Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

A deep dip in everyday racism/sexism/classism/etc

Cape Town swimming coach Tim Osrin was arrested last week when he allegedly beat up a middle-aged domestic worker, Cynthia Joni, in the middle of the day without the two ever having said anything to one another. Osrin was driving his car along a road, saw Joni, and stopped his car to beat her up. She sustained multiple injuries. His explanation for this — he thought she was a prostitute. He is quoted as saying “I just snapped. It is a result of the years of stress of having these people in our area”.

To add fuel to fire, when charges were laid against him, Osrin said that Joni had “trumped up the charges” because he was white, and was probably thinking “here comes my Christmas box”. A petition to Virgin Active to remove Osrin from their team of swimming coaches, and make true their commitments to a non-racist society, was successful. His case has been postponed to November 27 at the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court.

I think it’s important that we unpack this crime for the very many layers of “isms” and wrong-doings based on Osrin’s statements. He reveals particular prejudice about sex workers, and black women.

1. “I just snapped. It is a result of the years of stress of having these people in our area.”

If you’re hearing loud sounds it’s because you’ve stepped on a minefield. Unpacking the layers of privilege in this statement could take all day but let’s go step by step.

A: These people:

In this statement Osrin was referring to his belief that Joni was a sex worker. Sex work is criminalised in South Africa. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the decriminalisation/legalisation of sex work (if your opinion isn’t an informed one I suggest you engage with Sweat) there are certain facts that are important. These are:

  • Sex workers are people and have human rights like everyone else including the right to be free from violence.
  • It is not acceptable to assault someone because you disagree with their career.
  • Someone being a sex worker is not an explanation for someone else’s violence.

The point that Joni is not, in fact, a sex worker is discussed in B below. But even if she was, this doesn’t legitimate his violence.

B: These people in our area:

Osrin never explained why he thought Joni was a prostitute, and it seems the only marker that identified her as one of these people in his area was the fact that she was black. The assumption then is that Osrin had some misplaced belief that black people walking in Kenilworth don’t live there, or work there, and if they do work there it’s as a sex worker. This type of active stupidity is not exclusive to Osrin.

This is linked to the racist patriarchal hypersexualisation of black female bodies, to white male privilege that says women are not allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, and to racism that assumes that black people do not have legitimate space in “white” areas like Tim’s (see D below). All of this, is quite frankly, bullshit and should no longer be tolerated as an explanation or excuse for violence.

Deliberate ignorance should not be seen as a mitigating factor in his case.

C: I just snapped:

Assault is not a legitimate response to frustration. So the excuse that he snapped, unless he had some sort of mental break that reduced his criminal liability (which I doubt because he was able to drive off in his car, and to give subsequent statements to the media), then he was directly responsible for his choice to beat someone up who had not instigated any violence against him.

If Osrin has in fact “snapped” then he should be admitted for psychiatric evaluation before he can stand trial.

Importantly, it must be made clear in this case that violence against sex workers is unacceptable. Particularly because this type of violence can be considered a hate crime — it is motivated by hatred for sex workers as a group and sends a message to other sex workers that it is not safe in that area.

D: Our area:

Public spaces, including streets, are, well, public. Anyone is entitled to walk in any area that is not access controlled. So it’s not actually your area Tim, its Kenilworth, and Joni has every right to be there.

E: The prevalence of sex workers in Kenilworth as a cause for concern

Sex workers are workers. This means that they often work in places where there is a demand for their services. I’m not quite clear on why this is a problem, and don’t agree that having sex workers in an area automatically brings shame/disgrace to an area.

However, Osrin alleges that the sex workers expose themselves to children in the area, and this is certainly not acceptable and criminal behaviour. In the same way that sex workers are entitled to be in public spaces, children are entitled to live in spaces free from violence. This behaviour, if it is happening, cannot be condoned.

So if Osrin seeks to address the issue, perhaps what would be more useful than assaulting individual women, would be a community dialogue with sex workers, sex worker organisations, community members, etc to discuss why sex work is thought to be a problem, and how the community feels about it, given that sex workers are clearly part of the community.

