This post is taken from the afterword to my novelette, Awareness. In Awareness, set in near-future South Africa, Thuli a young, privileged, black woman is forced to re-evaluate her life after she runs down James’ son – James is a white man who lives in a poor township. The story inverts current stereotypes of race, class and (to some extent) gender and, in that way, puts a fresh spin on forgiveness.
Because of the sensitivity of the subject – the context of the story touches on racial identity (the context, I say, not the core story: Thuli and James are both blissfully indifferent to each other’s ethnicity) – because the context touches on racial identity, I thought it wise to write an afterword that looks at the question of who gets to tell what stories in the light of two of today’s big issues: Black Lives Matter (and apartheid, and colonialism) and #metoo.
BLM and Police Brutality in South Africa
Police brutality in South Africa is an ongoing problem. But it’s not the same as the US version: SA has its own peculiar twist. Let’s start with a revealing snapshot. In 2015 #feesmustfall protesters – students protesting against high university fees – picketed parliament. Police moved in to disperse them, targeting black students, who then took refuge behind a human wall composed of their white fellows (anecdotally, those most immune to police action were white, female students). The following widely-circulated tweets were representative of reaction at the time.
Forty Coats: ‘The white human shield has me in two minds 1. The black human shields and barricades weren’t human enough? 2. Thank you for your solidarity.’
And, Yonelise Keating: ‘So BLACK policemen arrest BLACK students and the only form of protection is a WHITE human shield. WHAT??’
The Citizen (a newspaper) summed up, ‘While some found the ‘white human shield’ gesture to be heartwarming and encouraging, others wondered why apparently police would not use force against or arrest white people…’
But the point I want to take forward – and where SA policing differs most conspicuously from the US – is that the majority of the policemen were black. This doesn’t mean that their actions weren’t racist though; it’s just… Well, we’ll get to it.
“Wait, don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him!”
It’s not at all surprising they were black. Here are some statistics: by 2006, in line with representative racial transformation (one of the planks in a raft of post-apartheid transformational legislation) 64.3% of the police service was black, 14.5% bi-racial or Indian, and 21.2% white (Diversity and Transformation…pg. 21). These proportions didn’t hold for officers above captain – at the time only 43.5% were black, whereas 42.1 were still white. But – even though current data is not readily available – over the past 14 years it is safe to presume the service has moved further towards representivity in its command structure.
Nonetheless, even though the police are predominantly black, they don’t seem to have shaken the racist mind-set of the apartheid years. Why on earth not?
Well, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a little irresponsible of me to make such a sweeping statement based on only a single example – a #feesmustfall protest.
Let’s first revisit the Marikana Massacre. On 16th August, 2012 police opened fire on striking mineworkers at Marikana killing 34 and seriously injuring 78. Tension had been brewing for a week: at least six miners and four policemen had been killed in skirmishes. And then, on 16th August, 400 heavily-armed police attacked an encampment of thousands of lightly armed strikers, some of whom carried machetes or tribal weapons (spears, knobkerries). One of the policemen videoed his experience of the attack.
It’s disturbing (you’ve been warned) but instructive viewing. First, note that most of the police are black. But not all. At two minutes into the clip someone, possibly an officer (to my ear, the accent is most likely that of a white or bi-racial first-language Afrikaans speaker) calls out in English “Wait, don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him!” but he’s ignored. With tragic consequences.
Just what the f*** is going on? (Apart from a gross human tragedy. And subsequent media storm of outrage, and political buck-passing.)
Police brutality? Yes, unquestionably!
A cock-up in training and command? Looks that way.
Racism? Yeah. But it’s complicated. It’s racism with a twist – as I said, I’ll get to it (and please don’t assume I’m going to whitewash the whiteys).
“Did you torture him?”
Captain Segura laughed. “No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.”
