Twitter and Facebook have given armchair activists access to audiences previously only reachable from standing on crates at political rallies. The newest cause for outrage has been Helen Zille wearing a doek and posing with drie-voet pots. Her pose is reminiscent of black women cooking at a wedding or funeral. The outrage is much a doek about nothing.
At the 2013 American Music Awards Katy Perry wore a Japanese kimono for the performance of her song Unconditionally. In a Wall Street Journal article Jeff Yang wrote that Perry’s performance was “harmful iconography … from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, ‘unconditional’ worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy”.
The problem many have with Perry’s performance is that she appropriated a cultural symbol in a manner that perpetuates negative stereotypes. Cultural appropriation in and of itself is not bad. Knee-jerk reactions suggesting otherwise risk turning us into unthinking individuals. If cultural appropriation were inherently bad then Robert Mugabe would have to stop wearing two-piece suits and double-cuffed shirts. If it were inherently bad then DJ Fresh would have to rid himself of his Polynesian tattoos. Cultural appropriation can enrich our lives with alternative ways of doing and seeing things.
But cultural appropriation can also go horribly wrong. This often happens when historically-skewed power relations are manifested in the act of cultural appropriation. The narrative of how power has used, both in the present and historically, certain symbols to disempower, denigrate and ridicule is why societal power relations are often central to the task of determining when cultural appropriation is appropriate.
Zille wearing a doek is cultural appropriation. Black women huddled around an open fire cooking with those big cast-iron drie-voet pots is not in any manner disempowering, derogatory or oppressive. It merely represents a gendered division of labour, albeit it that the choice of gender in this case is restricted because it is tied to biological sex. In such a context black men also have a role that often involves slaughtering an animal and erecting the tent, among other duties. The reasoning for acceptability of this case for black women also holds for whites. Zille wearing a doek and posing with pots is opportunistic but is not a case of power acting out an oppressive practice. It is rather silly to suggest that imagery associated with this often festive process is somehow ridiculing black women or perpetuating a narrow stereotype.
Secondly, people have been quick to allude to minstrels when talking about the Zille doek. Minstrels were theatre stage performances where white people painted themselves black in order to imitate black people. Minstrels (ie whites painting their faces black) are inappropriate because they perpetuate as a norm the uncommon and “negative” features of blacks. Minstrels are a calculated effort to denigrate and ridicule. They represent a lack of access for blacks — otherwise why not use black performers. They are inappropriate because they also evoke a memory of a painful and oppressive history. There is no doubt that Zille wearing a doek and posing with pots is calculated but to imply that it denigrates, ridicules and perpetuates stereotypes is a tad disingenuous.
Thirdly, the authenticity police have been quick to tell us that Zille does not look authentic and looks out of place. That is a subjective view concerning aesthetics and you are well-entitled to your view. But why is it that with Julius Malema you do not also apply the same authenticity standard when he is laying tiles in Nkandla? If Zille looks inauthentic then this should be judged by the same standard used for all other politicians.
Fourthly, the Zille doek offers a counterpoint to the beret. Both the doek and the beret are making claims for political recognition. They are presenting different visions of a society and simultaneously seeking to legitimate those claims as being in the tradition of the people. The doek is the womb; the beret is the Petri dish of consciousness. The doek is the breast; the beret is the intellectual vanguard. The doek is the woman, the builder; the beret is the militant, the male warrior. Why then should the beret be seen as a more genuine expression of political aspirations, as smart politics. Why should the doek be denied political recognition.
Penultimately, Zille wearing a doek and posing with pots presents a break with the historical narrative of power in South Africa. Here you have a white person with institutional power pandering to blacks and their cultural symbols. Here you have an upper-class, educated, white person seeking acceptance from blacks. This may make some people uncomfortable but it is a welcome development for our politics. Some say she is upsetting her DA constituency. Why is this upsetting? Politics is pandering.
Lastly, the doek presents an affront to the historical inevitability of one-way cultural assimilation in this country. The flexibility of Zille’s political style presents an alternative way forward.
There is nothing odious about the doek or anything reprehensible about her posing with pots. In the immortal words of Barry Roux: “I put it to you that” we should let Zille wear her doek in peace.