I think that type of dialogue is an imperative after such an incident of violence, and that it should happen as soon as possible.

2. Here comes my “Christmas Box”

Osrin’s counter allegation is that Joni is trumping up the extent of her injuries in order to exploit him in some way. This statement points to some racist and sexist assumptions:

  • Black people do not tell the truth — of course, Joni couldn’t just be detailing her injuries.
  • Black people are out to exploit white people and see white people only as a source of personal enrichment — through laying charges, Joni wasn’t trying to achieve justice or prevent Osrin from assaulting other unsuspecting women, but was trying to get money out of him through a court settlement.
  • Women don’t tell the truth — her injuries were probably not as bad as she said they were (if you see the earlier links, he only slapped her once, so “any injuries she sustained were a result of her fall”).

These assumptions seek to undermine Joni’s right to report violence against her, and will certainly cause secondary vicitimisation. Women who are abused face discrimination from police often, and their injuries or lack thereof are often commented on in court cases. What is important is that this was a physical assault, and secondly it was an assault to Joni’s dignity.

3. Shock is not enough, we need action

It’s clear that Osrin is a complex guy — his statements are angry, violent, mistrustful, racist and sexist. Part of ensuring that incidents like this don’t happen again is removing the conditions for their acceptability — addressing the intersectionality (the ways that his various prejudices converged upon a black female body and not a white female body, or a rich black body, or a white male body) that facilitated this abuse. It’s important that stereotypes and racist and sexist assumptions like those that Osrin made are addressed at a community level.

I think it is vital for the Kenilworth, Harfield, Claremont village associations and ward councillors to host a discussion inviting all members of the community to discuss the following:

  • Racism.
  • Violence.
  • Socioeconomic inequality.
  • Sex work.

And I’m sure a number of other areas. If you live in an area where you face similar issues, then I suggest you contact your councillor and ask for a dialogue.

If you would like to do more, and participate in an event outside the court where Osrin’s case will be held on November 27 you can find details of one here.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Tim Noakes vs Dr Ferdinantus Booyens – the curious machinations of the Health Professions Council of South Africa
  • Je suis Orlando, then je suis KwaThema
  • Sex workers’ rights are human rights
  • Polarised debate on Charleston hate crime, gun control leads nowhere
    • Marc Gilson

      Very well written article. very impressed with your thoughts and insights!

    • Nkululeko Ngwenya

      It is extremely sad that our horrible treatment of women in this country seems to be our only fuel for necessary dialogue in this country, from Anene Booysen on GBV, rape and child protection, Reeva Steenkamp for our justice system, white and celebrity supremacy and now Cynthia Joni for racism, sexism, classism and sex work. Women should not fear becoming headlining victims in this country yet they still do. The viable solution is to inspire feminism in all places where it matters (parliament, communities, police stations) through honest dialogue, stronger education against patriarchy and its violence and harsher consequences than ones we currently see for the ill-treatment of women.

    • I Say

      Apparently Virgin Active cancelled their contract with Osrin’s wife, who is the actual owner of the swimming business, and consequently some people who had been employed by her for many years lost their jobs. Osrin has never been a swimming coach and is / was employed by his wife in an administrative capacity. Some people have also threatened on social media to petition the school attended by Osrin’s young children.

      I feel that Osrin’s conduct was disgusting and should rightly be condemned, however we should take care that our protest actions do not cause harm to innocent people.

    • http://mailandguardian Sindi

      Well said Jen; Joni is actually one of the most women whose bodies have been, violated just for being a woman, considered a “weaker species” by male chauvinists/terrorists. I commend her courage to report the incident; such incidents are everyday occurrences in Johannesburg. We will follow the trial

    • Momma Cyndi

      I have been following this story and none of it makes any sense. What kind of male selects a random stranger to beat up for no logical reason? What kind of parents raise their son in a way that this is even an option? Like my mother before me, I will beat the living daylights out of my son if he raises a hand, in anger, against a woman. Have things changed so much that, that is no longer the standard?

