Gareth Cliff is perhaps the “poster boy” for a certain form of smugness — and for a television production that many might find to be aurally offensive. He may even be a racist. But no evidence that I am aware of shows this to be the case. By contrast, we do have clear evidence of the racist views held by Andile Mngxitama.
In last week’s Body Language in the Mail & Guardian, in a piece titled “The face of white supremacy”, Mngxitama asserts that Cliff has “normalised white supremacy”, a feat apparently achieved via his open letter to the government gaining sufficient traction to result in him being invited to a presidential lunch.
The key — and only — virtue of Mngxitama’s argument is that it is completely unfalsifiable. Nothing I can say will therefore refute it, but it’s nevertheless worth pointing out how easy this style of argument is, and how little value it adds to rational discourse.
We are told that Cliff is not a “conscious racist”, in other words, that nothing Cliff could possibly say would persuade Mngxitama that his analysis is false. We are informed that what might appear (to someone less tuned-in to reality than Mngxitama, perhaps) to be “humanist concerns for good governance” are in fact evidence of Cliff’s racism.
But I have, of course, already fallen into one of Mngxitama’s cunning rhetorical snares by using the word “we” in the paragraph above. This word (when used by Cliff and probably by other white men like myself), is in itself racist because it erases the “differential realities of blacks and whites”.
One cannot speak of a reality one does not live in, according to Mngxitama’s argument, and “blackness” in itself defines a reality, whether we’re talking about Tokyo Sexwale or a township dweller with no education. They are the same — and Cliff has a slave-holder’s mentality with respect to both of them.
We’re told that Cliff’s Twitter comment on Manto Tshabalala-Msimang deploys a sinister tactic involving “the truth” in a “brutal, racist attack”. But Cliff’s tweet does not mention race — it mentions incompetence and selfishness, which are character traits that many of all races saw exemplified in her behaviour. If Cliff were to say the same about Idi Amin, would that also be racist? Can whites offer no judgment whatsoever regarding non-whites?
If so, just how are we to carve up this world in which Mngxitama would have us live? As far as I know, Cliff makes far more money than me. Does he not then fall outside my realm of competent judgment? Or perhaps I cannot make sense of Cliff because he lives in Jo’burg and I live in Cape Town?
Or is the claim the more atomistic one, namely that black understands black and white understands white? The apparently impermeable boundaries between these poorly specified categories present serious obstacles to communication in any form and I’m therefore rather surprised that so many of us seem to muddle along, making sense of one another’s noises.
Of course, Mngxitama’s argument relies on something called “anti-racist decoding”.
I regret that I’ve never drunk as deeply from the well of postmodernism as Mngxitama has, because this decoding appears to fall outside of my sphere of competence, leaving me with only the suspicion that he’s talking nonsense.
It’s certainly true that there are “differential realities” and that many South Africans might be incapable of and/or unwilling to understand the reality of someone else’s life. It’s also true that many of these breakdowns of understanding are manifested in race, because race is still our best proxy for class difference, with class difference being the true cause of such mutual misunderstanding.
But these differential realities do not preclude communication or understanding across racial lines, neither do they preclude the possibility that when Cliff says “we”, he actually means “all South Africans”. He could perhaps be fully aware of the historical reasons whites are (generally) richer than blacks, and the exploitation that this inequality is premised on.
But he could also be concerned about exploitation in general and have a sincere commitment to playing some kind of part in ensuring that this country doesn’t fall victim to other forms of the same social disease.
It happens to be the case that the majority of leaders in Africa’s history have been black and it happens to be the case that the same is true in the current South Africa. This is as one would expect, given the demographics of the continent. So, if there is a chance of corruption or a culture of tenderpreneurship having a negative impact on South Africa, it stands to reason that Cliff — or any of us — would usually end up criticising someone who happens to be black.
In fact, this is exactly what Zwelinzima Vavi has been doing a fair amount of recently, but he’s of course allowed to, because he’s black. But in the context of these demographic realities, the whiteness of Gareth Cliff provides zero evidence for the criticism of it being motivated by the blackness of the leader, rather than by a genuine concern for the issues the letter addresses.
Evidence against a sincere concern would be found in Cliff’s racist behaviour, not simply through an axiomatic premise that his opinions cannot be separated from his whiteness.
Cliff’s letter may have received undue attention because that is the nature of the shallow pool of celebrity culture.
The same is true of Mngxitama’s column, which would surely not have been published in the (usually) non-sensationalistic M&G if not for the fact that Mngxitama is a “name”. And, while celebrities may often irritate or offend in their efforts to save the world, this is an entirely separate matter from the sincerity of their desire to improve the wellbeing of themselves and their fellow citizens.
Mngxitama the racist
It’s also a separate matter that black writers have been “punished for saying less harmful stuff”.
If they have been, that is wrong, but that says nothing about the wrongness of Cliff voicing his opinion. We can’t fix climates that might be oppressive towards free speech by placing further — and arbitrary — limitations on who is allowed to speak.
By Mngxitama’s reckoning, it appears that (a) everything Cliff does is evidence of his racism and (b) nothing Cliff could do would count as evidence against this hypothesis, given the unconscious nature of Cliff’s racism. We are offered a judgment about a person (Cliff) that is prejudicial and which does not respond to any facts, potential or otherwise, about the person in question.
These judgments are also not connected to Cliff as a person, but rather to him being a white person and this is what makes Mngxitama a racist, regardless of what the tabloids might one day tell us about Cliff.
Jacques Rousseau is the Chairman of the Free Society Institute