South Africa: Race, Liberation and Authentic Citizenship

By Liepollo Lebohang Pheko

Last week on South Africa's ETV an unexpected national moment occurred, a phrase was coined and a YouTube global discourse erupted. A discussion between myself and Andrie Visagie of the AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) brought into sharp focus a whole host of tensions, contradictions and implications of what it means to be a South African in 2010 from two very divergent perspectives.



The last few days have been an opportunity of reflection and stillness through the tumult.

I am deeply moved by countless messages of support, strength and courage from across the country and beyond. I stand in gratitude to the many people who are lifting up prayers and sending love. As I traversed the digital highway a number of nuances lit my consciousness. The thirty-minute programme comes at a moment when race relations seem to have been exposed in all their fragility. As one of the gracious messages conveyed, 'I am forever changed by what I witnessed'.

It is very difficult to express the moment when Andrie Visagie charged towards me in the studio and then pointed at me saying 'I am not through with you'. It happened fast and quickly entered the popular lexicon of talked about events. This has not afforded me much space to revisit the moment. However watching it again has been alarming, offensive and contemptuous in the extreme. Having seen Mr Visagie's response to the question about whether he cares about farm workers in this country, one wonders at the sort of intimidation they are subjected to in remote parts of this country by people like him. The interviewer rightly stepped between us and responses to this intervention form part of my concern. Having read a sampling of the copious commentaries and blogs that sprung up like mushrooms - most of which express concern and indignation at what I experienced - there are some disturbing tendencies being circulated.

I am amused by some of the comments that note that my well-manicured nails show no evidence of suffering. Other bloggers remarked that if I were their wife, they too would have been angry since I talked until Visagie was backed into a corner of impotent rage. Another said that the manicured nails of this independent, opinionated woman in Visagie's face were nearly enough to provoke a beating. It seems that in some people's minds the brutal verbal onslaught upon an African woman by a thickset white man was not only acceptable but somehow deserved. These men effectively stood back and allowed their sister to be assaulted by white supremacy while they watched in amusement and even sympathy with the very supremacy which has also brutalised them.

This suggests a psychosis of self-hate, coupled with centuries of a mental onslaught which now accepts very bizarre, perverse and brutal behaviour as normative. As Fanon articulates, 'the development of violence among colonised people will be disproportionate to the violence exercised by the threatened colonial regime ... violence is in action all-inclusive and national'. None of us have been spared the repeated citations that natives are untrustworthy, lazy and blood-thirsty. Accusations that black people want handouts, free houses and jobs they do not deserve at the expense of white people are the latest incarnation in what is effectively part of the same narrative. The narrative suggests that Africans do not deserve anything beyond the discretion of white largesse and that those who dare for more self determined lives are 'cheeky kaffirs' who pose a threat to the long-standing status quo.

The blogs by some of the white Visagie sympathisers do not bear repetition but remind us that our national identity is fractured and contested. They help us recall that the phenomenon called liberation is far removed from the miraculous melding of rainbow diversity. Several of these bloggers have been given the entry point to enunciate the sort of rage that Visagie usefully brought into the national domain. We are presented with an interesting collision of race, gender and class prejudices. Of the many calls I have received in recent days, none have been from the Human Rights Commission, the Commission of Gender Equality or the Equality Court. I am not aware of anything that these institutions have said in the media that they may not have had the opportunity to communicate to me.

Perhaps they are also grappling with how to reach out to an African woman who inadvertently found herself in the midst of combustible race and gender hostility on live television. It is admittedly complex to examine the gender, race and class intersections then frame an appropriate or adequate response. Even my multiracial church has not managed to frame a concerted response to what many saw on TV screens. It is profoundly uncomfortable. Where the blood of Jesus should be the lowest common denominator, Kingdom citizenship seems to be obscured by very earthly but pervasive discomforts about race, racism and the ugliest facets of discrimination.

One wonders what the response would have been if an African leader perhaps a Vavi, a Mantashe or Julius had castigated and threatened a white woman panellist in the same manner. I have no doubt that the furore would have gone beyond YouTube amusement and entered the realms of the criminal justice system. One can already imagine the likes of Afri-forum demanding an apology, submitting a complaint to the BCCSA and beating a determined track towards the Equality Court before the weekend was up.

At the time of writing the programme has been removed from broadcast because of complaints from viewers who assert that it has created race tension. I am of the opinion that it has merely reminded us of long standing division thus presents an excellent opportunity to have overdue conversations about things we rarely speak of outside confined spaces.

If this incident had occurred to the sister, mother, daughter, wife or neighbour of any right minded man of any race in this country I would like to believe that the blogs which are absorbed by my glossy finger nails would contain far more thoughtful reflection and appropriate outrage. Questions about what was allegedly said to provoke Visagie's outburst have much in common with the rape survivor being asked what she was wearing at the time of the crime. It is the same rationale that which men use to terrorise their partners within the confines of the home because of spurious infractions. It is also the same rationale that asks women whose toddlers have been raped why they left their diaper-clad children in the care of others.