Now let’s fast forward to26th August, 2020 when 16-year-old, Down syndrome sufferer, Nathaniel Julies, a bi-racial boy, was gunned down by police. A witness stated that, having first questioned Nathaniel and finding him unresponsive because of his disability, police moved on to interview a second person. Concluding their questioning, they then recalled Nathaniel and shot him in cold blood. Later, in court, the shooter, police rookie Caylene Whiteboy (also bi-racial) claimed she had been instructed by her black African superior, Simon ‘Scorpion’ Ndyalvane to fire the fatal shot using a shotgun she believed was loaded with rubber bullets. But irrespective of her belief regarding the ammunition, there can be no question she and her superior knew that Nathaniel suffered from a disability, or that he was harmless. His murder was a vicious example of police brutality.
And I could go on, citing report after report. Suffice it to say, from 2014 to 2019, 30,000 cases of police brutality were reported.
So why hasn’t the South African Police Service shaken off the racist mindset fostered by apartheid?
It’s a poverty thing.
I could maybe say it’s about class – in the way that author Graham Greene uses ‘class’ in this exchange between protagonist James Wormold and Captain Segura (a policeman) in his 1958 novel, Our Man in Havana:
“Did you torture him?”
Captain Segura laughed. “No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.”
“I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.”
“Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea…”
Glib, isn’t it? In a superior and patronising sort of way. The quote doesn’t sit comfortably in the context of contemporary South Africa. But bear with me: stripped of its colonial overtones it encapsulates the essence of an evil truth.
Poverty begets victim-hood.
Let’s unpack that in the context of South Africa.
During apartheid people of colour were systematically impoverished by state legislation that limited their opportunities. As a consequence, poverty was mapped directly onto race. And now, more than twenty years after South Africa’s first free elections – and in spite of the accession of the African National Congress to unopposed political power – South Africa still remains one of the most unequal nations in the world. In spite of the emergence of a small black middle class (and a few that have become vastly wealthy) the vast majority of black and bi-racial people continue in abject poverty. (According to 2015 statistics, 47% of black-headed households subsisted on only ZAR 992 per person, per month (about USD 70 in 2020 money) compared to 23% of bi-racial-headed households, and less than 1% of white (Overcoming Poverty… pg. XVIII).)
And it is mostly the poor that are victims of police brutality.
There are many reasons – too many to cover in this post (which, after all, is ultimately aimed at the question of who gets to tell what stories). But we’re going to dive a little deeper, and as we do, we will encounter some very unsavoury aspects of policing. So, I want to take a deep breath , and before we plunge, acknowledge that the majority of South African police try to do good: they try to protect citizens and uphold the law in very difficult circumstances. In fact, some of them are heroes – like Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear, commander of an anti-gang unit who was gunned down outside his Cape Town home only two weeks ago because his investigations were getting too close to the criminal bone.
I salute him.
Let’s have a moment’s silence…
Now, let’s have a look at the ‘bad potatoes’ (as they are called in South Africa). Or, rather, let’s take a closer look at the potato sack, since a contaminated sack corrupts new potatoes put into it. It’s the system; the environment that’s the problem.
At the bottom of it, police target the poor simply because they have less power than the rich.
This passage from page 26 of Predator or Protector: Tackling Police Corruption in South Africa by Gareth Newham and Andrew Faull (2011) is so apposite I feel I have to quote it verbatim.
‘In South Africa large numbers of people work in informal or illegitimate markets, often as a means of survival. This means that police officials have ample opportunity to accept bribes for ‘turning a blind eye’ to illegal activities. And because of the marginal status and powerlessness of many of those who work in these markets, police officials have the opportunity to become predatory. Poverty and high unemployment contribute to many people becoming involved in illegal liquor selling, drug dealing and sex work, and therefore vulnerable to corrupt police. Furthermore, there are many thousands of illegal immigrants in South Africa, many escaping from war, poverty and political oppression in their home countries. They are particularly vulnerable targets for corrupt police who know that they will generally not report incidents of corruption and are easily intimidated if they do. Many police officials view these informal markets and marginalised communities as an easy way to supplement their income.’
Sex workers, foreigners (particularly illegals) and, we will see, black youth are especially vulnerable. And corruption is closely linked to brutality as police rely on intimidation to enforce their solicitation of bribes, and routinely bolster their street-level ‘strongman’ image with violence. The article, Torture and Corruption: Violent Exchanges in Marginalized South African Communities by Hugo van der Merwe, M Langa and others (2017) fleshes this out. I summarise from pp. 78-80 (the passage contains too many third-party citations to reference here).
