The trouble began when I found this joke on Facebook:
A singer, a dancer, a herd boy, a philanderer, a pathological liar, the village idiot, a polygamist, a chauvinist, a communist, a rapist, a racist, a tribalist, a semi-literate and a black guy walk into a pub in Durban.
Bartender: “What’ll it be Mr. President?”
I asked my Facebook echo chamber whether this joke would have included newspaper delivery boy if Jacob Zuma had been that in his childhood instead of a livestock herd-boy.
Someone replied, “No. Newspaper boy doesn’t capture the racist’s imagination nearly as much herd boy.”
Another commenter said, “The level of racism in these jokes… White privilege is annoying af… The subtle racism in jokes pisses me off. (the irony of me saying this is not lost on me). I am just finding my own race to be far too oblivious to their failings right now. The holiday season really brings out the asshole in people.”
These two commenters were white.
At first, the person who’d shared the joke refused to see my point. My issue with the joke wasn’t whether any of it is factually true or not, or even whether it was intended to offend racially.
He was oblivious to any perspective other than the one he shared with the person who created the joke. Other commenters refused to see the racial offence at all, playing coy about the context of our country as it is. They offered alternative word-value assessments of herdboy, extolling the nobility and industriousness of being a herd boy. They did not realise that they were turning a blind eye to an inconvenient expression of racism because they had not been constantly subjected to its debilitating effects themselves.
One gentleman tried to pass it off as just another instance of irreverence; of citizens poking fun at the sitting statesman as has been done to many white statesmen before. This is the “freedom of speech” trope that was dragged out when The Spear was the hot-button topic.
But when Jacob Zuma is made a joke of on social or mainstream media for not only his moral failings but things he has no control over, the insult is against not only him as an individual but potentially 39 million people who share one or more of the social, physical, cultural and class attributes that’s being used as joke fodder.
I’ve argued in previous posts that when he’s treated as an intruder and thief in power by those inside the status quo, the gatekeepers of mainstream and social media, it becomes irrelevant for “the blacks” whether “the whites” are calling him “thief” because he has legitimately stolen from the country or because that’s just what “they” call black people. The distinction between the President’s alleged sins and his skin colour becomes arbitrary and convenient; his reputation as a philanderer becomes inseparable from disparaging attitudes about indigenous cultures and their encouragement of polygamy. Denying this is not just disingenuousness par excellence: it is enablement because it is into this scenario that Zuma plays his tribalistic divide-and-conquer moves. Racism serves him, the denial of racism serves him even more and being a master politician, he uses it all with impeccable timing. He never had to crack open a book because he has studied people precisely where they have refused to study themselves.
Jacob Zuma, who did not get a standard five, has a Ph.D in us. That is more than sufficient an education for him to run this country as a personal bank account.
So Zuma is the ANC’s martyr, the Lamb who is slain on the altar of white racism in the drama of black people’s redemption and liberation history. He presents himself as all that stands between black people and the return of apartheid. That apartheid makes its return felt in the systemic inequality black people see as perpetuated by “white monopoly capitalism.”
The ANC had one job: get rid of apartheid and keep it away. Jacob Zuma insulted and attacked is proof that they’re putting sincere effort and as much sacrifice into this task as they did during the struggle – even if you and I know that some of the biggest deals and contracts are enriching black comrades. Indeed, if Zuma is at the front-line of the battle, then his many, many sins are quite forgivable, and his thefts are merely him stealing from those who still control the dominant voices in social and mainstream media. It is seen as justifiable theft, a forgivable flaw.
This is classic divide, deny and conquer and when white people defend the indefensible, they’re doing the denying for the ruling party.
“As white people, my friends and I gave Jacob Zuma the benefit of the doubt when he became president in 2009,” I keep hearing. But 2009 was the tail-end of a game that’s been going on since before Zuma was born; our collective relationship with Jacob Zuma did not begin on a blank slate or in a vacuum. Pretending we started fresh with him six years ago is national suicide.
Idols’ Judge Somizi Mhlongo allegedly did some posting of his own. The rant attributed to him read as follows:
“Racist white South Africans hoping that zuma’s fall will give them a white president or bring back apartheid is Tru denial of the reality. It’s like Oscar believing that he’ll oneday take part in the Olympics. Never. It’s like Donald trump thinking he’ll be the next American president. Never. It’s like mercy pakela believing she’ll oneday have a duet with Adele. So Pls stop taking expired drugs and accept or leave our country. Just coz u got away with apartheid doesn’t mean we can’t see u using this Zuma campaign as a shield to hide yo racist bullshit. Nxa.”
Not that I have, but it’s around this point that one should get white people yelling, “What about this expression of black-on-white racism? Why isn’t anyone talking about this and calling it out?”
I’d like us to take a step back and see the bigger picture.
