Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Bookstorm

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

Nomavenda Mathiane explains the genesis of her book, Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story

Eyes in the NightBookstorm has shared an excerpt from Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story by Nomavenda Mathiane.

In the book Mathiane tells the story of her grandmother, who lived through the gruelling events of the Battle of Isandlwana and through the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War as a young girl.

Her grandmother lived an extraordinary life, but her daughter – Mathiane’s mother – never spoke about it.

In this excerpt, Mathiane begins to explain why her mother kept silence, and how the idea for the book began to germinate in her mind.

 
 
Read the extract:

Prologue

Six months before my mother died, she gave me her mother’s reference book and asked me to get professionals to reconstruct the photograph in the book. She pleaded with me to take good care of it because it was the only photograph she had of her mother. I thought it odd that she should entrust me with the task because she usually assigned important duties to Mzilikazi, my older brother. I took the book from her and chucked it in one of the boxes where I keep important documents and soon forgot all about it.

My mother died in July 2003 in Qunwane, an old rural settlement in the district of Hlabisa in KwaZulu-Natal. Qunwane is a village, like many in that region, populated by people who are steeped in their traditional culture and ways; where generation after generation has been led by the Hlabisa clan and has lived in harmony for years; where a death in one family is mourned by the entire community. One of the traditions strictly observed by this community dictates that as soon as it is known that a member of the community has died, men, women and youngsters busy in their fields will stop work immediately. They will be seen on the road heading back home, carrying their hoes, picks and scythes. Nobody will work in the fields until the deceased has been buried. This practice is to honour the departed and show respect for the ground where the body is to be laid to rest.

The Sunday after Mother’s funeral, when neighbours and acquaintances had left our homestead, the only people who had stayed behind apart from us, her children, were close relatives. They were there to help us with the cleaning of her house and to sort out her personal belongings.

It was a warm winter’s day and we were lazing around eating the food left over from the funeral as well as conducting a post-mortem of the funeral proceedings. My brothers and sisters – there are nine of us, six girls and three boys – were sitting in my mother’s dining room talking about what the speakers at the funeral had said about her. Some of the stories were hilarious while others were downright embarrassing. One speaker told the mourners that Mother boasted about her children and the way they looked after her, that she would say she was not a chimpanzee sitting under a tree wailing. She would tell locals that she had so much money that if she laid the notes on the ground she could walk on them from her house to Nongoma, which is a stretch of about thirty kilometres. Another speaker agreed with the previous speaker, saying she had once casually asked Mother where her son Mzilikazi was teaching and her answer had been: ‘Oh, that one is tired of teaching black children. He is now teaching white kids at the university.’ I mean, how politically incorrect could one be? These were some of the stories with which people at her funeral service had regaled the mourners. Mother was a colourful person, full of love, song and jokes. She was ninety-seven when she died and her send-off was more of a celebration of her life than a funeral.

I was sitting next to my oldest sister Ahh this Sunday morning. Ahh is short for Albertinah. She is my mother’s first-born child. Of all my mother’s children, Sis Ahh is extremely laid back, soft spoken and one of the most gentle people I have ever known.

I turned to her and said: ‘There is something I’ve never understood about Sister J.’ (We called our mother Sister J, her name being Joana.) ‘Do you know why she rarely spoke about her mother? For someone who used to entertain us with stories of OkaBhudu (our paternal granny, her mother-in-law), there was very little she shared with us about her mom. Do you know why?’

I don’t know whether or not I expected an answer. I was partly talking to myself and I was also half listening to the conversation that was taking place around the table.

‘It’s because her mother’s story was filled with too much drama, regret, guilt and, finally, triumph. That is why she did not speak about her mom,’ answered Sis Ahh.

Getting a reply from Sis Ahh surprised me. Her answer came out glibly and matter-of-factly. I paid little attention to it. And yet somehow it lingered in my mind.

Book details


» read article

Herman Mashaba laments “sentimental allegiance” to the ANC – Excerpt from Capitalist Crusader

null

 
Capitalist CrusaderBlack Like YouRead an excerpt from Herman Mashaba’s new book, Capitalist Crusader: Fighting Poverty Through Economic Growth.

Mashaba is the founder of the Black Like Me empire and the author of the bestselling memoir Black Like You. He is also executive chairman of Lephatsi Investments (Pty) Ltd, Leswikeng Group of Companies and Phatsima Group of Companies and holds several other directorships.

Mashaba recently announced that he is making himself available as a mayoral candidate for the Democratic Alliance for the City of Joburg in 2016, saying: “For too long I have watched from the sidelines at how corrupt and self-serving ANC politicians have mismanaged Johannesburg.”

His offer was officially been taken up by the party on Saturday in an announcement by DA leader Mmusi Maimane. Mashaba beat Wits professor and DA councillor Rabelani Dagada to the candidacy.

Mashaba made some controversial comments at the press conference on the subject of Black Economic Empowerment. “If I have the powers to instruct Parliament to … remove all laws and policies that classifies me as a black South African, as a black human being … I can assure you I would do it tomorrow,” he told reporters.

Read the excerpt from Capitalist Crusader, in which Mashaba expresses concern about the allegations of corruption that exist at all levels of government, including cronyism, nepotism, and mismanagement and exploitation, specifically “on mines owned by Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) companies”.

* * * * *
CHAPTER 2

THE POWER OF OUR VOTES

Strong national policies and good governance are essential for the development of a healthy democracy; without them South Africa faces collapse on all levels. Fortunately, the South African Constitution was formulated and developed by top legal and social minds to provide for the human dignity of all South Africans, and is a remarkable democratic legislative framework for good governance. The Constitution came into effect in 1997 and really gave me a strong sense of national and social security, since I believed that by adhering to its provisions, South Africa was on a path of genuine, sustainable reform that would uplift its entire people and advocate good governance.

When Thabo Mbeki became president in 1999 I had a positive outlook on the future of the country, and my faith in the nation’s leadership was cemented when Mbeki eloquently advocated and promoted what was commonly known as the African Renaissance initiative, whereby Africans strive to surmount African challenges to achieve economic, cultural, and scientific renewal; an initiative that I and many other people embraced. The rebirth of our continent under South Africa’s leadership was an exciting prospect.

In 2000 the German government invited me to address a conference in Berlin to promote the African Renaissance initiative, which I understood under Mbeki’s leadership to mean encouraging the continent to embrace the fundamental cornerstones of democracy, namely democratic principles, respect for the rule of law, and freedom of the press. Moeletsi Mbeki and Tokyo Sexwale were also among the speakers at the same conference.

However, my faith in Mbeki’s leadership and his understanding of an African Renaissance were soon somewhat compromised when he supported (by his quiet diplomacy) Zimbabwe’s land redistribution programme, a venture that resulted in massive human rights violations when white farmers were stripped of their farms without compensation, and often violently so. I felt betrayed and disappointed, and further events triggered serious doubts in me about Mbeki’s political vision. In 2000 he appointed Jackie Selebi as the national police commissioner. In 2007 the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) issued a warrant for Selebi’s arrest on corruption charges. On the grounds of this investigation into Selebi, Mbeki placed him on extended leave in early 2008 and suspended Vusi Pikoli, head of the NPA. Mbeki’s handling of Selebi’s corruption and Pikoli’s suspension raised serious questions in my mind regarding Mbeki’s leadership and his lack of respect for the rule of law. How on earth could anyone justify maintaining the country’s Commissioner of Police with a cloud of criminal cases hanging over his head? These doubts were extended to the ANC when they recalled Thabo Mbeki as president of the country in 2008, only three months before the national election; I realised I could no longer vote for the party of Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and all the other leaders who had helped to deliver the freedom we were enjoying. Later, upon reading Reverend Frank Chikane’s book Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki, I got a sense of how the ANC was prepared and determined to expel Mbeki, again with brazen disregard for the rule of law. The rule of law must be paramount in a society that wishes to be considered democratic.

When the Congress of the People (COPE) was established as a result of Mbeki’s expulsion, I was immediately suspicious of some members of its leadership, because it appeared that these individuals’ motives were driven by personal advancement rather than an intention to serve the people of South Africa. The main mandate a political party receives when it wins an election is to adhere to the will of its constituents. Voters are guided by the principles and the policies that a political party promotes, and if a party advocates promoting the economy, I expect to see their policies aligned to such advocacy. When a party fails to deliver on its election promises, and appears to have other agendas, it is time to reconsider supporting that party.

Was it just me who was disgruntled with government policy in the run-up to the 2014 election? I engaged in conversations with friends and family, trying to gauge their political opinions and sentiment. I was encouraged that lengthy and vociferous political debate was taking place in my hometown of Hammanskraal, since I believe that without engagement, critical thinking cannot develop and there can be no hope of solutions for the country’s problems. Even though I support everyone’s right to vote for the party he or she supports, I was depressed by some of the opinions I heard.

Many of my friends and family, from young to old, seemed to feel that the Economic Freedom Front or the Democratic Alliance were best qualified to tackle the country’s immediate local problems, such as employment or service delivery, because the ANC had failed to deliver basic human services, and protests seemed to have had no effect. Yet these same people felt that they could not abandon the ANC nationally, and upon further probing, I saw that their support for the ANC on a national level seemed to be motivated more by loyalty to the party that had delivered them from apartheid than by any belief that the ANC would actually deliver on promises. I drove home in a dark mood that night, dispirited by how sentimental allegiance might prevent the growth and development that South Africa so desperately needed. Just as I believe there is no place for emotion in the boardroom, I don’t believe emotion has a place in elections. When voting, we really have the responsibility of voting for the party that represents our perspectives and will provide good governance.

In the build-up to the watershed 1994 election, I had taken some time off from my business and involved myself in voter education. As a member of the previously disenfranchised, I found that putting my cross on the ballot paper represented more than just supporting a political party. Like the majority of black South Africans, I was also voting for the first time in my life and recognised it for the momentous occasion it was going to be. We were exercising a right that had long been denied to us. Those who voted for the ANC were finally able to say thank you, we believe in you to lead us into the new South Africa. Undoubtedly, for many voters that first vote was going to be emotionally charged. However, I was adamant that people should understand what their votes meant, and I wanted to ensure that everyone who wanted to vote knew the procedure involved. Prior to that first democratic election, education was vital, since, like me, the majority of South Africans had never imagined ourselves being granted the freedom to vote, and we had little to no knowledge of voting protocols. My company Black Like Me funded a voter education programme run by Dr David Molapo of the I Can Foundation. David and his team, including his wife Mmamiki and Abner Mariri, did a sterling job across the country educating the educators. Many other organisations embarked on voter education campaigns. Despite these combined efforts to encourage voting, only 56.38% of the population were finally registered to vote; but what was inspiring was that 86.87% of those registered voters did indeed vote.

null

 

I need hardly describe the attendant euphoria. Every South African remembers. Images of long lines of eager and patient first-time voters swept through the media across every nation during the three days of voting in this historic election. The whole world was celebrating with us as 19 million people voted for candidates in 19 political parties and the ANC swept to victory. Our votes were a hard-won freedom, but now voting is our right, and it deserves to be treated with mature thought and consideration for the future of our whole nation. As the 2014 election approached, I tried very hard to gauge South Africans’ commitment to voting; after all, we can hardly criticise an administration if we do not participate in it at the most basic level, namely by voting.