Young black (and bi-racial) males are regularly harassed by police. They are stereotyped as ‘skollies – work-shy; hypersexual, sexist, aggressive, unruly and violent; gang-members in waiting. One police-station commander shared his perception: “Your average law-abiding citizen lives in specific middle-class areas, whereas the problematic groups live in the townships; you can say most people in the townships are gangsters.” Thus, police justify violence as their recourse for instilling ‘discipline’ and necessary respect for their authority.
“You have to be violent to do this job. Believe me, I hate myself for having to act in that violent manner but if you don’t, you will not be able to do the job.”
The communities themselves are ambivalent. Crime is rampant and, on one hand, police are seen as not acting robustly enough to protect them from criminals, and criminals are perceived as having ‘more rights than their victims’ (hence the not-infrequent enactment of lethal vigilante justice against criminal suspects by community elements). On the other hand, robust police action easily escalates into brutality, which is greatly resented. And, in addition, communities disapprove strongly of police who abuse their authority to extort money from established gang bosses who deal in drugs, alcohol, sex, and weapons.
Young black men feel powerless, unable to escape (skipping to pp. 83-4) trapped between the violent networks of the police, community vigilante groups, and drug-dealers (whose goal is to keep them as clients, and, or suborn them as gang-members). Furthermore, though violent, this is an intimate network: the young men frequently know the police, the vigilantes, and the dealers well, just as the members of these three groups know each other. (Indeed, a fair number of police officers and their families live in the neighbourhoods they serve.)
Anecdotally, at a CSVR meeting (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation) when a station commander implored the community: “We can do nothing without the community. It is you, the community, who know who the criminals are,” a young man stood and shouted, “You are the one who knows the criminals. You are always sitting drinking with them.”
In consequence of the above, a certain level of police brutality comes to be seen as a necessary, inevitable part of policing, tolerated, and even accepted by the community. Tragically, a policeman is reported as saying, “You have to be violent to do this job. Believe me, I hate myself for having to act in that violent manner but if you don’t, you will not (be) able to do the job” (p 83).
And, all too frequently, the violence gets out of control. Perhaps the dynamic may be more intuitively grasped if one thinks of the police and their victims as acting out roles in a perverse human drama. The law may provide a script, and police standing orders some stage directions, but on the street the officers have to get into character and ad-lib their way through each scenario according to the unwritten dramatic traditions to which they are heirs. The first tradition is, ‘don’t accept disrespect from the powerless (or your authority will be eroded, and your effectiveness and safety compromised)’. Thus, when the police choose someone for the role of victim – mostly on the basis of economic and racial stereotyping (and presumably on suspicion of some infraction) and the victim won’t play his part, a dialogue of brinkmanship ensues. The victim declares, “I am not powerless: I have rights.” The police respond, “Who are you trying to fool? You look like a member of the torturable classes.” Then, instead of coolly producing incontrovertible proof that he (or she) is not – “Look at my Facebook, you clunk: my mom is the mayor!” – the victim blusters, and the police feel bound to match this escalation, and to top it. And, unfortunately, the police are not cool either (because of inadequate training, and pernicious police culture) but give way to Wrath, and Overdo Things. Until it’s Too Late.
An incident described on p. 81 of Torture and Corruption illustrates this: two young black men were conveying booze to a Christmas party. Police at a road-block demanded a bribe in order to pass them on (though they were not drunk or in contravention of any kind). One of them protested, insisting on his rights, and the incident swiftly escalated, resulting in him being severely beaten and imprisoned overnight, with long-lasting consequences to his health.
Back to the drama. The police have overdone it, again. What comes next?
The second unwritten tradition comes into play: ‘cover for your colleagues, and don’t tell the powerful what really happened (because next time it could be your career on the line). Predator or Protector puts it this way:
‘Police officials rarely see the ‘code of silence’ as negative, but rather as a sign of group solidarity, empathy and support for colleagues in difficult circumstances (e.g. battling to deal with the stress of the job, or being the subject of an investigation)’ (p. 14).
