Do racial slurs lance SA’s boil or poison the wound more?

Helen of Troyeville

Can a country with South Africa’s history ever get over its mixed emotions about how races relate to one another? Whites and blacks, Indians and Coloureds all have their own cauldrons of paranoia and anger to do with other races. Art and theatre can be a good way of articulating this (Photo: Suzy Bernstein)

THE wild mixture of feelings people of different races experience in today’s South Africa was eloquently portrayed in a play last week at Wits Theatre, called Helen of Troyeville, written by Mike van Graan and performed by skilled Jewish actress Gina Shmukler. It expressed some things we can’t talk about openly, but which are roiling under the surface. Such as the confusion of whites who want to support this new country, but feel silenced in the face of black anger for their privilege, and who cannot openly complain about corruption, violence and misrule for fear of being called racist.

Shmukler plays a middle-aged white woman who grew up during apartheid, immersed in the opportunities and empowerment her skin colour conferred. She accumulated the benefits of education and possessions, but finds herself at this moment locked in the guest toilet of her fancy house in which black robbers are plundering her possessions, including her dogs that she is distraught about. Totally disempowered, she is forced to reflect on her own life.

She regards herself as having been a do-gooder white who treated her maid well and made a point of buying trinkets from black beggars at the roadside. Now she is a terrified woman filled with guilt, despair and anger, disempowered in a country where the blacks who run things have little empathy for the feelings of people like her. Poverty still remains the lot of most blacks, as it was during apartheid.

She considers: what if they kill her? That might be the only thing which can enable her to retain some dignity, since she cannot undo the history in which her children were cared for by her black domestic while her own children lived elsewhere in a poor black area.

What is the role of racial rage? Is it a necessary component of lancing the boil created by years of white oppression during colonialism and apartheid? A catharsis? Paradoxically, according to surveys of the Institute of Race Relations, attitudes between different races are better today than ever; most blacks, for example, rank poverty and unemployment as bigger problems than racism. It is often politicians who aggravate racial issues for their own ends.

Did the odious Penny Sparrow incident in January 2016 – when an estate agent posted on facebook that blacks filling Durban beach on New Year’s Day were like “monkeys” – have a positive outcome, because the national outrage it provoked from both blacks and whites made such expressions no longer acceptable? Or add more dirt to an infected wound?

Political leader Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters party made controversial public comments about Indians in KwaZulu-Natal in Durban on Saturday, saying they treated Africans as sub-humans, and their business success derived from exploitation: “They are ill-treating our people. They are worse than Afrikaners were. This is not an anti-Indian statement‚ it’s the truth.”

Was Malema’s straight-talking doing South Africa a service by bringing murky race obsessions to the surface, to be argued about openly rather than festering below? Or was it playing with fire in a country where racial tension could still be ignited and ravage the country? He also said: “If we can tell whites the truth we must also tell them.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Satish Dhupelia criticised Malema: “[You labelled] all Indians as being people who are ill-treating others and that is so blatantly wrong on so many levels.”

Racial paranoia is as potent a force as racism. The ‘Helen of Troyeville’ Gina Shmukler portrays could as well have been ‘Helen of Glenhazel’ hiding behind the high walls of her smart house, while the country is being plundered.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Is Zapiro a racist or victim of doublespeak?

Zapiro cartoon monkey organ grinder

Last week’s cartoon by Zapiro (above) sparked a racial furore in South Africa about depictions of black people and censorship

 

WHEN South Africa’s best-known cartoonist, Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) was accused last week of racism for depicting a black man as a monkey in a cartoon in The Times, it showed how this troubled society has lost its compass and is eating its own best people.

The accusation’s trigger was Zapiro using the universal, comic metaphor of the organ grinder and his monkey. The cartoon commented on National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams (the monkey), seeming to be dancing to its master, President Jacob Zuma’s tune (the human organ grinder) by resisting reinstatement of over 700 corruption charges against Zuma, which were mysteriously dropped by his predecessor at the NPA before he became President.

During his decades-long career, Zapiro – arguably the Western world’s most respected political cartoonist today – has incurred the wrath of many powerful people, which is the lot of anyone speaking truth to power. He satirised apartheid’s political leaders, and lampoons the antics of post-apartheid figures, particularly the blunders and corruption of Zuma and his lackeys.

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa responded angrily last week that “Zapiro’s cartoons are now being used by racists in our country to glamourise their prejudice”.

Jews and black people have something in common – a hypersensitivity to how they are portrayed by others. Long histories of discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to violence and killings, have developed psychological buttons. For Jews, pogroms and the Holocaust are emblematic of this. For blacks, the sore points are colonialism, slavery and apartheid.

A caricature which enrages Jews is the “Shylock” image, portraying a Jew with hooked nose, cunning eyes and pockets stuffed with dollar bills, controlling the world with money and secret deals – an image used by Jew-haters to demonise them before killing them.

Not everyone who comments negatively about Jews or blacks is anti-Semitic or racist, however. Sometimes these subjects over-react. Some Jews tend to respond to any non-Jew’s criticism of Israel by labelling the critic an anti-Semite. The danger of genuine anti-Semitism is real and, sadly, is growing worldwide. But the term must be used carefully, or it loses its significance.

Zooming in on the local South African context: it is far too easy today to throw the word “racist” at anyone, regardless of appropriateness or the hurt caused. Nobody, black or white, Jew or non-Jew, is totally without prejudices – it is part of the human condition. But if everyone can be labelled a racist for the slightest hint of criticism, the term is drained of all meaning.

The sensitivity of the monkey image for black people is clear, particularly after the recent infamous incident where Durban estate agent and DA member Penny Sparrow caused a national social-media storm by referring to black beachgoers as “monkeys”. But where does the line lie between a sane perspective and the madness of today’s angry South African society?

Zapiro has previously portrayed all sorts of people as monkeys. One well-known cartoon shows white apartheid leaders Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk as neanderthals in various stages of development, with Nelson Mandela towering over them as the dignified, fully evolved human being. He has also enraged Jews with negative depictions of right-wing Israelis and SA Jewry, resulting in some calling him a self-hating Jew.

With public discourse so dominated by social media, the crudest verbiage spewed by idiots quickly reaches thousands, making racist slurs more dangerous. When words lose meaning, it leads to the kind of bizarre doublespeak portrayed in George Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a society where nothing means what it says.

The current furore surrounding Zapiro indicates rising paranoia among South Africans, exacerbated by an increasingly prescriptive, legislation-obsessed government. The underlying causes – basic insecurity when leadership is almost non-existent and the future uncertain – must be addressed to avoid the kind of outcome Orwell envisaged.

Undoubtedly, South African society is filled with racists of all colours. But they need to be confronted wisely, not like a sledgehammer to a spider.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)