According to all manner of South African media, it was #BlackMonday yesterday.
Although I did not wear black or pray for the lost lives of South African farmers, I could not escape the blackness of the day. It rolled over me as I scrolled through pictures of white people proudly displaying the old South African flag, a relic that fills me, a non-South African, who was not alive to witness the worst of Apartheid’s immediate violent excesses, with cold, metallic dread. It seeped through my pores, settling beneath my skin, which is where it usually lives.
The blackness is heavy and thick and ancient. It is known to me and to so many of us living and labouring in this broken place we call home. I found myself strangely paralysed in the face of this familiar pain. I don’t have any soapboxes to perch on, or any elaborate think pieces to share. All I have is grief.
And the exhausting, appalling truth that in the minds of some folks in South Africa, the violence that is commonplace and everyday for all of us, should really only affect some of us. That’s what bothers me the most about Black Monday. The violence that was the subject of the protests is not new. This particular brand of creative malevolence has been been a part of the maintenance of the South African state since its inception. But what Black Monday demonstrates is that when this violence begins to spread beyond what are considered acceptable arenas, and is visited upon bodies that are not black and poor, it becomes worthy of special attention.
I am reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on the historical circumstances that enabled the moment in which Donald Trump was elected president of the United States:
And so George Fitzhugh, a prominent 19th-century Southern pro-slavery intellectual, could in a single stroke deplore the exploitation of free whites’ labor while defending the exploitation of enslaved blacks’ labor. Fitzhugh attacked white capitalists as “cannibals,” feeding off the labor of their fellow whites. The white workers were “ ‘slaves without masters;’ the little fish, who were food for all the larger.” Fitzhugh inveighed against a “professional man” who’d “amassed a fortune” by exploiting his fellow whites. But whereas Fitzhugh imagined white workers as devoured by capital, he imagined black workers as elevated by enslavement. The slaveholder “provided for them, with almost parental affection”—even when the loafing slave “feigned to be unfit for labor.” […] Indeed, the panic of white slavery lives on in our politics today. Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums. Sympathetic op‑ed columns and articles are devoted to the plight of working-class whites when their life expectancy plummets to levels that, for blacks, society has simply accepted as normal. White slavery is sin. Nigger slavery is natural. This dynamic serves a very real purpose: the consistent awarding of grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class.
In the same way, the protests yesterday, including the slew of sympathetic social media posts, some from people I know personally and respect, carry the same offensive message. When unacceptable levels of violent crime affect white landowners, they are worthy of white protest. In fact, the landowning part of these victims’ identity was used as a tool with which to bludgeon those of use who objected to Black Monday. If we don’t care about our farmers, our economy will suffer. Never mind that these farmers are likely to have come into their land and attendant status through a history of conquest and violence. Never mind that the very fact of their economic fortune in a country where the majority of the unemployed are black is in itself party to violence. One sign seen on the back of a protester’s truck reads “No Boers, No Pap” [translation: “No Farmers, No Maize Meal”]. As if black people are pet dogs, to be trained into submission by the threat of their food being taken away.
I’m not a monster. The stories of farm attacks are horrifying. But they are not more horrifying or entirely unconnected to the rest of this country’s stories of unimaginable suffering. I wonder why it still suits so many of us to imagine that they are? I wonder why it is so hard for some who wore black yesterday to also grieve those lost at Marikana?
I took my two-year-old to a neighbourhood Halloween party earlier this evening. As I watched him run around and gleefully scavenge for sweets amongst his peers, all decked out in their ghoulish best, my heart broke. It broke because I know that these fanciful figures of evil and darkness that we call up at will once a year, on an American holiday, are nothing compared to the very real evil and darkness we live with everyday. I don’t quite know how I will explain the real darkness to him when the time comes. Maybe I’ll turn once again to Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you—but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real—when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities—they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.