So, the victim is angry, but his, or her attempt to find redress is stymied by the pernicious police honour system. Of course, at this point in the drama the victim (or relatives, or, if the outrage is strong enough, the whole community) tries to call in the powerful to fix things. But, while the world vicariously joins in the media-fuelled outrage, this only deepens the silence back at the police station. And (Predator or Protector continues) as a consequence of the code, honest street-cops resign themselves to violence and corruption being part of the job; crooked cops are vindicated and gain influence; commanders despair of ever changing things; and investigations are compromised.
Well, we’ve dived pretty deep. But, before we head for the surface and a lungful of fresh air, I’d like to propose one last scene – a very noire one, and also completely speculative. I have no proof; no corroboration, but I can ask questions.
In the shooting of Nathaniel Julies, rookie police-woman Caylene Whiteboy, the shooter, was on patrol with her unit commander Simon ‘Scorpion’ Ndyalvane. Is it possible he wanted to blood her? By all accounts he was an unsavoury character, having been convicted three times before: for assault; assault to cause grievous bodily harm; and malicious damage to property. Is it possible he wanted to compromise her, bind her to the ‘code of silence’, in just the way that gangs are reputed to do when they order a wannabe member to murder a random stranger in the township? It’s an utterly repellent scenario.
I’m sure that there’s not even a grain of truth in it.
So, here we have a snapshot of the police in South Africa: a mostly black service policing its own people, prone to corruption and violence, victimising the poor and powerless, and also attempting to conceal its misdemeanours from the powerful – its political masters, the press, and wealthy and middle class citizens.
It’s a poverty thing.
Or maybe it’s OK to call it a class thing after all…
As South African political analyst Angelo Fick said when interviewed by News 24 in June 2020, “The class distinction is mapped onto the race distinction and often it is mistaken for a race distinction.”
Whoa, hold it!
So…if the race thing is mapped onto the class thing, and it’s mostly poor black policemen victimising poorer black communities ethnically similar to them, and in which they often live, then how is South African police brutality racist?
Bear with me a moment. I’m going to be obnoxiously literal minded. The Webster Dictionary definition of racism starts out, ‘Racism: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race’. Now, when a black policeman picks on a young black South African male does he believe that he is racially superior? Yes, I’m sure he believes he’s superior…but the basis is almost certainly social and not racial as such. And when that policeman targets sex-workers there’s probably a strong sexist component, but not necessarily a racial one. It’s only when he targets foreign nationals that one can argue for a direct racial bias.
Now let’s broaden that to include those who are black or bi-racial but not young males, or sex-workers, or foreign. Fick continues: “…there are experiences that many of us in the middle class black South Africa need never fear, our homes will not be invaded, we are not likely to be beaten to death as a rule in front of our relatives, whereas for working class poor South Africans this is a reality of violation that they have to deal with far more often than the rest of us.”
Beaten to death in front of relatives!
Fick might well have been referring to either of two incidents tagged in the same News 24 article as his interview: Sibusiso Amos, shot through the security gate of his own home by law-enforcement; or Collins Khosa beaten to death in his yard by South African Defence Force elements enforcing lockdown regulations. These victims were adult males of the same broad racial group as their killers. It is highly, highly unlikely that these killings were fuelled by a racial component.
The one incident which represents an exception to this is that involving the North East Rand Dog Unit where the video recording clearly captures the police involved directing explicitly racist abuse at their victims.
Far more likely, they were about law-enforcement asserting its authority. And in this regard it must be recognised that hard lockdown and the ban on alcohol (aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic) which, in south Africa, began on 26 March 2020 and was moderated on 1 June, turned up the heat on an already simmering pressure cooker, and led to increased incidents of brutal, power-crazed policing (and community sensitivity to, and outrage against it).
But, no matter how literal minded I get, I still smell racism somewhere. And, to be honest, so does Fick. I’ve been redacting his words. His quote above actually begins, “Yes, the racism is there, but there are experiences that many of us in the middle class black South Africa need never fear…”
Fick says, “The racism is there…”
He goes on to say “In South Africa, it is mostly poor, black people who die at the hands of police in a country which is majority black and has a history of violence in the form of colonialism and slavery.”
