even though I might think using a fable to analyse the party’s strategy is a perfectly respectful thing to do, we live in a social media world now. If 1,200 words isn’t enough to explain intent, trying to do it in a 280-character tweet is futile.
Malema’s insult to Grootes, calling him "a racist boy", is an illustration of how that word can be used to hurt, and of how Malema presumably understands its deployment.
Some of us might think this is a case of a populist party aggressively shutting down freedom of expression, and depriving people of their right to speak their mind without fear. I see it differently. The world isn’t divided into wolves and sheep, but sheep with teeth and sheep without. The fact that we have to question even the most entrenched and seemingly innocuous of our linguistic and cultural assumptions is, essentially (and I use that word advisedly), the primary way we change our society and move it forward.
Talking about political alarmism, Samuel Croxall, one of the editors of Aesop’s Fables, wrote: "When we are alarmed with imaginary dangers in respect of the public, till the cry grows quite stale and threadbare, how can it be expected we should know when to guard ourselves against real ones?"
That’s true, to a degree. The way people are tossing around accusations of racism can, at times, seem to be about achieving devious ends, rather than improving civil society. One thinks of the accusations of racism against Eskom CEO André de Ruyter by suspended chief procurement officer Solly Tshitangano, which seem peculiarly well-timed.
But I don’t think that this will happen in SA, a country where the real wolves outnumber the imaginary ones by far, and where a continual focus on changing that is the only way we have a chance of fighting the seemingly unquenchable appetite for racist behaviour of some of our citizens.
We’re clever enough to spot the political opportunism for what it is, without letting it cheapen the reality of our fractured, fractious society.
- Roper is on the editorial advisory board for Newzroom Afrika
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