As a human being, each of us has an ethical responsibility to remain cognisant of the broader power dynamic in the world around us. Words cannot be judged apart from the broader power dynamic as it stands. When we pretend they can be, we do not judge those words “objectively.” Instead, we actively enable whoever has more power to retain and abuse it in a series of micro-aggressions; we become accomplices in systemic macro-aggressions against the oppressed.
In the case of racist anti-black jokes, one who lets them slide becomes guilty not of racism in the first degree, but of culpable racism. One doesn’t see this because when one walks away from the situation, one goes back into a relatively sheltered world while the other person goes back into an existence of continued attacks on his or her person, some small and those small ones foreshadowing some big ones. The “joke” is not a joke to the other guy: it is the pre-shocks of some impending earthquake.
[Trigger alert: sexual violence analogy]:
A man is about to rape a woman (or the woman has reason to believe that the man could rape her): at that moment, whatever gender-based slurs he yells at her will be expressed from a place of power and can be judged as misogynist. Whatever gender-based slurs she yells (“Get off me, you swine!”) cannot be neatly classified as misandry on her part. Her anger at men in general exists because though not all men are rapists and some in fact fight rape culture, all men (myself included) are beneficiaries of an unseen social system that privileges men at women’s expense.
His slurs are his voluntary words in a situation he instigated: hers are a response to a situation she never asked to be dragged into.
That is how power relations work, and to save men we see as innocent, we must first fully admit the structural inequality exists; we must know how it works.
The ongoing effects of apartheid is why white-on-black racism receives more attention by black people than black-on-white racism. I don’t like it either, but intellectual honesty about the way things are leaves no other choice.
Faced with this, a lot of white people will point out that black people are the majority and should stop seeing themselves as victims.
But based on that logic, the two ways this victimisation could have been stopped was with major bloodshed on black people’s part (this happened) or with annihilation on white people’s part. What have white people lost as a group in all this?
The only possible third path would have started at white people, not as individuals but as groups, owning up to benefitting from systemic structural inequalities up until today.
A lot of us think of 1994 as this dividing line separating South Africa’s Old Testament from its New. The more accurate picture is of history as a slow progression towards egalitarianism. I’m not offering concrete suggestions but as I have asked before, why has #BlackLivesMatter not trended among white South Africans, or #TheDAMustFallWithTheANC?
#ZumaMustFall’s dash to the Twitter finish line made it a victim of its own success.
I think his words are extremely misinformed and incoherent but Somizi Mhlongo has one thing to his credit: he knows that what he’s saying is racist or at least racially venomous. But that’s an indictment on white audiences in that they don’t know that much of what’s constituted their “normal” has been a racist exertion of a power they didn’t know they had, or that this cornered the Mhlongos of this world into yelling back.
Many white people have spelled out the horrific details of what will happen if Jacob Zuma does not fall from power, but they will not hear black people spell out the horrific details – some imagined, some ludicrous, others extrapolated from apartheid memory and ongoing racist attitudes – of what will happen if Zuma does fall from power. To the extent that hostility against Zuma is racial, to that extent the oppressor would have won in his fall.
Racists do not wear a fat red R on their foreheads. They are popular, funny, wonderful people and everyone wants to share their jokes. If you asked every human being that has ever lived whether he or she is a racist, the number of people who would answer “Yes” would be less than the number of people who have actually acted in racist ways. To err is human, but so is denying it. No one wants to be implicated as the oppressor in an unjust power dynamic that was precipitated by hundreds before. Those hundreds of other racists also denied that they were racist. But apartheid happened. So did colonialism. How do we account for history?
Let us also not compare apartheid to how the Zulus conquered everyone around them, though that study has its own value: white-on-black racism was so spectacularly colourful because it played on the most extreme skin-tone differences. Can you tell a Zulu and a Xhosa apart fast enough to make structural discrimination practical? Would you take a sign seriously if it said, Tsongas Only? Apartheid was tribalism on a scale so epic it stuns historians precisely because it is not like every other scuffle among people-groups.
White-on-black racism’s systemic manifestation lasted until the apartheid government was out of white boys to conscript into its service. I have often wondered this but was too shy to ask it out loud: how hateful could this hatred have been, that people fed their faith, their humanity and their children to it? Nelson Mandela said that a country’s soul is revealed in the way it treats its children. I do not care how tall or white a 19-year-old male is, or whether he plays rugby (in a seemingly innocuous expression of dominating masculinity he has been steeped in his whole life): he is a child. Indoctrinate and exploit enough of those children, and you will soon set up a world of inequalities and injustices. That is one explanation of how we got here.
And now, people within that status quo will label as killjoys those who call out their tasteless jokes as wrong. They will say that they can’t make fun of anything anymore.
That’s because they live in a bubble of privilege and do not see that outside that bubble, there’s a world in need but there’s also plenty of room to move and safely joke around. When “funny” is only limited to the context people know, it’s because they have become comfortable in that bubble, in that comfort zone.
If they don’t step outside their comfort zones, it will not be long before someone bursts that bubble.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
Please follow and share @SKhumalo1987