SA (say: “ess-ay”)
F**k it. I’m blogging again.
Another trip; another badge for the cap.
I met some wonderful people in South Africa. And some of those wonderful people were simultaneously some of the most racist people I have ever met. It’s a juxtaposition that occupied much of my mind whilst I was over there — and has stuck with me beyond yesterday’s return to the UK. So, I figured I’d unload some of that burden here, to see if I could make the dilemma seem a little clearer.
Because it is a dilemma — and a two-way one, at that. If there’s one thing SA has taught me (and it has taught me many, many things), it’s that racism is not a one-way street. Infact, it isn’t really a linear construct at all. I saw and heard of several racial instances: black v. white, white v. black (something I should probably touch on another day), and even black v. black. When in the space of three weeks, you see every single black-manned car checked at the security gate, whilst every white car gets waved on through — and the police officers themselves are black — your westernised perceptions of racism and racial treatment are expanded irreversibly.
And yet, some things over there are so strikingly similar to affairs back here. An example? The media. One of the big things happening in South Africa during the course of my trip was the national #FeesMustFall protests: university students at a variety of institutions (Wits University and the University of Cape Town in particular) objecting to the planned rise in tuition fees.
On any given day, I could turn on the SABC news channel and, without exception, images of the protests would be shown prominently within each half-hour bullet-in. If it wasn’t the main topic, it would inevitably make a show in the top-three. The scenes shown were far from peaceful: riotous students throwing stones at police, vandalising buildings, and even setting them alight. And — lo and behold — all of the students were black.
Speaking about #FeesMustFall with the South Africans I became close to was the richest site of racism, catalysing generalisations about black students and, indeed, black people in general. And for me, a lot of that comes down to exposure. If you’re living away from the city, and have no direct contact with university students, then the only thing you have to go on is the stuff being shown and reported on the TV. And when that stuff is a few riot policemen running away from a barrage of rocks and stones — and those images are being barraged into peoples homes several times a day, every day — then it isn’t long before people’s mindsets start to become skewed.
Now, I’m not in any way condoning this kind of behaviour. I spoke to one student in particular who had been revising for his second-year exams for weeks, only to have his exam thrown out on the day because his exam hall was stormed by protestors who ripped open the papers prematurely — meaning a new test has to be written, and essentially voiding countless hours of revision. That’s wrong.
That said, the media were only protraying one side of the story. I spoke briefly on my travels to a lecturer from UCT, who spoke of frequent police-led brutalisation and discrimination on their campus — particularly targetted at women. I only caught a fragment of these narratives, but the stories I heard were, quite frankly, pretty grim.
Us Yorkshire lot have seen this before. You ask any miner whether he thinks the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike was fairly portrayed, and I bet he’ll laugh in your face. With the Orgreave question brewing again, we’re finally beginning to understand the extent of the intended damage done by both the media and the police. It is a thing the miners have always known.
Looking back at the reportage of the #FeesMustFall protests, I can’t help but feel a striking similarity between here and there. We could even apply it to the Islamophobia rhetoric being spewed out by UK tabloids — today, and every day. The readers are blamed for believing what they read , making xenophobes of good people. Shouldn’t we be blaming the writers instead?
Tell the full story, and few will listen. Tell one sensationalised side, and many will join in. Believing that, at the very least, will help me understand why such truly wonderful people can say the most horrible things.