The T-Shirt That Really Caused Trouble

I was feeling hatred because it was times of financial exclusion.and you’d look, come to lines, and see how white people are paying. They’re relaxed, there are no financial problems, so it arose that black exclusion is so [rampant] in this institution.”

This is the rationale given by the black Wits University student who was referred to the Human Rights Commission for a T-shirt he created during a protest over the financial exclusion of poor students and the heavy presence of private security on campus.

The front of his T-shirt read “Being black is sh*t”; the back read “F**k white people”.

The student’s statement is an intentionally disruptive statement, saying “F**k you” to a South African order that tells black people to “F**k off” every single day.

In giving his reasoning for creating the T-shirt, the student made the explicit link between the front of his shirt’s statement, which was an indictment of black people’s poor material condition, to the back of his shirt, which was a challenge to white people as the beneficiaries of South Africa’s unequal socio-economic structures that cause black people’s lives to be sh*t.

Why is this important? Of the many dangerous myths that were perpetuated in 1994, the one that is perhaps most troublesome is the idea that white South Africa could continue with business as usual, except for the removal of apartheid racial laws and the transfer of political power to black people. If this Rainbow Nation narrative was to be believed, black liberation could be achieved without any fundamental disruption to the white-dominated status quo.

Instead of disrupting that domination, blacks and whites were integrated into a “New” South Africa, which had an already established set of norms and codes of sociocultural behaviour and economic organisation already set up by and maintained by whites.

In other words, we sought to integrate and not “disrupt” whiteness into the “New” South Africa. By “whiteness” we mean the ways in which our social, cultural and economic institutions continue to be dominated by white South Africans at the expense and exclusion of black South Africans.

This very “whiteness” is the product of 500 years of colonialism, slavery and apartheid that has privileged white people by disadvantaging black people. Whiteness could not be what it is today without the machinery that includes land acts that forcibly removed black people off their land to make way for white farmers who were later maintained by large government subsidies; affirmative action that reserved jobs for whites; migrant labour systems that destroyed black families in order to supply cheap labour to the backbone of our economy, the mining industry; National Party tenders that created big Afrikaner businesses such as Naspers and Sanlam; and Bantu Education that ensured black people would be equipped only to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” while whites acquired world-class education.

If we are to think of this in philosophical terms, whiteness is because of blackness and blackness is because of whiteness. If we are to think of this in (unfortunately) more familiar apartheid language, “baas” cannot really be “baas” if there is no “boy” or “girl” to order around. “Baas” is “baas” because the “boy” and “girl” exist. One needs the other.

And, perhaps, it’s within this apartheid language that we can find an even better way to explain in even plainer terms what we mean by “whiteness”: it is a nicer and fancier way to say “baasskap”.

Since 1994, baasskap (or, if we are more polite, “whiteness”), has not been disrupted because there remains a continuation of white domination of socioeconomic institutions, even though black people have political power (although the extent of this power is debatable given the lack of the former).

A “disruption of whiteness”, for example, would have meant an end to the apartheid spatial geography that creates the all too familiar Alexandra-Sandton divide of poorly resourced townships as out-of-town hostels for cheap black labour that service the well-resourced white suburbs and central business districts. To disrupt whiteness would destroy this divide.

To bring it back to the T-shirt issue, a “disruption of whiteness” would have meant that there would be no poor black Wits student waiting on funding and bursaries who watched on in frustration as queues of his white peers and a few black peers registered in relative ease,

In the Year of the Monkey where #BlackLivesMatter, #RememberMarikana, #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #TheYearWeMispronounceBack trend, there is a resurgence of black consciousness that has emboldened black people to assert themselves more forcefully against whiteness.

This had made many whites uncomfortable, and has sometimes forced pro-black activists to be at pains to reaffirm, for their benefit, that “being pro-black is not anti-white”.

I am in agreement with Daily Maverick columnist Tokelo Nhlapo, who argues that “F**k white people” is a logical and appropriate response of anger by black people towards white people who remain the beneficiaries of a socioeconomic inequality.

We can continue to expect these spontaneous “outbursts” to happen as long as white people remain the physical embodiments of black people’s continued exclusion from the economy.

As it is popular to say these days, 1994 sold many of us dreams. The dream that white people need to let go of is that they can continue to live in the “New” South Africa without any disruptions to their baasskap while black people remain perpetual “boys” and “girls”.

To be pro-black means a disruption of whiteness and all concerned had better get used to it. It will not be a comfortable process as 500 years of entrenched cultural, social and economic domination are dismantled.


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