In this voting statistics table it is evident that there are discrepancies between the South African population, the voting age population, the registered voters, and the number of people who actually cast their ballots. If we look at the 1994 election, the discrepancy between the recorded voting age population and registered voters is in the region of about a million.

If we analyse the results across the 20-year period, we can see that there has been a marked decline in the number of registered voters actually casting their votes (from a difference of 3 million in 1994 to a difference of 7 million in 2014 between registered voters and ballots cast). Indeed even more worrying, we see a significant decline in citizens registering to vote (25 million out of a population of 48 million). The decrease in registered voters is disturbing; our electoral responsibility has decreased from 86% to 72%, which means that almost 15% of electorally eligible people have renounced their civic responsibility. This will have severe repercussions on the administration of South Africa, since these voters are effectively leaving other people to decide their futures. While we can acknowledge that there are obvious valid reasons for not registering to vote – access to registration, illness, remoteness, lack of education, and fear of intimidation – a 15% abstention is high.

I wonder what this abstention is saying about the South African voting age population? Which segments of the population aren’t registering to vote? Why aren’t they registering to vote? Are they apathetic or frustrated? Have they given up or have they emigrated? Are they satisfied or dissatisfied with the way that South Africa is being governed? How do we even begin to assess this abstention? We need to engage with our fellow South Africans who don’t vote and we need to examine their reasons for staying away from the polls, because votes are the way of ensuring that all voices are heard. Generations of South Africans never enjoyed this political freedom, and many suffered and died for this privilege. Not bothering to vote is both an apathetic shrug of one’s political shoulders and an insult to those who fought to secure voting rights for all. It is also political myopia to refrain from voting, and it irresponsibly eliminates one’s voice and one’s say in the political future of our country. While a single vote might be a drop in the ocean, collectively votes have weight and can transform the direction a country takes.

The people and the policies that South Africans vote for determine the country’s future. People who are against the government and refrain from voting are voiceless; their silences are not votes. Failure to vote will result in an administration that considers itself mandated by its population because of its policies. All the people who want to have a say in those policies must become responsible voters and must actively demand that their wishes be heard by voting for a party that will ensure the country is administered according to our Constitution. Being proactive and casting our votes means that we don’t have the retroactive battle of challenging a government that strays; reactive and retroactive responses are ignored by government simply because when voters had the chance to challenge government or its policies, they were absent instead of seriously showing their commitment to how South Africa is administered. I think Pericles put it aptly: ‘Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.’

From the voting patterns shown in the preceding table, it would seem that voter education needs to be sustained and that it is as important now as it was in the run-up to our first democratic election. If South Africans hope to have any say in the country’s administration and future, then we need to ensure that people vote, and we all need to know why we are voting and what the party we are voting for actually stands for, and what that party has delivered and what it intends to deliver.

As I engaged in conversations with fellow South Africans in the run-up to the 2014 election, I was frustrated with the responses from people who had decided to vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the ANC. Why couldn’t they see that the EFF was no better than the ANC, and that their economic policies, in particular their rhetoric about land expropriation without compensation and nationalisation of mines and banks, will certainly hurt the country? Why would anyone voluntarily support the ANC when it was led by a man refusing to face censure for his alleged corruption? How is it possible that our president managed to slip through the tight strictures of our Constitution? I tried to make sense of it. Was the ANC-led government’s failure to respond to voters a reflection that the ANC was no longer in touch with what the citizens needed, and as a result some people felt that the EFF was the only party still in touch with their needs? On the other end of the political spectrum, why was the Democratic Alliance (DA) perceived as an elite white party that only had room for the ja-baas blacks? Did people consider the ANC government’s misappropriation of the country’s money to be acceptable because then the whites got less, or did ANC supporters view it as a time for blacks to feast? After 20 years, were we finally seeing what white people had been afraid of when the ANC came to power – that the white population would be sidelined in every sphere of society? Did marginalised black people want to see suffering for both whites and so-called kleva blacks (who look down on African ways and subscribe to middle-class individualism)? How had the country failed so spectacularly that these underlying racial issues were taking precedence in decision-making?

Surely when we vote we need to exhibit maturity and responsibility. But when I think about friends who basically have not worked since we left school 36 years ago, men and women who are only sporadically able to support their families, I can understand that they are hoping Julius Malema and the EFF will bring the plight and fight of the poor to the forefront of political agendas, that it is emotion and desperation that motivate their support of the EFF. Considering that it is the new political party on the block, the EFF did well. It managed to achieve an astounding 6% of the votes cast, more than a quarter of the votes secured by the official opposition, the DA (22%). And the EFF beat diehard parties such as the Inkatha Freedom Party (2%), the United Democratic Movement (1%) and the Pan Africanist Congress (0.21%). I can hardly blame EFF supporters who feel that the EFF is the only party talking to them, because as far as those unemployed and poor people living in dire circumstances are concerned, no other political party is saying anything to improve their situation. But this is all the EFF is doing too: talking. The party has not actually achieved anything except to incite disharmony and promote Mugabe-style land grabs. So what sector of the electorate is it to whom the EFF appeals – the genuine poor or the bone idle?

In the run-up to the 2014 election, and indeed since then, paging through the major newspapers reflects the signs of a government not coping, a government that has spiralled into dysfunction. A president being accused of allowing his alleged benefactors to land a plane at a national key point during wedding festivities, a president using R246 million of taxpayers’ money to fund the upgrade on his personal property and refusing to repay the money despite the public protector’s recommendation that he do so. Cabinet ministers giving jobs to pals and contracts to partners and family members, metropolitan cops trying to coerce motorists into buying e-tags on behalf of the South African National Roads Agency, parliamentarians and their wives accused of earning ghost salaries and drug-dealing, mismanagement and staff being exploited on mines owned by Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) companies. The allegations of corruption at every level and in every sector and the hardships suffered by the poor fill our newspapers. But amid all these depressing and infuriating news items, is there something positive that I am missing? Is the government’s scorecard as poor as I imagined it is, and is that why people have stopped going to the polls – because they believe that their vote has no power to challenge or change government – or has the government achieved significant accomplishments that have given its supporters hope? Have the ANC actually delivered on the promises they made in their election manifestos?

Apartheid and its draconian policies systematically froze out black people until the onslaught had dehumanised them. Are the ANC and its leadership flouting the Constitution and doing the same to anyone who challenges them – intimidating people and freezing them out? If South Africans don’t demand adherence to the Constitution, namely democratic principles and adherence to the rule of law, where does our future lie? On the country’s 20th anniversary of democracy it seems appropriate to perform a thorough investigation of the government’s policies and adherence to the Constitution.

* * * * *

 
Related stories:

Book details


» read article

“Biko Lied” – An Extract from Chapter 1 of Eusebius McKaiser’s New Book, Run Racist Run

Cover Reveal: The New Book from Eusebius McKaiser
Run Racist RunCould I Vote DA?DA of nie?A Bantu in My Bathroom

 
Bookstorm has shared an excerpt from the first chapter of Eusebius McKaiser’s new book Run Racist Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism.

The chapter is titled “Biko Lied”.

In the excerpt, McKaiser points out how “white people can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the reality of racism”.

McKaiser describes meeting a young white man who casually dismissed the importance of racism as a topic for a book, saying that he “did him a favour” when he “took him to the cleaners”.

Read the excerpt:

* * * * *
BIKO LIED

 
(Why) are black writers preoccupied with race and identity?

Is Literary apartheid a feature of local racism?

Does white privilege extend to the world of the writer?

I recently had a drink in Greenside, Johannesburg. A friend of mine, Amy, had my keys. I had forgotten these at a function we were at earlier in the day. When I picked up the keys, she asked me to stay for a drink. I obliged. She was with another friend of hers, someone I did not know. He was a white South African male, bisexual and dating a coloured woman. Amy is very charismatic and full of laughter, and she volunteered this information on his behalf within the first minutes of us meeting. I think it was an attempt to say, ‘Guys, get on with being comfortable with each other immediately because you have, like, stuff in common!’

Except, Amy miscalculated. This dude – call him John – asked me what book project I was busy with. I told him that, actually, it was a long and complicated story. He seemed eager and so I told him I was busy writing a book on illness, death and the meaning of life. He seemed genuinely fascinated by those themes and wanted to know how on earth I had chosen these topics, and what I was hoping to say and achieve in the book. Because he seemed so interested in my work, I told him about my decision to put that book on ice. Instead, I announced, I was writing an anthology on racism, a collection of essays that built upon the first part of A Bantu in my Bathroom.

Having almost completed the entire book at that point in time, I was excited to talk to an interested person – like John – about it. I was ready to explain how the book had demanded to be written, and why the kinds of issues I raise and explore were distinct from any of the questions I had tackled before, or had been discussed in any public discourse on race. But the fucker dampened my enthusiasm before I had a chance.

He rolled his eyes. ‘Racism! Aaaah. That’s so boring! Surely racism isn’t a thing anymore? No one cares about racism. Everyone cares about illness and death, though!’

I was raging mad. Not because, obviously, he would not help my book sales, but because he illustrated a brutal reality: that whites can afford to pretend that racism isn’t a thing. Just like men can pretend that sexism isn’t a thing, and just like homophobes can pretend that being gay ‘isn’t an issue anymore’; so, too, white people can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the reality of racism.

Not all whites were or are perpetrators of anti-black racism. However, all whites benefited, and still benefit, from the history of anti-black oppression. Two profoundly vicious consequences flow from this: many whites are blind to racism’s continued presence; and, related to this blindness, many whites rationalise their ignorance by thinking that black people are ‘race-obsessed’. Not only does John fail to examine how our collective experience of racism’s history affected him, personally, but he has the audacity to be casually and confidently dismissive of the possibility that racism could be a significant, horrid truth for other people, every day.

