Last Friday, South Africa’s leading liberal newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, ran an article about the racist abuse hurled at black members of the rugby team at Ben Vorster High, a former Afrikaans-only school for whites in Tzaneen, Limpopo. The abuse includes (present tense, because it’s possibly still going on) opposing teams and possibly fans (because the article fails to clearly give the who) calling these teenage boys “dogs” and “kaffir”, a racist slur used by whites against blacks in southern Africa.

“When their opponents in lily-white rugby teams start calling the black Ben Vorster High players “kaffirs” during matches,” went the article’s opening salvo, “their response is always the same: Just look at the scoreboard.”

Invariably the scoreboard showed that the school’s more racially representative team (9 of the first team’s starting 15 are black and mostly from poorer, working-class families) was winning. But, the article hastily points out, they don’t win “because they’re black tokens in the sport or because someone felt sorry for them”. No siree, bob. They win because they worked for it.

Gauging from reactions on Twitter – at least my feed and in the searches I did – the article was well received by white audiences. To them it was “good news”, “inspiring”, “a lovely, earthy story”, or some variation thereof. But there were grumblings of dissatisfaction and anger among black readers, myself included.

Firstly, and purely from a news perspective, it was an inexplicable editorial choice to write in the racist hecklers as an amorphous, inscrutable body of white racism, and to leave unsaid what the schools, parents and teachers were doing to make the rugby field a safer, racism-free environment. Compare this approach to some of the recent coverage and responses to racist heckling in football in Europe, or another recent racist incident in school rugby at Paarl Gimnasium, a school in the Western Cape province. The second report isn’t perfect, but it at least presents the racism not as the students’ problem, but as something that school administrators should root out. Given that school is generally a place where greater vigilance against bullying, sexism, homophobia and racism is expected of administrators, it’s strange that Mail & Guardian gave no treatment whatsoever to this aspect of the story.

The paper opted instead to present the racist abuse as though it were one of the many ordinary, immutable challenges that the average school boy faces. Even Andre Hay, the first team coach for the past 13 years, is said to tell the boys to just ignore the racist taunts and focus on the game instead. Hay is also portrayed as though he doesn’t see a role for himself, other coaches or the schools in putting an end to the racism, as any sane adult might want to do.

The other aspect to this article that I, and I suspect others, found most enraging was that it relies on the myth that South Africa is a meritocracy in order to subtly cast these boys, who are obviously talented and working hard, like many other rugby players, into the racist trope of the “exceptional Negro” — or, in this case, the “exceptional Kaffir”. This centuries-old racist trope holds that these black people here — for their intellect, sporting prowess, fortitude, willingness to work hard, accent, or any number of traits not determined by race — aren’t like these here other black people. They’re more like us white people, the trope holds. They work hard and don’t expect things to be handed to them. In a generally racialised society and in a sport with a history of racism, which race quotas are attempting to undo, apparently “controversially”, the article holds the boys up as different from the black players who “rely” on quotas to make the team. And the difference between them, the article says, boils down to how hard they work. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Django, the black boys in Ben Vorster High’s rugby teams are the one kaffir in ten thousand, according to the article’s narrative arch.

The other iffy things in the article — such as the fallacious Rainbow Nationalism blindness to race and the uninterrogated, unironic white-saviour complex of the members of the “traditional school community” who offer a “helping hand” to black students, whose parents are “mineworkers and domestic workers, or are unemployed” — punctuate what is an example of the kind of media narratives South African could really do without. And this is what the liberal press is publishing, and it was well received by much of the, dare I say, liberal white audience. Imagine what appears in the conservative press.

To be clear, Ben Vorster High, from other news reports and reports on its website (Afrikaans only), seems to be getting many things right. The school doesn’t appear to be like schools in the Free State province, where it’s said that racism is rife and a Human Rights Commission investigation is under way into the situation. That’s anyway a low standard. What really went wrong here was mostly a lack of social awareness by Mail & Guardian’s editorial team. They didn’t tackle the story with the appropriate frame of reference and they didn’t report on the aspects of the story that would have given pause to those reading it as a good-news story. This was a disservice to the school, teachers, parents and pupils of Ben Vorster High, as well as the newspaper’s readers, many of whom seem comfortable enough in their obliviousness to readily accept sunshine journalism about race in South Africa.

