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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