As my late mom would have put it, I took him to the cleaners. ‘Racism doesn’t matter to YOU, because you’re white and you can afford not to see racism or not even think about it. I don’t have that luxury, OK? It’s no different, buddy, from you and me dismissing women who write about sexism. Because we happen to be born with penises and the world is structured to advantage us and oppress women, we can roll our eyes at sexism. That’s exactly the same with racism. If you think it isn’t an issue any more, I suggest you take time to speak to black people instead of assuming you know our lives. Use it. Don’t use it.’

I have zero regrets about making him go red. He asked for it. He deserved it. No, I am perhaps slightly too generous here. He didn’t deserve me explaining to him what he ought to know. I did him a favour. I don’t think black people have a duty to convince whites that racism is a reality. We need to get on with strategies for dismantling racism’s legacy. White allies in the fight against racism are useful and important. But it is a bonus to have a black person explaining ‘race’ to you, or why and how you are wilfully ignorant about racism, and why racism matters. And I am not even sure John is an ally, let alone an ally with blind spots. So while I was mad at John, I actually did more than I needed to. I could, just as acceptably, simply have chuckled, not upset the convivial Greenside pub atmosphere, and said, ‘John, let’s drink bud! BARMAN!’

Amy was wrong in her unreflective assumption that John and I could get along because we were both not straight, and because he was in an interracial relationship. You don’t have to be straight to be bigoted or ignorant. And being in an interracial relationship doesn’t mean you grasp the ways in which racism continues to play out. And, for Amy, an additional lesson, perhaps, was that as an ally in the fight against racism, there is a greater level of vigilance required in spotting and rupturing non-bloody manifestations of racism among white friends than you might have realised.

The encounter with John has remained with me because I had all along felt ambivalent about writing this collection on racism, and his dismissiveness took me back to that place of doubt. I was, until I actually started working on it, excited about Searching for Sello Duiker, a book that was neither overtly about South African politics nor about race. It took enormous resolve not to care about people like John who would roll their eyes at another book on ‘the race question’. (Not that people like John have necessarily read any other books on race.)

What the Johns of the world do not know is that black writers who have any self-awareness about the world in which they live and work cannot just let go of the race question. Because race continues to haunt us. And while it would be wonderful to write about a greater range of subjects – and, to be sure, many black writers can and do – there will never be a shortage of black writing on race and racism.

So, in a way, this essay is a meditation on the black writer’s preoccupation with race. The legacy of racism is so darn powerful and ubiquitous that it extends as a matter of course to the world of the writer. Contrary to popular assumption, many of us do not wake up and freely choose what to write. Our writing is in part a reflection of the world we live in, coupled with unique biographical facts about each writer. I want to both describe and defend the apparent preoccupation of black writers with questions of identity in general, and with race in particular. It is, in complex ways, a preoccupation that flows from the history of anti-black racism itself, and that history’s reach into present reality.

* * * * *

 
Related links:

 

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article

“Please Never Submit Again.” – Bestselling Author Gareth Crocker Shares His Experience of the Publishing World in Ka-Boom

 
Ka-BoomKa-Boom, the latest book by Gareth Crocker, is the perfect Christmas gift: fast-paced, punchy and funny.

In the book, Crocker describes his early years as a promising soccer player and poet, his first job – in the criminal underworld – the time he decided to run the Comrades, the time he decided to try out for the Olympics, and, ultimately, how he became the bestselling author of five books, having sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Two of Crocker’s novels, Finding Jack and Never Let Go, are being adapted for films in Hollywood.

In this excerpt from Ka-Boom, Crocker shares his experience of trying to find a publisher, during which time he amassed a chest full of rejection letters along the lines of: “Please never submit again.”

Gareth Crocker

Read the extract:

* * * * *

 

‘The only horror here … is your writing.’

 
So here, in brief, is my view of the modern book-publishing world.

To begin with, let’s look at the money (he writes, with a straight face). The reality is that if you plan to live on something even vaguely more substantial than tree bark and urine, you pretty much have to land an international publishing deal. Even then 99 out of 100 authors still can’t make a decent living out of their books. Those who claim they can are, in fact, often retired, boosted by a plump inheritance, lying their pants off or supported by a kind and hard-working spouse. Either that or they rob banks in their spare time. Part of the problem is that the buying public’s attention span has dwindled alarmingly over the past decade. This is further exacerbated by the increasing competition for people’s leisure time which, itself, is shrinking. The other difficulty is that, unlike at the cinema, say, where a moviegoer has maybe a dozen films to choose from, a large bookstore presents a buyer with 78-quadrillion titles. I maintain that it is an absolute miracle for a stranger to emerge from a bookstore clutching your novel in his or her mitts. It’s a wonder of such proportions that it feels almost biblical. There are very few industries where one has to compete not only against a sea of current competitors but against an ocean of rivals from around the world … many of whom have been dead for decades. It’s like running a race against every professional athlete in the history of the sport. And let’s not even get into the current e-book ‘pirating’ culture that is bayoneting the already gravely wounded and malnourished writer (feel free to cue the violins at any point).

After that cheery start it’s important to note that the South African book market is about as big as a postage stamp on a rhinoceros’s arse. Which may tempt you to try and land an international publisher. However this, as you now know, is far easier said than done. Here are several … shall we euphemistically say ‘hurdles’ … that need to be overcome. For the sake of brevity, I shall list only a handful of the key ones:

    1. Large international publishers (based mainly in London and New York) receive *47.356-trillion zillion (*audited figure) book submissions a day.

 

    2. Large international publishers already have full lists of their own authors and, in many cases, don’t have the capacity or the desire to take on new writers.

 

    3. Large international publishers have to invest heavily in new writers, given that it takes many years to build a writer’s name and reputation. So they have to be absolutely blown away by an unpublished author just to consider him or her.

 

    4. Large international publishers often take a dim view of authors living in the colonies and, subconsciously or not, prejudge writing that does not come out of the more cosmopolitan cities.

 

    5. Large international publishers do not accept ‘unsolicited manuscripts’. Which means that any manuscripts you send them … will never be opened at all.

 
Ah, right. So that’s quite a challenge then. After all, it’s unlikely that one of these publishing behemoths will offer you a multibook publishing deal if they have not, in fact, read your work.

So how then does one get published in this mystical world of closed doors and near-impossible odds?

Well, unfortunately, you need to find a reputable agent to represent you.

Agents are the publishing world’s ‘filtering system’. Simply put, they sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s actually rather brilliant. Given that the vast majority of reputable agents operate purely on a commission basis, this means that they will only take on writers who they feel have an actual shot of being published. In other words, their livelihood depends on their ability to spot and nurture talent.

The publishers then sit back and wait for these agents to find the next Patterson, Grisham and Crocker (ahem).

Which means that you, as the lowly writer, have no choice but to delve into the often slimy back alleys of literary agents. That sounds rather gross and sordid, which is quite right (more on this subject, anon).

Of course, I didn’t know this when I submitted Malevolence to every publisher on the planet at great financial and emotional cost. When I found out that I needed an agent to get my foot in the door, I was forced to delve even deeper into my already hefty student loan to print out and dispatch more copies. (These days, of course, most agents are content to receive email submissions. Hmph.)

You can’t imagine how ruinously expensive it was. Especially if you were as young and poor as I happened to be. Paper is very heavy. Posting or couriering off a 500-page, double-spaced manuscript is a little like sending a chair halfway around the world. You get charged a small fortune for it.

In the months and years that followed, whole forests would be stripped and laid bare so that rejection slips could be printed and posted to me (at my own cost, no less, as agents insist that you include a fully paid-for self-addressed return envelope with your manuscript so that you can also bear the financial burden of being stabbed in the heart). In the beginning I kept a file of my failure. But then, when the file got too heavy and threatened to collapse my writing desk, I upgraded to a large chest. The sort that you would find in the land of Narnia. This was better because I could close the lid and try not to think about how awful I was. And then, one day, the chest lid would no longer close.

A smarter person would have given up at this point. But not me. Oh no. I was going to ride the wheels off this train. Fortunately, the rejection notes themselves were often quite kind and supportive which would lift my spirits to no end. Here are extracts from some of the more memorable ones (I actually have them framed in my writing studio):


    – ‘Please never submit again.’
     
    – ‘I can’t work out if this is a horror novel or a parody of one. Either way, it’s woeful.’
     
    – ‘I’ve never seen so many clichés assembled together in one story. Reading your manuscript was indeed a dark and stormy night.’
     
    – ‘The only horror here is your writing.’
     
    – ‘No. God no.’

 
And then you would pick up a writer’s magazine where some famous author would relate his or her story of how they first became published.

‘So I decided to write my first book in 2004. I was convinced nobody would like it and so I very nearly never submitted it. But thankfully I did and immediately found an agent. He loved the book so much he set up a publishing auction and I was offered $43-billion by a dozen international publishers that very week. I really am so blessed.’

Let’s see how blessed you are when I ram my laptop down your throat.

The reality, of course, is that very few writers have an overnight ‘rags to riches’ story. It almost never happens.

Anyway, after every agent and his dog had tossed me out, I finally had to concede that all was perhaps not perfect with Malevolence. And so, I wrote another horror de force – The Pumpkin Hour. No, it wasn’t a book for children. It was a very serious and very scary adult novel. And another 17 834 rejection slips came flapping into my mailbox, not unlike that scene with the envelopes and the owls in Harry Potter.

Then came another literary weapon of mass destruction, In the Eyes of a Child.

Surely this was the one? I had grown so much as a writer. I couldn’t imagine this gem not being accepted. Well, whether I could imagine it or not, the rejection slips kept flooding in.

At this point I was considering opening up a recycling plant. Lord knows I could pulp myself into some real money.

And then, at my lowest ebb, the PR company I was working for (my day job) was kind enough to send me to an international PR Convention in Chicago. If I’m honest I only went to about three presentations and spent the rest of my time at Andy’s Jazz Club sipping Apple Martinis with my mate, Mitch Ramsay. Afterwards, however, I had a few days to spare so I decided to do the touristy thing and head out to Washington.

Top of my list was a visit to the Vietnam Wall.

While I was standing there, my eyes skimming over the names of the 60 000 or so US soldiers who perished in the Vietnam War, a man pulled up beside me. He was dressed in full military regalia. He remained perfectly still for a while before reaching into his jacket and pulling out a dog harness which he placed against the wall.

And then he started to cry.

