Wednesday, 2 September 2015

We are all Clive Naidoo: class, language, race and prejudice

I was going the post this, then I wasn’t going to, then… whatever. These are thoughts in progress.

Why are 62% of Stellenbosch’s students still white, 21 years after the fall of apartheid? Who the hell allowed that to stay so unchanged? We did, that’s who, from our homes in Bloubosrand and co.
Look at Clive Naidoo’s arrogance at the personable black cop. SA’s economic story is a cross racial class alliance that has cultural, racial and gendered intersections that we just don’t talk about.

Comedy being my area, allegedly, let’s go there. The reason stereotypical, working class black accents are funny for corporate office type people, at least most of them, is that that is not the language of the middle class (yeah, I know there are some who think that was Chester’s vibe… it wasn’t, in fact quite the opposite, but nationalists will be nationalists. See my next show, Missing, for the next step).

Middle class Indian, black, coloured and white people lurve laughing at the accented other. Working class Afrikaners and working class Zulus alike. The difference of course being that working class Afrikaners had apartheid on their side, which is all the difference. That was one major driver of Afrikaner nationalism and eventually apartheid, to uplift white working class from cross-racial class alliances and competition. English people love laughing at working class Afrikaans accents and tropes, because we think we are more evolved, and middle class black people in Joburg love laughing at people from Limpopo, for very similar reasons.

Our power is in our gaze. Those who give us the right social cues get access, respect and trust. Those who don’t get ignored, sidelined and laughed at. Of course, with white people being 5 times wealthier than black people (Census 2011), and with 70% senior management positions, the power of enculturation and assimilation is still very biased towards white tastes. You have to talk and act more like the people with power, not the other way round, which is where white people culturally still have power, as has been so brilliantly explained by better writers than me. This doesn’t mean that white people are somehow bad– no, we do have economic clout because of an unjust history. What’s bad is when we pretend that isn’t the case and don’t try to fix it.

This class-race intersectionality means all sorts of things get ignored by all sorts of people.
For example:

1) An inspiring conversation that seems to be happening is of the actual experience of black people in white dominated schools, universities and workplaces. It brings out human, tangible micro-political truths of the brutality of subtle and not-so-subtle racism and the dominance of cultural assimilation. For e.g. that generation of black kids being the first in previously white schools have stories of alienation that gives humanity and texture to more generalized statements about racism. Those stories make the problem understandable to white ignorance… if that were an aspiration. I think that’s what made Luister so powerful.

2) There is a conversation among some middle class black people about rejecting whiteness – they haven’t been tamed vibes. Great! How far is this conversation going? My life is full of middle class black (of all apartheid race types) audiences who happily laugh at working class / Other accents and stereotypes, and who support proudly comedians who give them that fix. It’s like a reverse of the DA problem. Ignoring class and culture hides the white supremacy in our midst, black. It’s all very well to reject whiteness. That’s not a conversation for this white guy, however, I would like to see more writing from the opinionati about the actual micro-political ways people are Otherised in our environment. Because I think that’s where the battle actually lies.

3) I have stopped making Mmusi Maimane sounds white jokes, because in my opinion black people sound how black people sound. To tell Pabi Moloi she sounds white is to pretend that there is an essentialised black truth. My theory of jokes is to reject that as prejudiced, but balance it with an acknowledgment of how power affects how people are expected to sound, whiteness, class, access to education, etc.

4) I imagine some readers have their backs up at this white dude making comments about blackness. The problem is that in the real world audiences are not split, the lines of prejudice don’t happen in neat little boxes. To pretend they do is the domain of armchair critics who never have to actually face the actual prejudices, and cross-gender-sexuality-race-class-ethnic intersectionality of real SA. That’s my beef with bloggers and writers. Comedians have to face real world audiences, not just post and wait for approval on Facebook. However it also means we can be far more prejudiced.

5) For example, I went on stage at a corporate event a while back after a black comic told the mixed, but mainly white audience he’s likely to stab them. If my comedy should question these norms, how does splitting this conversation into neat little camps of black and white stuff help? My angle is deal with my privilege and then game on.

6) In that line I think we need more of a conversation on what makes an environment Afrocentric, because just having black people present doesn’t mean it’s accessible to all black people. Just because there are women there doesn’t mean its feminist. It’s just a vital start.

In the end I am saying we need more Luister and less Clive Naidoo. Or perhaps we should all be Clive Naidoos and film our intersectional race-class-ethnic prejudice for the world to see?

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Dear America, let's talk about Trevor...

Dear America,

This week I did loads of interviews, weirdly, about another comedian. Here's what I would say to you about it:

So some of your citizens, America, are going nuts at a few dodgy tweets from Trevor Noah, understandably, but not without irony. Bear in mind, they are from the same country that produces Achmed the dead Muslim guy puppet and the homophobia and sexism conventions that are comedy roasts. Of course the host of the Daily Show needs to be held to higher standards, but can we get some perspective please?

