I want to dish out awards of excellence to two black people I know only from the pages of newspapers. The one is a senior, educated and well-known, if not well-liked, judge, John Hlophe, and the other a not-so-senior but feisty journalist called Sello S Alcock.
I would like to give Hlophe the annual award for brave and smart fighting and Alcock the same prize but for the other side.
If you know something about racism — its overt and its invisible strategies, its genealogy and its mutations — you know this is war; that is, if you’re not just committed to something nebulous called nonracialism, as President Jacob Zuma seems to be with his ill-conceived and naive call to stop a national debate on the race question.
Preposterously, Zuma says a debate on race will take the country backward. He seems to think we live in a post-race society. Here is a president who is loved for his standard response to every policy question — ”let’s debate that” — but when confronted with the race question he says ”no debate”. Race is a no-go area.
But if you were not taught non-racialism in political education classes by half-baked political commissars or by the usual self-righteous, race-denying white liberals at university, you will know that Hlophe’s fight has a long and painful history. Black people across the globe haven’t yet won the battle against the ever-changing monster of white supremacy.
Think of the black Haitian slaves who fought and won liberty only to inherit misery. The white psyche doesn’t forget; it is vengeful. Haiti has been cruelly punished since 1804. The United Nations is right now shooting Haitians in the streets — and there’s no international outcry. Zimbabwe is destroyed because Robert Mugabe thought he could touch the sacred white skin and get away with it.
Victory for black people is not likely to come this century either, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama notwithstanding — or, in fact, because of them. We are still awaiting the black messiah.
Hlophe has fought smartly and persistently, ably assisted by his other native-full-of-beans, Paul Ngobeni, formerly vice-registrar at the University of Cape Town. They have beaten the know-it-all white liberal brigade at its game. Or they almost did.
Those who don’t know the nature of the black and white encounter over time will be lost in the details. They will ask questions about the integrity of Hlophe and forget all the scheming and conniving of the other side, the general guardians of white interests. No one will remember the story of a black advocate who raised ethical objections to how the Hlophe matter was being handled and asked to be recused from the team of lawyers representing the Constitutional Court.
No one asks white judges to declare all the privileges and farms they enjoy as gifts of apartheid. Some high court judges have restitution claims on their land and they still adjudicate over land matters and are punishing poor black labour tenants with heavy legal costs. But their integrity and impartiality remain intact. The mistake black people can make in a racist society is to believe that they have integrity. Black people in a racist world such as ours have no integrity as matter of course.
So good was Hlophe’s battle that even the sages of judicial cool lost their tempers. During the Judicial Service Commission inquiries, senior counsel George Bizos hastily endorsed trying a man who was not represented. There was also the dishonourable return from retirement of the former chief justice, and doyen of appropriate judicial behaviour, Judge Athur Chaskalson, who exposed his paternalist liberal colours by asserting that Hlophe didn’t struggle against apartheid.
The Hlophe brigade took the battle right to the belly of the beast — and even the editor of the Mail & Guardian had to admit that he may have been wrong, albeit on the small matter of the dates of emails Ngobeni is alleged to have written. Nothing can be taken for granted on a battle field.
Hlophe is certainly not perfect. He is as flawed as they come. But his biggest flaw is his cheek in the face of white authority. Didn’t he have the nerve to accuse members of the Bench and some luminaries of the anti-apartheid struggle of racism? How could he?
Hlophe fought brilliantly like a bull terrier. Accusations dropped off him like water off a duck’s back and he seemed on the home straight for the position of chief justice.
Then one Sello S Alcock struck. He reported some rough stuff Hlophe apparently said about fellow jurists. Young Alcock didn’t record the conversation — which he called an interview — so it all came across as a report of drunken dinner-table talk.
We shall never know the truth about the whole saga. What’s important is that Hlophe is a mortally wounded man right now. For the first time he seemed to panic. He shot out letters of apology at random, some implicating himself further as a tribalist in a judge’s robes. It now remains to be seen whether Hlophe will survive the guillotine and make it to the Constitutional Court; even if he does his chances of becoming chief justice look slim.
We must hand it to the rookie reporter, who may have brought the fighting judge down. He has certainly booked himself a place in the annals of liberal ”objective” journalism, but he knows little about the race battle that has been raging for more than 500 years.
Alcock joins a long list of black luminaries such as Professor Henry Louis (”Skip”) Gates, who was feted for objectivity and given the mantle of leading African-American scholar by the academy’s liberal establishment for attacking black scholars. The truth always catches up with amnesiac blacks, though, as it did with Gates, who was last month arrested for breaking into his own house — an impossibility for a white American.
Andile Mngxitama is the publisher of New Frank Talk