Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

What the fake signing man really told us

Gibberish or not, what the fake signing man so pithily exposed about our society, is that white privilege and commonsense racism continue to permeate and dominate the South African public conversation. This was evident in the many educated and colloquial responses to this debacle which, rather than focusing on the grave disservice done to the deaf, were instead, intent on expressing their ingrained belief in “how useless all blacks are at, well everything’. In place of critiquing the obvious issue of ableism and exposing how this phenomenon ignores the needs of the mentally challenged and the physically disabled, the main thrust of the public discourse that developed around this fake interpreter, was how this fiasco was proof of black ineptitude.

And so the usual racialised prejudices of the mainstream liberal stratum of our society were outed by said fake signer — even if by default. It was in the loud and incessant response to him, and all he supposedly symbolised, that the epistemic violence of the mainstream white narrative was laid bare.

Elsewhere in the world people made fun of this bizarre incident. It was ludicrous in so many ways and thus quickly became brilliant comedic material. It was not funny on the level that the signer was possibly schizophrenic or that the deaf were short-changed in their following of the auspicious event of Mandela’s memorial — it was just that there was an absurdity to it that lent itself to some hilarious interpretations.

But in South Africa the tedious social cacophony in response to this incident was the usual monotonous sanctimonious whinging about how “the blacks” couldn’t get anything right. This mishap became the signifier for white misgivings about the entire indigenous population. Because of one man, who may have been in the throes of a schizophrenic episode on the stage, the entire government, all civil servants and probably most businessmen too, were labelled totally useless in the racist narrative that developed rapidly around this event.

It seems that we are doomed to remain stuck in this tasteless social bias — in this unresolved and quietly violent binary purgatory, where all the ills of this country will be blamed on all blacks by whites. This negativity towards, and lack of faith in, blackness, is a social miasma. It is what white people were taught from the moment they moved into the realm of language and it is what the system of apartheid reinforced. A government that has forged expedient partnerships with the white-driven corporate world has further ensured that this discourse remains unchallenged and mainstream white South Africa continues to spit out the same anti-black rhetoric, peppered with negative and offensive stereotypes and projections, though we are 20 years into our democracy. This has become the normalised narrative that white people tell themselves over and over and it is the natural default narrative when anything goes wrong in the country.

And so the fake signer becomes the catchall signifier for this white belief in collective black ineptness.

Sarah Britten’s article embodies this prejudicial narrative. The many supporters and purveyors of this particular whiteness narrative received her column with glee. They applauded her brilliance — especially her “brilliantly” blatant insult of the entire echelon of civil servants in South Africa when she states: “In South Africa, the signing man told the world, you don’t actually have to know what you are doing in order to get a job. You don’t have to have any ability whatsoever, as long as it looks, to most, as though you can go through the motions — whether you are a teacher, a police officer, a bureaucrat, a government official or (as some have suggested) a state president.”

Britten’s article directly rubber-stamps the commonsense racism etched into the white mainstream mentality. She may have been too polite to say outright who she is referring to, but the automatic default is that she is referring to black people — after all she chooses to point out the jobs that we all know are majority black positions in a post-1994 South Africa when she seems to state that all teachers, police officers, bureaucrats and government officials are faking it. And many of her readers responded to her article with this racialised social make-up in mind, as exemplified in some of the choice responses below.

James Doe #

I work at a major law firm in SA.

Everything about this incident happens daily where I work.

In the name of “transformation”, the firm employs people who are utterly incompetent.

It is so sad. Terrible for employer, employee, and everyone else in society.

Everyone suffers the consequences of the absurdities that have become our normal.

“Franco # I try to explain to my friends how south africa is run comparing it to old Zim in one side and others on the other side Gana, Nigeria…) and how S Africa is deteriorating every day on the eyes of the financial markets and of the world. This “fake interpreter” can explain everything. Thats SA today. Sad Very sad. (sic)”

Like so many purveyors of white privilege, Britten’s pleasantly rendered article contains the quietly violent presence of learned racism just beneath the friendly tone and within the seemingly innocuous and “concerned” language — though, it would seem, the author is totally oblivious of this fact.

In her disparate attempt to come across as both a “non-racial” and “racially aware” commentator, as she tries in vain to push aside her rose-coloured privileged lenses, Britten has said more about the state of South Africa’s current whiteness ideology than critical whiteness studies students will be able to analyse in a year.

She might not recognise her own racist undertones, but the fact that she had the hegemonic chutzpah to include such a blatant insult to those who she writes off as fake, while not being aware of how offensive this all is, has taught us some remarkable truths about the insensitivity and non-reflectiveness of the prejudicial white discourse as it plays out in public commentary — and this has spoken volumes to South Africa about how invisible white privilege is to those who simply will not examine their personal racism.

So in the end, the fake signer at Mandela’s memorial, pithily told us just how far we still have to go to see the truly non-racist world that Madiba dreamed of. He told us how unkind the white narrative about blackness remains, even though the new democracy bent over backwards to accommodate white people and reassure them that their fear of blackness was unfounded.

But perhaps what this fake signer was really telling us, in frantic hand gestures, was that it is time to stamp out and say no more to this ongoing tasteless and unfounded white racist commonsense discourse. What he actually “eloquently” demonstrated in the end was how much more nonsensical and absurd this unconscious or conscious racist narrative is than the gibberish he rendered on the stage of Madiba’s memorial .

Now there’s a thought.

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    • MrK

      Brent #

      ” Mrk, just one question, ”

      Is it an important question?

