The reaction to Penny Sparrow was not rational

Gwen Ngwenya questions why the nation went into meltdown over the racialist remarks of a complete non-entity

There is no intellectual tradition of the black individual

There is no intellectual tradition of the black individual; throughout history the black person’s identity has been discussed as a collective phenomenon. The end of apartheid should have brought about not only external liberties but freedom in defining one’s self apart from the group. Yet as victors of a system that endeavoured to create a generalised idea of the black person it is ironic that given the freedom we still choose to embrace the caricature and not the real individual person who by incident of birth happens to be black. 

The fragile collective identity

Penny Sparrow brought together the ingredients for the perfect storm; on one hand a group of black people for whom blackness is a defining part of their identity, and on the other a group of white people who are desperate to be on the right side of the racist dividing line. Incidentally I had a similar experience in London last year.

My colleagues and I were walking back from a team dinner, with two colleagues (black men) walking slightly ahead. On the side of the street was a woman whose swigs from a beer bottle were interspersed with words in the direction of our group: “you look like baboons because women fuck apes in Africa.”

Was my sense of self so assaulted that I would have brought it to the attention of others around me, paraded her in the street shouting ‘here walks a bigoted woman’ then cheered as she was fired from her job and lost her livelihood? I couldn’t stand by and watch them take away from her more than she took from me. 

What did the people on that beach lose from Penny Sparrow’s comments, and what has she lost? The punishment hardly fits the ‘crime’. A perfectly rational response to Penny Sparrow would have been to concede the zoomorphism (comparing people who litter to monkeys), then correct her for ascribing the characteristic to black people only by pointing out that white people litter as well.

This response seems facetious but only because we have succeeded in South Africa in making the rational sound absurd. This response would require not only rationality but a high degree of an individual self, such that when another black person is criticised you don’t feel vicariously insulted.

Are our identities so fragile? Does a comment by an obscure woman with no public standing put so much at stake? The sad answer to both those questions is yes, because what South Africa witnessed was not the surprising discovery that there are people who make insensitive analogies or who are at worst racist. We all know that.

What we witnessed was the irrationality and destructive power of two fragile identities: the collective black identity that has been attacked so must fight in order to save itself, and a white identity fighting defensively in order to shore goodwill with the black collective.

The dishonesty of identitarian politics

In 2015 there was a palpable resurgence in identitarian politics in mainstream discourse in South Africa buoyed by a concurrent wave in the North American and British media. The trouble with collective identities is that they cannot describe all the individuals within the group; their interests, their values and all that they find objectionable.

But it makes an attempt to do so, and in 2015 there was a particular focus on what the collective black identity finds objectionable. The attempt to capture a myriad of feelings unsurprisingly results in contradictions, contradictions that make it possible both to offend a black person for speaking well (because what did you, as a white person,expect them to sound like) and simultaneously insult them for correcting their English (because it is not their mother tongue).

All potential triggers for offence become clustered in the term black pain. Individuals who attempt to reject the idea of collective feelings are criticised, as I have been among friends and acquaintances, for not understanding black pain or for having a colonised mind. The structural integrity of the collective identity begins to unravel in my view if black people can be accused of not understanding the pain they are expected to feel. 

It is not only that collective black pain makes us respond irrationally as highlighted above (in Penny Sparrow’s case) nor that it makes black people dishonest (because as the ‘eloquence’ issue shows the offence is often contradictory and not genuinely felt by all black people) but it begins to rob language of its integrity.

There are numerous examples of the degradation of language, for example in 2012 Helen Zille referred to pupils from the Eastern Cape as education refugees. It was manipulative on the part of many to ignore the obvious metaphor and instead opt for a literal interpretation which requires believing that Zille is unaware of the legal concept of a refugee.

Language can convey different meaning but that is not the same as believing that any interpretation of meaning is legitimate. When black identity is so fragile it requires a perverse mollycoddling to take place and exaggerated responses to incidences that are capable of simple rationalisation.