And, there it is…the persistent smell of history. Colonialism, apartheid – they got into everything; will take years to clean out! The old attitudes and assumptions endure, and even as they fade are overlayed by new sins. There were already many black policemen in the old apartheid police force though none of them were allowed to hold rank. Post democracy, they and their white colleagues were bundled, unsorted, into the washing machine of transformation.
In his study Police Brutality in South Africa, David Bruce presents a chilling perspective as he evaluates 29 cases of police brutality reported between 1996 (post democracy) and 2002 when the study was published.
‘Thus the selection of cases provided here suggests that while black people are the victims of a high proportion of police brutality cases, in a significant number of cases where brutality occurs this is as a result of the actions of black police, or even groups of police which include both black and white persons. However at the same time it should be noted that even in relation to those incidents where white police where involved in alleged brutality against black persons it is not clear in most of these incidents to what degree they were specifically acting out racist attitudes, or engaged in explicitly racist behaviour, while carrying out these acts of brutality.
The one incident which represents an exception to this is that involving the North East Rand Dog Unit (Case 1) where the video recording clearly captures the police involved directing explicitly racist abuse at their victims. This incident, which was strongly reminiscent of police behaviour during the apartheid period has served as a strong reminder of the racist origins of the SAPS and suggests that intensely racist attitudes persist amongst certain members. However as is the case with police brutality itself, racism is mostly disguised and hidden and therefore it is not clear quite how prevalent it actually is.’ (There are no page numbers in the document, but footnote 96 occurs in the midst of the first paragraph.)
What a filthy mess! But one thing is clear. And that is, as Bruce says, ‘it’s not clear’ to what degree police are acting out racist attitudes (with the exception of the North East Rand Dog Unit). And, when he says that, he refers exclusively to white policemen. Not to black. We can assume that black police are not racist (except possibly towards foreigners).
But, I should quit while I’m ahead. I’ve made my original point: SA police brutality is not the same as US police brutality. It’s more brutal, but less racist. It has its own, unique, South African twist.
#Metoo and Who Gets to Tell What Stories
Ah yes…the North East Rand Dog Unit!
I’ve tried to watch the video.
But can’t bring myself to endure it through to the end.
Those officers remind me of the policemen of my childhood. Even though I did not belong to the torturable classes they frightened me. My mother, who was Dutch and, as a teenager, had lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland, compared them with the Gestapo.
They were instruments of apartheid, the system that blighted all of South Africa with its bigotry.
As a six-year-old, I vividly recall my burning sense of injustice when Eunice, my beloved black nanny, was told to remove herself (and me) from a 1st class, ‘whites only’ train-carriage – I remember there had been some ‘moral’ and social arithmetic going on between her, the Cape Coloured train conductor, and the white occupants of the carriage: my nanny calculated that my whiteness was most significant but it turned out that her black adultness outweighed my childness. And so she took me with her into 3rd class, reserved for ‘non-whites only’. It was a frightening experience: I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, in the way that a six-year-old anticipates the danger posed by dragons, or other unfamiliar beasts. Except that when I got over my first shock of unfamiliarity I began to realise that these rough, un-perfumed people were radiating the kind of sympathy and acceptance that marks working-class compassion for children the world over.
Very different from the icy disapproval in 1st class.
The start of my lifelong sympathy for the underdog.
Because, it didn’t stop there. Through the 80s and 90s, as an aspiring, rebellious jazz-saxophonist, I worked in black nightclubs, alongside black musicians – much of the time, mine was the only white face present. And that was the environment where I formed my friendships, did my courting…
Then, after the millennium, I spent a decade in London as a school-teacher. And when I returned to South Africa in 2011 I took lodgings in a poor township and lived there, on and off, for three years.
I am a Christian. I wanted to protest the legacy of apartheid, still festering. I dreamed of reconciliation; transcendent brotherhood (and sisterhood). I dreamed of the heavenly New Jerusalem where people of every era, nation, and tongue will live together harmoniously, worshipping in the presence of God.
