Friday, December 28, 2012

Zuma and the un-African dog owners, on a more serious note.

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.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Statement: In response to Zuma attacking our pets

To whom it may concern,

It is with the greatest reprehension that me and other white people read about President Zuma's criticisms of "abelungu abamnyama", which we can tell has something to do with us because it says "lungu". And the clarification from Mr Mac Maharaj.

From what we understand, and it is obvious, is that President Zuma thinks we love our pets more than people, and we should not do this because it goes against ubuntu - a concept with which we became familiar during the Soccer World Cup in 2010 (weirdly though, not during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 which was the previous occasion on which we shared stadiums with black folks, the brave Blou Bulle supporters in Soweto notwithstanding).

It is highly prejudicial for President Zuma to say pet dogs are not for black people when across South African suburbia we have been getting our staff to look after family pets for generations.

If President Zuma thinks "We cannot have compassion for animals if we do not have compassion for children and the elderly", then how does he explain how South Africa has united behind solutions to stop rhino poaching?

It does not matter if we are black, white or green: our love for our animals and walking them and taking them to the vet is as African as Mango Groove, Charlize Theron or Mzoli's.

We are grateful that Independent Newspapers spoke to the SPCA to clarify the comments, as the organisation obviously had the best understanding of what President Zuma was trying to explain.

Inquiries: 17737
Simon Williamson

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Bantu In My Bathroom - so far

(image from PanMacMillan)

I am currently reading Eusebius McKaiser's A Bantu In My Bathroom, and am absolutely enthralled. There are two specific parts of the book thus far (I am only halfway through) that have really dug into my head, which I thought I would spend a few words on. 

(If McKaiser or anyone involved in the publishing or creation of the book wants me to take down the parts I recite here, please let me know and I will happily do so.)

The first part of McKaiser's book deals with race, a naturally significant concept in South Africa. While the issue raises hackles in South Africa faster than a cat being prospectively thrown into a pool, there are some excellent points he makes; you have likely heard them before but there is one in particular that combats the constant criticisms of the constant dialogue of race we speak about as South Africans. And he offers a healthy perspective:

"We'd better get over our fear of the language of race, and talk. There is no reason why the language of race should logically lead to racism. I can recognise which of my friends are black, coloured or white without using that recognition as a reason to be racist. We should stop blaming racialism for our racism. It is a bit like blaming your sexism on the fact that you can see women and men look different. Racism's the enemy. The language of race, and seeing differences in each other, is not the enemy" - A Bantu In My Bathroom, page 79. 

I have lived in the UK and currently live in the US (in Chicago, nogal, a very racially divided city), where race, racism, racialism and so on are a non-topics. They don't get discussed a) because people don't like speaking about racism, particularly when they're on the good end of it, and b) because of the easy, yet mistaken, notion that speaking about racism doesn't fix it. It is unhealthy to not acknowledge race at all as it is, quite frankly, a very large part of who many of us are. Not acknowledging race, and therefore never speaking about it, is to deny many truths about many people. Forgoing any talk of race under any circumstances because of holistic belief that to achieve a non-racial society is to live under the illusion that races aren't different is nonsensical. "Fear of the language of race, and talk" limits our ability to grapple with the exact issues. 


On page 41, chapter three entitled "Cape Town's dirty coloured secrets", McKaiser begins with a story about how he was accosted by two beggars as he walked along Long Street whom he described thus: 

"They looked about twenty, or perhaps slightly older, but with the bodies of eight-year-olds, and certainly not taller. They were incredibly persistent as they begged for money, running in front of me blocking my path. They looked and behaved like feral animals. I felt a mixture of emotions: anger, annoyance, sadness." - A Bantu In My Bathroom, page 41.

McKaiser then goes on to explain how he told this story to a liberal white friend of his who took exception to his use of the word "feral" to describe the two aforementioned men - in the book McKaiser says he cut the argument short and later said "And my white liberal acquaintance can go to hell as far as I am concerned." 

Sadly, this story didn't strike me because of the recollection of who populates the streets of Cape Town. Although I only lived in the city for a year I am well acquainted with such experiences, which are replicated far too often (of course, in Johannesburg, where I spent most of my life). But when I read this story I too initially took exception to the word "feral" to describe people - a word, for me, that dehumanises humans. What McKaiser went on to explain really got my thought machine ticking:

"But for the guy who was disgusted by my description, coloureds are objects of academic study: for him, only unemotive language will do. He humanises the bergies (beggars) of Cape Town with language. I choose language that bears witness to the stripping away of their humanity" - A Bantu In My Bathroom, page 43. 

And this made a fundamental point for me. I grew up in the completely out-of-touch English South African liberal bubble and have spent the last eight or so years learning how much of South Africa (and the world) exists outside my scope: a hell of a lot. I am aware that the glass through which I view the rest of the country shows me a remarkably different picture to many other people - in this case, McKaiser, but an experience that is replicated plethorically. This was a reminder of just how often it occurs. 

I am enjoying the book immensely, and I, thus far, at least, recommend you put it in many Christmas stockings this festive season.