Black identity I believe is what Jean Baudrillard would have referred to as simulacra, a copy of something real that no longer resembles the original; in the case of black identity I would argue that it never did. More concerning is that, as Baudrillard argued, there is a blurring of the real and the copy such that in many instances the copy eventually takes precedent over the reality. This is true today, in that few to none are interested in what black individuals actually feel instead we are obsessed about defending the group identity (the copy).

My friends do not need to understand black people, they need to understand me and repeat that approach for each black individual they come across. I certainly have no guide map as to how to behave when I meet a white person yet we accept countless of self-righteous letters from black and white people alike typically with the patronisingly affectionate words ‘dear white people’.

These letters often attempt to help white people understand black people and then advise how they need to alter their behaviour. The Gillian Schuttes and Scott Burnetts of the world seem to believe that they need to educate other white South Africans on their interactions with me as a black person yet they have never consulted me. 

This should make it clear that not just black South Africans are complicit in this ruse to satisfy every emotional whim of black South Africans; it is also a cohort of white South Africans who think pandering is the same as empathy. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, in an interview spoke of what he enjoyed about travelling. He said one of his favourite things to do is to ask someone to tell him an embarrassing or terrible thing about themselves. He will often then refer to that person by that embarrassing thing, and he says it builds a wonderful intimacy.

I think I am saying something similar to Zizek. I don’t trust someone who is too afraid to offend me, someone with whom I cannot make light of my insecurities. The white person who has internalised racial difference and views black people as a group to be understood perhaps will eventually find appropriate ways of being with black people (it’s called being agreeable which incidentally can ingratiate you with any fragile identity). But I do not believe they will share true understanding or friendship which can only be with the individual.

Seeing ourselves in ideas 

The perverse thinking of some elements of the decolonisation project is that in order to be well adjusted individuals with self-esteem we need to see ourselves reflected in the world. That may be true, but it should be a colourless and sexless self. I was never spoken to by my parents growing up as a child in Umlazi township about Joseph Schumpeter, A.C Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Karl Popper, Bertrand Russel etc. Often reading or listening to them was an awakening of the sort when someone articulates what you have always thought but hadn’t yet been able to put into words. But to racial identitarians, including many of those supportive of the decolonisation project, many of my most validating life experiences should be the ones I find alienating.

It does not bother me that my intellectual influences are mostly white men, what resonated where the ideas. I only discovered, as an example, the black economist Thomas Sowell much later in my time at university. But when I did it was not a watershed moment, my principles were not solidified by now having a black liberal reaffirm them, (nor is there now still a gaping hole for a black female liberal to fill). He was just an addition to the list, the weight of his influence based on his arguments not our shared skin colour.

The decolonisation project is akin to the oft made call for “African solutions for African problems”. What does this mean? It cannot mean a closer alignment to black identity because as the examples above show it is a shape shifting mirage. Perhaps then it entails having less parochial and Eurocentric academic curricula that reflect the scientific and philosophic advancements made in other parts of the world.

This I fully support but on the basis of intellectual integrity not as atonement or a psychological exercise. If there are bodies of literary works, histories and innovations that we do not know of because of imperialistic oversight then of course academic institutions should seek to uncover them and have them included in curricula.

As a student this would have been important for my intellectual growth but not the integrity of my identity. Because one’s sense of self worth or dignity cannot sustainably be buttressed by the fragile support of thinkers and innovators who share one’s skin colour or geographic origins. It is for the same reason that if I am ever in the position to pass Zulu on to future children it would be purely as an intellectual preference. The preference being for multilingual children and my belief that their expressive abilities would be improved by learning a richly idiomatic language. A lesser part (I would argue non-existent) would be because my identity is informed by Zulu culture. But that is not sad, it is a sign of unparalleled personal freedoms. 

But the power to govern oneself and be the curator of your own feelings and value systems is available under all regimes. Enormous pressures can be placed on that power by external forces but it cannot be taken away. It is frustrating to see that most powerful and personal of freedoms neglected when the external environment for individual definition is at its most favourable.