The story of how the most famous portrait of a young Chinua Achebe was taken
Fok Your Hood

13 thoughts on “The “exceptional” kaffirs and the love of sunshine journalism on race

  1. You can please some of the people all the time, all the people some of the time but never all the people all the time! When are people going to get that? All these isms will be with us forever no matter where one is, that’s human nature!

  2. @egteSafrican Yeah, that’s just like what people said about Apartheid, and that’s still here… oh wait. This article is not about “pleasing people”. It is about basic human rights. Not being called ‘kaffir’ is a basic human right – when are people going to get that? Unless you feel that Black people’s reaction to being called ‘kaffir’ is just a bit silly…

  3. 20 years after the end of apartheid, and so many things remain the same, which is perhaps not a surprise. At a recent colloquium on rugby (and race) at WiSER, the general observation was that there is little transformation, or rather not enough beyond tokenism, in rugby and black players, no matter how talented they were, still had an uphill battle to make into the (top) team. Why? Because (white) coaches do not trust them, and it is still very much a white culture that runs rugby, and hence ‘everything’ about the game is stacked against them. A surprise however was that the panel said that they hoped that the newly re-introduced quota system would work, and I wonder how would this work if all the rest remains the same? The general exhaustion and lack of will to deal with race and racism is depressing.

  4. Interesting point of view. The story I read focused on an exceptional school (where integration seems to be working) with exceptional achievements (winning a major rugby tournament against much bigger schools) under difficult circumstances (the pervasive racism in rugby) through unusual action (the “traditional” school community reaching out to new black pupils).
    I liked that story. It told me a lot about how SA is changing.
    Seems to me the story you wanted to read would have focused on the nature and behaviour of the racists (the perpetrators rather than the victims), and painted these boys as unexceptional, while calling out the helping white hands for this saviour complex you think they have.
    Now that story I would have had a problem with.

  5. You want to talk race in sports? Ok. I am white. And I competed in one of the blackest of sports: distance running. As a 13 yerar old I was thrown out of a team to make space for a “quota”. In the rules of a child, you cannot take my place when I beat you. How about the time the MEC of sports in Gauteng came to a prize-giving function and loudly said to the (white) children: “There are too many of you here!”. Did that make the papers? No, it made me bitter and angry that what I worked for, worked hard and bled and sweated for, was crushed by this black administrator. Now in the marketplace, how many jobs have rejected me as a candidate because of the colour of my skin? Don’t tell me about apartheid. Don’t tell me about the nightmare of sports admin. Sports administrators black and white, are only fuelling the racial hatred between the races when they CRUSH DREAMS!!

  6. Sadly TO Molefe feeds racist stereotypes.

    His Big Mistake is posting the link to the article, which I had not read.
    The article is about Ben Vorster School, which started as “a typical verkrampte Afrikaans-medium school” but has opened its doors and heart to all South Africans. The coach “sees talent, not colour”. Parents and staff assist, financially and otherwise, black kids.

    These black kids, according to the article, are not only doing well on the rugby field but academically and in other sports.

    Molefe does not spell out what more he expects from the school because, frankly, there is little more it can do (one assumes that it’s change from Afrikaans to “dual medium” is to Afrikaans and English, not Sepedi and Xitsonga).

    The racism the article mentions is from OTHER schools, not Ben Vorster, which the article makes very clear. But Mr Racist writes “Firstly, and purely from a news perspective, it was an inexplicable editorial choice to write in the racist hecklers as an amorphous, inscrutable body of white racism, and to leave unsaid what the schools, parents and teachers were doing to make the rugby field a safer, racism-free environment.” without specifying what he expects Ben Vorster school to do. Invade other schools? Refuse to play them (cut off nose to spite face)? Throw shit at them? (It’s become the currency of political discourse amongst some who think like TO).