Trevor’s success is reason to celebrate. He is the product of 21 years of cultural adjustment in our country, and by the sounds of it huge shifts in the US. As Chris Rock tweeted “thank you Barak Obama”.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying don’t criticize. In fact the annoying thing about the U.S. Trevor crits is that they are so useless. Trevor’s hugely popular comedy here frequently relies on stereotypical depictions of black and ‘coloured’ (local term for mixed race, which he identifies with and then doesn’t as suits him) identity, and hyping up accents to make middle class people laugh, although this is interspersed between self-reflexive culturally aware brilliance. From what I can see what he does for you focuses more on the brilliance part. The fact is that he has jumped massive cultural hurdles to bring an international, Africanist view to mainstream US platform, and in so doing is breaking barriers we would never have imagined possible. Be honest, his Daily Show stuff so far has been brilliant and the genre has had plenty of white men.

You need to understand what a massive shift this is. Before 1994 doing stand up comedy in South Africa was the reserve of white men, because we had this little problem you may have heard of called ‘apartheid’.  In other words Trevor could not have existed before 21 years ago, or a while after for that matter, because black people were being given shovels, not mics. Many of them still are.

It also meant that until 21 years ago we had almost no progressive comedy audiences, outside of a relatively small clique of liberals, and then usually very white. There was basically no black stand up comedy, because speaking truth meant jail. When our current top black stand ups were starting out post-apartheid (e.g Marc Lottering, David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, and later Loyiso Gola) they played to almost exclusively white audiences, white audiences who had for generations been fed apartheid’s version of blackness.

In comedy you need to position yourself in relation to your audience. It gives you a stance to talk from, and a reason for them to laugh. The problem with this is that they can only understand you in terms that they relate to – it structures what options you have as a comedian. If you want to middle class white (and nowadays black too to be honest) audiences to like you with minimum effort then feed them the material full of simplistic ‘black’ (in SA read working class here also) accents  / stereotypes and they will scream and clap. To get them to rethink their opinions takes cultural gymnastics, something we have gotten very good at in my opinion.

For example back in the 2000s a top black comic called David Kau started a comedy show called “Blacks Only”, ironically named after apartheid signifiers. This roadshow now pulls in excess of 3500 people a time a few times a year around the country with very little marketing. Comedians now have space to build and develop acts, and to make a living out of telling jokes without needing to bend over backwards to deal with oblivious audiences. So, Comrade America, you had a bit of a head start, for the most part.

Our comedians are making enough money to travel overseas to spend enough time there to translate over insanely complex cultural gaps. Some here would ask why? They believe we should be more Africanist, which is a good point. In SA have 11 official languages, and extremely complex racial dynamics, so developing material you, America, will understand is extraordinarily difficult. Bear in mind, when your comics come here your world view has been explained to us over decades. You, on the other hand, have only just got a glimpse of us.

Trevor is a product of his own hard work and a collective effort that has spanned two decades of democracy. Think about that before you try tear him down please.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Another privileged white guy commenting on Rhodes statue.

I know, another white guy talking about Rhodes, just what we all really needed. However, there are a few small culture points, and a blog by the Cliffster that I though worth commenting on, so here I go.

Uncle Gareth Cliff’s blog on this Rhodes statue business points out that “It is a hollow victory to defeat those already dead”. Of course, if the fight is only with the dead then why write a blog? He made it with the living the moment he commented.

My own view is that UCT student Chumani Maxwele is winning a cultural battle, and he’s winning because he played smart. Transforming an entire university in one fell swoop is such a huge task that taking it on at once in totality effectively drowns your objective. The powers that be will be able to throw a million grinding excuses, and the arguments will take so long to carry through that eventually the media, and the mobilized public will lose interest, concentration and understanding.

What Chumani did was attack the symbolic heart of the university, or to be more precise, he endowed a statue with this status, and then proceeded to do the completely unreasonable. He threw poo at it. Throwing poo breaks all the rules. It defines his arguments as outside of common good taste and acceptable debate. Simplistic understandings will see this purely as populist grandstanding, which it is, but to do so ignores the actual cultural power structures at play. That’s why it creates so much upset, and in turn media attention. That is exactly how you create pressure for change.

UCT has been faced with pressure for change for years now. In fact it’s part of the mechanisms of UCT’s power structure that people loudly protest about lack of change, then some white liberals who always seem to be in charge wring their hands, and then nothing changes. The trouble with subscribing to normal strategies in this is that they all almost always get subsumed by the Foucaultian logic of the situation: “yes, we all agree, change should happen faster, sad face, sad face”. The domain of Truth remains unscathed, or changing with glacial slowness. At least that's how it looks from the outside.

