A portrait of racism: The making of #MattTheunissen, by a former classmate

I went to school with Matthew Theunissen. We weren’t friends, but our matric class was small enough that you got to know everyone pretty well. I wasn’t his biggest fan, and I can’t say I was surprised when, just before this furore broke, a screenshot of his now-famous Facebook status popped up on my phone along with the message, “Remember this oke from high school?” Nevertheless, it was disheartening to realise that what the Class of 2007 was eventually going to be famous for was one man K-wording himself into social oblivion.

This isn’t a character assassination: Matt has already assassinated his character enough himself, both with his original post and with his tone-deaf apology on Cape Talk that sounded – in the words of my housemate – as if he was a small child caught by his teacher pulling another kid’s hair. “Sorry, ma’am. No, I didn’t mean to pull hard. Ja, no, I promise, I won’t do it again.”

Much of the discourse around #MatthewTheunissen is that he’s just another typical white Capetonian: a closet racist. But Matt is not a typical white Capetonian: he’s a typical white guy from KZN, which is actually where we grew up. We might, if we’re feeling cynical, even call him a typical white South African. Because, be honest: every white person in this country knows a man like Matt – not someone who merely grandstands about BEE at the braai or quotas in the Springboks, but someone who believes that every contentious thing in our changing society is sharply, deliberately and personally pointed at them, and chooses only the most base and disgusting language to express it.

Our school – Crawford North Coast, a small private school in Tongaat – is what outsiders would call “diverse”. When Matt said on radio that he had friends of colour – the old “my best friends are black” bit – he was technically telling the truth. Personally, the vast majority of my friends at school were black or of Indian descent. In later life I thank them for engendering in me a decent perspective on things, or as decent a perspective as a bunch of football-obsessed, thunee-playing hormone factories could piece together between themselves.

On the surface, Matt had every opportunity to not end up being – to use his word – a “proud” racist. He grew up spending most of his time in a co-educational environment in which there was a high degree of cultural and linguistic mixing, in which he could be (and was) friends with black people who – thanks to the relative privilege of a private school – were economically as secure as he was, and in which he could receive an education of the highest order. It was a rare privilege for us to grow up in a place where this was all normal; in a wet-dream portrait of a transformed nation at the schools level.

But it didn’t work. Obviously. To still think it’s admissible to seriously use the K-word, even in private, is a state of failure for any white person with ambition to live in South Africa. Most of us seem to think that South African society will, as generations go by, reach a state of equilibrium, with racism eventually dying out year by year, and the old economic and social ghosts of colonialism and apartheid eventually dissipating, as if by magic. It’s not quick, but eventually we’ll get there, you know.

But everyone must know that Matt only speaks like he does because the people around him permit it, and perhaps even encourage it. People like him might now think twice about using the K-word again, but likely only because they don’t want reprisals, not because they don’t mean it. The public sphere has very little bearing on the private in this case, and Matt’s outburst – like Penny Sparrow’s, like any number of outed bigots of all backgrounds and colours – are the tip of an iceberg, whose base is vast, invisible, and threatens to sink our society.

This specific controversy, however, personally convinces me of something I’ve considered for a long time. Simply – and this is an obvious point – it is not enough to achieve an outward veneer of “transformation” in our public spaces. But, to go further, without the intentional education – in schools and offices, of all South Africans – about how racism, sexism and prejudice underlies and predicates our society, we’re stumbling toward the future.

School taught Matt and I about orgasms and how to avoid contracting HIV, but no one told us what the K-word does to the psyches of black people, or what sexual harassment does to a woman. That was left out, for us to learn – or not learn, blatantly – for ourselves. Maybe if our life orientation teacher, or our history teacher, or our headmaster properly opened up that conversation in our multiracial classroom – instead of surreptitiously avoiding it in the way adults tend to do – Matt wouldn’t have resorted to racism when criticising Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula about his policies.

But this isn’t just politics, or just about social justice: this is our daily lives as South Africans. Maybe, if that difficult conversation was encouraged, one of our black friends or black teachers would have explained to the non-blacks in our class the baggage that that word carries, what specific horrors it represented; things that Matt and I and everyone else would have been forced to consider as part of our education. Things that we might carry back into our laagers.

It’s a pipe dream, maybe. Maybe it’s naïve, but if that happened I can’t help thinking then that Matt maybe wouldn’t have ended up forcing legions of black people to relive their own humiliation, driving them in rage to dig up his personal details and upload them to social media. Maybe he wouldn’t have empowered groups of white bigots, who now celebrate him for “telling it like it is”.

Maybe Matt wouldn’t have disappointed every decent-thinking person he knew. And maybe Matt wouldn’t have ruined his young life. It’s all so preventable.

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