In my previous article on the #FeesMustFall protests I made the point that a hierarchy of legitimacy was being entrenched in having the state publicly respond to political claims originating from historically white institutions and not when they originate from historically black universities (HBU). These claims, which the HBUs have for the past couple of years being tirelessly voicing, have the same substantive roots as those being hashtagged in these current protests. I further argued that what we are witnessing here is a rupture in SA politics where the elite middle income is asserting itself as a legitimate public-self in public politics.
In following the TV coverage of the protests last week the one thing which was a curiosity to me were the accents of the student leadership. Just on a qualitative perspective the student leaders at these historically white institutions had what I would call model-C and/or private school accents. This is a sharp departure from the vernacular accents which one comes to associate annually with protests at HBUs.
The accent with which one speaks English is no trifling matter in SA. A model-C accent speaks of a schooled experience. It speaks of a familiarity with white culture. It speaks of an acquaintance with certain cultural symbols. A model-C accent speaks of the ease with which an investment bank would hire you to join their corporate finance team (all in the name of culture fit). Or how easily a law firm would see you as competent to be inducted in as an associate. A model-C accent serves as a gate keeper when at the Louis Vuitton shop in Sandton City, the sales person is not sure about you. It serves as a marker of those with whom one can reason. An accent facilitates empathy from Twitter users who see projections of themselves in you and therefore see legitimacy in your demands. An accent serves as a visa to opportunity but also a passport boldly asserting your origins. That is to say, a model-C accent is a passport asserting you one of the coconut bourgeoisie.
On the other hand when someone speaks with a vernacular accent they are often seen as being in a rude state of refinement. A vernacular accent is the voice of unreason. It is the accent which comedians and intelligentsia alike mimic when they want to personify someone driven by base desires absent of any reason, absent of rational strategy. A vernacular accent is associated with those guys that burn things. Those guys that cannot articulate their concerns but have to resort to violence. Those guys who cannot enunciate English to some snobbish satisfaction.
These differences in accents are superfluous much like biological differences in race are. However it is how people interpret them and give meaning to them that makes them so problematic. It is problematic when the coconut bourgeoisie starts exoticising the rage and anger of HBU students as unreason. It is problematic when the coconut bourgeoisie in an act of self-centred empathy only want to acknowledge the systemic basis of their bourgeoisie rage but not extend the same courtesy to students from HBUs. It is problematic when the coconut bourgeoisie do not see that the rage of HBU has the same seeds as their rage. It is problematic when companies do not even look at the CVs of students from HBU but only from the likes of University of Cape Town and Rhodes. It is problematic when a government entrenches a hierarchy of legitimacy by reacting to grievances from historically white universities. It is problematic when something that was so superfluous gets given meaning beyond its original scope.
Day in, day out, Twitterati are waging twars against whiteness yet paradoxically affirm it in their being. They affirm it in their self-centred empathy. They affirm it in their veneration. SA is in the process of birthing multiple public-selves that are each making legitimate claims on the state. It would be a tragedy for such public-selves to find basis on superfluous differences.