Chester Missing interviewed Chumani for this week’s LNN, expecting to tease him about throwing poo, as he had done with Ses’Khona’s Loyiso Nkohla in the past. Chumani’s devastatingly direct answer showed the genius, intended or unintended, behind the poo. He said it is a reminder of the truth, the bucket, portaloo and unsafe public toilets the poorest students and Cape Townians face, that their wealthier, and often whiter fellows do not. This symbol, thrown against the statuesque symbol of white liberal apathy re inequality, and inherited wealth (in social capital and actual) brings one to the simple brutal truth of unequal experiences of education in the Western Cape. If you grew up at the feet of this statue, you are very unlikely to have faced what Chumani was referencing, which he well knows.

Of course, the cynics will argue that the statue doesn’t represent anything and that the students are just looking for attention. The thing is that maybe the statue didn't represent anything until a few weeks ago (I think it did), but it definitely does now. That's why this is clever.

This is why Gareth Cliff’s blog post so ‘monumentally’ misses the point. I have had my run ins with Gareth in the past, so I would rather be less of an insult-troll now, and I like the guy, chronic cultural obliviousness notwithstanding. The problem with cultural obliviousness is that it perpetuates privilege, and eventually racism.

Gareth argues, as many white types seem to be doing, that if we start tearing down symbols then we should tear down the new statue of King Shaka as well. While Shaka was his own kind of bastard this argument is ridiculous.

To put it simply, if Shaka had colonized Europe and we were debating taking his statue down in Leicester Square, while his descendents still earned on average 6 times the native British people, and their children were being educated in the language of the conquerors, then we can start comparing. To pretend otherwise is effectively historical denial.

Gareth also argues that many of American historical cultural icons and first presidents were slave owners. Yes, David Chappelle has a whole routine about his discomfort with that. We are, and I know this will come as a surprise to some, living in Africa. Why should Africans accept the cultural icons of their colonizers? And why should us colonizers expect them to? Cecil John Rhodes entire concept was about forcing his culture on people. He would quite happily have pulled down a statue of Shaka, if such statues had been Zulu culture at the time. Europeans did all they could to separate Africans from their culture, so let’s get off our high horses. In Rhodes’ case literally.

Another dominant discourse, as seen in newspaper letters columns from disgruntled UCT alumni, snootily says that these students should be studying and not moaning about statues. Yup, that’s what you say when it’s your guy’s statue that’s there. How that isn’t obvious is utterly beyond me.
Of course, if we were the ones whose lives had been disadvantage by this we would be screaming blue murder. If AfriForum and Steve H are even remotely a measure of how white people behave when they feel slightly oppressed, can you imagine how we would have treated a statue of people who gave us passbooks, a Land Act and Umlungustans?

Another silly example people give is that of the UK being scattered with statues of William the Conqueror, and they’re not tearing them down. Before I slam my head into a wall, can we just agree that modern Britain is not at all, even slightly like South Africa? The 5 million or so white descendents of William the Conqueror and henchman don’t still own most of that country’s wealth, like we do here. The conquered are not still living in their millions in shacks on sand dunes on the edge of the city. Really man. How stupid can people get?

(Yes, I know the statue isn’t changing that, but if even transforming a statue is resisted, how long will wealth take?)

Another issue is the idea that taking away the statue will take away history. That’s just plain offensive. Poor South Africans don’t have to be reminded of Rhodes’ legacy. They feel it every time they catch trains, taxis and buses to homes miles from where they work, to live on land that was taken from them by people like or directly connected to the guy in the statue. Only a privileged twat would think they need a lump of metal to remind them of Rhodes’ legacy. Besides, put the statue in a museum. Problem solved. As far as I am concerned the statue itself doesn't remind us of history, it hides it.

Finally, yes, we know there are bigger issues than this. Yes, we know removing the statue does very little in real terms. The point is that a cultural shift needs to happen and it needs to start somewhere. Let it be here. Of course some would argue that this statue thing subverts real change. What change? Apparently 4% of full professors in SA are black South Africans. Even that frikking statue is resisting transformation.

Many white people time and time again seem to overlook the impact of language, social and cultural skills in education, because in cultural terms higher education in South Africa is calibrated towards our comfort. Imagine all universities were first language isiXhosa or SiPedi? I am not saying we are to blame for all education screw-ups in the last 21 years (let’s not even start on before that), just that it would really help if we stopped being dicks about it. Yes, I know, not all white people are.

