Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


The Problem with the Pale Male Commentariat

First appeared
Tuesday, 11 March 2014


White men love to complain. We’re very good at it. Some of us even make a living out of it; you could call us the Pale Male Commentariat. We write regular diatribes about everything that’s wrong in South Africa. Mostly they have to do with the African National Congress. Sometimes they have to do with sport.

Every now and then, however, the Caucasian stars align and the white male finds himself with nothing to moan about. The Proteas beat Australia in a test cricket match. The Lions win two Super 15 games in a row. The Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters launch their election manifestos which, irreconcilable though they may be, become a combined attack on the ruling party’s electoral majority. 

When these events coincided last month, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. Soon the Aussies would be back on top, the Lions would lose, Helen Zille and Julius Malema would both say something ridiculous. But for a brief period, this particular pale male was left without anything obvious to carp about. So I turned to the Sunday papers – or, at least, to the digital equivalent of that tradition, my Twitter timeline. And there, I’m sorry to say, in a fit of self-reflexive pique I found my latest gripe: white men.

The problem with we pale males of the South African commentariat is that, all too often, we fail to think about things from outside of our whiteness. An extreme example is that rather grumpy Oxford don, R.W. Johnson, whose lack of imaginative sympathy is such that he couldn’t understand why many people were offended when, writing about the prospect of xenophobic violence in 2010, he compared the conflict between black South Africans and black foreign nationals to that between dogs and baboons.

If it weren’t for half a millennium of Europeans denigrating Africans by referring to them in bestial terms, Johnson’s Cape mountain parable might have been a quaint, if somewhat overdetermined, allegory. But you can’t wish away history, as if you were writing in an apolitical void. Words and images carry connotations, associations that are deeply entrenched and often agonising.

I learned this lesson after jumping into the fray in the early days of the Spear episode of 2012. Writing in Business Day, I claimed that shows of anger from Gwede Mantashe et al – accusations that Brett Murray’s painting was “perpetuating the stereotype of the sexually rapacious black male” – were either misguided or opportunistic. But subsequent articles by Justice Malala and others gave me some insight into the nerve that was stabbed by The Spear.

At first Malala stood, like many contributors to opinion pages at the time, in defence of freedom of expression and artistic creativity. Then he came to realise – to remember – that “these freedoms cannot be exercised in a vacuum”. Colonialism and apartheid created “a hurt that is still not processed”. To many of the people protesting against The Spear, this pain was “raw and immediate”: “To them, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, with talk of reconciliation, are deluded dreamers.”

Fast-forward two years and it seems that the phenomenon Malala described – white insensitivity to both individual and collective black experience – hasn’t changed. Maybe I’m still guilty of it, when (for instance) I rant about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. But I’m trying to mend my ways. So I had to call out Andrew Kenny when, in a recent piece for PoliticsWeb, he asked the question: “Why don’t we use the term ‘Bantu’?”

The answer, of course, is that the word became irredeemably tainted in a South African context because of apartheid-era discourse. Kenny proposes that we shouldn’t accept this association, that to do so is a form of “mental slavery”. Isn’t “Bantu” invoked as a “clear, respectable, scientific term” by anthropologists and linguists? Isn’t it “used proudly by black people all over the rest of Africa?” Let’s accept these as valid premises (although they are contestable). Does that make it unreasonable for South Africans to reject the term?

Well, no, it doesn’t. Neuroscientists and psychologists have learned enough about the operation of the brain to dispense with the old binary categories of “rational” and “irrational” behaviour. Logic and affect inform our reasoning in equal measure; emotional responses to a word like “Bantu”, shaped by material history and cultural memory, are entirely valid.

Kenny’s project is based on his dissatisfaction with the misuse of “African” or “black African” as descriptors – a legitimate dissatisfaction. But the fact is that South Africans are all familiar with the clumsy racial categories we have inherited, irrespective of the labels we give them. Moreover, we must be pragmatic; rectifying the consequences of racial classification requires that we acknowledge these categories, if only because the apartheid state was so effective at attributing varying degrees of socio-economic status to them.

Above all, it really doesn’t help for a white South African to tell black South Africans to forget the stigma attached to the word “Bantu”. This is, ultimately, just a step away from the injunction to “Get over apartheid”.

Inescapably, it is the author’s whiteness that makes the argument inappropriate. If a black person made the same case based on lexical variations on “abantu” in different South African languages, or if Stephen Bantu Biko were alive and could relate his middle name to the Black Consciousness movement, that would be different.

The race of a speaker affects both the intended and the received meaning of an utterance. The sheer force of history makes it so, and white commentators just have to take it on the chin. (This line of thinking should not, however, be confused with the bigotry of figures like Andile Mngxitama who insist that black people cannot be racist.)


So much for the “Pale”. What about the “Male”? A couple of days after Kenny’s missive, BDLive’s Gareth van Onselen bemoaned the objectification of DA finance spokesman Tim Harris in tweets from female admirers marked by “fawning and sexual infatuation ...  reducing one of the most important spokespersons in the country to nothing more than poster material.”

Van Onselen is measured in his critique, and is careful – having identified gender justice activist Sisonke Msimang as one of the culprits, and having called her out for her hypocrisy – to affirm that he does not wish to undermine what is a “noble cause”: “one is not criticising the cause itself, just some representatives of it”. Nonetheless, while Van Onselen’s conclusion is persuasive (“many women, feminists or otherwise, have learned the bad habits of those they criticise”), it is impossible for him to make this argument without seeming to ignore the pervasive influence of third-wave feminism, and in particular sex-positive feminism. Or, for that matter, without seeming to fit into the mould of the grumpy white male. After all, isn’t there something potentially liberating in a spate of fun tweets – notably, criss-crossing racial divides – that bring any kind of attention to the parliamentary opposition’s finance portfolio?

Either way, history works against Van Onselen no less than it does against Kenny. Female objectification of males may be irksome, but it doesn’t have a patch on the long, global story of misogyny and patriarchy – as a consequence of which, men cannot help but occupy what philosopher Samantha Vice (writing about whiteness in South Africa) has called “a morally compromised position” in debates about objectification.

I am not suggesting that white men should stop complaining. Complaint is important; it is a necessary democratic habit. But its purview is constrained by the demographic of the complainer. A few years ago, Vice’s paper sparked debate by advocating that white South Africans should “cultivate humility and silence”. The Pale Male Commentariat shouldn’t be silent – but perhaps we can be more humble. 



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