It was a largely symbolic protest, though the parochial church circles I moved in took some inspiration (and irritation) from it. The traces of it can be found on my Facebook page, ‘Against the Odds’.
Nonetheless, it was a necessary protest: more than 20 years after black majority government, South Africa is still riven by racism. And is plagued by corruption and mismanagement on a breath-taking scale. Having begun its rule with President Nelson Mandela – a paragon of humanitarian virtues – the African National Congress has degenerated into a gang of thieves, whose overriding goal is their own enrichment…
Whoa… Just hold it right there!
I could say a lot, but this is not a post about politics (though that gets in everywhere – as we’ll see): it’s about racism and #metoo and who gets to tell their stories.
And also about inspiration, idealism and universal brotherhood. Because merely stamping out a wrong (or attempting to) is not enough; it has to be replaced with something better. Darkness cannot be used to create light, but light alleviates darkness.
But, have I established sufficient legitimacy to be allowed to comment? Yes, I have lived and worked among people of colour; my early career as a musician developed almost exclusively among them – the Xhosa and so-called Cape Coloureds – and I have been immersed in their urban environment and culture.
But I am not black.
Do I have any right to comment on ‘black’ pain?
On any other pain than my own?
It is a growing presumption in 21st Century society that only #metoo people have legitimacy when writing fiction intimately concerned with sexual exploitation. And, to the extent that this presumption is accepted, I will assume that, logically, it extends to include any area of human suffering.
The controversy surrounding author Kate Russel’s book, My Dark Vanessa illustrates this. Published in 2020, the book explores the relationship between a school-girl protagonist and a sexually predatory teacher. During the run up to publication, Latinex author Wendy Ortiz complained that Russel’s concept was “eerily” similar to her 2014 memoir, Excavation, and suggested that prejudice against authors of colour had been responsible for her struggle to find a publisher. In order to legitimize her authorship Russel was forced to disclose that she had in fact suffered the abuse she wrote about.
Guardian columnist Layla AlAmmar commented in a recent article:
‘Here we come to the crux of the matter. It’s bad enough that people now feel comfortable telling novelists what they can and can’t write about, but this controversy brings to the fore something more disturbing – the notion that you must have lived trauma in order to write about it, and that there’s only one way of narrating it, namely through some autobiographical medium. Is it inconceivable that a person might choose to articulate their experience from behind the veneer of safety that fiction provides?’
Let’s unpack that.
Let’s begin with the notion that trauma should only be written about autobiographically.
Well…that is unacceptably narrow. We’d have to clear the library shelves of most novels. Because almost every novel contains trauma, and very few are autobiographical. No more John Le Carré, for example, or Alastair Reynolds, or Stephenie Meyer.
A better question is, must authors actually have lived trauma before they can fictionalize it? (I’m going to wing it here, fast and light as a bird.)
The answer is complicated. Going by the canon of established, successful authors, often writers cannot claim to have experienced the exact events they describe. However, this does not prevent them from synthesising fictional events based on similar, or generic, or even (a bit of a contradiction) hearsay experience. It’s one of their primary skills. They make things up, refracting the world around them through the prism of their imaginations. (I’m pretty certain that even Andy McNab, who actually was a SAS operative, might have exaggerated a few things. At any rate, his SAS fiction is more glamorous than Bravo Two Zero his autobiographical account of his escape from behind enemy lines – and there are claims that even that was exaggerated.) It’s not for nothing that the disclaimer in the front matter of every work of fiction reads something like, ‘[This story] is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental’.
And, if we accept that writers may use their imaginations, then the issue becomes one of ‘quality control’ so to speak. I suggest that it is hard to write convincingly without at least some transferable lived experience as grist for the imagination. In addition, responsible authors do intensive, even immersive research (visiting actual locales, spending time with the inhabitants, learning ways and traditions). I say ‘responsible’, not ‘successful’, or even ‘good’ (in a literary sense) because some very successful authors have been (and still are) quite clueless about what actually happens when their characters do the things they are described as doing. But this is harmless, is it not? It’s just entertainment, surely? Except when it inaccurately glamorises harmful activities, like drugs, or risky sex. Or promotes crackpot cults or conspiracy theories that weaken the fabric of society. Or… (But now we are wandering towards censorship. By and large, western society agrees that adults should be allowed to make up their own minds about what print-media contents they accept, or not.)
