The 1 000th cut was the deepest
Black rage was a distant memory by the time my generation came of age. Or so we thought.
Our forebears went through it all and forgave those who had never asked for absolution.
At first they fought, and then mastered, the shuck and jive of being grateful to be a part of the new South Africa.
Yet here we are: tired, angry and inconsolable.
This past weekend, former rugby player and commentator Ashwin Willemse did what many black people have long dreamt of doing.
He stated that he would not be “patronised by two individuals who played in an apartheid, segregated era” and walked off a live Super Rugby show.
His response to whatever had happened off-air between him and fellow commentators and former players Nick Mallett and Naas Botha was a source of chagrin to some.
Black expression of anger is a dangerous endeavour in South Africa. Besides the usual descriptors of “irrational”, “difficult”, “entitled” and “unprofessional”, having the nerve to speak out can mean the loss of a livelihood and other repercussions.
The truth in the rainbow nation is that black anger must be contained no matter the offence, because the duty of black people is to ensure white people’s comfort.
Black people must not be disruptive by showing a facet of their humanity. We are yet to be told what palatable method of protest is psychologically comforting to white people. When the mirage of the rainbow is challenged, it is perceived as a challenge to the natural order of life.
The responses to Willemse have been telling. There’s no discomfort in the content of Willemse’s words because it is perfectly acceptable to humiliate a man who has achieved so much personally and professionallty. What is uncomfortable is the disruption of their TV show about their sport, in their country.
The strength of the outcry against Kallie Kriel and Ernst Roets’s “white genocide” tour of the United States and Britain seems like a deflated balloon compared with what Willemse has faced since his walk-out. How dare he express himself in such a public manner?
Black rage is intrusive and audacious, demanding to be heard. Like a small stone in a shoe, it has to be removed.
Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger, however ineffectual it is, yet nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than the wrath of white people.
White anger has a respectable quality and it carries with it resources and remedies: the manager, the neighbourhood watch, human resources and the police. It is always right, complex and just.
Black anger is unreasonable, divisive and misguided. Anger at having endured a death by a thousand cuts must be recovered from, quickly and quietly.
For many black and coloured people watching Willemse walk off the set, that 1 000th cut was instantly recognisable.
Those who have no such experience of a stream of subtle but damaging degradations saw an ill-timed hissy-fit.
To them he can’t take a joke. Because that’s all it ever is, a joke. To grin widely and laugh it off is expected but anything outside of that is met with resistance and dismissals.
Yet this final cut was — as black people can attest to — layered by years-old scabs of indecision and self-doubt. Years of turning inwards to avoid making others angry or ruining a good time. Was that racist? Am I overreacting? Am I too sensitive to understand what’s going on?
But what we should be asking is: are black folks so beneath humanity and compassion, incapable of feeling pain, humiliation and exhaustion that others cannot recognise the depth of their cuts?
Willemse is as close to “one of the good ones” as one can get when navigating ‘their’ space. But even the perfect victim could never be enough.
When he arrived in the court of public opinion, the weight of being a perfect victim proved insurmountable. Is there an acceptable way in which Willemse could have expressed his discomfort when he has been dealing with the disquiet he obviously felt but can hardly prove?
The tone-policing of Willemse by various commentators serves a very specific function.
It is there for us to not get too ahead of ourselves or our gracious hosts. It is there to keep us in perpetual gratitude sporting a veneer of professionalism.
It is meant to corral the ones who believe they have managed to transcend race in the pantheon of rugby.