/ 24 March 2017

Editorial: How ‘Spur man’ and Zille are alike

DA leader Helen Zille.
DA leader Helen Zille.

If the act of a black woman telling a white man to fuck off had the same power as a raging white man, the past 400 years of South African history may have turned out differently. An act of language is stripped of its power when confronted by a historically constructed bulwark of race and gender.

In the few seconds of that viral video shot by a bystander in a Spur restaurant in southern Johannesburg, we have a small glimpse into the past four centuries in the lives of black women in South Africa. But then, Helen Zille would say we should be grateful to colonialism for the existence of a restaurant chain, no matter that it has been built on the unrepentant cultural appropriation of a people who themselves have been tormented by dispossession.

Colonialism, as experienced by us, was not about water, healthcare and universities. Colonialism is about one people exerting power over another.

It is colonialism that has established a world in which the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a white man are treated as superior to all else. It is colonialism that has rendered the humanity of black people debatable. And it is colonialism that ultimately brings us to a restaurant, its patrons and staff looking on while a white man physically attacks a black woman.

There is no further context needed.

But just in case, Lebohang Mabuya’s version of events has been corroborated by the restaurant’s CCTV footage. Her anger, however, has somehow been treated as equivalent to physical assault – like a sinful indulgence, as though women are supposed to respond with a smile in the face of such provocation.

Can we pause as well to consider that it is exactly that kind of anger that is bred by a society in which a man physically attacks a child, and then his mother, and people think they are both at fault?

The incident is telling of how power is exerted through race and gender. This, after all, was a white man attacking a black woman. It is fundamentally racist.

So yes, fuck right off.

There is an eerie familiarity in that black woman’s anger. It is the reality of black women every day who must rear their children in a society steeped in histories of dispossession. It is the reality of black women every day who must rear their children amid a violence waged against their sense of self. It is the reality of black women every day who must rear their children amid a violence waged against their very being.

In Zille we have an example of a white South African who refuses to acknowledge the experiential legacies of institutionalised racism, a white South African who believes her views, and her experience of the world, is the only lens through which the world must be seen and felt. Zille’s views do not exist in a vacuum. They emerge from a systemic process of negating the experiences of those who actually experience the effects of colonialism. Clearly the vision of Singapore’s nice, clean streets and piped water, about which Zille wrote enthusiastically, blinded her to the reality of South Africa and its history.

Let’s be clear: this is not about the freedom to say stupid things. Zille can say whatever she wants, but she should also expect to be judged by what she says. She is a prominent politician in a party that offers an alternative to the ruling party, and her campaigning for it contains an element of moral suasion, as political parties’ arguments always do. She has sought followers, essentially, whether for herself as the face of the DA or for the DA itself.

So she is a powerful person. And she is using her power to insist that her take on history should be accepted by all. For Zille to be engaged in meaningful debate about colonialism, she must also be ready to accept that people’s reactions to her are rationally rooted in colonialism itself – a history of dispossession, exploitation and oppression.

And that is why the crass racism of the man in the Spur restaurant and Zille’s views on colonialism are much the same. Both are the result of white people refusing to engage with black people as equals. Both are the result of the exerting of rapacious power to assert themselves above all else.