Common-sense suggests the following: if people read something that purports to be factual, they expect truthfulness, bolstered by a level of authentic experience and expertise on the part of the author. On the other hand, if it’s fiction, almost anything goes: society’s fluctuating moral compass is the only arbiter, its disapproval the only sanction – that’s why morality (or ‘political correctness’, or ‘wokeness’, or whatever name its era and faction calls it by) is such a hotly contested social sphere.
And here we begin to glimpse the heart of the matter, deeper than the question of whether an author must have experienced trauma to write about it.
Who owns the pain?
It’s a question that belongs to the moral sphere. And it’s what makes Ortiz’ complaint difficult to deal with. Russel was able to neutralize Ortiz’ monopoly of the pain of sexual molestation by claiming to have suffered similarly, but she could not challenge Ortiz’ complaint that she was passed over for publication because of race. She didn’t have the #metoo credentials for that.
She could not speak to Ortiz’ grief at struggling to find the means to tell her story, or her outrage that someone more racially palatable to the book-buying public had been promoted to tell it. And for a handsome fee! As Ortiz wrote in her essay, Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates, ‘I wonder about an industry that is constantly taken to task for perpetuating white supremacy in its mostly-white field, from receptionist to first reader to editor to CEO.’
(I have to say that – pain or virtue aside – my take on the question of whose book gets published by a commercial publisher boils down to the much more fundamental issue of public taste – who is prepared to pay for what. And as regards that…the world is slipping away beneath the novelist’s rapidly typing fingers. But that is a whole other library of lament that I’m not going to go into now.)
Individuals and communities own their pain. The natural assumption is that they have first rights when it comes to telling their stories – an assumption based on simple human decency and dignity. But, irrespective of whether they choose to tell their own stories or not; irrespective of whether they tell them well or poorly, I think there is room for an ‘intimate outsider’ to join in the telling. (After all, that’s the essence of investigative reporting and informed opinion pieces. And from there it’s a relatively small step to fictionalising: refracting the world through the prism of an author’s experience, as I put it.) But the ‘intimate outsider’– that’s how I see myself – has a trust: honesty balanced with sensitivity. Perhaps sometimes a little more honesty than sensitivity – otherwise how can healing take place? If bandages are never changed, the wound festers.
But…on the whole I favour gentleness.
Where am I going with this, edging along with careful words, hoping not to offend anyone?
What I really mean to say is that I feel drawn to write about the people I live among – I am referring to Cape Coloureds, Xhosa and the other African peoples inhabiting the Western Cape. Perhaps that’s because I am drawn to the underdog: I want to see fair-play, and the moneyed ways of those who live in the first-world (and who are mostly white) receive far too much exposure in international popular culture. Also, in South Africa, the interests of white people (who mostly live in first-world circumstances) often seem narrow, and their stories tame, compared to the seething tragedy and comedy enacted by the rest of the country.
Hope is powerful. It’s one of the big three: faith, hope and love.
As an intimate outsider I have seen many noble and tender moments. It’s easy to write about those – no one objects to being cast in a good light. I’ve also seen many humorous, or embarrassing, or even downright dark moments. And often the noble and the embarrassing are entwined – I haven’t yet found the courage to write vividly about that kind of moment. It’s all too easy to be accused of patronising privilege or, worse still, racism.
I remember strolling through the township with my recently converted gangster friend as we fatuously discussed whether charity was a Christian preserve. The road was teeming with people. Two very rough looking men passed us and my friend broke off to greet them. “They’re armed robbers,” he explained as they left. “Years ago I bought them savoury dumplings when they were starving.”
I suffered instant cognitive disconnect.
OK, so gangsters do charity, I thought. But…how could armed robbers ever starve? They take what they need from people.
