Image from City Press.
It is sometimes unfortunate where what could be construed as a proper message gets destroyed by someone who a) is likely trying to whip up a bit of hype (which makes me ponder how election campaigns in 2014 are going to work out) and b) knows how the media (the world media, to be fair) clings to what makes a pretty headline. For example: "Pet dogs not for blacks - Zuma".
While we, including myself, spent the day ridiculing the president's remarks (and his spokesman's absurd statement of explanation), there are huge messages that were mixed up in the fray. Two of them stand out for me.
Firstly, while many people were quick to jump on quotes in Zuma's story such as "Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white," and spokesman Mac Maharaj's "the essential message from the President was the need to decolonise the African mind post-liberation," there is a very real phenomenon in South Africa, and the world, of the hangover from bastard regimes such as apartheid. Contrary to unpopular belief, elections in 1994 didn't solve the problems that beset South Africa after a fat dose of colonialism and 40-odd years of not only lawful segregation, but a institutionalised dehumanisation. White privilege (or douchebaggery, as some indirectly refer to it) is a very real thing, and its place in the head of most people - on both ends of the privilege - is common. While I am in no way an anthropologist, and am wary of suggesting solutions to anyone, a mere walk around South Africa, or a glance at many newspapers, will offer multiple examples of the effects of racism of which many people on the good end are not aware. When Maharaj wrote about "decolonis(ing) the African mind", he was quoting Nigerian author Chinweizu who authored The West and the Rest of Us, a book arguing against western models of governance and living (and denoting exploitation of Africa and Africans, amongst others) in places that were not western. Zuma clumsily (I use the word in its loosest sense) alluded to this concept in terms of culture: ie, playing into models which suit westernism (or in South Africa's case, white-ism, where there is, of course, significant overlap) at the expense of one's own culture. Somehow he bastardised it into a conversation about what is African vs un-African (a bizarre and incredibly distasteful concept - more on this later), how people treating their pets determines their culture (and indirectly the value of that culture), and some ridiculous and non-existent commonality of African culture (FYI: there are more than a billion people on the continent).
Zuma (and Maharaj) haemorrhaging this topic during his speech on Thursday shouldn't invalidate it as a real issue. Whether you are prepared to accept that there is still a significant hangover from apartheid or not (and sometimes government makes it incredibly hard to do so) a large portion of its effects is intangible. It is not just the crappy infrastructure in the Eastern Cape, or the endless pit into which we throw our youth during what other countries consider school age. It is mightily present in the day-to-day interactions among races (and cultures and sub-cultures and genders and so on) all over the place. White privilege (and the benefits therein), and conversely black (in the Biko sense) disadvantage (and the inherent hindrance), exists. In some ways this extrapolates into a social system whereby the beneficiaries of apartheid are not forced into confronting their own conditioning, and, in a nutshell, the lack of privilege experienced by those on the receiving end is complicit in this; ie the "colonisation of the mind".
Discussion over this concept, of which I really don't feel entitled to take part, shouldn't be canned because of the wackery enunciated by the president on Thursday.
Secondly, I worry there is going to be some mini culture war in the general election in 2014. A raft of by-elections since local elections in 2011 has indicated the ANC could hurt the next time the nation goes to the polls. Not terribly I would suppose, but that two-thirds majority is definitely on the line. I clumsily tried to denote my concerns about this on one or other social network earlier, but I then came across a superb blog post by @siyandawrites on Twitter, who explained this concept far better than I could ever have. (The emphasis is mine)
Zuma used the one word that I am physically incapable of ignoring. In his defence of his anti-pet-dog sentiments, he uttered the word, “un-African.”
Nothing infuriates me more than the use of that word. It drives me particularly insane when its speaker is very obviously using it as a means of shaming Africans out of their right to self-determination.
It makes me even angrier because it is almost always used to persecute the African middle-class. Very rarely are the poor in Africa accused of behaving in an un-African manner. It’s almost as if some people believe that the African, like some sort of religious servant, must stay in his most deprived form in order to retain dignity in his identity. Which is a notion that I regard ridiculous at its best and at its worst, utterly dangerous to the African psyche.
I can’t believe it is five-to-2013 and we’re still hell-bent on keeping African culture in 1605. How is it that African leaders are still allowed to equate walking your dog to lightening your skin?
[some text omitted]
So what is this about?
This is about using shame to police a part of the South African population that the ANC is quickly losing touch with—the African middle-class. By ridiculing them for choosing to lead a lifestyle outside of the confines of the poverty and often-oppressive 18th century principles that he defines to be ‘African’, the ANC president may be aiming to shame them back to the party that all the ‘die-hard Africans’ cling to like a life-raft in ice-water.
And there you have it. Culture war is likely an over-statement (I live in America, for goodness sake), but Zuma's speech today indicates there will be some of this sort of electioneering leading up to 2014.
And both of these points were lost in the great noise from this morning.