Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Dear white supremacists,

Dear white supremacists,

Ok, I lied, this isn’t a letter to white supremacists, it’s about them. Because to be frank, their entire game plan is to be the voice for a privileged, self righteous community of bigots. So the less you listen to them the less power they have. However, this doesn’t mean they should be left in peace. In my opinion, here’s why.

The racism that counts in South Africa is structural racism, the way in which after apartheid poor black people, who were disenfranchised as a group, are being left to resolve a violently unfair status quo as individuals. Don’t get me wrong, this is more complex than white to black. The ANC has Lindiwe Sisulu saying under-40 year olds shouldn’t get houses, as if the effects of apartheid just magically vanish.

However, the fact is that in SA us white people have a hugely skewed degree of economic clout, so our prejudices do have an impact. Take Cape Town’s top chop, JP Smith, who was apparently cool with  the  R7mill spent on toilets around the Greenpoint stadium area for the World Cup, while allegedly the budget for new toilets in informal settlements this year for the entire city is R20mill. If poor people want to not be raped on the way to poo they should move to Greenpoint. Why can’t they pull their shit together man? The logic that it’s OK to have millions spent on parks in one part of Cape Town, while other parts of Cape Town are still stuck in the 1980s is classic structural racism. The logic that the golf course in Greenpoint hasn’t been turned into low cost housing so poor people can be near work is structural racism. The cultural battle in SA is for us to expose this at every turn, to denormalize privilege.

The problem is that the idea of relative white wealth and black poverty have become everyday, so we don’t see the insanity in front of us. The trouble with this, in my view, is that the most outrageous prejudice becomes acceptable, and asking for common sense to prevail starts sounding radical.
Take talk radio. The overriding social agreement is that everyone should have a say and we should all cumulatively take the outcome of this ‘debate’ as reasonable. This is classic liberalism, the belief in equality. Of course it’s very, very prejudiced, because it assumes that everyone has the resources (time, airtime, access to public platforms, etc) and therefore the same voice. We don’t, and pretending that we do allows the debate to be severely skewed in favour of those with resources, which in South Africa is violently problematic. 

It’s how we can have someone SMSing 702/Cape Talk to say shack dwellers should build their shacks further apart to avoid fires and that they have no respect for people who don’t look after themselves (true story). Because you know how much choice people in shacks have over where to live. In this case Redi Tlhabi and a few callers came down heavily on this imbecile. The trouble, however, is for the most part media platforms do not reject such madness, because we want to seem open minded, and think everyone should have a say. As a result the internal logic of SA’s middle class public debate is often profoundly anti-poor and in turn structurally racist.

Enter white supremacists. As an example take Steve Hofmeyr, a hugely successful wealthy white South African entertainer, who tweeted the other day that “Sorry to offend but in my books Blacks were the architects of apartheid. Go figure”. Of course we all went at him, giving him the exact profile he needs in the conservative apartheid-missing community that pays his bills. I even had one guy suggest I should give Steve a chance to explain himself, because even bigots need a chance.

Let’s look at the facts. Steve has consistently expressed denial over his privilege and over apartheid. He has allegedly said he doesn’t think Sharpeville was a human rights atrocity, he gives his white audiences apartheid hard-ons by singing Die Stem at every available opportunity, he consistently regurgitates untruths about white poverty and violent crime on farms ( has blown his lies out of the water). His language, Afrikaans, is one of the most spoken in SA, but he acts like it’s vanishing, partly because the majority of Afrikaans speakers in SA are black. Steve Hofmeyr is one amongst many cultural pillars in the architecture of how white South Africans maintain the spoils apartheid gave us. This last one, “Blacks were the architects of apartheid”, is full blown apartheid denial, no matter how you spin it. He, of course, has the right to express his opinion, however if he is maintaining a bigoted status quo this should come with social consequences, severe ones. The normalization effects of this thinking are let off the hook by our society getting enraged but effectively doing nothing.

