Politics and Commentary 2007-2014

29Nov

On "blackness" and the problem with "Black Tuesday"

First appeared
Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Let’s be candid: for the most part, South Africa’s parliamentarians are an uninspiring lot. From travel scandals to endemic absenteeism, they’ve disappointed us again and again in recent years. Add to that the fact that parliamentary process can be, at times, terribly dull. It’s not surprising that little attention is usually paid to what actually happens in the chamber.

The vote on the Protection of State Information Bill changed all that; renewed interest was shown in the pompous-but-puerile behaviour that is customary in parliaments around the world. The jeering and booing eventually faded away, however, and the smugness of the African National Congress representatives in carrying the Bill will soon be forgotten. The Members of Parliament will return to that part of our collective consciousness reserved for anonymous, generic party politicians whose work seems far removed from our lived reality (even though the opposite is true).

Yet there are a handful of MPs who can be relied on to break the mould. One of them is Koos van der Merwe, who – with the disdain for political correctness that becomes a man in his anomalous position as white Afrikaans Chief Whip of the Inkatha Freedom Party – is full of entertainingly inappropriate comments. Voicing his opposition to the “Secrecy Bill”, he joked: “Those against the Bill are wearing black, but it appears that many ANC members themselves are actually black.”

Van der Merwe may have simply wanted to point out to Speaker of the Assembly Max Sisulu that not all the ANC’s apparatchiks had followed a request (reportedly sent by SMS on the evening before the vote) to avoid wearing black. Or he may actually have been talking about their skin colour. Either way, this failed attempt at black humour at least had the salutary effect of mentioning the white elephant in the room: race.

To anyone watching the debate unfamiliar with the vagaries of South African politics, the implications of Van der Merwe’s rather unsubtle quip would require some explanation. You’d have to tell them that the issue of clothing was an allusion to “Black Tuesday”, a hastily-launched campaign by civil society and media organisations to protest against the harm the bill might do to democratic practice, accountability and transparency.

You’d also have to tell them that the campaign was going to be dubbed “Black Wednesday”, but that it had to be changed when voting was moved forward by a day. Then you’d have to explain that what opponents of the bill were trying to invoke – an association that its proponents were keen to avoid – was the original “Black Wednesday”, 19 October 1977, on which day the apartheid government banned a number of publications and organisations, arresting or detaining leading journalists and activists.

Here, the insouciant outsider would probably make the observation that this is not an altogether appropriate comparison. Not just because the ideological and economic underpinnings of apartheid are so obviously different from the motivation (however self-preserving and petty) behind the ANC’s resistance to the inclusion of a public-interest override in the bill. Nor just because the Byzantine legislative measures of apartheid had a direct, daily impact on the lives of South African citizens in ways that a single new piece of legislation, even one as bad as this bill, cannot.

The comparison is also inappropriate because, on a basic linguistic level, “Black Wednesday” then and “Black Tuesday” now could never mean the same thing.

It is significant (and ironic) that Steve Biko was killed in detention just a month before Black Wednesday. Beyond political activism, Biko had dedicated his life to an intellectual project: reconfiguring, or reclaiming, “blackness”. Biko and his fellow advocates of Black Consciousness saw that black people had become defined by the pejorative associations that had accrued to blackness over the course of centuries.

English, like many world languages, is replete with idiomatic usages based on the symbolism of white and black as binaries representing good and evil, enlightenment and ignorance, purity and contamination. There are, of course, ways of explaining this without recourse to race prejudice. Literal darkness – the absence of light – is disorienting, even frightening. A “dark day” means bad weather, so it makes sense that this is used metaphorically to refer to sombre or ominous events.

But it’s disingenuous to ignore the fact that, as Judeo-Christian symbols of light and dark were corrupted into racial stigmas when medieval and early modern Europeans encountered darker-skinned “others”, languages like English became irrevocably raced. And as Europe exported its languages and their concomitant world views throughout the colonised world, these stigmas became globally entrenched.

Even worse, according to Biko, black people had adopted these derogatory views – and so a corrective conscientising process was necessary. As part of this movement, Black Consciousness poets like Mbongeni Khumalo creatively undermined the racialised assumptions embedded in phrases and words like “black magic”, “black-list”, “blackmail” and “blackguard”.

Those who dubbed 19 October 1977 “Black Wednesday” didn’t have these considerations in mind; they merely wanted to declare it a “dark day” for the struggle and for press freedom in particular. But, amongst those who had been members of the banned organisations, the phrase developed another sense over time: Black Wednesday became an affirmation of black solidarity in the face of oppression. Gradually, the connotations of Black Wednesday began to diverge.

On Black Wednesday, the face of the fight against censorship and secrecy was a black one: jailed newspaper editor Percy Qoboza. Things were simpler then. Opposing a minority white government was the right thing to do, for both black and white South Africans. Now that the ANC has come to power, and is patently failing to meet the challenges of governance, and is in turn trying to hide its shortcomings, it remains the responsibility of the media to fight against censorship and secrecy. But, with a majority black government voted in by a majority black citizenry, opposition is more complicated.

“The media”, that amorphous entity, obviously contains within its ranks black, white and brown journalists. Still, it is naive to be outraged when proponents of the bill characterise opponents as “white journalists challenging black politicians”. Of course that characterisation is inaccurate, but the fact is that South Africa has not yet reached the stage where matters of import can be debated purely on principle without taking a pragmatic view of existing racial tensions. This is what simmers under the surface of bitter responses to comparisons between the bill and draconian apartheid laws.

As various commentators have noted, opposition to the bill primarily on anti-censorship grounds has ignored its wider ramifications – the effect on the poor and marginalised who, unlike “the media”, do not have the means to assert their rights. This is an indication that the claims of civil society and the fourth estate to represent all South Africans remain problematic, and it is one reason why labelling 22 November 2011 “Black Tuesday” (emphasising Black Wednesday’s significance for press freedom over the other bannings that took place) was misguided.

The other reason, which I have proposed here, is not as pedantic as it may seem. English is a heavily raced language, yet “we” – white and black South Africans alike – tend to forget this. In the same way, we want to deny how much all our public debate continues to hinge around unspoken questions pertaining to race relations. I doubt that opponents of the bill had race in mind when decrying “Black Tuesday”. But they should have.

 

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