Race and the woman in the cage: Can the caged speak?
By Andile Mngxitama
“That’s us,” was my first reaction upon seeing the image of the black woman at the back of a bakkie, caged in an animal enclosure used for a pig, goat, sheep, dog or one of the other animals that the white farmer prizes. Blacks are Linda Steenkamp irrespective of one’s educational levels, class, age, gender, disability, language or sexual identity. We are caged!
I have refrained from joining the chorus of condemnations which shall end in collective fatigue in a few days as we recuperate whiteness under many guises, including claims of diversity, democracy, rule of law, equal opportunities and many other such devices which only serve to fortify the cage.
I have been mindful of Toni Morrison’s excellent advice which has guided me each time an act of individual racism hits the racist social media sphere. For those blacks who believe that the Constitution of South Africa is not anti-black and are kept busy by individual acts of racism, I do think Morrison offers an antidote provided that they are ready to receive the message. Here is Morrison:
“The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
The over-the-top occasional outburst against individual acts of racism belies a deeply held ignorance by blacks in South Africa. We don’t know SA is anti-black so we react as if there is any time in a second when we are not assaulted by racism.
It’s like we are all neck deep in the water but complain about someone splashing a bit of water on our faces.
To encounter racists in a racist society is normal. The selective outrage suggests that we blacks think that there are moments in the relations between blacks and whites in an anti-black world which are not governed by the dictates of anti-blackness.
The pernicious aspect of racism is not manifested in racist outbursts such as that by Penny Sparrow or by a group of white youth who come to an intersection, shout “kaffirs” and speed off. Those moments are when whiteness is at its weakest and seeks to recuperate itself.
The real power of whiteness is the denial of its own power and the appeal to common humanity between the white (human) and the black (sub-human) without accounting for the unethical relation. There is a truth that we must learn to look in the eye unflinchingly. White positionality in an anti-black world is crafted out of the expulsion of the black from the rubric of the human. Whites are human because blacks are rendered sub-human. That’s the protocol of the relation.
Penny Sparrow, to regain her threatened whiteness, lashes out and calls us monkeys. She is asserting her humaness which is structurally linked to our subhumaness. It’s like all whites have a bank of ethical currency. When whites run low on the ethical stakes, they can always shout or mouth an anti-black epitaph and thus regain the necessary distance from the abyss called blackness. Sparrow speaks from a point of weakness. But the totality of white power and the weight of its vile violence was expressed by Gareth Cliff when he erased the wall that separates without accounting for the real wall of separation and defended Sparrow’s right to call us monkeys. The black lawyer who represented Cliff relied on the deeply anti-black legal system to not only absolve Cliff, but to also turn him into a victim who deserves reparations. Between Sparrow and Cliff, the real representative of white power is Cliff.
The complete force of anti-blackness presents itself not when individual whites commit malicious acts against blacks. It’s rather when whites are being good and generous that the full extent of the racist anaconda reveals itself.
Linda Steenkamp sitting in a cage is a black in her natural habitat, in an anti-black world. We know that at the collective unconscious, the cage is an enclosure for all blacks. We lash out at the white because he has wittingly or otherwise re-enacted our truth. This is the picture we don’t want to see. We shatter the mirror with pseudo outrage against racism.
In the case of Linda Steenkamp, the first out of the blocks were the representatives of the Democratic Alliance (DA), a party that represents the interests of cage keepers. The main cage is the anti-black reality expressed in the historical injustices denied. We blacks can’t claim, nor are we encouraged to demand, justice for land theft and destruction of who we were before slavery and colonialism. The same DA that keeps blacks in cages on the Cape Flats – in Maneberg, Lentegeur, Mitchells Plain – alongside the “hokkies” (animal enclosures) of Khayelitsha, Langa and Nyanga. Yes, blacks live in “hokkies” and shit in open toilets like animals in Cape Town. Have we forgotten?
The woman in a cage is the truthful representation of our society and its a picture we are ashamed of. We prefer the lie of the rainbow nation while we leave the Master/Servant relations intact. These unethical relations were given the gloss of legitimacy by the post 1994 Constitution. Under this situation blacks have no coherent language to speak their truth against the pervasive lie of anti-blackness which gives South Africa its coherence and stability. South Africa exists because the lie is ignored and in many instances naturalized.
South African democracy is a fraud.
The moment that was even more violent than the picture of the woman in the cage, was the coercive kindness of the wife of the farmer who was caught on camera with his cargo at the back of his bakkie. She puts her hand over Linda Steenkamp’s shoulder, rolls the camera and instructs her to “tell her story”. Like auctioning sheep, the kind feminine voice of the master’s wife says, “[l]ook into the camera. Let them see your face”.
The missus goads Linda with white love and comradery to correct the “ugly” picture created. Linda repeats how she “chose” the cage instead of the comfort of the front seat. She wanted fresh air, the white woman makes her to tell us. It goes on in this vein rotating on choice and agency. Re-enacted on camera, it’s a lie of two human beings engaged in free speech.
The truth is, Linda Steenkamp is owned. Her speech, like everything else about her, belongs to those who own our land. She doesn’t really speak, she responds to instructions. After all, is it not true, following Frank Wilderson’s reasoning, that “all Black speech is always coerced speech”? Which black can really speak our truth, from Barak Obama to Linda Steenkamp? Could Linda really speak without consequences? What happens in the plantation when the cameras no longer roll?
There can be no dialogue between the master and the slave. Only the master speaks. This takes us back to the basic question, what would it take for blacks to get out of the cage?
The first act is to recognize that we are inside a cage. Too many of us are not aware of our actual condition of captivity. This means, we stay in the cage voluntarily and even thank the whites for keeping us in the cage. There is also the challenge of having to develop a “grammar of black” suffering. Such a grammar is de facto unintelligible to the white world. It cannot seek incorporation but should rather fuel obliteration. A native’s tongue must have a close proximity to the machete.
If we look at Linda and fume with indignity for how she has been treated, it is because we have come to accept the cages we are in as normal and they have become invisible. As we cry for Linda Steenkamp, please spare a tear for ourselves – we the caged!
Andile Mngxitama is the National Convener of Black First Land First