I waited a few minutes until he had regained a measure of composure before turning to him. ‘I’m so sorry to intrude,’ I began (clearly not sorry at all), ‘but I have to ask you … why’ve you placed a dog harness against the wall?’

The former soldier then told me the heartbreaking story of the Vietnam war dogs and how some 4000 canine soldiers were sent over to help American soldiers in the war (by locating enemy patrols, finding bombs, sniffing out booby traps and so on). His eyes moistened again as he explained that, at the end of the war and due to the cost of the withdrawal, the US government declared the dogs ‘Surplus Military Equipment’ and they were ordered to be left behind together with the old tents and prefab buildings.

‘Our dogs saved the lives of at least 10 000 US soldiers, and dog handlers like myself were forced to abandon them. I had a gun pointed at me on the day I was bundled into a helicopter for the long trip home. It’s been over 30 years and I’ve never stopped thinking of my dog, Shadow. He saved my life – and the lives of my platoon – on at least three occasions. If it weren’t for him, my name would be on this wall.’

And in that moment, I knew what my next novel would be about. No more cheesy horrors for me. I would write a book that would a shine a light on this horrific injustice. It would tell the story of one brave soldier who refuses to abandon his dog and what he does to try and save him. Fiction told against a nonfiction backdrop.

I started writing the book that night in my hotel room. A year and a half later, Leaving Jack was completed. And this time when Kerry emerged with the manuscript in her arms, she was crying.

‘It’s beautiful, Ga,’ she whispered. ‘Absolutely beautiful.’

And just like that I knew my days of being rejected were numbered. My long apprenticeship would soon be over.

Or so I dared to believe.

* * * * *

Related stories

Book details


» read article

A Day in the Life of a Bread Company CEO: An Excerpt from Paige Nick’s Banting Satire, Death By Carbs

Facebook Reacts to the Murder of Tim Noakes: An Excerpt from Paige Nick’s Wickedly Funny Novel, Death By Carbs

 
Death By CarbsWhat happens if you’re the MD of a bread company during the Banting craze? Read an excerpt from Death By Carbs, Paige Nick’s new satire on low-carb culture.

Death By Carbs is a great stocking stuffer for Tim Noakes fans or anti-Banters since – spoiler alert! – the Prof is murdered on page one.

The real-life Noakes, however, says Death By Carbs is an excellent read, and even gave it a cover shout: “I was breathless right until the end.”

Nick is a columnist, award-winning advertising copywriter, and author of the critically acclaimed novels, A Million Miles from Normal (Penguin, 2010) and This Way Up (Penguin, 2011). She is also one third of Helena S Paige, together with Sarah Lotz and Helen Moffett, a threesome of authors with a series of choose-your-own-adventure erotic novels, now out in 21 countries. Pens Behaving Badly (Kwela, 2015), a collection of her Sunday Times columns and the wild letters they’ve inspired, came out earlier this year.

Read the Death By Carbs excerpt, Part 2 of our series (See Part 1 here!):

THE CEO
Wednesday 7:38am

Not a day went by that Trevor didn’t wish he’d gone into bacon. People would always like bacon, wouldn’t they? Most of them, anyway. Not the Jews and Muslims of course, although some of them seemed to be coming around to it.

Earlier that morning, Trevor had considered the road paint business; people would always need road paint. Well, as long as there were roads. And before that, in the changing room at the gym, he’d eagerly considered the towel business (although he would definitely make them bigger, he thought – everybody made towels too small these days). There was also the running shoe business, and at this point, even the showerhead business seemed attractive. Surely those industries would be less stressful than the one he was in right now? Hell, working as head of public relations at Eskom would be less stressful.

It wasn’t even eight am yet, and Trevor had already weighed up at least ten different career alternatives to being the Managing Director of a company that manufactured bread, baked goods and snacks.

It was sheer dumb luck that he’d managed to find his way into a dying industry. What an idiot. These days, carbs were the enemy. Bread sales had taken a serious beating as a result, and were at an all-time low. When Trevor had first started out as VP of sales at SnackCorp, seven years earlier, it had been the heyday of bread. Carbs were king. They’d all cruised to some exotic destination for their annual corporate bosberaad to play golf and pat each other on the back. Company life was a year-round, all-you-could-eat buffet of prawns, strippers, congratulations, narcissism and booze. And carbs. Truckloads of carbs.

But not anymore. Sales figures had plummeted, stocks had hit rock bottom, and the board was tightening belts left, right and centre. And now, three mass retrenchments later, they were still running scared and pointing fingers. Unless Trevor came up with something fast, it looked like they were going to use him as the next scapegoat. Trim the fat (ironically), lose the dead weight. And then what? Who in South Africa was going to hire a short, short-sighted, slightly overweight, fifty-six-year-old white man?

Trevor needed this job; he had his ex-wife’s maintenance to cover. And what about his Merc, and the penthouse? Trevor scratched at his balding scalp, then self-consciously tried to rearrange the wisps of hair that remained. It didn’t help that SnackCorp had a forty-nine per cent shareholding in the Central Soda Company. Sugar and carbs: just great. He’d backed the only two lame donkeys in a horse race. Why hadn’t he gone into the xylitol business instead? Then life would be sweet. But he had a plan, and he felt a warm surge of hope as he considered it. If all went well, an upturn was imminent.

 
 

* * * * *

About the book

When someone kills dieting guru Professor Tim Noakes, Detective Bennie September has more suspects than solutions.

Banting culture, otherwise known as the HFLC lifestyle (high fat, low carb), spearheaded by Professor Tim Noakes, has exploded in South Africa.

The Real Meal Revolution (Quivertree, 2013), has sold more than 200 000 copies and is still picking up speed. Noakes is constantly in the news for his controversial, game-changing theories. His new book on infant nutrition has just launched as an instant bestseller, and The Real Meal Revolution has gone global, launching in the UK in August.

In this hilarious novel, Paige Nick prods and pokes at both the fans and the detractors of South Africa’s biggest dieting craze. So whatever side of the debate you fall on, you’ll find something to laugh at.

With more twists and turns than a koeksister, this laugh-out-loud novel will have you spurting bulletproof coffee out your nose.

 
Related stories:

Book details


» read article

Facebook Reacts to the Murder of Tim Noakes: An Excerpt from Paige Nick’s Wickedly Funny Novel, Death By Carbs

Facebook Reacts to the Murder of Tim Noakes: An Excerpt from Paige Nick’s Wickedly Funny Novel, Death By Carbs

 
Death By CarbsRead an excerpt from Death By Carbs, Paige Nick’s new satire on low-carb culture – the perfect festive gift for Tim Noakes fans and also, since the Prof is murdered on page one, anti-Banters!

Noakes himself endorses the book, saying: “I was breathless right until the end.”

Nick is a columnist, award-winning advertising copywriter, and author of the critically acclaimed novels, A Million Miles from Normal (Penguin, 2010) and This Way Up (Penguin, 2011). She is also one third of Helena S Paige, together with Sarah Lotz and Helen Moffett, a threesome of authors with a series of choose-your-own-adventure erotic novels, now out in 21 countries. Pens Behaving Badly (Kwela, 2015), a collection of her Sunday Times columns and the wild letters they’ve inspired, came out earlier this year.

In this excerpt from Death by Carbs, the “Banting for Life Facebook Page” learns of Noakes’ demise, although some are more cut up about it than others …

Read the excerpt, Part 1 of our series (Look out for Part 2 on Thursday!):

THE FANS

Wednesday 6:09am
THE BANTING FOR LIFE FACEBOOK PAGE

Deborah Gogh I have terrible news for all my Banting friends and fans on this page. I just
read on Twitter that Professor Tim Noakes died after an attack in his home in
the early hours of this morning.

Phillip Stewart Is this somce kind of joke? Because if it is its not funny.
Like 46

Melissa Giles It’s true. I went to go look on Twitter. How did he die? Does
anyone know any other information or circumstances? My condolences go out
to us and his family.
Like 12

Borrie Human HOW? WHAT! THIS CANT’ BE! I DONT’UNDERSTAND
Like 19

Deborah Gogh From what I can see on Twitter, the police haven’t yet
released a statement. It’s such sad news. I just can’t believe it. I was reading
his book only this morning, it’s become my bible.
Like 42

Margie Oosthuizen Do they know how he died?
Like 2

Murray Bruvick I hope he didn’t have a heart attack!!
Like 31

Charte Tonder That would be really bad!
Like 19

Kwela McKaiser They’re saying he was murdered and there’s some pictures
of face full of blood from someone’s cell phone on the scene which is very
blurry. But it hasn’t been confirmed by the authorities yet.
Like 21

Murray Bruvick Phew, as long as he didn’t have a heart attack!!
Like 19

Joanne Sloanne My condonlenses go out to his whole family. This is tragic. I
feel like I’ve lost a close friend. We are praying for you all.
Like 12

Maureen Ewehout I can’t believe what I’m reading. Ever since my husband
died, this group and Banting have saved me. I’ve lost more than 27 kilograms,
and I feel like at the age of 60 I’ve finally found my calling and my purpose
in life, thanks to The Real Meal Revolution. I’ve made so many new friends.
This is the worst news I’ve heard since my husband’s passing. Tim Noakes
was my very good friend. Just before he died, we worked together on some
Marvellous Tim Noakes ENDORSED Real Meal Revolution Meal Plans. Get
yours for just R150 each. Direct message me to find out more. It’s terrible
news, but in his honour we should all dedicate ourselves to his incredible,
lifechanging, world-beating diet plan, with the help of my Marvellous Tim Noakes
ENDORSED meal plans.
Like 8

Bernard Lewis I know me too. He’s done so much for me. Banting has
changed my life. Ive also lost a whopping 24 kilograms since January and Im
speeding towards my goal wait. I’ve tried every diet known to mankind my
whole life, and nothing has ever worked for me before. Without the Prof, I’d
probably still literly be eating myself to death.
Like 35

Sheena Easting Hi Maureen Ewehout your diet plans does sound
interesting. Are they really endorsed by the Prof himself?
Like 3

Maureen Ewehout Hello Sheena Easting yes, I met the good Professor
at a Banting conference in Balito 18 months ago, and we’ve been working
intensely on these meal plans together for the last four to five months. We
were going to launch them soon. But with this tragic news of his death, I
know he would have wanted me to launch them now, to keep his work alive.
Message me if you’d like your very own Marvellous Tim Noakes ENDORSED
meal plans, for just R150 each.
Like 4

Deedee Wolhutter Hey everyone, join me in a celebration of a great man’s
life. Let’s each one of us light a candle tonight and put it in our windows in
honour of the great professor, who has touched so many lives, and changed
the way we think about food and about bacon.
Like 28

Dot Swart Hello, are candles on the green list?
Like 2

Doug Larter That has to be the most ignorant comment of the day, Dot
Swart
Like 11

Dot Swart No Doug Larter, I mean that candles are made of wax, and isnt
that made from bees and honey? And all Im saying is that if honey is on the
Red or Orange list, then I just think that to honor the professor and all his
work, and how hes changed our lives forever, then we shuddnt use them.
Like 15

Pauline Oppelt Honey is on the Orange List. You’re allowed one spoon of it
a day, so I don’t know if we should do the whole candle thing or not.
Like 22

Donna Kirsch Maybe just half a candle?
Like 22

Shana Kurz Hello clever banting people … a question about psyllium husk –
do you know, can you tell me is there a difference between all the products,
are some better than others … or are all psyllium husk brands pretty much
the same?
Like 0

View 1267 more comments

 
 

* * * * *

About the book

When someone kills dieting guru Professor Tim Noakes, Detective Bennie September has more suspects than solutions.