He can say what he wants, but companies and sponsors should be taken to task for their tacit support. For example, in a few weeks Steve will be appearing at the Afrikaans is Groot festival sponsored by Land Rover and Pick n Pay. Are these brands cool with being associated with an apartheid denialist and white supremacist? Would they be cool with paying for a Holocaust denialist to perform? Corporate South Africa never had to explain their collusion with apartheid, so the very, very least they can do is refuse a platform to its most prominent denialist. In simple terms, the status quo is biased and changing that requires taking a stand.

We cumulatively called on his bakkie sponsor, Williams Hunt, to recall the car in the light of his bigotry, they did so. Of course, this brings up the question of censorship. Steve should be free to say what he likes, but we should be free to reject any degree of normalization within that. On twitter his followers have this delightfully ignorant term “libtard”, which, because combining “liberal” and “retard” is the limit of their wit. Ironically, what I am suggesting is that we are too liberal (or perhaps not liberal enough), and as a result prejudiced. His followers believe in power without conscience, but want the liberal idea of balanced ‘debate’ accorded him. Debating Steve Hofmeyr is pointless, he’s to stupid to know he’s stupid, and in social discourse that is already anti-poor just skews towards more bigotry. I believe the answer is ostracism. His supporters need to stop being such libtards.

In a similar vein I believe the people running our various media platforms need to be far more assertive about how they handle the blatant racism that happens there (the white homeland that is Media24's comments section), and radio presenters should expose caller bigotry far more assertively, issues which would require more thought than I am aiming for here. Who calls the shots on what is sayable is always dangerous.

One other term in the arsenal of white supremacist language is “politically correct”, the idea that one must curtail your opinions because of social sanction. Ironically what I am saying is be less politically correct, be rude to the powerful. It’s much harder than the crap that masquerades as non-PC, which in truth usually plays directly into the hands of those with power. Of course this applies as much to my own work as it does to Steve Hofmeyr, so if I ever say: “Blacks were the architects of apartheid”, feel free to boycott me.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

An open letter to 'Diversity'.

I hate the word ‘diversity’. It’s usually a lame attempt to whitewash any actual dialogue, because if you have a problem with an unjust status quo, and reject the ‘let’s all get along’ Cool Aid, then you have defined yourself as being against diversity, unicorns and rainbows.

In the last few weeks I have performed at Potchefstroom University, Nelson Mandela Bay University and the University of Stellenbosch, and do many corporate gigs, radio and TV interviews, and my own one man shows, all relating to this painfully weird topic. The problem is I am not certain what the way forward is.

I did comedy at Stellenbosch on the same day the university decided to let off the blackface people. Yes, my career is explosively ironic. I pointed out that us white South Africans seem to often opine that 20 years is enough to fix apartheid, but for some reason we don’t all think its enough for students to realize that we shouldn’t be putting shoe polish on our faces. Do we need a blackface patrol: “Groenewald, step away from the nugget”? And yes, Comrade Chester told me (I told myself, in case you haven’t gotten the hang of this ventriloquism thing) that the reason he and I were there is because this is the one place on earth where they let you off for blackface. I also said that diversity is another way of saying “the black people are coming”, because we all suspect where Stellenbosch University’s cultural normative setting is calibrated to.

Then again, the problem with this entire thing is simplistic narratives, which include simplistic narratives of black victims and white oppressors. I later found out that many of the people who initially chose the seemingly all white comedy at Stellenbosch ‘Diversity’ Week this year were Black (politically).

The problem with diversity discourse is that it usually excludes any real discussion of power and history. What it does is force through a socially acceptable solution that really just silences those without power. Diversity is a product of the post-94 Rainbow Nation rhetoric, of the discourse that Born Frees are becoming post-racial, and that us old (I am 37) bigots all just need to get over it.

