Originally published 13 January 2012
On Dana, Suttle and Zille.
In the Wikipedia description of Woody Allen’s Zelig, the titular character, a human chameleon who seamlessly inserts himself into historical events, is described thus, “Zelig yearns for approval so strongly he physically changes to fit in with those around him.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet the professional mlungu, Devon Marshbank. This is a young man who so wants to be part of the new South Africa but hasn’t yet figured out that using white-person-speaking-to-a-petrol-attendant voice (not dissimilar to the talking-to-a-tourist-slowly, or the shouting-at-a-deaf-person) could be perceived as patronizing and also tends to make you look foolish. I should know, I still sometimes lapse into it.
Marshbank’s video, which required employing two taxi drivers and some ‘kasi kids to dance for him, is based on the same kind of dynamics as township theatre or being in Gazelle, paying people to perform in the hope of assuaging middle class guilt, and gaining acceptance. Race politics in this country is ruled by middle class guilt and we all suffer from it.
But Marshbank (who will most likely slip back into what he does “best”, that is making cheesy pop for people of his own ilk) is just trying to fit in. Just looking for approval from people who will hopefully adopt him and buy his records. He wants so badly to be part of the new paradigm that he has demeaned himself, and the people he wishes to be talking to, unknowingly. Calling a pop kwaito track “Disco Taxi” without thinking about how it might offend potential buyers is the musical equivalent of using the term “Professional Black” without thinking that it might offend potential voters. Marshbank, like Zille, recognizes a need to identify with the other, but what they do not get is that “need to identify with the other” is binary thinking, and very similar to the damage done by Simphiwe Dana’s constant homogenization of “the black experience” in her tweet stream.
Zille should have, should still, apologize. While she might have been trying to make a point about Dana’s exploitation of blackness as a tool for attention, she framed it using a phrase that was already contentious, in a medium that is prone to misinterpretation. That she expressed outrage and indignation at the fury it sparked is not the mark of a measured leader. That she responded in that manner to Dana (who tweets like she is after some of that sweet ANCYL / Oskido cash) and Suttle’s logic trap is evidence that she, like most white people in South Africa, cannot escape middle class guilt while refusing to acknowledge the hurt casual racism can cause. She made a statement as inflammatory, unnecessary and woefully misinformed as her arch enemy, Julius Malema’s “White Domestic” proclamation (Julius doesn’t need to wait ten years to get a white domestic, surely there are enough out of work white people (how many does he need? Two? Ten?) who would jump at the chance). But Zille primarily functions as an administrator, dealing with problems in list form. Combine this with the fact that her political vision is impossible to call to mind succinctly, is why she is often accused of Nannyism.
But Simphiwe Dana is just as guilty of binary thinking. Her framing of things as “black” or “white” affirms the sort of post apartheid victimhood that feeds the dispossessed (or self-proclaimed heirs to the dispossessed legacy) the self righteous idea that all should be returned to them unilaterally. To which guilt ridden whites will say, missing the point entirely, “But I didn’t do anything to inherit all this privilege.” While Dana’s attempts to point out to the descendants of the colonizer how fucked the perceptions of reality that their grandfathers have left them with are are well intentioned and often correct, her tone is often as hurtful as being bounced from Asoka.
To frame the DA as the White opposition is to frame the ANC as the Black leadership, is to racialise the political landscape unnecessarily, as well as relegating all the other parties to nothingness. I cannot think of anything more divisive than this. It defeats the point of politics; you elect the party based on whether it can govern properly, or whether it has delivered on campaign promises. To continue to racialise party politics is the opposite of promoting transformation, it entrenches hurt. To birddog Zille like that points to a personal agenda. To be fair to Dana, she also harasses the ANC on poor governance (but was happy to take their money to perform at the Centenary celebrations), even though they don’t answer her tweets.
Dana’s interpretation of Black Consciousness can sometimes be horrifying. It’s not fascism but it opens itself up to that interpretation. I doubt Biko would endorse the implication in the evasiveness of the following tweet.
Discussing race in binaries should be something we work on consigning to history and comedy routines. The tone in which Dana talks about “black” and “white” indicates that she is unable to move beyond the division.
Lindiwe Suttle, on the other hand, is more interested in being famous and therefore correctly political than the plight of the economically disenfranchised, read this especially in the endorsement of the taunting tweet that launched the #CAPETOWNISRACIST trending topic.
Suttle’s assertions about general racism without any detail, allows her a racial victimhood status that means she is able to hanker after wealth and fame, and not really care about the poor, without us being able to question her motives.
Being made to feel like a second-class citizen in Cape Town is not exclusively a race thing, although race is definitely an amplifier. That horrid feeling you get when you are turned away from a restaurant or nightclub is, mostly, a result of lack of status in that environment; that it ends up feeling like racism may be sometimes be justified but also, may sometimes just be the disbelief that you have been judged not worthy. This is where it gets tricky. If you think it is racially motivated then tackling it head on makes you look desperate for status, not tackling it leaves you feeling demeaned.