    • BikoGuevaraHaniX

      Honest; direct and valid… good article, its sad that we have people in our own country that we ought to share freely who identify others as “these people” in “our” area. RSA at some point needs to have the its ALL OUR’s mentality. that everything and everyone has every right to what we all have and share as fellow countrymen and women

    • Simon

      One idiot does something like this and all of sudden there is a crisis with every person in the hood. Isn’t this the same gross generalisation that the author is complaining about? The reason this is getting the massive press is because it is such a rare and bizarre event.

      In 17 years in the area, I don’t know of any other random beatings that would suggest we need some sort of group therapy. The only contact crimes I know of are non-residents robbing and occasionally killing home-owners and pedestrians. In fact residents make a concerted effort to protect ALL workers walking through the hood by paying for bike and security patrols. There are serious criminals always looking for gaps!

      There have been countless community meetings in the last 15 years that I have attended with Wynberg and Claremont police about the prostitutes that operate between a church, old age home, girls primary school and 2 pre-schools around Gwalia, Pine and Harfield roads. Having kids pick up used condoms is not the best way to start a school day and having creepy guys cruising the hood midday is also less than ideal.
      Could Jen Thorpe tell us when she lasted attended such a meeting? Does she know of the gangs running the main road prostitution racket? Does she know of the drug lords taking over Main road from the City to Muizenburg?

      None of this excuses Osrin’s behaviour, but looking around I think we doing quite well as a neighborhood!

    • Baz

      Well said.
      Unfortunately, Orsin, regrets that day of his impulsve actions, seeing that his contract with Virgin Active is cancelled. Which brings me to say he has tarnished the image of most respected ‘white’ males who don’t have issues like him. Very sad to say the least.

    • Kari

      Thank you for the neatly unpacked basket of snakes Jen. It is a bizarre story, and at the same time I am sure it is heart-wrenchingly familiar to so many of our people. As it is illustrative of these underlying, unacknowledged, sneaky attitudes. It is so necessary to See these attitudes, to name them and shame them in order to lessen their power and make sure that the majority hold them to be unacceptable.

    • John

      Very Very well said, probably one of the clearest stories written this year. I live in this area, and the prostitutes have never bothered me. They have been working this area for years and have never bothered me, my wife or children. I even get a polite ‘good morning’ from them when I leave on an early morning cycle….. There is never an ‘excuse’ to beat up anyone, and beating up a women is just not cool EVER !

    • Rutendo Hadebe

      Thank you for this analytical piece. South Africa needed to be reminded that in order to move forward the issues at hand, now is the time to have a conversation. Patriarchy, racism and racism are real.

    • Conrad

      “These people…” Well said, Jen.

    • Kenilworth Resident

      A couple of points.

      Firstly, if I am not informed on sex workers then I should seek the guidance of a pro-sex workers organisation? That’ll leave me with a nice balanced view. Presumably then, if I feel under-informed about feminism, you’d be happy to take me through both sides of the story? Right.

      Secondly, I live in Kenilworth. I have two children, 5 and 7. Every time – and I mean this WITHOUT EXCEPTION – every time we walk around our neighbourhood (and by “our”, I mean the locality close to our dwelling, obviously), we have to navigate our way around used condoms discarded all over the pavements.
      Less often (fortunately), we walk past a) sex workers – often drunk – who will make lewd remarks to me and/or flash their breasts, despite the fact I am with my two young children, and b) walk past cars parked at the side of residential streets with people having sex (oral and or otherwise) inside.

      The guys that engage the services of these ladies are obviously the salt of the earth. It’s lovely to have them around our area.

      I am in NO WAY defending the actions of the guy above. What he did, and his reasoning behind it was despicable and unforgivable. But I can completely understand his “I just snapped” comment. The City has done NOTHING to assist either side in this tinderbox – maybe his actions might actually prompt some action.

    • http://jenthorpe.com Jen Thorpe

      I received an email yesterday stating that the comments made by “I Say” are in fact untrue. That no other people lost their jobs. If you have evidence that this is the case, I suggest you present it I Say.