Gareth also suggests that this is a sort of getting even, revenge type thing a la Stalin, Saddam, etc. That’s plain cultural ignorance. The extreme poo-throwing lengths, as far as I am concerned, were that of a group of Black student/s drawing a line in the sand re cultural arrogance and saying ‘up to here and no further’. Nobody is talking about getting even with Rhodes. That would be ridiculous. Chumani and friends are trying to send a message to the people running the Establishment NOW. Agree with his acts or not we need to see them as a well thought out strategic attack. Sometimes being reasonable and being controllable are dangerously aligned.

I think they should take the statue down and then debate what to do with that space, because the great thing about being on the couch is that when we debate who should be on the couch you have already won.

In conclusion, this is not “like a child putting a plaster on his wound”, as Gareth calls it. It’s about a cultural battle, where people are fighting to change 350 years of enforced cultural assimilation, where Other languages, norms, traditions and icons were treated as less than next to consciously and strategically planned Western cultural domination. To be honest, with the bullshit we pulled in this country maybe the only credible thing white South Africans can do when black South Africans provoke for cultural changes such as this statue is say: “can we organize the removal crane?”

The missing part of the conversation, or at least one that needs more exploration is complexity in Black voices regarding the conversation on symbolism and change at SA universities. Chumani and friends can’t at all claim to speak for all Black students, and it would be wrong to assume that he does.

That's what this white guy thinks.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Apartheid and Eskom for white people.

Here’s why I think we need to talk about Eskom and apartheid. Firstly, let’s agree that our opinions matter: every article that deals with apartheid does, slowly but surely, create a Foucaultian style Truth of what actually happened, which defines how we understand what is happening now. A narrative about our past, and in turn present, that becomes accepted fact.

I was there when Jacob Zuma, that gregarious geriatric hustler who hasn’t paid back the money, told us that Eskom’s kak is apartheid’s fault. Chester Missing tweeted at the time how ridiculous this was. Because, after we have bought submarines instead of power stations, it is patently stupid.
But that, my friend, is only half the picture. Take today’s Cape Times piece by David Lipshitz. David blazingly details exactly how our power problems are not apartheid’s fault. It’s a great piece titled “Don’t blame power crisis on apartheid”, where there is absolutely zero acknowledgment of what apartheid DID do. It’s a brilliant breakdown of how useless the ANC Eskom strategy has been. And it has been useless (as far as my ignorant little brain can tell). However, like with Zelda, time and time again the question of what apartheid DID do gets misunderstood or ignored. This undermines the potency of how we can hold government to account, because when they say we are being biased, it’s true.

A problem is that the memory conversation has been polarized, so when many white political commentators write, they often seem to assume we are all in agreement on what apartheid DID do. We are not. Not at all. The apartheid conversation never really happened in SA. In my view most South Africans, black and white are clueless about the machinery that apartheid engaged to extract black labour and wealth that left millions destitute. And the fact is no significant white leader post apartheid has turned to their followers and in no uncertain terms explained that their privilege and wealth (in this, if you are not in a shack, you are wealthy) are a direct product of apartheid. The argument that ‘I am wealthier just because I work hard’ means you believe that the millions of black people out there stuck in poverty are lazy. Kinda racist, eh? It means denial of unequal access to resources, education, business language skills and cultural capital, etc.

I had one guy on twitter in relation to this saying “I’m not denying apartheid was wrong”. But if that were the case then you would want an article on energy, the ANC and apartheid to nail, at least in passing, what apartheid DID do re energy. Its not so much this one article that gets my beef, but rather the larger conversation that repeats itself. The facts of historical inequality are time and time again overlooked. And, ironically, it helps the ANC get off the hook because it validates accusations of bias.

Black people were for the most part denied any access to such resources whatsoever. The fact is we have had to pour huge effort into building infrastructure that wasn’t there before. Online I get tweet after tweet by white people  (not all, just some) arrogantly claiming that apartheid built infrastructure… the racist ones insanely try use this as proof of cultural supremacy. Firstly, black people did the work, at the end of gun, secondly, that work was funded by evil apartheid employment practices, thirdly, that infrastructure was built to buff up the cushy, privileged lives of 10% of the population, fourthly, it bankrupted us, and fifthly, it was also hugely corrupt.

If the conversation about apartheid is to move forward it needs to actively explain what apartheid did do, so we can really get into what it did not. This both takes away dodgy politicians’ historical excuses, and also, as importantly, disrupts the gradual apartheid denial that happens when we leave apartheid’s impact out of the conversation.

Ps, before the usual right wing nutjobs accuse me of white guilt and political correctness. 1) Its not about guilt. It’s about putting the facts on the table so we can move forward. 2) Politically correct is where you play it safe. I am saying, stop playing it safe. Being brutally honest about apartheid, white privilege AND ANC mistakes/corruption means pissing off some very wealthy people.