The problem is that young people living in shacks with no opportunity of work are Born Free in the same way free range chickens are free, and the discourse that they are free is in many ways tantamount to apartheid denial. Don’t get me wrong, there is loads of evidence that also places much lack of progress strongly at the feet of the ruling party and their economic schizophrenia, but that’s only part of the picture, and racism towards the ANC is an old habit that’s easiest solved if acknowledged. My point though is that for myself, a white apartheid beneficiary to even begin talking about diversity requires us to look, with ruthless honesty, at why I am not the one living in a shack.

That being said, there are loads of places where kids and adults don’t have apartheid’s emotional baggage, but the truth is these environments are often very middle class, and often require huge degrees of obliviousness to real world dynamics. We can love each other in an historical conscious way, but just because you live in Ubuntuland doesn’t mean at all that you have really solved the problem.

Part of the problem is that normalized western culture, in which white people have had by far the most powerful say, disguises itself as ‘normal’, when in fact it is extremely culturally specific. That’s why angry activist types rant about whiteness hiding itself, because they are right.

To use a misogynist, but expressive phrase, the inability by many white South Africans to acknowledge their/our own privilege and footdragging about making it an essential part of the diversity discussion is cockblocking getting anywhere in this debate. If you have been watching, this is exactly what Helen Zille most needs to deal with in her denialist version of non-racialism.

In real terms this means that when I stand there in front of students of all races at one of these ‘diversity’ events I have to be hard on my own white privilege, and that of the audience, so that the discussion can continue. This gets awkward, because, while I would really, really like to have more chilled, relaxed fun humour about ‘diversity’, what I would effectively be doing is letting our whiteness off its sneaky hook. I, being a part of that system, cant afford to do that. A black comedian could, perhaps. However, I being a white guy saying this, with his puppet as a dramatic device (see last post for THAT discussion), do have a certain impact, because it can, maybe, create social pressure for other white people to be more reflexive… oh the halo that I bear.

So here’s my problem. At the one event a white lady with her “coloured” friend felt I had been too strong in dealing with the students’ white privilege. She said “I had my friend to help me understand that I benefitted [and am benefitting] from apartheid” (again see last post if you think this is at all in question. It isn’t.). In other words, we must be gentler on white people because then they are more likely to get it, as though black people haven’t been insanely tolerant enough already. And I am not condoning mindless abuse (trust me, I have had my fair share), or any sort of generalized idea that you can say anything about white people apart from the simple fact of privilege.

The trouble is, that’s exactly where this whole rainbow nation screw up started, people not being frank with white people that yes, political power has been opened up, but the conversation is far, far from over. The problem, as always, is that the more I say what white people are uncomfortable to hear the less they will want to listen, and the more I cushion it the less honest the conversation becomes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of white people who completely get it right, in my head-up-my-own-ass-anthropological-opinion, but then again there are many who do not. In fact there are many black people who are also oblivious to how apartheid affected their lives, and who have mastered our prejudices well, ahem, Jimmy Manyi. And, no I do not feel guilty about apartheid, because it really wasn't my choice. How I respond to it, however, is. So, how do we drive a way forward that builds consciousness, but also builds reconciliation?

I had a senior DA politician tell me he agrees with my main drive, but that part of the problem is that white people are scared. Let’s call it the Oscar Pistorius Syndrome. The evidence is overwhelming that they don’t need to be scared, and to be honest how much time should we be spending reassuring a section of our population who has been getting special treatment for 350 years?

So, I still don’t know how to create reconciliation. I suspect it has something to do with ‘nation building’, but this is now way above my paygrade. Maybe I should become a veejay, because they seem to know fucking everything.

* As a footnote, I know Andile Mngxitama would say, its simple, reconciliation can only happen when we return what was stolen. I respect and in many ways buy that argument, if not the strategy, but with 6% the EFF can’t expropriate farms, they can just do timeshare.
* For those of you wanting to go on about ‘reverse racism’, watch this: