On Zapiro's monkey cartoon

Thomas Johnson writes that words have power to hurt, but only if we let them

A lot has been written about Zapiro’s monkey cartoon over the past two weeks. It follows a similar trajectory after Penny Sparrow’s comments earlier this year.

Mostly, Zapiro has been criticised, with only Gareth van Onselen coming to his defence, and me. I was disturbed by the hypocrisy of these ‘liberal’ critics. They self-righteously object to the SABC’s banning coverage of violent protests and so on, but deny Zapiro of freedom speech.

They claim the cartoon was ‘racist’, but acknowledge Zapiro is not, only that he made a mistake. Van Onselen said that argument does not hold. I wondered how these can critics speak for all blacks, including those who don’t object to and endorse the cartoon as a valid political statement and satire. Van Onselen said those views are rejected as irrelevant.

Perhaps blacks, on whose behalf the critics – including white writers and analysts who have only anecdotal, second-hand experience – are expressing liberal angst over, should speak about name calling themselves.  I shall. I don’t claim my view is in a majority. But it reflects a significant group, of all races, which can think for themselves, see past the politically correct outrage that passes for debate about race, and who are able to distinguish between genuine racism and political comment and free speech.

This group realises the rainbow nation ideal of harmonious races is unrealistic when deep and widening social, economic and political divisions are pulling the democratic fabric apart, hastened by self-interest and greed at the highest level . And this is where the attention and priorities of nation-building must focus, not on isolated, individual cases of manufactured or imagined – in the case of Zapiro’s cartoon – hurt. I align myself with this group; I am a member this group.

I am black and not offended to be called a monkey.

However, it’s not quite correct to describe me as ‘black’. In terms of population registration, apartheid’s fundamental principle the ANC government clings to without which its black-first nationalistic agenda is nought, I am classified ‘coloured’, which I detest. If it comes to it I prefer ‘brown’ or ‘person of colour’. For the most part, though, I go with ‘black’.

In the late 1990s I applied for a job at Absa, one of numerous graduate internships.  The Afrikaner woman who interviewed me asked, ‘How do you call yourself?’ I had no idea what she meant. When she explained racially, I replied I don’t use those terms, but if I must, ‘black’.

She admonished me, ‘Don’t say “black” because you think it will get you the job.’ She explained all vacancies were, in fact, for blacks (African) only – the advert never said so. It was the second time in six months they had advertised without attracting qualified applicants.

Although my qualifications – at that time an honours degree in commerce and a few years unrelated experience – were more than adequate, she could not guarantee a call-back. A week later I phoned to ask how things stood and she snapped, ‘Don’t call ’.

I guess an Afrikaner officer of a national monolith that morphed into respectability after apartheid – now with an ANC member as chief executive – from its National Party, apartheid roots would know the proper racial terminology to apply to dark skinned people.

I was called ‘monkey’ – ‘baboon’, to be precise – many times. When I was a child, at the age when I asked my parents where I came from, my father, full of mirth (so my mother said), told me he found ‘me’ as a baby baboon on Table Mountain, shaved off my hair and shortened my face. Once the transformation was complete I was presented to the family as the human baby.

This is a variation of the Stork origin story, but more Darwinan – an ape ascending, developing into a man. I’m sure my father never thought of it in anthropological or mythological (werewolf into man) terms, or even what it did to my young psyche, except it was amusing and would deflect the real answer. Each time I heard this story I was horrified at the thought of my baboon hair and mouth being shorn off, and ripped away from my baboon ‘mother’.

Was I, at that critical developmental stage, psychologically damaged by my father’s nonsense; he did not tell me I merely looked like or had the brain capacity of a baboon but was, in fact, one? No.

My father was born and raised in the Eastern Cape until his father – his mother had died by then – moved to Cape Town to look for work. He was fluent in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, with a little Zulu. Perhaps the baboon tale was the kind of scary origin story people in that part of the world told their children when they asked too many questions.

