Looking at the picture of the two young students from Tuks, one of the things I would like to know is: Does that paint not itch? Sweat and a thick coat of paint, they surely are strange bedfellows. Nevertheless, it seems that even the green Sunlight block of soap will not wash this paint away; it will become a permanent cultural marker.
One of the more remarkable things about this picture, is the room wherein it was taken. There is the matric dance type photo above the left arm of the student on the left. There are the neatly organised files by her legs and the rather tidy desk above that. The car keys hanging on the bookshelf, which itself is a study in being orderly. The floor looks clean. There is a mat, which many students bring from home to decorate their rooms and use as a buffer against the winter cold. There is the poster, of the airy-fairy aphorism type, with the words “be honest, be kind”. Very ordinary stuff. The room is the type of ordinary room that one would expect from ordinary young women. In fact it is remarkable how banal, unremarkable and downright ordinary this room is.
It is this property of being ordinary that I find to be one of the most important things in this racist incident.
Public discourse in South Africa, and more so that of race, is often grounded on exceptionalism. We say, for example, that South Africa had the most oppressive racist system in apartheid. South Africa has the most unequal society in the world. South Africa is the most violent place on this planet. South Africa is the most XYZ. Given this tendency for exceptionalism, it seems natural that we should expect the agents causing these “most XYZ” phenomena to be exceptional if not horrendous people. That these agents must be the most depraved individuals whose singular evil is self-evidently evinced in warts on their faces. Unfortunately, our obsession with singular evil, which has no redeeming features, is terribly misguided. Our need for “prime-evil” to bear the brunt of our daily happenings is a cop-out.
The people who commit and perpetuate offence are often just ordinary people, no different from you and me. For the most part these people are not some irredeemably evil individuals. It is not men riding horses (and falling off them), wearing brown uniforms bearing swastikas on their arms, but simply ordinary people.
We should appreciate that this sense of exceptionalism, that we ordinary people have in so far as thinking that we are above causing offence, is just foolish. This sense that being ordinary immunises one from causing offence. This narrative that the only people that cause offence are those irrepressible and self-evident racists who sermonise about their promised Orania. This notion that the institutional cultures that perpetuate exclusion are upheld by monsters and not ordinary people.
For the most part it is just ordinary people who cause offence. This for me is why it is truly remarkable how ordinary these two young women are.
The second thing that is peculiar in this situation is how it breaks the gendered attribution of agency in how we normally construct the narrative of oppression. Often when racist incidents occur in this country, it is the young male that is the perpetrator. When the narrative of oppression is told, it is the men that are the agents. At no point are white women ever portrayed as having had agency in this history of oppression. It is as though they are docile beings that just sit at home, crochet and tend to the affairs of family.
For me these two young women are saying (loudly in fact) that: Hey what about us? We too can think. We too can make choices. We too are capable of causing racist offence. They are loudly saying that offence is not made in his image. So in addition to how ordinary they are, the other remarkable thing is that they are women.
Surely people are just overreacting right? Make no mistake this depiction is racist. The pillows used to depict a big bum make it undoubtedly so. The racism becomes clear when we ask the question: Why is a big bum funny? I mean why? What assumptions buttress the humour intended in this situation? The underlying assumption here is that there is something laughable about black women’s bodies. That their bodies are not deserving of acceptance and dignity but instead must be objects of derision. This is weaponised humour. The very same ammunition used against the Hottentot Venus is now being marshalled by this Tuks Venus.
These students, ordinary as they seem, regardless of the notion that they might have had no racist motive, their intention was racist to the core. It is precisely an intention that seeks to normalise the ridicule of others based on race that renders the conscious motives of the students irrelevant. In other words, in this case, it is not the why that makes it racist but the what. This distinction is something that is lost on people, to this day, who continue to perpetuate cultures of exclusion in our institutions and organisations. The what, not the why.
South Africa is a country of many extremes, a remarkable country. But we should come to understand that it is often the unremarkable, ordinary people that are the foot soldiers of causing offence. And this ordinary character is, for me, the face of offence in this country.