The checklist of things that happen EVERY Dezemba just keeps growing. The annual ritual of Capetonians complaining about Joburgers. Durbanites complaining about Vaalies. Carnage on our roads. Eastern Cape people telling everyone and their dog about 'going home' as if those from other provinces all stay up north. Daytime drinking. Iculo elihlukanisa unyaka oKhozini. And now we can add one more truly South African tradition to the list: someone will invariably say something appallingly racist about the crowded beachfronts.
In the first week of 2016, we made Penny Sparrow regret ever signing up to Facebook. And now yet again, it looks like we have an early December candidate is some Ben Sasonof bloke. (If you, like me, would rather not dip your precious eyes into the cesspool of everyday racism, he calls a black person a monkey. Yeah. Never gets old, for some reason.)
But why Dezemba though, you ask? Why do people choose this most hallowed and joyful of times to express whatever racist nonsense is on their hearts? A tweet from Eyewitness News summed up this sentiment crisply:
This is quite a popular notion amongst a section within the commentariat class. Racism is an 'event', you see. It's a 'thing' that happens, and then stops when enough people sign an online petition, or something. Racism is just grandma's bad comment at the dinner table, or Oom Frikkie's off-colour about 'them' when we're braaing and he's onto his third brandy and coke... This distancing of racism is then usually followed by the toe-curlingly poor Straw Man retort: "Well most South Africans, blue, black, yellow, green, whatever, just want to get along..."
That "racism is here again" rhetoric is also why we fail to discuss racism as a structural/ever present thing. It "stops" and "starts" pic.twitter.com/SSQJKmbFmG— Gugulethu Mhlungu (@GugsM) December 19, 2016
Look, I hate to be the person who points out the poo floating in the pudding, I truly do, but this saccharine sentiment is not an argument. It is a deflecting strategy to make people stop talking about something that makes you profoundly uncomfortable. Racism isn't just a feeling. It is a power structure. Racism shouldn't and cannot be reduced to a personal failing, something decent and upright people couldn't possibly be guilty of. (Not even neo-Nazis want to be labelled racist nowadays, FFS.) It is a structural set-up in society that skews advantages (such as social and economic power, access to opportunities, the ability to save and leave something to one's children, and so on) and disadvantages along racial lines. That structure is how you end up, more than two decades after the collapse of apartheid, with white people out-earning black people by more than six times, for example. These things happen by design.
Ke Dezemba guys. Can we agree there will be beach racism and not act surprised by it?— Sisonke Msimang (@Sisonkemsimang) December 19, 2016
So no, racism isn't some aquatic monster that rears its head out of the water every Dezemba to upset everyone on their holidays. Racism is a structure that exists all year round, and examples of it happen all of the time. (Maybe if you believed your black colleagues every time they complained about it, you wouldn't be so surprised by Penny Sparrow, eh?) We only happen to notice it more during this time because more people are daytime drinking and browsing through their Facebook, most likely in an attempt to distract themselves from the presence of some insufferable family member. We're literally all lounging in our deck chairs, just waiting for Penny to say something. And we're in the sauce, too. We're going to get angry.
The spark for these racist outbursts is very revealing of the power structure of racism too. Why are the complaints always centered around the beach? What is it about the beachfront that provokes this fury?
It isn't the fact that the popular beaches get full around the holidays. This literally happens all over the world.
No, certain white people still find the notion of their pristine beaches being trampled underfoot by a crowd of black people noxious thanks to petty apartheid. Thanks to 'whites only' beaches and the notion that this kind of leisure only rightly belongs to the dominant racial caste, not the overall-wearing 'help'. The very language of blacks and 'belonging' on the beach is an attempt to reinforce this social hierarchy even after it has been ended on the political scene. (This is why even your 'concerned' Facebook post about crowded beaches that conveniently only get posted around Christmas and New Year's are going to get you called a racist. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
So ja, I wish I had good news for you for the holidays. Structural racism persists, Penny Sparrow is not an anomaly (even though most South Africans really do just want to get along) and come Dezemba 2017, we'll be drinking and driving, we'll annoy the hell out of coastal people by walking into their restaurants barefoot, your Eastern Cape friends will Instagram the hell out of their journey like you aren't doing the exact same damn thing, and a white person will stupidly inform the whole world how upset it makes them when 'they' come and dirty 'our' beaches.
C'est la vie here in the beloved country.