By Mandla Lionel Isaacs
I want to start by saying that I do not support the strand of black radicalism represented by the young brother who yelled “Fuck off whites” at the 2015 Ruth First Memorial Lecture on Monday- for ease of reference, we’ll call him FOW guy – mainly because I think this type of unfocused expression of black rage is a distraction from the real issues, and is ineffective (for reasons I’ll more fully explore in a forthcoming essay.)
I’d also like to say that I think Eusebius McKaiser, as moderator of the discussion- I was there, by the way- was entitled to silence and eject FOW guy, but for different reasons than he put forward in a wide ranging reflection a couple days afterwards. Ejecting FOW guy was defensible because he was using language and tone that was (or should be considered) inflammatory and out of bounds in a public discussion. A public discussion, particularly one on a contentious or emotive topic, needs to be conducted according to some ground rules if it is to remain an exposition and exchange of ideas, if it is not to degenerate into chaos or violence.
I would argue that one such rule is to prohibit the use of inflammatory or threatening language, which for simplicity’s sake let’s call ‘fighting words’. Quite simply, telling someone to ‘fuck off’ is in my view, fighting words. Fighting words are hard to define, but let’s define them as words which taken in cultural and situational context, are likely to so offend and provoke the recipient, that a reasonable person could anticipate they would be met with a violent response.
So he was entitled to silence FOW guy, if only because he reasonably believed that his language could cause the discussion to escalate out of control. What if his next statement was “These whites are not fucking off, let’s make them!”? What if some fellows in attendance heeded his call to chase the whites out of the room, if not into the sea? What if a white person walked up to him and said “Fuck me? No, fuck you!” and struck FOW guy? Pandemonium might have broken loose, and you will agree this would damage our social fabric considerably if you prefer, as I do, to live in a society which resolves difficult issues through public exchange of freely held and articulated ideas, rather than through individuals or groups demonstrating superior ability to inflict violence on their opponents.
So I wish McKaiser had simply defended his decision- on the night and subsequently- by saying ‘I felt I had to step in to ensure things did not get out of hand.’ Interestingly, and where I focus here, he defended his decision in at least four problematic ways: using a false dichotomy of anger vs hate; not adequately addressing the policing black anger accusation; use of a fallacious ‘Anger Olympiad’ construction; and, perhaps most importantly, by fetishising the poor and denigrating so-called black middle class intellectuals in ways I think are unhelpful and unnecessary.
By the way McKaiser is a friend whose contributions to spirited, rigorous, illuminating public discussion I greatly admire, so no shade.
The false anger/hate dichotomy
At first glance, the distinction between anger and hate seems reasonable. I mean, who would argue that a victim of injustice is allowed to be angry, or that hate speech/action motivated by hatred of a class of people is bad?
But is it really that simple? I don’t think the difference between anger and hate is as clear cut as McKaiser makes out, and I certainly don’t think people with the power to determine acceptable speech, should be in the business of dismissing irate victims of injustice such as FOW guy as hateful.
In the context of ongoing oppression, anger and hatred are too similar, and the line between them too blurry, to serve your conceptual purpose.
McKaiser says his forthcoming book will argue the “moral and instrumental value” of anger. Presumably, he accepts that a victim of injustice, such as we blacks who have endured at least 500 years of consistent, breathtakingly comprehensive violence at the hands of international whiteness (an apt term taken from the lecture) are morally entitled, indeed compelled, to be angry about this- could we be truly conscious and not be angry?- and this anger is useful if it drives us to rise above our complacency and the odds against us to enact transformative change.
I would argue that this anger (acceptable to you) is not very different from hatred (unacceptable to you), specifically for a victim to feel “I hate the violence you do to me” or “I hate you so long as you are doing violence to me.” I see little enough conceptual difference between this contextual and limited hatred to dismiss anyone who appears at first glance, to ‘hate’.
I don’t mean to split conceptual hairs, but McKaiser frequently and rightly insists that we not be ahistorical in discussions on race. In the same way that whites affected by racial redress policies such as employment equity cannot defensibly say they are suffering ‘reverse racism’, so we cannot say an oppressed man telling his perceived oppressor to “f*** off” is best understood alongside the purveyors of intolerance and inhumanity who come to mind when we accuse someone of hate speech, such as ethnic cleansers, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Managing black anger?
I fully understand why McKaiser took exception to being described as “trained in the management of black slaves.” There are few worse insults a conscious black person can receive than to be called a house nigger or variation thereof, and I think it is unfair and undeserved in this case.