Banting culture, otherwise known as the HFLC lifestyle (high fat, low carb), spearheaded by Professor Tim Noakes, has exploded in South Africa.

The Real Meal Revolution (Quivertree, 2013), has sold more than 200 000 copies and is still picking up speed. Noakes is constantly in the news for his controversial, game-changing theories. His new book on infant nutrition has just launched as an instant bestseller, and The Real Meal Revolution has gone global, launching in the UK in August.

In this hilarious novel, Paige Nick prods and pokes at both the fans and the detractors of South Africa’s biggest dieting craze. So whatever side of the debate you fall on, you’ll find something to laugh at.

With more twists and turns than a koeksister, this laugh-out-loud novel will have you spurting bulletproof coffee out your nose.

 
Related stories:

Book details


» read article

“I’ve Decided I’d Like to Go to the Olympics”: Read an Excerpt from Ka-Boom by Gareth Crocker

Gareth Crocker

 
Ka-BoomKa-Boom is an extraordinary story about an ordinary guy. Or at least, that is how bestselling author Gareth Crocker describes his first work of non-fiction – a side-splitting memoir.

Ka-Boom takes the reader from one remarkable adventure to the next, sharing the life story of someone who is, in fact, anything but ordinary:

Crocker has published half a dozen novels, made a horror film, run a 90 kilometre race in which he bled through his shoes, successfully failed to play right-wing for Manchester United, attempted the Olympics at 38, wrestled a ghost, been the spokesperson for a company whose head office exploded, been run over by a Honda, survived two almost plane crashes and is currently filming a superhero TV show.

For a taste of what to expect from this memoir, read an excerpt shared on the author’s website in which he reminiscences about his attempt at the Olympics, a rather unconventional one at that:

‘Hey, Bob. This is Destiny calling.’
So that Monday I phoned the national Olympic throwing coach.
As one does.
To protect his identity, we shall call him Bob. This is pretty
much how our conversation went:
‘Hi. Is this Bob?’
‘It is. Who is this?’
‘A future Olympian, actually.’
‘Really? You sound a little old.’
‘That’s weird. I’m only 34.’
‘I’m sorry. Why are you calling?’
‘I’ve decided I’d like to go to the Olympics.’
‘I think you’ve been misinformed. I’m not a travel agent. I’m
the throwing coach for South Africa. Hammer throw, shot-put,
javelin–’
‘I’m a javelinist.’
‘That’s not a word.’
‘Really? Sounds like it should be.’
‘Look, is this a serious call?’
‘Absolutely. I have a really strong throwing arm and I need you
to coach me. You know … privately. I’m happy to pay.’
Silence.

 
Related stories:

Book details


» read article

“We are the Racists” – Eusebius McKaiser Suggests Most South Africans are in Denial About Their Prejudice

null

 
A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?As you must have heard by now, Eusebius McKaiser’s new book is coming out in November.

Books LIVE will be revealing the cover soon, but while you wait, take some time out to read an excerpt from McKaiser’s first book, the bestselling A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

In this chapter, McKaiser discusses Jessica dos Santos, the model who caused an outcry with a racist tweet back in 2012, and suggests that she is not an atypical South African, despite what most of us claim.
 

 
Read the excerpt:

* * * * * * * *

Racial baggage in four part harmony

Does outrage over others’ racism not mask our own prejudices?

Are you in denial?

Is Jessica dos Santos an alien, or one of us?

Sketch one:

A couple of days ago I had a rather embarrassing experience. I was sitting at one of my favourite spots in Rosebank – popular coffee shop Ninos – overlooking the parking lot while waiting for my creative juices to kick in after a bout of writer’s block. I got distracted by some noise, and looked up. Two women seemed to be having a fairly tense conversation. One of them seemed to have bumped the other’s car. I didn’t see the accident, so had no clue which one of them might have been in the wrong. As they exchanged numbers, their conversation, judging by the increasingly wild gesticulation, seemed to be getting more heated.

I instinctively found myself silently egging on the black lady, as one might anxiously hold thumbs for your favourite boxer in the ring. The Indian lady seemed louder – I could certainly hear her voice more clearly – and this made me nervous about whether or not my player in the road rage match was going to win the verbal warfare. But alas, the black lady, though also talking a lot, seemed more timid, and so I feared that she might come out of it all the worse for wear.

Why, you might wonder, did I instinctively side with her? Simply because she was black. I did not know her. I might never even meet her. For all I know, she could have been in the wrong, and hurled abuse at her Indian counterpart, thus deserving those loud protests. Yet, the fact that she was black was enough for her to get my sympathy and all my goodwill. There was no sympathy or goodwill, I’m afraid, for the person who looked less like me, the Indian lady.

Sketch two:

A good friend of mine, Seth, confessed to me many years after we first met that he had a rather horrible thought the first time he saw me. He walked into my philosophy tutorial at the beginning of his university career and when he realised that I was the tutor, he thought, ‘Oh dear, my luck to be assigned the incompetent black tutor.’ That is the sort of confession one can only trot out if your friendship is more solid than the skull of a politician. I chuckled, and we laughed it off over a pint of lager – or three.

We didn’t need to analyse the confession. It was obvious what was going on: my skin colour was assumed to be carrying information about me. And in this case, my black skin carried the warning, ‘incompetent!’ The onus was on me to disprove the assumption. Only white tutors could be assumed to be competent unless proven to be useless. It was the other way round for black tutors.

Sketch three:

Jessica dos Santos is a name we didn’t really know until early May 2012, but now her story has been filed in the annals of Twitter infamy. She is a white model who had an unfortunate encounter with a black guy who reportedly made unwelcome and unacceptable sexual advances towards her. She was so angry that she tweeted about the ‘kaffir’. She was quickly, and ferociously, sanctioned by almost every South African on Twitter. One magazine, FHM, almost instantly stripped her of some title she had won under their banner, and made it clear they would never work with her in future. She experienced the virtual equivalent of having a ton of rotten tomatoes thrown at her.

Not even a breakfast function at which she attempted to reconcile with another thoughtless tweep, a black woman who retorted with unacceptable racism (suggesting that whites ought to have been killed), could salvage her bruised image. She became the symbol of all unexpressed and latent racism that might exist in every nook and cranny in our country. And everyone wanted to prove their progressive credentials by venting more angrily than other tweeps.

I encountered at least two responses that typified the engagement with Dos Santos’s racism. One Facebook friend of mine gave me advice on my way to a recording for a television show on which I had been invited to appear to speak about the incident and its aftermath. My Facebook friend urged me to remind ‘these racists’ that their racism was disgusting and that ‘they’ had no place in our society.

At a friend’s birthday braai, the incident, inevitably, also became a topic of discussion at some point in the afternoon. One guest lamented, ‘You know, I almost feel sorry for that white girl. She must have been raised in an incredibly closed and insulated community.’

The reactions of the online masses, and the reactions of my Facebook friend and my friend’s braai guest, are intriguing: they suggest that racists are not us. Racists are alien. They are outliers in our society. They are not typical. They are a freak fact of our lives. If we could get rid of the three racists spoiling our rainbow image, we would be living in perfect racial harmony. (Cue: ‘Ebony and Ivory’ …)

I find this lie fascinating. Racists, in reality, are among us. We are the racists. ‘They’ are not from another planet. But we dare not indict ourselves.

Sketch four:

I was an obsessive competitive debater throughout my university career. And so when I arrived at Oxford University I was naturally drawn to the famous Oxford Debate Union. Probably the best part of my Oxford experience was the time spent growing as a debater, interacting with world-famous politicians and newsmakers. The Union was a space that was so well respected that, frankly, it was a feather in the career cap of anyone – even a state president – to be asked to speak there. But make no mistake, you had to know your stuff, lest the ambitious young Oxford lions, invariably wearing black tie, would offer you a lethal point of information or, worse, deliver paper speeches from the floor, that crushed your evidence or your reasoning. Fun stuff. Challenging stuff.

And so, in my first term at Oxford, I joined the Union and attended as many of the events as possible. During one of my first attendances, I found myself sitting in the main chamber of the Union. I do not recall the topic, but it was magnificent stuff with good opening speeches from both sides. Then it was the turn of a black guy who had been invited to the event.

As the man got up and walked up to the podium, I found myself thinking, ‘Pleeeeeease don’t fuck this up! Pleeeease be the best speaker!’

The basis of my mixture of fear and hope was simply that he was black. When the other speakers spoke, I had zero feelings about how they might or should perform. Whether they excelled or sank was neither here nor there. I had no stake in how well they might do that night. And yet, this stranger induced in me – purely because he was black – fear that he might not be up to the task at hand, and a simultaneous desire that he should deliver a speech worthy of a two-minute standing ovation.

Isn’t it interesting that my racial affinity could do all this to me? Years later, I am not so sure if much has changed. I still, for example, find myself desperately wanting black debaters to beat white debaters in competition; not just because I happen to coach some of them, but because black excellence is far closer to my heart than white excellence. It is a reality that is found in every part of my psyche. It is, for example, more important to me that Pieter de Villiers, former Springbok rugby coach, should have a brilliant record as coach than it is important to me that one Jake White should have a brilliant record as national coach. What is the basis of my split loyalties? Pieter looks and sounds more like my dad and me than Jake White. (Well, actually, no-one sounds like Pieterjie!) That’s how deep racial identity runs in me.