Doormen, bouncers, and maître d’s at upmarket venues tend to look for famous faces. That those recognizable tend to be either white celebrities or politically connected criminals is a product of the media and not limited to South Africa. Should bouncers receive sensitivity training? Should there be a quota system at upmarket nightclubs, restaurants and public spaces in general? For one thing it’s not necessary at mid market venues like Zula, The Kimberly Hotel, The Waiting Room, Cold Turkey or down most of Long Street, all places as integrated and as “transformed” as any venue in Melville or Braamfontein.
The fact that Cape Town is classist (and has been for a long time) is not up for debate, nor is it likely to change. The poor, and therefore lower classes, in South Africa are, through the dint of history, ANC government failure to implement successful economic reforms and sheer statistics, are largely non-white leads often to Classism and Racism being interpolated. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t occur in Cape Town nightlife, I’m saying that it is mostly classism. And without Suttle ever telling us what the original racist event was, but tying it to being “famous and rich” leaves me to continue wonder about the nature of the incident.
But there is more to Cape Town’s “perceived” racism than this, and that is actual racism. Fuelled by the intersection of it’s cliquey nature bought on by quirks of geography, the value of its real estate and the legacy of the group areas act, Cape Town is, in terms of transformation and integration, at least ten years behind the other major cities in South Africa. This cannot be denied, the arrival of Marshbank ten years after The Artist Formerly Known As Lekgoa attests to this. Part of the cause is that post 94 Cape Town was perceived to be “more transformed”, and it therefore needed less attention, this led to racist attitudes going unchecked and uneducated.
Even in integrated circles you will hear stories of how someone has been sidelined and treated as token, and they can think of no other reason than racism, and not racial hatred but the sadder sort: fear, unfamiliarity and ignorance. In these instances we should try first to educate through compassionate confrontation and then, if that fails, to litigate. When racism is definable, we have to deal with it, not shrug it off and move on. We owe this to those who gave their lives during the struggle. And no, I don’t think there is any hyperbole in that statement.
This is not to say that Cape Town is a white supremacist state, but rather that Capetonians, of the older or richer sort, while accepting of “The Coloureds” as part of the landscape, still haven’t quite got a handle on “The Blacks”. There is much work to be done here but Ms Dana’s suggestion to Zille to implement a campaign, however, makes me quake with horror; I can just imagine the tagline now, “The Blacks are your friends, be nice”. Quite frankly I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that supporting the #CAPETOWNISRACIST as a trending topic is counter productive and self-serving; it does nothing to break the cycle of hatred and hurt.
Dana and Zille both make the double mistake of firstly assuming that the youth of South Africa can’t think for themselves, and then play into the same representational politics that they about complain about when discussing the ruling party. Luckily, it seems, the youth are no longer listening, or rather have moved on from this “old thinking” (an Alcoholics Anonymous term that binary thought addicts are advised to look up).
Mpho Biko, niece of the great man himself, said recently “I feel like there is no political party that represents our generation, actually. What I see is parties hanging onto the past really tightly and doing stupid things like fighting.”
Vusi Mabaso, a writer in the News24 user generated section, sums it up thus, “I had to sit down and weigh my past and the hurtful things that were done to my forebears and where I want to take this life given to me. This is my life and I will be judged by mankind on what I did with it. And I am not going to sit and blame the past for my present or future failures.”
The Born Frees want to move on. They are, largely, more interested in the pursuit of personal freedom, and a government that is administered properly rather than one trying to address past wrongs. Could Zille and the DA be that government? The short answer is, at this point, no. Not if Zille is unable to see that inserting herself into and then storming out of, a twitter “debate” about race alienates her from a large section of her potential voters. It’s almost a function of being a pop star or a “style icon” that you are idealistic, a little craycray, and even slightly hypocritical. These qualities are the opposite of what we want in our politicians. If Zille wants to be a serious contender for the job she needs to dust off that olive branch, and do something serious and proactive about the actualities of the racist nature of certain sectors of Cape Town, and by extension the Western Cape. In short she needs to come up with a vision that looks beyond white middle class guilt and black victimhood; she needs to become a leader. And leaders don’t slip up on twitter and then dig their heels in determined to be right; if Zille doesn’t take action she might just end up being seen as yet another Devon Marshbank. To paraphrase Dana, Zille has the power to affect real change; this is when she should be using it.
*Editor’s note: Certain factual errors and misrepresentations were present in the version of this story posted last week. While some were the result of a technical issue that resulted in the incorrect draft being uploaded, others were the result of faulty information. All have now been resolved. However, we at Mahala, would like to apologise to Lindiwe Suttle for the three misrepresentations listed below.
1: Ms Suttle’s accent is American, it is not “put on”. The reference to that is excised.
2: Ms Suttle did not tweet, but rather retweeted, the original CapeTownIsRacist. Therefore the tone of that tweet is not her own. The sentence has been changed to reflect this.
3: Ms Suttle has informed us that she does not wear gold or diamonds and therefore the statement on her jewelry being part of the wealth that failed to be handed back to the people in the negotiated settlement is entirely false. This has been excised from this version. The sentence preceding that contained an ambiguity cause by a subbing error that has also been excised.
Further to this, the statement that ambiguously seemed to compare Ms Dana’s Black Consciousness beliefs with Facism has been made clearer in its intention.