A few years ago I encountered an alpha male baboon, one from a foraging troop, in Simonstown. He came right up to me, at arms’ length, looking for food. I had none, which was fortunate for me. I kept calm and asked him, ‘What can I do for you, fella?’ He looked around, found nothing and wandered off. I don’t find it an insult to have been once likened to this intelligent, powerful and confident creature.

I was never insulted or mocked racially to my face. But there may have been a time when whites came close to insinuating I was something.

In 1994 on a visit to the lovely city of Bath, England on my way to Solsbury Hill in homage to Peter Gabriel, I passed a couple of schoolgirls. They looked at me, made snorting sounds and laughed as they walked on. Perhaps it was intended as simian-like grunts. Perhaps they were trying to communicate with me in Pidgin, black fella English, not realising – had they bothered to greet me properly – I was fluent in their queen’s language. I dismissed them from my mind as rude, not racist. They were not representative of the overwhelming majority of British people I encountered who were polite.

Words have power to hurt, but only if we let them.

I travelled to and from work by train, third class, on the Cape Flats line. The passengers were usually brown, black and foreign, French-speaking Africans from up north.

Frequently lay preachers got on. One day a black preacher spoke and described the personal tragedy that led him to leave the Eastern Cape and come to Cape Town to preach. He had his audience captivated, including the Africans who nodded at the Amens. He told us Jesus Christ was there for all – ‘blacks, coloureds, whites, and makwerekwere’.

At that word there was a collective gasp of surprise from the Africans, like Hey! There were awkward laughs from other passengers. For just a moment, there was a shift in tension, but then it passed. Oblivious, the preacher carried on. He got off a couple of stations later.

The foreign Africans let the derogatory makwerekwere go, perhaps realising it was innocuous in the context, perhaps it wasn’t worth the fight, and went on with their day.

I wish South Africans were more like this. Too many have a chip on their shoulder.  Many take words like ‘foreigner’, ‘alien’ and ‘makwerekwere’ and use it as justification for violence and mayhem. Others, who should know better, find offense at a statue and start an unstoppable movement that to date has caused R300 million damages to universities.

In Vuwani vandalism and intimidation that caused R750 million damages to schools and the loss of learning, which cannot yet be calculated, follows unhappiness with political decisions and the lack of confidence in political representatives.

However, racially-inspired rants by Penny Sparrow and Matthew Theunissen go viral and attract hysterical responses. People like them, with their recidivistic attitudes, are out there. In the scheme of the country’s priorities, they are irrelevant, a small minority and should be ignored. Hopefully, they will go away. But outraged analysts, politicians, media and some members of the public, including on social media, give too much attention and assign too much value to what they say.

Zapiro’s organ grinder’s monkey cartoon was victim to this outrage, a lot of it generated by overwrought media personalities. Gareth van Onselen writes:

‘Offence is not some universal intrinsic truth; it is particular. The argument that the depiction of a person of colour as a monkey is intrinsically offensive to all black people all the time in any circumstances cannot hold either. The varied response to the cartoon demonstrates as much. When the intent is a well-established metaphor, one that might be applied to any person, and its application to a person of colour no more than the consequence of no mere coincidence, it can be rightly interpreted as a political statement not a racial one. And many people came to that conclusion.’

I am not insulted to be called or likened to a monkey, ass, etc. Similarly, I am not insulted by other racial epithets ‘hotnot’, ‘coolie’, etc. Those words, were they addressed to me, tell me more about the person speaking them. I would either pity this person or ignore them. This person, and his or her prejudices, has no impact on my dignity or belief system unless I allow them.

However, I am deeply offended by the avarice and venality of the ruling party, certain businessmen and women, politicians, bureaucrats and their coterie of rent-seekers hanging onto their coattails, living large at own expense.

I am offended at the loss of opportunity for individuals and communities that a dysfunctional and corrupt political economy has wrought. I get angry at the kind of wanton destruction, by the public themselves, we see at Vuwani and at universities time and again. And I am offended by how racial identity and institutional racism, according to government policy, are still defining who we are.