24/01/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 24/01/2017 06:50 SAST

The Woman In The Bakkie Cage, And The Wrath Of Social Media

How do we deal with problems highlighted by the woman in the bakkie incident, without resorting to public shaming that was deemed to barbaric for the 1700s?


I committed myself the past holiday to try and finish as many half-read books as possible. I did not succeed since 1) there are many half-read books and 2) I stumbled upon "So you have been publicly shamed" by Jon Ronson. The book begged me to read it from start to finish, and I happily obliged.

While I don't agree with everything that Ronson writes, the book deals with high-profile public shaming, mostly on social media, from Justine Sacco who made the bad taste joke about not catching AIDS in Africa because she is white, to people maybe lesser known in South Africa that made some (serious) faux pas. And for many people (I note especially women) this led to the end of their jobs and often leaves them with PTSD and depressed.

An aside (perhaps a distraction): In his stories it was the women in particular gets death and rape threats. The men that got caught for their sexual indiscretions (the son of a Nazi SS soldier having sex with women dressed in military uniform and speaking German, for instance) or the pastor that has sex with the small-town sex worker, seem to be soon forgotten and had their lives continue normally.

But to get back to the point I want to make: in many instances, people made a mistake of whatever nature, this was swooped up by social media, and the collective ran with it. The transgressor is forever immortalised on Google (unless you hire one of those PR persons that spam the net with other news of you, so that your transgressions fade to the third page of a google search).

Ronson asked if this is the equivalent of public shaming in the 18th century, something that was later banned because it was just too cruel a punishment. He linked many of the feelings that resulted in PTSD in the attacked to shame. He writes "[w]hen we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool, the silenced were ­getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice." And shame is such a raw social emotion that it can kill.

The semi-holiday from Facebook that I took after the new year is making me love the world again because I do not witness much public shaming. I get to read the news in newspapers where it is only written about this public shaming. And so, last week on the front page of the newspaper, was the story of the man giving the pregnant woman in the back of his bakkie a lift. And on the internet, a video made by a friend of the man, where the pregnant woman seemingly telling her side of the story. And then discussions. Some of the discussion the most vicious discussions I have witnessed since my Facebook holiday.

There is a habit, especially in this country, of black workers sitting on the back of bakkie, despite it being illegal. A long history.

There are many layers to this story. Of course, the public outcry before hearing the story, is a story that needs to be unpacked in itself. But that is a discussion for another time.

The first layer is the interaction of the woman and the man. The explanation offered in the video is that the woman asked for a lift, the man agreed, and she insisted on sitting at the back because it was hot. The problematic aspects of the white woman leading the conversation and seemingly telling the story aside: one can, of course, analyse this in various ways.

There is a habit, especially in this country, of black workers sitting on the back of bakkies (despite it being illegal). A long history. For various reasons. And most of those reasons are not good. So, white people are conditioned to accept black people sitting in the back of bakkies as normal, or "how it should be", even if there is an alternative available. And here you might say "but that was her choice". And here I ask: if it was a white pregnant woman, would you have allowed her to do the same? Be honest. We should also ask the question: what if there was not space in the front, or what if the person was a black male. How would that change our opinions?

If one moves away slightly further, there is the power relationship (and agency) between the "baas" (as she calls him in the video) and the pregnant, unemployed woman. Should a man giving a pregnant woman a lift not encourage the woman to sit in the front because she is making a questionable choice, from a safety perspective? Should he not see that letting her sit in the back of a bakkie might be a dehumanising choice. Of course, it was her choice, and in the process we should also not take away her agency to make her own choices. But then, in an eschewed power relationship, one should ask whether that is really a choice, whether she in this context has agency.

There is the wider context where people are angry about this, for various deep seated reasons. Should we disregard the anger, the outraged? I think to call it manufactured outrage is horribly insensitive - people can be angry about this due to their own past experiences of similar situations. Also due to our collective history. Here Sara Baartman, who was paraded in Paris in a cage alongside rhinoceroses, springs to mind.

In the South African societal context, this points out other problems. Firstly, that people in especially rural areas are forever dependent on (private) people providing services like lifts to towns to get to a clinic. These are services that she should receive from the state, that would have prevented this whole thing from happening in the first place. Secondly, we have still some deeply engrained inequalities. In the video, it seems like the white woman is desperate to absolve the man from his deeds because he meant well. Of course, he might have meant well, but that does not make the story any less problematic. He still did what he did, however well meant, because he did not regard the woman as his equal.

Is it possible to shame the conduct of the individual, to shame the practice and the inequality, to inform a person that what they did was wrong, without shaming the person so publicly and viciously in a way that was banned in the 18th century already?

The inequality of the situation is so deeply entrenched that good intentions seems to be an acceptable way of ignoring the problematic aspects. In the same vein, the woman refers to the man as "baas", because she also did not regard them as equals. And this is where Biko's words ring: "[s]o as a prelude, whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior." Will we ever get there, and how?

All this leaves me with more questions: Is it possible to shame the conduct of the individual, to shame the practice and the inequality, to inform a person that what they did was wrong, without shaming the person so publicly and viciously (he received death threats) in a way that was banned in the 18th century already?

How do we have these conversations about problematic conduct without ousting people so viciously on social media that the gap for dialogue closes? That our outrage silence people to stay in the collective effort to move forward in this country? (I believe in peaceful ways to bring about meaningful social change). How do we have conversations about this, that prevents further polarisation because nuances are lost? Because we dehumanise people who make mistakes, however big, with our viciousness? How do we have conversations with people that think differently about this incident? After all we are all different, and we are informed by out different experiences.

The last page of Ronson's book keeps on playing in my mind when I see incidents like this in the new papers (and then on social media). A friend of his said that the social media is "a giant echo-chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing".

That is perhaps the prison we create for ourselves when we have these conversations on Facebook and social media: we either hear our thoughts echoed, or we hear the total opposite opinion and we take up arms to fight. To prove wrong. To shoot down. The conversations are becoming less nuanced.

This story is not straightforward, there are so many complexities on so many levels. Ignoring the complexities in our social media conversations does not bode well for any hope for peaceful social transformation.