    No-one can dispute the hurt and anger that apartheid and its “bittereinde” remnants have caused but chastising a “transformed” school like Ben Vorster says much about T.O. Molefe and little about the school.

  7. Shame dwarfking its so shit when you’re one of the 4 in every hundred white South Africans who can’t find a job, because they keep giving them to those 30 in every hundred unemployed black South Africans. Maybe you just aren’t an “exceptional white.”

  8. Its sad to know after 20 years racism still plays a big roll in our country. And this involves all race groups its not just one or the other. So when it comes to sport I am not surprised that it shows up there. I do not believe in the qouta system but I do believe in givng everyone a fair chance. I have no problem losing my place in a team if my competition is simply better then me. You can be anyone or anything but if you take my spot its because you have to be better the me not because of tye colour of your skin or who you know. You can only become the best when you face a better stronger opponent as these opponents push you to and beyond your limits. Now racism takez place on all sports fields. I have seen white rugby coaches not give a possition to a black player just because of the colour of his skin. But I have also seen black soccer coach tell white players you have no place here this is not your sport. The fact is we cant point fingers to this one and that one and only fix one area. If you want to incorporate a system then it must count on all fronts not just one or two but if we want to fix this we ALL (every single person in this country) needs to get over their little issues bout race and give fair chance to EVERYONE its the only way we are going to build this beautiful country. You deserve to have your spot if you are good becuase you are the best for that position or that spot not because you were born a specific way it makes me sick to know this does not happen. We can be the greatest sport nation in the world but untill this racial ish stops we wil be nothing great

  9. Well, if to up the game of witch hunting in South Africa is your suggestion, then we must look at the standards that are currently in place for identifying the people in our society who’s actions it seems are more socially reprehensible then the actions of your standard murderer, which I will remind you, is still doing a very effective job in our society who in turn accepts them with open arms. Not to compare any crimes or those who commit them with each other, I’ll just state that for murder for example there is a clear definition in the material law of this country along with the elements that an investigating officer has to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court to convict someone of the crime, whilst on the other hand the identification for racists are sommer informal interpretation of what someone said by an informal mob of self righteous individuals that in most cases seek offence on behalf of people who they believe are too stupid to know when they are being offended. I hate racism, but the way this problem is being attempted to get solved is not going to work, this method is what I hate more then racism itself and with good reason as it actually promotes racism in ones way of defending himself against such provocative accusations by often misguided and generally hypocritical accusations.
    My point is that I share your sentiments, but your methods have been in existence for a tiresome amount of years and it’s time to take stock and see what we’ve accomplished with these methods before we start turning up the proverbial heat.

    ps. I was fired for making racial statements at the workplace (by exclusively white people)

  10. You know i do not believe that any conversation on any social network will ever reach conclusion, became people tends to misunderstand one another. I,m a patriot, but i do believe the one who write the cheque dictate who.s on the field. I think one off the skills that the SA Sport coaches must have is maths. it’s interesting how the Springbok coach can manage to always have 3 players of coullor on the field. If you take away the qoutas then the coach will find the right motivation to leave even that 3 out off the team. If you want to do justice to the qouta then there must be more Blacks in the Springbok team then Whites. So why making a issue of the qouta,the Whites are still in an advantance position with the present qouta system. EDWARD JACKSON

  11. The time of race and shit is long gone. These ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ that hold onto it so should be sent to the DRC to fight in the front lines. ESPECIALLY IN SPORT! the best guy should make the team, as simple as that. I was in an all white school, and favoritism shunned me from the first team. It sucks. Kids and adults alike will feel that way when quotas are enforced. Leave politics out of sports. In fact, shove your politics up your arse and piss off to where someone cares about your racist views. (not meant for the writer of this article, by the way!) Here’s to a united SA. We will become a world power once more if we could only learn to work together.

Leave a Reply