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Facebook Racism, And Animal Slaughter, In Suburban Melville

Describing black people’s customs as a filthy menace to public health is not a dispassionate observation: it the product of a racist ideology.

11/04/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 12/04/2017 14:13 SAST
ODD ANDERSEN via Getty Images
Worshippers arrives for an outdoor church service on the Melville Koppies Hill in Johannesburg on July 7, 2013. The church groups on the Koppie belong to a broader movement known as the African Independent or Initiated Churches (AICs), which have their origins in Pentecostalism, a worldwide charismatic Christian movement with roots in early 20th century America.

I am lucky enough to live in a corner of Johannesburg where, as you come down Judith Road towards Westpark Cemetery, a vista of almost unspoiled 'banketveld' opens up before you. You can leave the city by wandering into the koppies, and marvel at precolonial settlement sites, or hear the gentle chanting from all-weekend Pentecostal vigils. If you look to the west you can see the Anglican church of Christ the King rising over the badly scarred ruins of Sophiatown; to the east, "neon flowers flaunt" from the "electrical wind" of the inner city.

This Saturday past, where Beyers Naudé divides the Melville Koppies reserve, a group of men had butchered a sheep or goat and impaled the gory pieces of it on the spikes of the fence. The dismembered animal interrupted the suburban calm. The city's meat is usually seen in polystyrene under plastic wrap, cut from a refrigerated carcass by men in white aprons. Maybe this slaughter was not about food, but a ritual to erase the mark of a fatal accident from that treacherous section of road.

One resident took to the "I Love Melville" Facebook site to ask for advice: where should she report this? She had spoken to the police, but they referred her to the SPCA. Can we find proof that the animals suffered? Had by-laws been broken? Other residents weighed in. Report it to the DA counsellor, advised one. How was the rest of the carcass disposed of? The sight was 'offensive', said one; 'traumatising', said another. Had the nearby stream been polluted? It was clear: a crime had been committed. There was just a bit of debate as to which law exactly had been broken.

As a member of the community, I waded into the putrid swamp of a discussion with my neighbours. Had anyone read Richard Ballard's important paper – "Slaughter in the Suburbs" – I enquired? He convincingly argues that white opposition to traditional South African ways of dealing with ritual animal slaughter frustrates post-apartheid suburban integration. Had anyone read the actual by-law, and which provisions specifically had been infringed? I shared it, trying to be helpful. But the conviction of a hard-core few that this animal slaughter was 'unacceptable' and 'offensive' was implacable. Growing increasingly frustrated with this vocal white phalanx, I descended to some scrappy back-and-forth, and hardly covered myself in rhetorical glory.

One very effective participant, a black Fulbright scholar and Harvard PhD candidate, was condescendingly told he knows nothing about public health (in real life, this is his field) and had his achievements compared unfavourably to the qualifications of people who got their degrees "before BEE".

Luckily, it wasn't just me. Other residents, black and white, spent hours of their Sunday evening putting the butchery in its appropriate cultural context, and dealing with the objections, which were framed as appeals to law, order, and public health. One very effective participant, a black Fulbright scholar and Harvard PhD candidate, was condescendingly told he knows nothing about public health (in real life, this is his field) and had his achievements compared unfavourably to the qualifications of people who got their degrees "before BEE". And so, in a pattern repeated hourly on social media around the world, white people both inflict their racism on other people, and demand of them the dispiriting work of deconstructing it.

Steve Biko complained that white liberals (like me) spend too much time and energy convincing black people that they're not racist, instead of destroying white racism itself. We are too often stuck, in Jeanne Goosen's phrase, repeating "Ons is nie almal so nie", or "Not all white people...". But, whether I like it or not, these white people are a part of my community, my 'group'. I recognise them from my childhood: I was raised around them, they were at my birthday parties; I was taught by them, disciplined by them, and influenced enormously by their vision of the world.

So when angry black activists refuse to march in solidarity with movements that are perceived as white-led, even for a cause as urgent as removing Zuma from office, I feel they are also indicting my own failure to challenge and change my community, whether or not I march behind a different banner.

So what do I want to say to my fellow white people?

Even starting to speak to you feels pointless. What would you really respond to? What would it take for you to listen? Did you know, for example, that invoking "public health" is a time-tested strategy for urban segregation? As Keith Beavon explains in his history of Johannesburg, public health rationales supported both the early expulsion of black workers from Brickfields, and the razing of Sophiatown in the 1950s. So describing black people's customs as a filthy menace to public health is not a dispassionate observation: it the product of a racist ideology.

To those of you who claimed that seeing the meat cause you 'offense,' have you ever had to weigh your own levels of comfort against those of people whose ancestors had their traditions debased, their lands stolen, their entire way of life uprooted, and a colonial system imposed on generations of their children? A colonial system that could rule African culture 'offensive' by fiat? How would it feel if the EFF swept to power and took your land tomorrow, and told you that your suburban values were 'offensive'?

We just do not get to impose our own particular feelings about what is and what is not offensive on everybody else. Firstly: those days are gone. Secondly: what are we really offended by? Did you report your white neighbour for drying kudu biltong in his backyard? Or is it perhaps public displays of blackness that are actually at the root of your 'offense'?

We are so lucky to live in this fascinating and challenging place. But our privilege as whites is built on the oppression of blacks. So we need to show some goddamned humility.

We must work against our privilege, and not shore up our own narrow sense of what is 'clean' and what is 'inoffensive' on land we expropriated without compensation. This particular way of being white and South African is coming to an end. For those who can't adapt, the only option is finding somewhere else on this planet to thrive.