These four stories are variations on a theme: our racial baggage, as a nation recovering from a deeply racist past, is massive. Yet the way we deal with that past, in the present, is not very healthy.

First, we are in denial about the fact that racial identities are still very strong, and that they often form the basis of racial prejudices, and irrational racial affinities. Many of us who acknowledge this reality pull a different trick. We pretend the problem is small. Or we pretend that we never were, and never will be, part of the problem. The problem is out there. It is not in my home, in my heart, in my headspace.

This is why the collective outrage against Jessica’s racist tweet is slightly less comforting than it might appear at first glance. On the one hand, it is great that we collectively punish a racist in our midst. It means we do not tolerate racism rearing its divisive head. But there was, on the other hand, something disturbingly quick about the intense and voluminous reactions – something I am suspicious of.

My fear is that much of the outrage was less about Jessica’s racism than about deflecting attention from our selves. No-one who came down hard on Jessica acknowledged their own racial baggage. The subtext of the criticism was clear, ‘I am not Jessica. I am different.’ And this is why my Facebook friend could so neatly distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The ‘us’ refers to us innocent ones, and the ‘them’ refers to them racist bunch! But this is disingenuous.

The real difference, frankly, between Jessica and us is that she got busted and we did not. It is a little bit like our outrage when a famous person gets caught for drunken driving. It is easy to be outraged by that person’s irresponsible behaviour. In reality, many thousands of South Africans drive over the legal limit every weekend and do not get stopped. Yet, with no hint of irony, these same offenders are often the first to throw stones in the direction of the busted one. It is a tactic that is aimed at drawing attention away from one’s own behaviour. It is a lie we cannot afford to encourage in ourselves and in others.

The problem with pretending that we are oh-so-different from Jessica is unless we acknowledge the scope of the problem, we cannot deal with racism and racial baggage. That is why it is important that we examine our own lives, and not just preoccupy ourselves with spotting racism in others.

It is for the same reason that I introduced gentle disagreement into the braai conversation at my friend’s house. I suggested that it was probably not true that Jessica grew up in a racist attic. But of course it is a wonderful fantasy. Since you and I live in amazingly progressive and cosmopolitan places, we never could have done what Jessica did, nor would we ever. After the attic, Jessica cannot handle the pristine multiracial space in which her modelling career has landed her. This is the logic underlying the other braai guest’s casual suggestion that Jessica grew up in a closed community.

Again, we should be careful not to convince ourselves that racial baggage is a small problem out there. Jessica grew up in our communities. She is not one-of-a-kind. She is our friend, lover, sister, daughter and colleague. She is not an alien, and her birthplace is not Mars – it is in fact South Africa. She was born in 1992, and so cannot even be written off as a relic from Verwoerdian days. She is a proverbial ‘born free’ – but, not quite. Rather, born into racial baggage. Like all of us.

We dare not pretend our racial issues are over and done with, or negligible. Jessica is one of us.

It is also evident that besides racial prejudice, racial identity runs deeper than we like to believe. This is not even necessarily a poisonous truth and yet we deny it. There is no inherent harm in my quiet desire to see black debaters excel. In fact, given the historic educational inequities that partly explain why no black African has won the South African National Debate Championship (at the time of writing this book), one might even say that my passion for disproportionately focusing my coaching energy on black debaters, is sensible. Yet how many of us would own up to be motivated by race in this fairly innocuous sense? Few of us, because we have closed the space in which we can be open about our racial identities.

My experience of the two brawling women in the Rosebank Mall parking lot is not exceptional. When I tested my story with many friends less ‘race-obsessed’ than me, a familiar smile ran across their faces – they recognised the story instantly. I got the same reaction to my tale about the black speaker at Oxford. There seems to be a kind of trope here that is unsurprising. If I grew up in a community that was predominantly black, and had my first real interracial contact, socially, at my former whites-only high school, then it isn’t surprising that I should have racial loyalties. It would be more surprising if I did not.

Yet we run away from these realities. We pretend it is only Eusebius who sees race everywhere – him and his handful of race-obsessed friends. But, how many South Africans reading this essay do not have friends or lovers predominantly from the same racial group? How many people reading this essay grew up in racially integrated neighbourhoods? How many of us, unlike the old white landlady in Sandton, could comfortably live with people who do not look like us? We have tighter social bonds with people of our own racial make-up than those who do not share the randomness of skin colour.

The story of multiracial, rainbow nation bliss is grossly exaggerated. We are not there, and we will take longer to get there if we convince ourselves that we have already arrived. We haven’t. If someone like my friend Seth didn’t own up to the fact that he took my skin colour as an indication of whether or not I was competent, then how could Seth ever have confronted his own racial stereotyping? It is only by acknowledging, in the first instance, that the racial challenges start with our individual selves that we have a fighting chance of achieving that elusive non-racial South Africa we chant about more often than we bother to work at creating.

And this is why I am grateful that Jessica put up her racist hand and demanded our attention. In the end it is the Jessicas of this world who keep us brutally honest.

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article

“No Wonder I Love to Hate Cape Town” – Read An Excerpt from Eusebius McKaiser’s A Bantu in My Bathroom

 
A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?In his frank political commentary, Eusebius McKaiser interrogates the mistruths that populate South African society like no one else. His new book is scheduled for release in November, from Bookstorm.

In the build-up to the publication, Books LIVE is sharing a series of excerpts from his best-selling debut A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

The first excerpt was the eponymous essay from McKaiser’s debut, “A Bantu in My Bathroom!”, and the second was “Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?” Today’s excerpt is “Cape Town’s dirty, coloured secrets”.

In the essay, McKaiser grapples with his identity as a member of the coloured community, and tries to get to grips with the shame it elicits in him. He writes that in Cape Town it is impossible for him to escape Verwoed’s legacy, adding: “No wonder I love to hate Cape Town …”
 

 
Read the third in our series of excerpts from A Bantu in My Bathroom:

* * * * *

Cape Town’s dirty, coloured secrets

Am I black or am I coloured?

What feelings does group identity evoke in us?

Does the fate of the coloured community bear testimony to Verwoed’s legacy?

Last year I travelled to Cape Town and got out in Long Street. As soon as I was out of the taxi, two little midgets ran after me rather aggressively, ‘Mister! Mister! Something, please?!’ They looked about twenty, or perhaps slightly older, but with the bodies of eight-year-olds, and certainly not taller. They were incredibly persistent as they begged for money, running in front of me, blocking my path. They looked and behaved like feral animals. I felt a mix of emotions: anger, annoyance, sadness.

When I told the story about a year later to a liberal white guy (and someone who is rather passionate about defending Cape Town as a blissful haven for all), he was deeply offended by my use of the word ‘feral’.

‘How can you describe people as feral?!’ he hissed. Such is the smugness and self-indulgence of many white liberal South Africans that I knew he would not understand my point. So I didn’t bother trying to explain myself for more than a few seconds, and no doubt his respect for me – what little he had – vanished.

But I don’t take back my words; nor do I regret the depth and strength of emotion that I felt as I negotiated the two aggressive beggars. I tried a number of tactics to escape their gaze, but none worked. I tried to pretend they were invisible, but they persisted in blocking my path. I pretended to be deaf, but their hand gestures took care of that: palms facing up, one on top of the other, like a Catholic waiting for Holy Communion (but without the dignified silence of a parishioner). I tried to be direct and firm – ‘I don’t have money, leave me alone please!’ – but that was met with the unexpected observation, ‘You’s from JO-buuurg!’ By then, I had reached the door of the hotel, and could hurry inside.

This is my regular experience of the coloured underclass in Cape Town. It is obvious to anyone who knows this city that foetal alcohol syndrome is rife. It doesn’t help that many white farmers still pay coloured farmworkers with cheap wine, encouraging already high levels of alcoholism. This, combined with the toxic evil of drug addiction, and the scourge of tik, results in babies being born with crippling physical and mental weaknesses before they have even had a decent shot at life. And this is why those men who harassed me had the bodies of boys: life had dealt them a cruel hand.

It is not surprising that they were aggressive: the alternative is suicide; or wasting away in a corner, slowly. They chose aggression. In the process they come across, and behave, like animals. This is not their fault. They are victims of society, victims of coloured communities’ fate on the South African landscape.

I wish it wasn’t so. But it is. And my white liberal acquaintance can go to hell as far I am concerned. These are members of my community who live like this. Those two could have been my cousins from Eersterivier, a very impoverished neighbourhood in Cape Town where tourist buses do not go.

It is inconvenient for wealthy Capetonians to be confronted with the truth in naked, unmediated, brutal language. Yet what they miss is that I feel the fate of my cousins, siblings, uncles and aunts. I feel it, I live it, and I drown in the shame and sense of helplessness, and the desire to wake up with a magic wand with which to make it all go away.

But for the guy who was disgusted by my description, coloureds are objects for academic study; for him, only unemotive language will do. He humanises the bergies (beggars) of Cape Town with language. I choose language that bears witness to the stripping away of their humanity. And I make no apologies for jarring the cocktail-fuelled conversation which was interrupted by my story. For me, coloured people are not objects of study. I am coloured. I love the coloured community, and it hurts to see how they live in Cape Town. Cape Town is brutally honest.

Yes, it has a mountain to die for. Yes, it seems beautiful. Yes, it is ‘chillaxed’. But that’s exactly the problem: we believe the lies of brochures. It is not really pretty. The realities of Cape Town are actually pretty ugly. And that is why I hate it. But not because lies don’t exist elsewhere. Jozi lies, too. It is easy to pretend that all there is to Jozi is Rosebank or Sandton or even bohemian Melville. But of course, like Cape Town, Jozi has dirty secrets that middle class people like to forget about when they rave about how integrated and cosmopolitan the place is. The dirty secrets of both Jozi and Cape Town are a stain on both cities’ images, like mud on a kid’s new white pants.

But I dislike Cape Town more. Not because I think it is worse than Jozi. That’s a lie too: the rivalry of the two cities’ passionate fans is silly. I personally like Cape Town less for the self-indulgent reason that its lies have personal consequences for me. Cape Town, you see, treats coloured people like dirt. And I cannot escape that fact as easily as I can in Jozi.

Try as hard as I might to call myself black, Verwoerd – the bloody bastard – had the final say.

I feel coloured in my heart of hearts. I feel fake when I describe myself as black. My black friends don’t really really think of me as black. Calling myself black is more a middle class luxury, right up there with wearing a Biko shirt, being intellectual-cool, playing around with racial labels.

