Racism in the Cape Town yoga community: One instructor's story
Earlier this year Kafui Awoonor took her employer Fulvio Grandin — the owner of the yoga studio Yogazone, on Kloof Street in Cape Town where she worked as an instructor — to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration under the grounds of discrimination based on race and/or ethnicity. This was after one of her colleagues, William Lindeque, glibly remarked, on a hot day in the studio, that he wished they were back at the plantation so she (Awoonor) could fan him (Lindeque), an abhorrent reference to colonial-era slavery. Awoonor is a black woman of Ghanaian descent. Lindeque is a white man from South Africa.
During the arbitration process with the CCMA Mr Lindeque indeed confessed to having said the above to Awoonor. The case, however, was ruled in favour of Mr Grandin as it was decided that, as a business, Yogazone had gone through all the necessary protocols of recourse with an employee after an act of discrimination. Mr Lindeque is currently still employed by Yogazone, Ms Awoonor is not.
This brings into question the grounds upon which that ruling was made, what the law conceives of as adequate recourse and whether the law with its own inherent foundational problematics can be singularly depended upon to bring justice to those who need it? Lest we forget that various formulations of the law have categorised women, children and people of colour as property throughout history within the legally ratified institutions of apartheid, slavery and colonialism. History has taught us better than to believe the law can be easily substituted as an overriding ethical code.
According to senior commissioner Bella Goldman, the commissioner who oversaw the arbitration process, in her transcript of the arbitration process her mandate was as follows: “… to determine whether the applicant was harassed in the form of discrimination on the bases of race and/or ethnicity… and if so, whether the respondent [Yogazone] is liable for such harassment.”
After considering the arguments lodged by Awoonor, Grandin and Lindeque, Goldman ruled the following:
“I find that Will Lindeque’s comment was discriminatory on the basis of race and/or ethnicity, but do not find the employer to be liable for such discrimination for the reasons stated”
The “reasons stated” being, to summarise:
Lindeque’s apology to Awoonor sent via WhatsApp containing such gems as, “Race is such a non-issue for me that I sometimes feel that I can joke about racism”
Grandin’s delivery of a verbal warning to both Lindeque and Tiegolin Markham (another employee who was present who, according to the transcript of the arbitration process, “thought [Lindeque’s] comment was hilarious and laughed”)
And that both Grandin and Lindeque had sought to reconcile with Awoonor
Since the ruling by the CCMA Awoonor has spoken out on social media about the racialised, verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of Lindeque. Recordings of Grandin deriding Awoonor have also surfaced in the public domain making threats to take legal action against Awoonor if she were to take this into the public domain (sent before going into the arbitration process).
However, it would appear now that Awoonor has bravely brought this issue into the public domain that Yogazone, Grandin and Lindeque are far more repentant than they first were at the beginning of this process. Both Grandin and Lindeque failed to appreciate the gravitas of what they had done and been complicit in.
Most succinctly summed up by Lindeque saying as previously stated, “Race is such a non-issue for me”. There could be no more incisive words spoken by a white man in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa. For white people, in this country, race is indeed not an issue. A hobby, a talking point, a joke, maybe even an inconvenience, but certainly not an issue. And, from the responses (or, rather, lack thereof) from Grandin and Lindeque over the 8 months since the incident took place, race as an issue clearly does not even require serious and sincere engagement. That is until one’s reputation and capital are threatened. One Adam Catzavelo can surely relate to this.
Since Awoonor has brought this incident to light via a video on YouTube and Facebook where she details from start to finish what took place at Yogazone and the legal arbitration process thereafter, Yogazone has released a series of apologies that seek to shirk their accountability in supporting racial violence on their premises by keeping Lindeque in their employ (signed off with a laughable “Namaste”).
Grandin has not answered to the fact of the vitriolic voice notes sent to Awoonor after she reported the incident with Lindeque to him and instead, utilising the ancient technique of white liberal obfuscation, has sought to argue that: racism is not part of their institutional philosophy, Will acted out of character, Awoonor made a comment referencing the plantation the previous day, they will be getting diversity facilitators to work with the staff etc.
All this conveniently after the fact of Awoonor paying for legal representation during the arbitration process, the fear and anxiety of being out of one stream of income, being harangued by the management of Yogazone and the silent fear that stalks many people of colour who have experienced racism (whether explicit or otherwise), the fear of not being believed. Here, I believe is one of the central problematics that victims of violence face within our legal framework: the burden of proof.
In an interview I conducted with Grandin, I asked whether he thought it was fair that Awoonor and, by extension, people of colour have to continually go to lengths to prove what should be an easily observable reality. Grandin responded:
“I accept that that is, unfortunately, a burden which has unjustifiably been placed on the black community in order to try and foment some kind of equality. It’s very unfortunate when rationale and ethical standards need to be fought for as opposed to just being evident in social behaviour and social consciousness. So, I don’t think that it’s right in any way, it’s very tragic in fact and it’s part of the tragedy that we’re facing in South Africa that we have had a long time and we not… there’s still such a burden on the non-white community to continuously bring to [the] fore that there is racial profiling, discriminatory behaviour, racism still prevalent in many aspects of society”
A tragedy indeed. A tragedy that it takes months of arbitration and the continued performance of white, patriarchal aggression for you to even begin to appreciate the levels of implicit and explicit violence people of colour in this country are beholden to, conveniently as you are being held to account in the public domain. And it is here where the moral contract created by the precedent set up by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fails us.
By prematurely forcing South Africans of colour to forgive the acts and structures perpetuated by white people and white institutions in this country before white people could even begin to conceive of what it is they had done, deferred any kind of meaningful reckoning with the systemic order of apartheid and the untenable grief, the unimaginable torment of what whiteness has instituted upon people of colour here. And this manifests in the present day in situations like this.
Where yoga, a philosophical system much broader than physical asana practice, is misappropriated for the purposes of capital and the continuation of the imperial legacy of plunder; divorced from its relationship to people of colour from whom it stems; ignorant of the tenets of ethical accountability on which the practice is built and then mobilised as an implicit tool of violence towards people of colour while white people are allowed to maintain a stronghold over it.
It must not be confused that this issue speaks to much broader, much more chilling realities. The unrepentant and unmitigated violence of white ignorance has consequences for people of colour that are continually overlooked. The unrepentant and unmitigated violence of white ignorance is a tool that has been used for centuries to obfuscate and not account, to undermine the observable consequences of rampant imperialism on the lives of people of colour and feign innocence. I believe we need to divest ourselves of the illusion of white innocence. We need to hold sacred the validity of black rage and black pain. We cannot continue to keep asking white people, to quote Jame Baldwin, “How much time do you want for your progress?”
Kopano Maroga is a performance artist, writer and cultural worker and co-founding editor of ANY BODY ZINE, an online and printed publication about dance, movement and embodied politics in South Africa.