Simon Howell
Simon Howell


By now much has been written about the tragic tale of Oscar Pistorius. I don’t feel that I can contribute directly to this debate. Until such time as the courts have done their work, we must all reserve judgement. I will say though that I feel that not one but two young people have lost their lives in these tragic circumstances.

I do however want to use this case as an inciting incident; a means of engaging with a problem that is facing South African society that I feel has become our collective burden. This burden can be found not in the case of Pistorius itself (although it is implicit), but in the endless ”jokes” and comments that have been generated on various social-media platforms about this tragedy. I will not recite these ”jokes” and comments, although I am sure that most of you have encountered at least one. The only word that I can think of when I read these comments, comments that play on the tragic loss of two people’s lives, is disgrace.

This feeling of disgrace stems not only from these comment’s blatant insensitivity, but because they make visible the surreptitious logic of violence which we as South African’s seem unable to let die.

The violence I speak of is found not only in the mutilated bodies that are piling up on our collective consciousness, but also in the most secret of whispers. Racism, for instance, is no longer screamed at the top of people’s voices, but whispered quietly among friends. In some sense this, qualitatively, is even worse than if it was screamed, because it removes from the crime accountability. The ”jokes” that have haunted the Pistorius case are of the same nature. They remove from the tragedy its potency, its meaning, instead replacing it with a crude patter which distances us from the real event. If we truly felt the magnitude of this and other events of this nature, we would not laugh but cry, we would do something about this, about murder, about rape, and about the general state of our society. Instead we laugh and joke and pretend like nothing is wrong, when the truth is that in every instance of ignoring the horror of our collective reality we are complicit in making it so. I echo Jen Thorpe here when I say I am tired. Tired of people walking away through whichever strategy they choose (the joke, the sarcastic comment, the hit and run, the unreported crime) in the hope that someone else will sort out our problems. Our problems cannot be solved by hoping that someone else will have the courage to confront our collective violence.

In this sense I feel we are all complicit in this culture of violence. As subtle as it can be, we have all walked away, in one way or another, from the dream of a democracy promised 18 years ago. How can we say we are democratic and equal when we cannot share our public spaces, our streets and our parks, without feeling fear? How can we call ourselves a democracy when a woman is raped every four minutes? Some may be appalled by these statements. There is, after all, no denying that a lot of selfless and amazing acts and deeds have been done by many South Africans to help this country to its feet. Until such time, however, as rape, domestic violence, senseless acts of murder, robbery and petty crime diminish, I do not think that anyone can claim to be ”proudly South African” with their head held high. Until such time as we attempt to put ourselves in another’s position, to feel the anguish and fear that they feel, without joking about it, I do not think we can call ourselves a ”rainbow nation”.

Sartre argued that one should act as if the whole of the world were judging each of our actions. While I am no existentialist, this seems like such an important statement for the modern South Africa. Our differences have become our downfall, not our saving grace, as was envisioned. These differences, however, are multiplied and made violent when we refuse to at least acknowledge the life of our fellow citizen. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that we have reversed that common adage, ”innocent until proven guilty” so that in all of our interactions we expect guilt and are surprised by innocence.

The violence that is perpetuated in our common language, in our refusal to help each other is increasingly becoming our downfall. We are all guilty of this, and until such time as we collectively strive towards the places we keep promising ourselves, I cannot help but feel that we live in a state of disgrace.

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    • http://http// Paul Whelan

      Making a joke about terrible events is universal; it’s called ‘black’ humour. You must be able to give plenty of examples yourself. It’s probably no more than people’s way of relieving the otherwise unbearable horrors life involves.

    • DavidJ

      That weird distasteful bravado, the shockingly inappropriate comments, the obvious lack of empathy for the victims, all of them, is not uniquely Safrican. I landed in the States on the night of the OJ murders and the next few days heard with disbelief the comments and jokes, all mercifully forgotten now, that propagated without cellphones or twitter or facebook to spread them.

      I was in a restaurant in Austin watching a basketball game that got interrupted by the chase after the white Bronco driven by the murderer. The crowd started chanting GO OJ – GO OJ and groaned when he was eventually stopped.

      I never thought to see or hear anything like it ever again, definitely not in my home country. But here it is now and like a cloud of toxic spores it is infecting everyone.

      We are not just living in disgrace we are living as dishumans. It is this disconnect between our reality and everyone elses that allows atrocity to become a staple condition of our lives.

      Thanks for raising your voice against it.

    • Vial_Praktiss

      Sheesh, I read all the way to the end in the belief that this would be very hipster-ironic and all “meta” by concluding with a real scorcher of a Pistorius joke.

      It was only at the end that it became fully evident that you’re actually seriously trying to make some sort of serious point. Which was indeed funny. You failed horribly to convince that we should all be in-church serious ‘cos the big mouth in this week’s tutorial group is tutting and shooshing and claims to have done all the required reading.

      You produce no convincing evidence for your claimed insights into the inner motives of the jokesters, instead decreeing that the jokes are self-evident proof of some point, or other. You can’t possibly be meaning to claim that all the jokes are motivated by some kind of social common purpose gone mad, so please allow me to help:

      Roses are red, violets are gorgeous
      But watch out if you surprise Oscar Pistorius

    • Zeph

      And I think a joke or ‘making light of a situation’ are coping mechanisms. I take it you are not a fan of Zapiro or any other satirical cartoonist?

    • bernpm

      you say: “I don’t feel that I can contribute directly to this debate. ”

      Then why this long story which -I must confess- I did not read for the same reason. :-))

    • suntosh

      I agree Simon.

      Empathy is lacking in our idiotic reactions to such horror (by sending jokes), but also in our endless intellectualisation of such emotionally rooted problems.

      The emotions spurring us into action should come from a genuine desire to end these tragedies.

    • bernpm

      Humour has – long time ago- been defined as “a laugh and a tear”.
      It still is.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Its what we do to survive. We laugh at the absurdity of the world. If we didn’t, we’d be quivering lumps of misery by now. That wouldn’t help anyone either. Curling into a ball and sobbing my heart out over Oscar’s stupidity wouldn’t do any good at all. You may find that going into a black funk for a month over people mocking his stupidity isn’t going to do you much good either.

      Amusing that you use Sartre as your reference.
      “words are loaded pistols’

    • Hameeda

      I agree with Momma Cyndi. We need jokes and humour to fully process the enormity of some actions, which are otherwise too horrible for us to concieve or comprehend. Besides for centuries, jokes, satire and humour have been ways for people to spread awareness, express ourselves and even communicate about important issues. Without humour life would be even more miserable, depressing and hopeless. Crying about the rapes that happen every 4 minutes will not leave any time for creating awareness, activism or change. I opt for the jokes because it allows people to express how they feel, without being overwhelmed into INaction.

    • Simon Howell

      Jokes are fine. But jokes of people that under going a traumatic experience, irrespective of who they are, deserve the space to constitute themselves, especially when their sins are as yet unproven. Perhaps I am being liberal but they deserve respect for their pain. By all means make jokes if you actually know what you are talking about, but don’t presume guilt when no one knows that. That makes you guilty, guilty of so much more than you suspect. Thats the point. So by all means, laugh, make fun of this. But when its your son or daughter, don’t get angry when the press turns against you. The people that make the biggest jokes, such as those above, will be the first to sue. And will be the first to be mocked. Especially, “Vial_Praktiss” when they don’t even have the courage to sign their name against what they write. Hide behind your anonymity. Be a coward. At least we sign our names against what we write.