Judging by the frequent outbursts of right-wing solidarity campaigns, last year should have been the last nail in the coffin of rainbowism in South Africa. That is not to suggest that for the past 23 years or so we have lived our lives trapped between an optical illusion and Orania but the space in between does seem to be shrinking.
A theory I have been working with is that the arbiters of our peculiar, post-apartheid religion, so wonderfully articulated by comedian Tumi Morake from her Jacaranda FM microphone, saw the shitstorm coming in 2015, landing as it did on the stone-carved garments of colonial architect Cecil John Rhodes. The shit-infused wind blowing in from the lawns of the University of Cape Town (UCT) were scarier than some initially realised.
How else does one explain that, barely two years later, the student movement has been infiltrated, beaten, and bundled up in a manner that suggests that perhaps we should never have renamed John Vorster Square to Johannesburg Central. The handcuffs may as well have been individually marked “free education” and “permanent blacklisting”.
This is not the part where we discuss the tactics or the fate of certain female Rhodes University students involved in anti-rape protests. No. It is where we acknowledge the #RhodesWar as a bitter end to 2017, in a climate in which state, white supremacists, private security companies, press watchdogs and apartheid-era media conglomerates seemed to be reading from the same dictums. In the past year, for the landless, the unemployed, the unschooled and the just-getting-by, South Africa, to borrow from Get Out writer and director Jordan Peele, did indeed become our “sunken place”.
It was on the morning of March 21, Sharpeville Day, that most of us saw the Spur video, in which a burly white man was captured threatening a black woman in front of a table of mostly children. Amid the chaos, the thing that hit me first was, save for the woman’s instinctive screaming and a rather slight black man’s valorous though feeble attempts at intervening, the collective fear of this white man who, granted, looked like he had put in his fair number of minutes at the scrum machine. As a result, he was a law unto himself, with a black woman at the table behind the fracas pleading with her skinny companion to stay out of it. “Spur will intervene,” she can be heard saying. Never mind the ensuing boycott spearheaded by sections of the Afrikaner volk angry about the supposed partial handling of the situation. It is the lifelessly ambling blue shirts of the restaurant staff that tell you all you need to know about the South African condition.
They are simultaneously present and absent, like the straitjacketed limbs of Iziko South African National Museum’s security personnel.
There, in January, as Western Cape secessionists the Cape Party moved in to deface Dean Hutton’s Fuck White People installation, the security guards resembled limbs programmed by remote, taking instruction from the very people they were supposed to police.
Hutton, appropriating a Fallist proclamation photographed from Wits Fallist Zama Mthunzi’s T-shirt in 2016, claimed she adapted the slogan as an act of allyship, developing it to become her master’s thesis at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art.
In mid-April, not quite a month after the Spur incident, Marius Roodt, then a researcher based at the Centre for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg, published a blog post under a false identity on South Africa’s version of the Huffington Post. Roodt, posing as Shelley Garland, submitted the post, headlined “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?”, to the newly launched publication.
Launched in November 2016 and owned locally by Naspers subsidiary Media 24, HuffPost Edition ZA was a media entrant to watch at the time, creatively responding to stories such as the defacement of Hutton’s art and the racist Spur tirade.
Initially defended on merit by editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay, the post was later taken down after it was discovered that Garland didn’t exist. The backlash from a global pool of right-wingers built into a crescendo. AfriForum’s complaint to press ombudsman Johan Retief represented only the far right’s outrage and not the total picture. It was, perhaps, a tweet by security risk analyst Ryan Cummings that captured the zeitgeist best: “Abelungu angrier at an op-ed denying them the chance to vote than they were about black people actually being denied the chance to vote,” he tweeted on April 16.
Retief found that Roodt’s blog amounted to hate speech because the enactment of its suggestions could lead to violence. Pillay resigned as a result of the ruling, which she later successfully appealed. The ombudsman’s initial ruling was later set aside on the grounds that Retief had failed to delineate between discriminatory speech and hate speech.
Though vindicating Pillay, the ruling did little to quell the reactionary tide that followed the blog’s publication.
In an interview with themediaonline.co.za published in August, Pillay claimed that understaffing and “the pressure to produce 30 pieces of unique content a day with just three junior reporters”, along with editors being called upon to write, over and above editing blogs, contributed to the fiasco and the general untenability of the model. Editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee countered that the conditions at Huf fPost Edition ZA were “pretty standard for this new world of [digital publishing]”.
In November last year, after an inaccurate editorial conflating the actions of Solidarity and AfriForum in reference to the backlash against comedian and radio host Tumi Morake, replacement editor Pieter du Toit found himself censured by the press ombudsman and compelled to issue an apology.
In her Jacaranda FM breakfast slot, which she co-hosts with Martin Bester, Morake referred to South Africa’s post-apartheid reality as akin to a playground bully being angry about having to share a stolen bike, a pretty accurate summation, if you ask me.
In the haste to champion Morake’s cause — perhaps as a show of the platform’s supposed liberalism — Du Toit has ascribed Solidarity’s multipronged response to vilify Morake (such as mobilising members to make complaints to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, penning editorials and labelling Morake a racist) to AfriForum.
For sure, AfriForum had a particularly busy year, organising Black Monday, a public protest against farm murders in which protesters waved die Vierkleur and sang Die Stem, only for AfriForum executive Ernst Roets to distance the organisation from these actions: “If that happened somewhere, it’s not something that AfriForum is aware of,” he told EWN.
What I couldn’t fathom, though, was just how reprehensible it was to sing Die Stem in public, no matter the tenor of the event. After all, isn’t it part of the national anthem of this, our sunken place?
Morake stood her ground, backed by Jacaranda FM, despite people calling for her to be fired and for her to return to the bush. But she seemed caught in the double bind of rainbowism, where your only friends must be those who seem to believe in no discernible ideology at all.
“As much as the extreme right came out and started a fire, the extreme left also came out” is a quote she’s repeated like a mantra since the backlash, most recently to the Sunday Times. “We can’t let those flare up, either of them,” she said.
As Morake and her family recover from a festive season motor accident, don’t forget that some of the people she has spent so much time reaching out to have labelled her pain, and that of her family, a “karmic” event related to her radio utterances.
As I held on to the Sunday paper on December 17, looking at the image of the pouting, fun-loving Morake, I thought of Daryl Davis, a black American blues musician who has made it his life’s mission to convert Ku Klux Klan members.
His mantra, to the less patient among us, goes something like this: “They’re [the Klan] still here because you don’t have the patience to sit down and have a conversation and educate one another.”
When I read that, my heart sank.