/ 2 June 2016

Violence, loudmouths and the media: Hlaudi was right about one thing

Dance of rage: The louder you say something in South Africa the more legitimate it feels and protesters have learned that low-key actions don’t attract media attention.
Dance of rage: The louder you say something in South Africa the more legitimate it feels and protesters have learned that low-key actions don’t attract media attention.

Sitting next to me was a white man clutching a copy of the Constitution as though it was a magic shield. Sitting around me were black people intermittently shouting, among other things: “Fuck the Constitution!”

The occasion: the taping of a local TV show called The Big Debate. If you haven’t seen it, the way the show works is quite simple. A group of panellists sits in a circle, surrounded by an audience seated in a small tiered amphitheatre, like the one that doesn’t exist at Nkandla. The panellists — of which I was one — are given time to air their views on the subject under discussion, and then the audience gets to have a go.

I was told in advance that we’d be debating “race”, which in retrospect should probably have struck me as suspiciously vague.  But I spend quite a lot of my social time earnestly discussing race anyway, so it sounded like a weekend much like any other. 

The show is fortunately not broadcast live, because it took almost six hours to film. Producers had assembled panellists from across the political spectrum — from #RhodesMustFall to the Freedom Front Plus — and the results were, as the youth might say, “lit”. (If you’re not a youth, it means it was, um, vigorous.)     

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, someone thought it would be a good idea to open the show by having PJ Powers come out and perform her song Jabulani. Powers herself didn’t look particularly thrilled to have to perform the song for the seventeen thousandth time in her career but I guess she’s used to it. One look at the faces of the activists on the panel, however, would have told you exactly what was going to happen next. At this point I started giggling a bit out of nerves.

Almost as soon as she’d finished, Powers proceeded to have another orifice ripped for herself about the cultural appropriation of her white-Zulu shtick. She hit back valiantly; though, to my mind, using the words “I fought for your freedom” was a bold choice. This exchange, which took place in the first 10 minutes of action, pretty much set the tone for the rest of the show.

I have no way of knowing how much of what was filmed will make it to the final edit. By the end, the producers had literally run out of tape. Will the broadcast show reflect the levels of audience vitriol towards economist Moeletsi Mbeki, for instance, whose views proved possibly even less popular than those of the oke from the FW de Klerk Foundation? I wonder if it will record the moment when an old white woman in the audience, making a plea for Madiba Magic or something, was asked: “How many blacks did you kill in apartheid?”

Here’s the thing. In the moments directly prior to the show’s taping, we were all explicitly encouraged by the producers to voice the most strident versions of our opinions possible. As the show progressed, and the temperature rose, it proved almost irresistible to take on increasingly extreme views — like an argumentative arms race.

I started off reasonably sensible and eventually found myself yelling “You make me ashamed to be white!” at a woman from AfriForum. (She then stared fixedly at me with her blowtorch eyes for much of the rest of the taping, and I felt simultaneously terrified and slightly aroused.)

Sure, I disagreed with her views. But the forcefulness with which I expressed my disagreement was way out of sync with my actual levels of disgust. I allowed myself to be carried along on a wave of something I can’t precisely articulate, but that feels a little like this: that the louder you say something in South Africa, the more legitimate it feels.

The one thing SABC dictator-for-life Hlaudi Motsoeneng is right about is that violent protests win more attention from the media and government. As a journalist, I have witnessed the same thing repeatedly. Make your protest voices heard in an undramatic fashion and you’ll be lucky to see your cause warrant a few paragraphs of newspaper space, or a minister’s attention. Burn a tyre, close a road, or brandish weapons and see the media and officials jump to it.

In a very different context, with very different participants, something similar happens in our elite public discourse. I get invited to things like The Big Debate because in the heat of the moment I can be relied on to yell something like “You make me ashamed to be white!” 

In reality, my seat would be better filled by one of the academics who do thoughtful, considered work on whiteness that doesn’t make for punchy but insubstantial soundbites.

Freedom to express anger is important. But I have started to check myself for traces of politics built more on performance than principle. 

That episode of The Big Debate airs on July 17, by the way. Get popcorn.