14 Million Problems and Mani is Only One

Or is that 800,000 problems?

That’s more or less the amount of money that infamous Walter Sisulu University student, Sibongile Mani, spent of the millions that were mistakenly deposited into her account by some hapless financial firm entrusted with the management of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds on behalf of her school.

Much internet ink has been spilt about this expensive and egregious saga. Some of us are sure we’d never be so presumptuous as to the spend the money. Others are pretty sure we’d spend it differently.

Putting aside for one moment the absurdity of the amount of money spent in such a short period; forgetting that this was done in this age #FeesMustFall, when Mani’s own classmates bear the brunt of continued economic disparity; whistling past the insanity of outsourced financial (mis)management when higher education institutions are supposedly austere. Stuffing all that in our already bursting national cupboard of skeletons for one moment, let’s consider the way in which this story has been covered.

Much has been made of the weaves, the whiskey, the clothes. The clickbait headlines and lines almost write themselves: “It was party, party, party for Miss ManiBags – followed by a big hangover” proclaims one. “iPhones, weaves, whiskey: How ‘millionaire’ student spent R818,000 in 73 days,” screams the header of another piece that – disappointingly – gives scant detail as to how the money was actually spent.  And most recently and appallingly, “From weaves to tears: R14m student getting therapy after spending spree”. Whilst noone can defend Sibongile Mani’s actions, one can object to the tenor and tone of our conversation. From the unauthorised use of Mani’s Facebook photos, to the breathless Beyoncé comparisons (I kid you not), to the endless chronicling of the booze and the weaves, the coverage smacks of the way in which the body politic treats black women as if we are public property.

Melissa Harris-Perry's Sister Citizen
Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen

Our consumption of anything from media to alcohol, our hair and the way in which we choose to wear it, our responses to the pressure of living under constant scrutiny are all up for grabs in this crooked room the world has built for us.  American academic, Melissa Harris-Perry, describes the effects of the stereotypes through which black women must forge and express their selves:

When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. It may be surprising that some gyrate half-naked in degrading hip-hop videos that reinforce the image of black women’s lewdness. It may be shocking that some black women actors seem willing to embody the historically degrading image of Mammy by accepting movie roles where they are cast as the nurturing caretakers of white women and children. It may seem inexplicable that a respected black woman educator would stamp her foot, jab her finger in a black man’s face, and scream while trying to make a point on national television, thereby reconfirming the notion that black women are irrationally angry. To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.

The story of Sibongile Mani is interesting enough. But the story of the story, the giddy, breathless manner in which the salacious details are picked apart by the media is what we ought to pay attention to. What does it tell us about our image of black womanhood and its relation to consumption? And what narrative does the endless repetitive mention of the weaves serve? What morality tale is being written onto this woman’s head, and what role does she, as one who does not wear her hair ‘natural’, play? And, finally, how and what do these public scripts of black womanhood communicate to women like Sibongile Mani, from their girlhood? In other words, the uncomfortable truth of it all is that, as much as we would have spent or not spent the money, Sibongile Mani is a product of us, of this society and the particular spaces we create for black women. Recognising that uncomfortable truth doesn’t change the material facts, all 14 million of them. But it does force us to look inward and quit pretending that this is the story of a single errant young black woman, obsessed with whiskey and weaves.

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