This brings me back to Cape Town’s dirty secrets. In Cape Town, as soon as I land, I know that I am, and also feel, coloured. Coloured people are visible, as is their plight, in a way that is not the case in other big South African cities. This is not the end of the world, one might think, but the reason I cannot stomach that fact is because it forces me to deal with my coloured shame. Cape Town, unlike Jozi, keeps me honest. Too honest, and this hurts. It challenges me, makes me uneasy, and takes me into places deep inside that I do not want to be forced to go, at least not on racist Cape Town’s terms. I want to ‘go there’ on my own terms, in my own time – but Cape Town does not give me this control. Cape Town is brutally honest, and that is why I hate it.

As with most emotions, it is difficult to get a full grip on the nature of shame. It is also difficult to know when it is appropriate to feel shame. So I’m not sure if it really is shame that I feel about being coloured, and in relation to the coloured community.

I know it is not merely embarrassment at the sight of people who look like me, who look like my relatives, and who share a history with me, as members of the group ‘coloured’. You can be embarrassed about something without feeling implicated in the source of the embarrassment. Embarrassment is, for the most part, morally neutral. I can be embarrassed, for example, if I trip as I walk down the stairs of a restaurant. Embarrassment is not a cool emotion to feel, but it is fairly innocuous in the bigger scheme of life’s journey. It can even be useful – the prospect of embarrassment can be an incentive for you to do the right thing to avoid feeling embarrassed.

My grappling with being coloured, and my emotional reaction to the underclass of coloured people in Cape Town, is – sadly – not mere embarrassment. Embarrassment is not strong enough to capture the depth of my anxiety, my grappling, my guilt – and more. Shame feels like the label that just about gets it right.

There are two reasons I feel shame. The first is shame-as-recognition: I experience shame in the moments I recognise that I am a member of this pitiful underclass. The second is shame-as-guilt: I feel ashamed of myself, morally, for feeling ashamed of being coloured, for wilfully doing nothing to change the fate of my community, and for not challenging and eradicating the basis of my shame.

When I see a drunken coloured guy being a nuisance along Long Street, I recognise in that moment that I could have been him if life had dealt the cards differently. It also reminds me of my own family. I grew up with many family members who struggled with alcoholism. Of course alcoholism comes in all kinds of racial packaging, and has no respect for income or class. But a white drunkard does not move me quite the way a coloured drunk does. Put bluntly, the sight of coloured drunks in Long Street is a sight that is simply all too real. I can imagine being them, and I am instantly reminded of my uncle Alfred who struggled for many years with alcoholism. I often had to endure the shame of his violence and drunkenness as he fought with my cousins when I got home from school. The shame was particularly strong when friends of mine came looking for me, and witnessed the spectacle. It is that kind of hidden memory that the coloured underclass of Cape Town instantly awakes in me when I set foot in the city. It forces me to relive truths about my past, and my present – truths that I usually get to interact with how and when I choose. Not so in Cape Town – it is a city that takes control of my relationship with memory.

For me, walking around Cape Town is like paging through a photo album that contains a collection of the most painful memories of an earlier life. And because that earlier life hasn’t changed much – a trip to Eersterivier in Cape Town confirms that my relatives look and live as they did twenty years ago – I am ashamed of their poverty, their lack of mobility and their ignorant bliss. And it is of course not only my relatives’ fates that haunt me when I see a drunken coloured stranger. It is also, more painfully, the fate of my sisters and cousins in Grahamstown where I grew up. That small town, tucked away in a hole just off the N2 that connects Port Elizabeth with East London, is a town as filled with as many lies as Cape Town or Jozi. It, too, has the veneer of integration and cosmopolitanism, in the form of Rhodes University, one of the best places in the country for a liberal arts education. Yet, cross the bridge that separates town from the coloured and black townships, and you get a taste of the deep scars left by apartheid – geographically, socially, materially, and psychologically. I feel deeply ashamed of the horrid conditions in which most members of my community, including my sisters and their children, are trapped, like hapless flies in a Venus flytrap.

I am overwhelmed by the emotional burden of surviving that space, of getting away. And the only form of escape is to bury my past in the memory banks, and to assuage pangs of guilt with measly remittances home, and a flood of regular SMS messages, and the occasional phone call. The rest of that journey is between me and a diary or between me and a therapist – when middle class indulgence kicks in.

But when I walk down the streets of brutally cruel Cape Town, none of these crafty coping strategies have any chance of working in the face of aggressive bergie midgets taunting me, almost as if they were sent by an existential philosopher – or the Devil himself – to make me panic as I remember my family, my community …

I have come to the realisation that part of my shame about my coloured identity is actually self-directed moral criticism. I have fallen short of my own moral expectations. I have dropped the moral ball. I have messed up in the sense of not showing enough empathy for the plight of my family and my community. Or, perhaps a little less harsh, my empathy has not translated into action with demonstrable outcomes.

When I see Cape Town bergies, I know in that moment that I have absconded.

The underclass of coloured people is not just a dirty little secret of Cape Town that is well managed so as not to spoil the experience of rich visitors. It is also a community of downtrodden, forgotten left-over pawns from apartheid’s politicised racial battles. And it is a community whose history is my history. It is a community whose fate I feel personally. It is a community I have neglected. It is a community I care for, and yet a community of which I am also deeply ashamed. It is a community I wish I was disentangled from, and yet I also know that it is a community whose fate affects my emotional state.

No wonder I love to hate Cape Town …

* * * * *

Read the previous excerpts:

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article

Another Excerpt from A Bantu in My Bathroom – Building Up to the November Release of Eusebius McKaiser’s New Book

 
A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?In the build-up to the release of Eusebius McKaiser’s third book in November, Books LIVE will be featuring excerpts from the political commentator’s razor sharp debut, A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

This week’s excerpt is a chapter called “Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?” In it, McKaiser tackles some tough issues and important questions about affirmative action and its worth in the South African context. It follows on Books LIVE’s first excerpt called “A Bantu in My Bathroom!”

Affirmative action has its detractors, but McKaiser believes that it is justified. He argues his case by looking closely at three of the major criticisms levelled against it, that “affirmative action is racist”, “affirmative action undermines non-racialism” and “affirmative action is an insult to black people”, and proving that they are not valid.

Read the second in our series of excerpts from A Bantu in My Bathroom:
 

* * * * *

 
Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?

Should affirmative action appointees be embarrassed?

Is affirmative action morally defensible?

Does affirmative action undermine non-racialism?

I’ve never once given a talk on race, or been part of a panel discussion about race, and not had to field a question about affirmative action. And on every single occasion the person asking the question is filled with passion, often barely holding back on very strong emotion so as not to ruin the atmosphere perhaps, especially in university settings. Recently, for example, I gave a talk on race at Stellenbosch University. And, you bettcha, the same thing happened.

I absolutely loved the whole Stellenbosch experience, though. It was the first time I had given a talk in a cinema (on campus), complete with a guitarist doing his thing, and singing gently, as students and staff made their way inside. This being Stellenbosch, there was a pub right on site, and truth be told I was wonderfully tipsy before I even started talking. It made for an honest, flowing discussion, and the students, I suspect, appreciated my combination of engagement, and the fact that I was visibly sipping the Hunter’s Dry one of them had bought me.

I shared a lot of personal stories to make the point that we have racial baggage that we needlessly fear talking about. (In fact, my anecdotes and comment were based on another essay in this collection, ‘Racial baggage in four part harmony’.) I could see the students were relieved by my frank, personal style and tone. Universities can be rather sterile places, with emotion reserved for the drama department. So they quickly warmed to my newfound Jonathan ‘let’s talk, folks!’ Jansen style. (Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, is a public intellectual well known for his ability to speak the truth – or his truth – powerfully, but plainly.)

They asked questions and made comments straight from the heart, taking their cue from me. I was very pleased. We will never make progress in dealing with racial – and other – tensions if we cannot learn to speak frankly. We too often fear that frankness must lead to anger, and alienating ourselves from each other.

This talk gave me hope that younger South Africans can learn to speak openly to one another, but with empathy, and with a willingness to listen, to be persuaded, and to examine their own deeply held beliefs and desires. Academic discourse, sadly, does not normally allow for that sort of engagement. Which is why, in part, I refuse to be a full-time academic, and rather try to bridge a gap between my academic instincts, and my commitment to public debate.

And so it was in this spirit of frankness that a white, Afrikaans student posed a question long into the session. It was clear he had listened carefully, since he perfectly summarised in beautiful Afrikaans the nuances of my viewpoint. I appreciated that. But it was clear he had a very strong counterview that was about to be shared.

Do we not, he asked me, merely reinforce the worst of apartheid’s destructive racial constructions with policies in the new South Africa that still crudely distinguish between different racial groups? Did we not choose democracy over apartheid precisely because we wanted to escape racial categories? Why, then, do we have policies that are couched in the language of which apartheid’s architects would have fully approved? Should we not, as democrats, know better?

He didn’t share a personal story, but the controlled tension in his voice gave a clear sense that he saw himself as a young South African who only happened to be white, and who was committed to the non-racial ideal that our new society is based on, but who found himself routinely labelled a white South African rather than simply a South African. Worse, he could not guarantee that his white skin might count against him when he applied for a place at a medical school, or for a job.

It was a difficult cluster of questions, and I could only sketch him the outline of a full answer. The full answer, of course, is what I want to give in this essay. The challenge from the student can be crisply formulated: is affirmative action even in principle okay?

I want to engage with some of the biggest worries opponents of affirmative action have, and so give a sense of why, despite empathising with the logic and emotional distress of that Stellenbosch student, I think affirmative action is justified.

‘Affirmative action is racist’

I often encounter the claim that affirmative action is racist. The logic is that affirmative action discriminates against whites by excluding them from certain positions based solely on the colour of their skin. Job advertisements, for example, might say or imply things along the lines of, ‘Affirmative action candidates will be preferentially considered.’ Is this racist? No. Here’s why.

First, I can certainly see why some people might be tempted to see these policies as racist. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if I say, ‘You guys are equally good for this job but I’m going to give it to Sipho rather than to Freek because Sipho is black’, you will think I am discriminating against Freek on the basis of his skin colour.

And you’d be right – that is discrimination. Many supporters of affirmative action would not admit it is discrimination. But it is. I have no doubt that at least some jobs that I have got in the past have been on this basis, even in cases where my qualifications might have been decent. In South Africa, for example, there are very few black philosophy lecturers. And if I had to apply for a philosophy teaching job, and another candidate was white but not much better than me in terms of qualifications, most universities would choose me in that case just because I am black. That is racial discrimination. The Stellenbosch student is spot-on.