But personal offense aside, I think McKaiser misses the larger point here. International whiteness has always preferred to deal with those blacks who sought reform through consensus, and accommodation within the existing system, than with those who demanded radical reform, with substantive and immediate redress, by any means necessary. Thus its preference for: the ANC over the PAC, the ‘Santa Claus-ised’ Invictus Mandela over Rivonia Trial Mandela, Mamphela Ramphele over Winnie Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. over Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson over Elijah Muhammad (or even Al Sharpton for that matter), Will Smith over Tupac Shakur.
I am not arguing that one or the other above is more authentic, committed or effective. I am arguing that international whiteness has a preference for the type of blacks it deals with. It prefers those blacks which make it feel comfortable, which it feels it can more easily manipulate to agree that no fundamental change in power relations will be enacted without their consent. International whiteness uses these preferred blacks to divide and conquer.
It says, “See! Look at how reasonable and forgiving Mandela is. Be like him!” to demoralise and stigmatise as unreasonable the more radical demands of the oppressed, as it enjoys the stalemate (with facts on the ground decidedly in its favor) on the real issues of redress, equality and social justice.
So McKaiser is entitled to disagree with FOW guy’s tactics. But as a critical thinker who routinely and correctly asks whites, men and others to recognise their privilege, he should perhaps be more acknowledging of his own privilege in this case, as an empowered black with a privileged platform, and not rule a fellow oppressed brother as illegitimate.
In this context, I would argue that we should resist the temptation, however understandable, to define FOW guy outside of acceptable discourse, because only international whiteness profits from the silencing of rowdy black voices. This is, I believe, is the kernel of truth within the otherwise offensive and unfair ‘managing black slaves’ accusation.
The Anger Olympiad fallacy
Very quickly, I think the ‘Anger Olympiad’ is an unhelpful fallacy because it attacks a swathe of people for illegitimate motives the user divines- trying to gain revolutionary street cred through escalating demonstrations of anger – rather than dealing with their arguments and actions at face value, which is sort of a straw man/ad hominem hybrid. To defend themselves, the subjects of this criticism would have to prove a negative: ‘No, I’m not just saying what I’m saying to gain revolutionary street cred!’
Also, if it is unfair for McKaiser’s critics to question his motives by saying he acted the way he did not in good faith, but because he is a lackey of international whiteness- an easy to throw, hard to prove/disprove accusation- surely his similarly dismissive Anger Olympiad counter-accusation is also unfair?
Fetishising the poor?
What troubled me most in the post-lecture discussion, in the context of discussions on the class dimension of the debate, was what seemed to be McKaiser’s critical takedown of black middle class intellectuals combined with an uncritical fetishizing of the poor and working class.
To be clear, I agree with McKaiser and Osiame Molefe, race andclass, not race orclass. And I think Karima Brown nailed it when she cautioned us against two major assumptions: “The first is that middle class black folk have right to lead and speak for their working class counterparts. Moreover middle class black folk should not assume they can lead struggles against inequality.
But in his piece, and discussions on social networks since the lecture, he seemed to adopt a rather curious stance lecturing Chigumadzi and other middle class intellectuals on their class blind spots. According to McKaiser black middle class intellectuals, variously: are revolutionary poseurs (“…some new self-styled radical middle class blacks…); are blind to their complicity in the oppression of the poor and working class; do not understand the plight of the black poor; and use them as devices for intellectual discussion rather than engage them meaningfully.
Most irritatingly for those of us with twangs, he condescendingly admonishes us that “…while we pat ourselves on the back for twanging the verbal revolution, let’s not forget that the widows and orphans of Marikana are the worst off in this land of ours.” Exactly which middle class black intellectuals have forgotten that, I wonder?
Where to start?
I don’t think the middle class is complicit in the oppression of the poor and working class. Then again, I’m not a Communist, so I don’t believe history is one long class struggle which will only be resolved when all classes are subsumed into the working class. One’s political ideology and worldview matters here. I’m a social democrat. My ideal world looks more or less like Norway. I want a social compact founded on equality of opportunity, dignity and a minimum standard of living for all. I think the market should create wealth, constrained only by minimalist, smart regulation; the state should levy- and responsibly administer- whatever level of taxes is required to achieve the aforementioned aims. My ideal society is one big middle class. Thus I’m more concerned with how to enable more people to join the middle class, than fretting about how those already/barely/precariously in the middle class are better off than those currently outside it.
This claim of middle class complicity in the oppression of the poor and working class is casually bandied about in debates such as these, with no substantiation whatsoever. I call bullshit. I don’t buy it.