As a young woman in the 1990s I was concerned that the popular call to arms 'wa thinta bafazi wa thinta mbokodo' would eventually narrow the space for women to express pain. It denies us the right to articulate deep hurt, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, and does not permit African women the inherent right to experience the necessity of vulnerability. It presumes that we are rocks to be raped, assaulted, abused, humiliated by employers, traumatised in the home, objectified in popular culture and held ransom to the grossest abuses in the name of culture - all to be borne with stoic dignity. The alibis under banners like 'so strong, black woman, survivor, resourceful' absolve us all from taking corrective action. It is a perverse logic, which must be questioned and challenged.

We have become so accustomed to centuries of being dehumanised, humiliated and subjected to the most violent assault on our personhood as Africans and women that incidents such as this elicit little more than passing outrage. The assault on our personhood extends to the man who was fed to lions, the person who was shot because a farmer thought they were a baboon, the workers dragged by bakkies, the women who were fed urine-laced food at the University of the Free State and whose humiliation was compounded by the inexplicable invitation that these young men return to complete their studies. Some of these would almost seem like urban legends if they were not such atrocious and absolutely indescribable acts of racially charged aggression and hatred.

Reconciliation sixteen years on has not at all resolved the structural deficits nor begun to address economic sovereignty. I beg to differ with the hypothesis that white minority rule is gone and that it is gone forever. It is pervasive in economic power, corporate capital and visible in the GINI coefficient. South Africa's is the highest in the world along with Brazil, higher than India and China. Allocation of resources and opportunity is still skewed along racial lines. The fault lines are evidenced by the still appalling living conditions of most Africans in this country, and the implicit acceptance of this situation. It is the same deficit of values and appreciation of our personhood that allows this to continue almost unchallenged by the new government. They are in effect gate, keeping and perpetuating the years of social apartheid. Having decreed that we stop talking and forgive without any restorative processes, we are ransomed by silent dismay. By our silence we are mocked and in our darkness we are further tormented.

'We want to be free. We are not interested in being a part of this failure of South Africa,' says Andrie Visagie. And yet statistics show the contrary to be true. They show in fact the African majority has yet to receive the benefits of citizenship sixteen years into the new dispensation, and that in fact Mr Visagie and the majority of white citizens have not experienced any recession of their privileges. They are still the winners.

Several people have asked me if Mr Visagie apologised to me once emotions had subsided, even as a public relations exercise. It occurred to me then that the extent sense of censure was a mooted statement issued by the AWB, which received little media attention. It iterated the constitution's principles of freedom of expression, adding that the secretary general's behaviour on ETV contradicted this. No mention was made about the verbal onslaught and the pending publicly-made threat that Mr Visagie made to me. Nor was he asked to explain his remarks. I am owed at least an apology and that apology is also owed to the millions of people in this country who have been subjected to the brutality, dehumanisation, legislated discrimination and systematic removal of land, resources and collective attack on our self-esteem. It has been an attempt to totally annihilate Africans' sense of being and entitlement to self-determined lives in their own country.

Beyond that sense of shame, a sincere recognition of Africans' humanity would act as a useful platform to acknowledge centuries of white privilege, begin the corrective actions that the government has, in sixteen years, done with little or uneven effect.
No one begrudges the nation some much-needed comic relief during these recessed times. It should however not negate a moment to examine the implications of this action and our attendant inaction. This liberation of ours is hotly contested, differentially experienced and highly compromised; the majority are yet to fully move into an encompassing expression of this citizenship and liberation at all levels and spheres of life.

People like Andre Visagie are merely emblems of deeply rooted resentment, unresolved battles and fraught and fractured national identities. And the matter of white entitlement has never been more clearly elucidated. Centuries of unmerited gain and head starts do not seem to form part of their reflection.

Perhaps this is the beginning a process of reconfiguring an authentic sense of our nation. Claudia Von Werlhof expresses it thus: 'One cannot be with the people who are below, without telling the dominant people very clearly, that they have to come down ... The mighty have to get down from their throne, and the powerless have to raise themselves'. Who then will help the powerless to raise themselves and who will climb down from the throne of social and economic privilege?

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is policy and advocacy director of The Trade Collective and director responsible for social accounting, institutional transformation, social and development policy, Four Rivers.

2 comments:

  1. Although I enjoyed this article, I hope it has been reprinted where White South Africans can read it. It seems to be directed at them.

    I wonder why South Africa feels the need to extend the right to threaten violence to White supremacists?

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  2. I live in South Africa and watched the entire 30 minute programme. Yes it was published here originally and obviously enough people passed it around to generate global interest. I wonder why you say that 'South Africa' feels the need to extend the right to threaten to White Supremists. Frankly they gave themselves that right and this government has done very little to make them realise that they are overprivildged at the expense of the majority. Hence visagie's vile arrogance. As black man I felt like slapping the taste out of his mouth for direspecting my sister. She is one of our most fearless and respected academics/activists and the lessons drawn from this incident could be drawn just about anywhere that racial and gender inequality pervades

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