Or, I remember the night I woke to red and blue light crawling along the ceiling of my rented room. A gangster had been executed in the tiny house across the sandy close, shot in the face while he slept (an added insult) and the police had arrived in force. The victim’s mother had escaped death by hiding under her own bed, and now she paced and wailed while one of her back-yard neighbours took on the role of comforter. The rest of the inhabitants – about twenty men women and children – watched the drama in their nighties and dressing gowns. Of course, they felt uncomfortable in the dark. They asked me to switch the porch light on so they could see better and, as a act of neighbourly courtesy, I did.
I’m naive. Still, at my age! I’ll never grow out of it.
I devoutly hope not.
Because I have seen God do wonderful things – even in the midst of squalor and despair.
I’ve seen God heal people.
What happened didn’t make sense in an intellectual way. Going forward, it doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any rational plan that makes sense to us humans.
But what happened gave hope. And hope is powerful.
It’s one of the big three: faith, hope and love.
Three things that change the world for the better.
I hope I never grow out of it.
Back to business: as an intimate outsider I aim to tell stories with compassion and humour (and, of course, sensitivity). I’m drawn to the underdog: I want to see fair play. And I want to challenge politically correct stereotypes where they are tired, or false. I live between evolving worlds and their jostling moralities are sometimes out of step with each other.
Take the ownership of pain for example. Everyone knows that sometimes people attempt to monopolize their own pain, or the pain of a community, or even a nation. Sometimes they even weaponize it, in order to morally neutralize their opponents and gain advantage. Take this recent tweet by Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters: ‘Every slave that tried 2 take a stand against the slave master was publicly lynched for all slaves to see. The lesson was/is if you try to take a stand, you too should be lynched. I’m just a child of a deceased epileptic domestic worker & the colour of my skin makes me a suspect.’
This tweet was his response after a recent, probing press interview where he was questioned regarding his involvement in the massive VBS Bank scandal where ZAR 2 billion (121 million USD) were illegally siphoned off during the Zuma administration. While weighing up his tweet’s sincerity one should note that, irrespective of his origins, Malema is no longer one of the poor. In 2017 he owed between ZAR 18 and 33 million (1-2 million USD) in back taxes (it’s far from clear). And currently, as the leader of a parliamentary party, his annual salary alone amounts to ZAR 1.3 million (78,000 USD). Neither is he innocent of racism: back in 2010 he fell foul of hate-speech legislation and was convicted.
Here’s another example of pain weaponized in an attempt at misdirection. In 2017, during nation-wide protests against his misrule, then President Zuma accused protesters of racism, focusing on a small group who, he claimed, had used monkey images on their placards: “It is clear some of our white compatriots regard black people as lesser human beings or subhuman.”
Fair enough. Very stupid of a small minority of whites. And disrespectful of the vast majority of protesters, most of whom were black.
That is, if the posters were actually there.
Civil organisation, Save SA, commented, “Had we seen these [allegedly offensive posters], not only would we have removed them, but believe that the multitudes who marched with us under our national flag would not have tolerated these.”
These utterances made by Malema and Zuma are extreme examples of individuals dishonestly attempting to hijack a people’s pain and weaponize it to their advantage. Most people see right through their transparent dishonesty. But some, for a variety of reasons, prefer to play their divisive and damaging game, and persist in standing with them, in spite of the destruction that their, frankly, racist attitude causes.
Darkness cannot be used to create light, but light alleviates darkness. Let us be honest; let us also forgive.
While the above are extreme examples of moral dishonesty. The vast majority of people who complain of racism (or other infractions of their pain) are not dishonest. The have either been directly abused, or feel that their sensitivities have not been respected. They are hurting. Like Wendy Ortiz.
Now, while, as intimate outsider, I may dare write of people’s pain with compassion and perhaps a touch of humour, when I do, very likely I will perturb the balance of people’s sensitivities. If that happens, remember, it’s not maliciously done. And if it’s you that is offended then, like the late Donald Tshomela, vocalist, elder statesman of jazz, and a Christian, who took me under his wing when I was callow youth of 24, and invited me into his Langa township home (illegally – it was the mid-80s) and made and drank tea with me, I hope you will invite me to come and see for myself how I got it wrong. So that next time, I can get it right.