How exactly is the middle class complicit in oppressing poor and working class South Africans? I don’t live in a township, depriving the township economy of my disposable income, and my would-be township neighbors of my moderating middle class influence. I’m fine with that. I am more effective professionally, have more time to pursue further study and other personally and societally beneficial endeavors, because I don’t have to wake up before 5am or sit in 3-4 hours of traffic every day thanks to apartheid spatial planning. I think my people will benefit more from me advancing my career, obtaining advanced education, and positioning myself to have influence in society- which I’m determined to use to broad/collective rather than narrow/individual ends – than they will from me being a positive example in the neighborhood. (On weekends though. During the week I’ll immediately retreat into my house and collapse exhausted from my horrendous commute.)
McKaiser’s non-existent argument about middle class complicity would have been stronger if he had argued that by opting out of public services such as the police (through private security), health (through private medical aid), and education (I will send my future children to whatever school, public or private, that I think will help them become conscious Africans with the cognitive tools and knowledge to match anyone, from anywhere on the globe), we abandon the poor and working class- who are least able to demand accountability and quality services from government because they work all the time and often don’t have the required social capital- to poor quality services which trap them structurally. Though even here, these are morally complex, politically arguable choices which require nuanced analysis and debate, not hectoring.
Also, he slips in the astounding proposition that paying black tax does not mean you get black poverty! Read with his criticism of the black midde-class for weekend cameos at township chisanyamas/car washes, and it creates the impression that a black middle class intellectual who doesn’t relocate to the townships, or quit their job to become a community organizer is irretrievably hobbled by social distance. I get the point he is trying to make, but I think the critical philosophical/practical question of what is the ideal relationship between the middle class (intellectual) and the poor and working class, deserves more than glib sniping. In fact, it is partly out of fear of this type of thinking, that people feel the need to prove their revolutionary street cred in ways McKaiser thinks are distracting and unhelpful.
Also, I wish McKaiser would not presume he knows anything about what anyone has been through, just because he perceives them- or they identify- as middle class. We don’t know what people have risen out of, nor what challenges they’ve had to deal with, or are still dealing with, along our respective journeys. Drawing conclusions about what lived realities people do and don’t understand, based on assumptions about their biographies, is inaccurate and unhelpful.
Karima’s point above best outlined how middle class intellectuals should really think about class in the struggle. The only thing I would add, is that we all caution ourselves from making the opposite mistake and thinking that level of disadvantage suffered, on its own, qualifies one to lead the movement. Besides the fact that all our suffering matters, and it is unhelpful to engage in a Suffering Olympiad, that cannot be the only criteria on which we should select leaders of the movement. Mandela, Sobukwe, Biko, Mugabe, Sankara, Lumumba, Machel were not relevant because they suffered more than everyone else. They were relevant for a variety of reasons, perhaps chiefly that they offered compelling visions of a better society which the vast majority of their compatriots could buy into, they demonstrated commitment to the struggle for liberation and collective advancement, and they deployed their leadership skills and talents creatively and effectively. Whether a leader is transformational or a dud has little to do with whether they went to Roedean or Khayelitsha High.
And the poor and working class are equally capable of being wrong about things. Many of our teachers are complicit in the biggest injustice currently being inflicted in our country: the non/under-education of black children. I would also argue that our economic development is held back by, among other things, our low productivity, a fact the working class aristocracy- in other words, the trade unions- need to answer for.
Also, there’s FOW guy again. I won’t do what I’ve asked McKaiser not to do, and make assumptions about his biography, but I bet R10 (to be given to charity of course) on two things: he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and he is not a Rhodes Scholar. So, perhaps a better way for us to think about FOW guy is not that he is hateful, but rather that he has not enjoyed all those class advantages which McKaiser and I have had- and which McKaiser insists we remain conscious of as black middle class intellectuals – which enable us to express ourselves more effectively?
McKaiser is right, we the oppressed should not be so hard on one another, but it goes both ways. We are free to question the effectiveness of our oppressed fellow’s choice to express rage, but I think we are wrong to ostracise and dismiss him as ‘hateful’ and therefore illegitimate.
I spent more time on this than I would have liked to, but I felt important issues were raised in the aftermath of what was an excellent and relevant Ruth First Memorial Lecture. I now turn my cognitive guns back to the enemy: structural racism, inequality and injustice.
Kudos to Panashe Chigumadzi, Sisonke Msimang, Lebo Mashile, Eusebius McKaiser and the Ruth First Lecture panel for a great, insightful and thought-provoking lecture. Kudos to McKaiser for, as always, keeping critical discussions going.
Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a public servant, he writes in his personal capacity. He blogs at and tweets at @lionofjozi