And how do we know it “runs rampant”?
I am prompted to ask the question by this comment by Carlos Amato in a very scholarly and thought-provoking article about that Zapiro cartoon: “Genuine white racism remains rampant in this country,” he writes, “but such indiscriminate accusations will not help to defeat it.
Zapiro, who was one of South Africa’s fiercest cultural warriors against apartheid and then an equally passionate contributor to the nation-building project, deserves better than to be so glibly typecast.”
Now, I happen to agree with Amato on pretty much every point in his article. Cartoonists are in the business of being unfair to their subjects. It is their job — quite literally — to distort those whom they mock. And yes, while this rape cartoon pushed the boundaries (Amato does not buy Zapiro’s argument that the rape metaphor was unrelated to the earlier rape trial, at which Zuma, incidentally, was found not guilty), this does not mean that the cartoon does not make a very powerful point about “the grubby cult of power”, as Amato puts it.
Indeed, thinking about my earlier post about how, by attacking Zuma, Zapiro may unwittingly have prompted reactionary sympathy for the man, I am now starting to wonder whether, by attacking Zapiro, the geniuses in the ANC Youth League and their fellow travellers the Young Communists — who sound like a retro-ironic folk-rock band but, sadly, aren’t — won’t swing opinion back in the other direction. My own evolving response to the whole debate is swaying back toward the cartoonist.
But Amato’s assertion worries me for some reason: this declaration — “genuine white racism runs rampant”. I don’t dispute that South Africa must still tackle the assumptions of racial superiority and inferiority as well as any violence that may result from it, but I feel compelled to ask a couple of questions here, inasmuch as because this is the kind of throwaway assertion I myself might have made, given similar circumstances:
1. Precisely what constitutes “genuine white racism”? That Zapiro is not and never has been a racist I have no doubt, but not everyone has his liberation-struggle credentials. Does “genuine white racism” refer to dinner-table references to “Afs”? Conviction that the maid is stealing the Ricoffy again? Barring blacks from your oord? Calling black South Africans the k-word to their faces? What?
What makes it “genuine”? Are there degrees of racism? Are some kinds of racism worse than others? And how can white South Africans know in their own minds whether they dislike Jacob Zuma — or any other politician who happens to be black — because he or she is black, or because of what he or she has done or stands for? People need to know these things, so that they are able to assess whether they, or their colleagues or friends, are genuine racists.
2. Once we’ve defined genuine white racism, we can assess how “rampant” it is. After all, what defines whether something is “rampant” and how does Amato know that white racism is everywhere?
A search reveals that “rampant” has a couple of different meanings, referring to “growing luxuriously” or “marked by a menacing wildness, extravagance, or absence of restraint”. Is this true?
Is “genuine white racism” everywhere? Difficult to tell, because if “genuine” racism refers to matters reported to police, it’s difficult to argue that it’s everywhere, and if it refers to racist assumptions, there’s no definitive study of the unpoliced thoughts and opinions of white South Africans. So, difficult to say, really.
Amato might well be right about genuine white racism being rampant.
Still, this statement is problematic, because it’s the sort of throwaway comment that, among other functions, helps protect the writer from criticism that he himself is a racist. (I know this only too well; been there, done that.)
Defending Zapiro against accusations that he is racist must necessarily be contextualised in the light of real white racism, as if every discussion around every debate must be inoculated — if you will — by a disclaimer of the evil of apartheid or white racism.
The writer offers up this acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past and the present; now discussion may continue.
(Small things, I know. I blame my interest in these sorts of statements in my own extended period of study at Wits. I think they were hoping I’d come out more unquestioningly left wing than I did.)
The point is that we should think about the generalisations we make, and why we make them, and look to a time when we assess every argument on its merits instead of its demographic and political component.
Then, maybe, we’ll defeat genuine white racism. And any other kind of racism there is.