      In response to Simon: I have just moved to Harfield, and have attended the most recent community meeting. Not that that has any impact on this particular case.

    • Catherine Williams

      Good article Jen, thank you for unpacking this for all of us.

      I live in Kenilworth, myself. I am looking forward to engaging on these issues.

      A sex worker was recently murdered in Kenilworth soon after the Ward Councillor refused to engage with, talk to or otherwise assist Sex Workers asking for help with violence.

      http://www.wlce.co.za/index.php/2013-04-30-11-57-18/press-releases/307-auto-generate-from-title

      So, no. Kenilworth is not doing well with Sex Work and related crimes. The fact that Osrin did what he did shows that there is still a continuum of violence that intersects in Kenilworth with Sex Workers and the local residents.

      So, no. Kenilworth is not doing OK.

      We all need to talk together about violence, women, racism, classism and sexism.

      The next meeting is soon, I hope? anyone willing to share the details of meetings where ALL of us can engage together?

    • Mapula

      A response to Simon and Kenilworth residence. Your responses to the article shock me, mainly because they sound very defensive when the article itself does not condemn the Kenilworth community, but the actions of one man. Here is the scenario, a man beat up a random woman (a daughter, a mother, a sister…a human being!) because he thinks it is justified, since he “assumed” that she was a prostitute! It was wrong!!! Period. It cannot, in any event, be used to raise the issues that Kenilworth residents have with prostitutes!! Worse at that, she was not a prostitute. The writer proposes a platform to deal with the problem of prostitutes. That it works or not, we do not know. Do you have other solutions for consideration, before the whole of Kenilworth – or any other place, really – snap?? Solutions that will make anyone (black, white, female or male) walking through the streets of Kenilworth feel safe? For your kids, if anything. To “snap” is no solution, and it is not acceptable. It is not understandable.

    • Bwahaha

      I just had to laugh at the term ‘racist patriarchal hypersexualisation of black female bodies’. This term must surely have been coined by a white, guilt-laden feminist or someone that lives with their head firmly stuck in the sand. I would love to find out in what area JT lives and go and drop off hundreds of vagrants to rummage through her bins, defecate on her pavement, steel any brass number off the walls etc. Then maybe she’ll just get to see the light and understand what its like to live with crime and grime. People like Osrin cracked because nothing is being done to stop this constant barrage of crime that pervades every suburbs in this God-forsaken mess of a country. The crime situation in Khayelitsha has led to thieves,muggers,rapists and murderers being caught by the community, beaten and burned. What Osrin did is not different (yes, it was a case of mistaken identity) yet I dont see Jen Thorpe writing a long winded article trying to justify the existence of criminals in that township (yes, prostitution is a crime!!). why is Osrin being singled out? Because he is white and the victim was black. Then somehow Jen Thorpe extrapolates this ‘complex’ mans actions onto the entire community in which he lives. So if a murderer was caught living in Thorpe’s area then would that make her a murderer too? Shame on you Jen! Are all the people in Khayelitsha murderers because it has a high murder rate? Dont anyone assume that or else you will be labelled a racist.

    • I Say

      @ Jen Thorpe

      I do not have evidence. The information is from a call to Cape Talk 567 Radio station one morning last week (I think it was last Monday). A female caller ‘phoned in and said that she is one of the swimming coaches employed by Tim Osrin’s wife, and that she, along with others, stood to lose their jobs if people were encouraged to withdraw their children from the swimming schools. She further explained that Tim Osrin is not the owner of the swimming school, and that his wife built up the business over 15 years, and that she employed her husband only in an administrative capacity. That conversation / information can be confirmed with the talk show host, Kieno Kammies of Cape Talk Radio.

      The other threats I read on various facebook / twitter timelines, and under the article which appeared in the Cape Argus last weekend. One commentator even gave Tim Osrin’s personal cell phone number, and the contact details of the swimming school (but that comment has since been deleted).

    • http://n/a Biloko

      We now know that another woman has laid a complaint against Osrin, having been attacked by him a while back. This means he has form, and has done it before (who knows how many times)….