      ” where did yu get the informatin that Obama came first in his class at Harvard? Obama’s university results are locked up and not available ”

      Everyone’s results are private. However, Barack Obama graduated in 1991 with a JD Magna Cum Laude, which I’m sure is on his diploma. Magna Cum Laude is the highest honor after Summa Cum Laude, and I’m sure no one else in his class did – making him first in his class – although they don’t officially rank graduates at Harvard.

      But if you want to chase down all the honors of the Harvard Law School class of 1991, be my guest.

      (LATIMES) College transcripts replace birth certificate for Obama detractors
      May 28, 2012|By Robin Abcarian

      Unfortunately for transcript transparency advocates, school transcripts, like tax returns, are private. They are protected by a 1974 law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

      “There are all kinds of exceptions, but the rule is records may only be released with signed written consent of the individual,” said Barmak Nasserian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The group counts more than 2,600 degree-granting institutions among its members. “Barack Obama, like every other American, is entitled to privacy rights under federal law.”

    • Tofolux

      @ Et al, it is quite obvious that some amongst us are still very very uncomfortable when talking about race and racist practises even when we are engaged in a fundamental battle around this major issue in our society today. Some comments above not only exposes the complete lack of conceptual thinking around a critical issue that confronts us,it exposes glaring ignorance. Can I ask, since when did we require anyone’s permission to discuss racism? eg Mackenzie, I am totally aghast at the lack of provocation especially if ‘thought-leading’ is attributed to credentials. Why the lack of challenge on this matter and why do some resort to a particular defence that is so obvious amongst some? If I read some of the comments, I am convinced that some are quite content to remain and defend their ‘laagers’. I am also convinced that the majority of some will not build our state into the constitutional state they claim they support. What I see, is the deliberate dragging down or even stifling a very necessary debate and defending certain racist practises.

    • Ula

      It’s also a thought that at least white discourse uses spellcheck

    • Zeph

      @Tofolux – speculating again? And then qualifying your speculation as fact is a bit arse about face, eh?

    • Chris Stevens

      Yet another article ploddering on about white privilege….. Sigh……

      I tire of these kinds of articles so I will keep this comment short and pertinent. Although I agree with you that there are SOME who comment that this is demonstrative of (how you so eloquently put it) “blacks are useless at, well, everything”, it is not a popular or even accurate point of view. What this does however edify us in is the shortcomings, corruption, nepotism and lack of service delivery (in this instance accessibility for the deaf) of the current government, which is in fact a popular and accurate opinion shared by many South Africans, black, white, Indian, coloured, poor, rich and any other demographic which you and the political “spin doctors” try to throw at us. Yet again, I am disappointed by the lack of true journalistic integrity shown by you and other “journalists” who pander to racial sentiment or political bias to add some “validity” to push an otherwise ill-considered commentary closer to the front page.

    • Graham

      Editorial – Once again, Gillian is allowed to use Thoughtleader as her personal platform to moan about a fellow blogger. It is getting rediculous.

      I sincerely hope Sarah was consulated before this tirade was posted.

    • Tofolux

      @Zeph, there in nothing speculative when someone else uses demeaning language to insult you. You can defend this narrow type of behaviour all you want, it still remains insulting.
      @Graham, now that you are unable to address or pose a challenge to gillian, you now call upon others to ”deal” with her. Also note, we are sick and tired of consulting with perpetrators. Why should we? These people consistently show that they can kick forgiveness and reconciliation in the teeth.
      @Chris Stevens, for all the claims you make about institutional governance does this then explain away this critical issue of racism in our society, For all your tiredness, why are you not discussing and addressing these practises. You have ask of us to forgive you and we have ask of you to behave and to treat others as human beings, hence why are you not berating Sarah for her inexplicable behaviour? Address this question please, I am interested to hear your response.

    • Chris Stevens


      I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment which Sarah expresses in her article and the somewhat cheeky subtext it entails about our current administration. I for one am particularly for of the idea that if some holds a position of power that they are educated to fulfill the duties and responsibilities which that position entails, or at minimum they should know what they are doing. However, in the eyes of Gillian that automatically qualifies me as racists? For example, would you go to a plumber for him to perform a root-canal. Me-thinks-not. Does this make me a racist? Apparently so?

      Canada, for one, is an excellent example of the “white racist” view that experts in relevant fields occupy important positions in politics and governance (both local and national). This has led to free healthcare, excellent housing for the impoverished and general social collective focusing on equality and justice, all promises by the current government which have gone unfulfilled.

      However, in the eyes of people such as Gillian, I, as a white male South African in my 20s, deserves little more than self-lothing and continuous social belittlement though the public eye of the media merely because I share a skin tone with a few narrow-minded extremists.

    • Chris Stevens

      A further note on my previous comment:

      Ability and race are too independent entities. Neither has an influence or the other, however the socio-economic issues surrounding race in our past and the more contemporary short-comings of the current administration has led to lack of access to education and (including but not restricted to) affiliated service delivery. Case and point, the Limpopo textbook scandal. This however returns me to my “right man for the job” narrative from my previous comment (a sentiment devoid of race I might add for the purpose of clarification since Gillian requires overt expressions of non-racial sentiments). Nepotism and corruption have bred a mentality in which the individual interests of one person, personified in this instance by “Deaf Jantjie” ( the fake interpreter in question), comes before the need for equality and the ideals of social justice. And various individuals of ALL races, both in South Africa and abroad fall into this category.

      By saying that all white Caucasian South Africans are racist, Gillian is no better than those bigoted few who whisper amongst themselves about “how useless blacks are at, well everything”