But here’s the thing: racial discrimination is not always legally or morally wrong. This is why it is short-sighted for a white parent to simply cite an example of their son losing out on a job application and think they have indicted the new South Africa as a racist, anti-white den. Not so. Discrimination can, actually, be morally and legally justified. And that is something that is missed in the emotional, and very personal, reactions of South Africans to the affirmative action debate. Few are even capable of listening to my claim that discrimination can be justified. They might drop their mug of coffee and Marie biscuit while reading this paragraph and dismiss its contents outright. (Sadly, critical dialogue can be hamstrung by strong emotion.) Let me explain then how discrimination can be legally and morally acceptable.

If discrimination is rational then it is acceptable. The oldest example in the book, of course, is that we discriminate against blind people. We don’t allow them to drive cars on our roads. But we allow people who can see to drive (provided they pass a driver’s test). But the discrimination against blind people is rational. It is rational because the ability to see is relevant to driving. If you cannot see, you cannot drive accurately and safely. So this is an example of fair discrimination. So the question one must ask is not, ‘Does affirmative action discriminate against whites?’ Of course it does! The real question to ask is, ‘Is it fair that affirmative action discriminates against whites?’ The answer is ‘yes’.

When two adults apply for a job, they bring history and personal narrative to bear on that job application. History has resulted in disproportionate opportunities for development and upward mobility, distributed, deliberately and structurally, across race and gender lines in South Africa. Our history over the last few centuries, and which reached a climax in the middle and late twentieth century, is a history of fierce, unfair discrimination. Jobs were routinely reserved for race groups, with the best being reserved for whites. Government spending on citizens disproportionately benefited white over non-white communities. Particularly insulting was the education system: more was spent by the state on a white child’s education than a black child.

One paragraph could never capture the full story of apartheid’s injustice. Yet the number of South Africans who debate affirmative action in an ahistorical vacuum continue to shock and disappoint me. The underlying sentiment is often that only natural ability and differences in work ethics explain the strengths and weaknesses of two candidates applying for a job. This is a bald-faced lie everywhere but particularly so here in South Africa. Two candidates do not appear at interviews for medical school or for a job from nowhere. They appear from life narratives that have shaped their current circumstances.
Anyone who denies this is culpably forgetting history, callously ignoring its reach into the present.

And this is why affirmative action is rational, and morally acceptable. It is an attempt to correct past injustices that were inflicted on us specifically along racial lines. Those policies were designed in racial terms, and implemented in the language of race, with the apartheid government treating different race groups differently. And since the purpose of affirmative action is fair – to reverse the immorality that has resulted from that racist ideology – the discrimination against whites which comes with affirmative action policies, is justified too. Just as the discrimination against blind people is rational, so discrimination against whites in the form of affirmative action is rational also because it is necessary in order to achieve a more economically and socially just South Africa.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ I have heard many people say. And, trust me, I have heard the full gamut of objections. I cannot rehearse them all here. But one of the objections that irritates me most is the idea that we could not possibly know when to stop implementing affirmative action. This is an exaggerated worry.

We have a rough idea of what a just society looks like. A just South Africa is not one in which there is a perfect match between the country’s demographics, and the demographics of the workplace, Parliament, sports teams, etc. That kind of numerically exact demographic representation would be the worst kind of deliberate design. Those kinds of projects are often rightly lampooned as ‘racial bean-counting’, but fears about such bean-counting are grossly exaggerated. Clearly, if 10% of accountants are black, we have a structural problem. If 65% are black, we have less of a problem. Similarly, if only 3%, for argument sake, of all A-rated scientists are women, then we have an unjust situation. This does not mean that 53% or so of all A-rated scientists must be female, but the injustice would be obvious if the figure was 3%.

And that is the point: in order to reverse obviously unjust situations like the hypothetical (or perhaps all too real) ones sketched here, it might well be the case that whites (or men) will not be treated the same as other groups. But this is justified because the reason is acceptable. The reason would be to achieve a more just society. In practice, this might mean giving more bursaries to black African students, say, than any other group, deliberately – or it might mean special research grants specifically for female scientists. These kinds of interventions do not undermine the idea of equality. They do the opposite: they take equality seriously enough to take account of how unequal starting points in life can skew fair competition between people. This therefore requires differential treatment in order to create, over time, a society that is genuinely egalitarian.

Anyone who says that affirmative action is racist simply does not get the meaning of substantive equality. Or they do not understand the connection between equality and justice. If they did, they’d abandon the objection instantly.

‘Affirmative action undermines non-racialism’

Some people claim that if we want to achieve a non-racial South Africa, then we should not adopt affirmative action policies. The concern is that policies that differentiate between race groups reinforce differences between people. And if you reinforce the idea that race groups exist and differ from one another, you are less likely to ever achieve a non-racial South Africa. Is there any merit in this?

I struggle to see why these concerns are legitimate. I have never understood why racial differences should be inherently divisive. But let me grapple with the concerns of opponents of affirmative action.
I think one fear people have is that if we talk about race ‘too much’ we will stay in the racist past that we are trying to move away from. I often encounter this anxiety when I am on radio. Just the other day, for example, on Talk Radio 702 I was being interviewed about an open letter I had written to the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee. In the letter I had criticised her decision to take off the newspaper’s website an image of a painting of the state president that showed, among other things, an artist’s impression of the president’s penis. I thought she had allowed political bullies to get the better of her. And I said so. But along the way I suggested that the editor’s decision also undermined black people in a sense, even though her intentions and motives were to be sympathetic to a deep sense of disgust among supporters of the president.

I thought that she had inadvertently displayed low expectations of black readers of her newspaper, low expectations of black politicians, and low expectations of angry black supporters of the president. I thought she should have held her fellow black citizens to a higher intellectual standard – as she surely would a white group that objected to a similar image of one of their heroes. So she let blacks down in her very attempt to seem emotionally mature.

The radio talk show host was astounded that the editor could be accused of having undermined blacks, given she was trying to respect black people’s feelings! Lo and behold, as always happens when this kind of discussion takes place, the very first caller predictably shouted, ‘Why do we still refer to people’s skin colour?! Why?!’ They weren’t interested in the real issue – whether I was fair in saying the editor had held blacks to a low standard of dialogue. The caller did what so many South Africans do – simply pleaded for us to stop talking about race.

That is not an isolated example. I could fill books with anecdotal examples. I once participated in a debate on Sakina Kamwendo’s talk show on Metro FM talking about coloured identity. We actually called it ‘The Great Coloured Debate’. And, you’ve guessed it, one of the very first callers shouted, ‘Why are we referring to people as coloured in this day and age? My goodness!’ It never occurred to them that not using the word ‘coloured’ wouldn’t make my coloured sisters and brothers who live in homogeneous, coloured, apartheid geographical spaces – still – from self-identifying as coloured. Linguistic denial can’t make deeply-held, and very personal, racial identities disappear.

So we’d better get over our fear of the language of race, and talk. There is no reason why the language of race should logically lead to racism. I can recognise which of my friends are black, coloured or white without using that recognition as a reason to be racist. We should stop blaming racialism for our racism. It is a bit like blaming your sexism on the fact that you can see that women and men look different. Racism’s the enemy. The language of race, and seeing differences in each other, is not the enemy.

‘Affirmative action is an insult to black people’

I remember once watching the exuberant Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, being interviewed on television and explaining with great enthusiasm to the host of the television show why he finds references to himself as ‘black’ an insult to the merit of his achievements. Being referred to as ‘the first black dean’, for example, diminished his hard work, and academic excellence, he argued. He widened the anecdote’s reach to make the point that affirmative action, more generally, undermines the achievements of black people by creating the impression that blacks only need to meet lower standards than everyone else in order to be awarded accolades, jobs, etc. That, surely, is an insult to black people, and reinforces the idea that they can only do well if they are treated as handicapped and given special assistance that would not be given to other competitors. Is that really the message of affirmative action? I’m not convinced it is.
Of course it is possible that there are personal and emotional costs that come with affirmative action policies: one might – whether true or not – be recognised as, or assumed to be, an affirmative action candidate. This could result, yes, in negative stereotypes about one’s skill-set, or gossip about whether or not one truly deserves a particular post.

The personal and social cost can be tough to bear. But how much weight should be attached to this in one’s overall assessment of affirmative action policies?

We do not have decisive empirical evidence about how the majority of black South Africans feel about the design of race-based policies aimed at restoring past imbalances. So we are left guessing whether Jonathan Jansen’s gripes are representative of the entire black population or whether they are isolated. After all, for every such example, I could cite a counter-example of someone who does not mind being an affirmative action appointee.

The reason I am fine with being labelled an affirmative action candidate is because I understand the justice argument for why the policy exists. If I had a problem with being an affirmative action beneficiary, that would be an indication that I had missed the point of the policy. Put it this way: when Jansen expresses deep annoyance at being thought of as an affirmative action appointment his annoyance is not a sign that he is a champion of black excellence. By being annoyed he is simply demonstrating that he has failed to grasp or to accept the justification for affirmative action in the first place. If you understand, accept and internalise the reasons for affirmative action – the goals
of substantive equality and justice – then you ought not to be embarrassed at being an affirmative action appointment or being perceived to be one.

Consider this analogy. I am often gobsmacked by some of my friends who are genuinely hurt by perceptions that they are gay. At least one of my friends now practically introduces himself as ‘not gay’ in anticipation of the assumption that he is. Why is it such a big deal to be mistaken for being gay? Would someone mind being mistakenly thought of as the most attractive person on the planet or the smartest person in the room or the nicest guy ever? I suspect not. The only reasonable explanation is that being gay is not something the person wants to be mistaken for. But, if the person truly understands that there is nothing wrong with being gay, then they would stop having anxiety attacks about the mistaken identity. At the root of the discomfort is a failure to properly grasp that homosexuality is acceptable, and innocuous.

Similarly, anyone who truly understands the logic of affirmative action and who has taken that logic to heart should not be fazed by being teased for being an affirmative action candidate. This is not necessarily easy, I admit, and it can be tiresome to experience insults and venom. But it does seem to me that most people who are easily affected by these jibes believe in their heart of hearts that affirmative action is embarrassing. And that is the problem here: the failure to take seriously the compelling arguments in favour of affirmative action.

Affirmative action is not racist; it is not an obstacle to non-racialism and it is not an insult to black people. It is legally and morally justified, because it serves to achieve a substantively equal society, one that has redressed the racist structural consequences of apartheid.
 

* * * * *

 

Read the previous excerpt:

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article