Thursday, 17 August 2006

The humdrum conundrum of race

Aah, race. What would we South Africans do without it? What will we get our respective Cardies satin boxers, Pep Stores panties and Woollies briefs tied in a knot about if we each couldn't be an expert on race? Four different things made me think about it today.

In an update on a previous story, IOL reported on how race-related remarks can get you in trouble at work in South Africa after the arbitration case of Mahas vs Smith Manufacturing was settled. The story is about how Mr Mahas, a South African Indian, made the comment at a staff meeting: "'n Boer maak 'n plan, but an Indian is born with a plan." After an offended staff member confronted him, he made a complete fudge of clarifying the comment and eventually got fired (he has now been reinstated).

On News24 there's and article on how the whole nation (ha!) is apparently still in a tizz about the comment made by Babalwa Mneno on the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing, when she said, after being voted off: "That should be a lesson to black people to vote only for each other." Sandy Ngema, who presented, concurred on air and has also been dragged into the debate. I must just add that if Mneno's response is accurately quoted, its the worst clarification of a statement ever, even beating the one Mahas managed. Check this out:
"I never meant it as racist in any way, that is not how I am or how I was brought up. I did not say that black people should vote only for other black people. I said black people must vote for one another because I feel they ought to support their own people better."
Also on IOL, an article identified Zayn Nabbi as one of Survivor South Africa's contestants. He recounted some reasons why he thinks he got selected by the panel, including:
"They asked me what pisses me off? And I said 'seeing six white people sitting on a panel and judging whether I go on to a show. Where is your transformation and demographic representivity?' I think they were all gobsmacked with a 23-year-old upstart telling them what to do."
The last thing was a chain-email I received today entitled Why Africans can't be Terrorists and, in obvious reference to the recent Heathrow scares, listed ten reasons like: "We are always late; we would have missed all 4 flights" and "Pretty girls on the plane would distract us" and "We would talk loudly and bring attention to ourselves."

This is where it all gets complicated. Are we, in defining our new social construct, saying it's OK to make self-referential, seemingly deprecating remarks about ourselves and our own racial groups or not? Are we allowed to joke with ourselves? In the case of Mahas, it all went horribly wrong. The "(ha!)" I inserted in the second story above actually meant: "probably more the white part of the nation" - it was a sarcastic comment, which would seem acceptable to do if I was white, but I'm not. It is probably interpreted as me saying: "well, we blacks back her."

Mneno actually made a stab at her race and got stung. Nabbi implied the ability of the panel to select good participants was compromised because of their homogenous racial profile and is in the article reflected as a telling-it-like-it-is conveyor of uncomfortable truths. The chain email is written as a self-parody and the copy I received was circulated among various black South Africans before it somewhere managed to jump the racial email barrier and begun its travels among white social networks, before it jumped back again (that's another interesting topic for another day - where are those connecting nodes?)

Did the meaning of the email change the moment white South Africans started to distribute it, rather than black South Africans? We've been through all the tedious debates about what is an African, yet there is still no conclusive answer. Which 'Africans' are we talking about? Is it right for a black person to be offended if receiving the email from a white person , rather than from a black person? If a black person circulates the same email, but the formulations are changed from "We" to "They" would it be perceived differently - is it then offensive? If a white person then forwards it formulated as "They" can that be grounds for dismissal? Can sending it as it reads now be grounds for dismissal? Each situation carries different nuances and will carry different interpretations. I mean, looking at it from a black perspective, my view is bound to be different, right?

All of this white and black stuff is grey... or is it gray? I have more questions than answers. It's been only 12 years and our political discourse is still based on the severe division of races (two economies paradigm, BEE), and we all have preconceived ideas and racial stereotypes grafted into our psyches, so we still have a long way to go to define a new set of rules for how we interact with and define each other. I like the idea of introspection and joking with oneself, because I think we get overly excited about these things sometimes... and sometimes I get overly excited.

By the way, I'm not black, I'm white. Does it matter? Does your interpretation of what I wrote here and your response depend on which one I am? That's the problem.


  1. "Cardies satin boxers" - hectic... the things I learn about people close to me...

  2. I still need to go and verify that one in Cardies - but I'm sure I recall some of these Valentines Day displays with stupid little devils or whatever on slippery-looking boxers. Is that a good enough response to prove my total ignorance of such things ;-)?

    At least I didn't go into male thong territory...