Renouncing the Rhino

My beef with rhinos is more of a beef with white South Africa as a whole, who are all for saving rhinos but largely silent about inequality, poverty and institutional racism.

The Rhino Red Nose.

I used to like Rhinos, I never loved them, but I thought they were pretty cool. I once even saw a couple in the wild with my parents in Kruger National Park. Sadly, like so many other things, rhinos have been ruined for me. I can’t like them anymore. I don’t dislike them personally, but I hate what they have come to represent. Don’t get me wrong — rhinos are blameless in this scenario. Rhinos can’t help that their horns are a valuable commodity with a high demand in parts of Asia and they live near lots of desperate people or that some rich Americans like to travel to the dark continent to kill things.

My beef with rhinos is more of a beef with white South Africa as a whole (yes I know I’m a white South African). What gets to me is the Sandton, Constantia or “insert fortress suburb of your choice” housewives in their oversized SUVs, who listen to Freshlyground (’cause they aren’t racist) and shop at Woolworths, when they venture out of their gated communities and who now place red plastic horns on the bonnet to show their solidarity with the rhinos. Dubbed the “Rhinose,” these horns are even made of recycled goods and fit right in with your Eco-friendly Golf estate and fair trade coffee.

Also to blame are the trance ‘hippies’ who claim to be progressive — some even call themselves anarchists — and who are into the whole new age pacifist scene, but yet regularly call for the deaths of rhino poachers. Or the same people who clog my Facebook wall with calls to save the rhinos and send me hundreds of different Avaaz petitions.

What all of these different social groupings have in common, besides being mostly white, is that while they have endless time for the rhino they have little or nothing to say about contemporary South Africa. Little or nothing, beyond the normal white persecution complex which endures in the form of calls for Woolworths’ boycott or calling Black Economic Empowerment (or the University of Cape Town) entrance requirement “reverse apartheid.”

When the state gunned down 34 miners at Marikana for asking for a living wage, they were silent. Hell, I saw plenty of people suggest that they had it coming because they were ‘unskilled’ and uneducated. I’ve seen far more of these plastic horns than say “Justice for Marikana” stickers on cars. No Facebook likes or Avaaz petitions, even.

When farm workers in the Western Cape went on strike for a minimum wage of R150 a day ($20) they were silent again. They are largely silent about inequality, poverty and institutional racism. In a country in which unemployment hovers around 40% overall, around half of the country lives below the poverty line and we can boast of being the second most unequal society in the world after Namibia.

It’s kind of hard to miss social realities in such an environment.

This is a country in which the game was and largely continues to be rigged in favor of white people, who still continue to deny they benefited and continue to benefit from Apartheid. How many white South Africans actually admit to having voted for the National Party (they ruled South Africa between 1948 and 1994)? This is a country where you have to be intentionally ignorant to deny the reality of racial inequality; one has to ignore the millions living in shacks or the sheer extent of desperation in a country where people are prepared to die for R150 a day.

Maybe I’m just anthropecentric, but where was this voice of the moneyed middle class when the state committed the worst act of mass violence since Apartheid? Also, where were they when video of community activist Andries Tatane was broadcast on the evening news, or when Western Cape Premier Helen Zille ordered local police to invade Hangberg? I know. I saw far more sorrow and anger over the Rhino issue.

At my Alma Mater, Rhodes University, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, there was not one public meeting in the aftermath of the massacre, but I can recall numerous campaigns to save the Rhino and at least one mural put up on a wall outside the library. Ironically, the same people — who when you can eventually get them to talk about politics endlessly bemoan the corruption and incompetence of our current government — reflexively sympathize with the state when it illegally breaks up protests or shoots poor black people. But at least they speak up for the voiceless rhinos and even buy the rhino friendly bags from Woolworths (yes these exist too).

For these reasons, I hate rhinos, they symbolize the sheer disjuncture between white South Africans of fortress suburbia and the struggles of a country still attempting to realize some measure of social justice for the vast majority. For me, it shows that for the majority of white South Africa, black life still means very little — if anything at all. Animals for them are more important than human life.

It seems like far more outrage was expressed over a T-shirt containing the words “I benefited from apartheid” than over the fact that people are earning R69 a day in the farms or that millions of black children go bed hungry in shacks every night. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but I’m not indulging in hyperbole when I say that I’m not being unfair to the majority.

I’m not renouncing the rhino because I want to claim the moral high ground or because the plastic rhino horns look like dildos or because I want to maintain a measure of dignity. I’m doing it because I refuse to be complicit in apolitical narcissism that still prevails amongst white South Africans. Rhino politics, if it’s not matched with the same focus on humans, belongs in the same dustbin of history — #Kony2012 replete with Jason Russell’s public masturbation included.

White South Africans probably won’t suddenly take to the streets in solidarity with striking black workers or decide to pay farm workers more than starvation wages, but I hope at least some of us can end the denial and start contributing to this country in a serious fashion. Or if not at least sign the Avaaz petition.

* Benjamin Fogel is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. He writes about politics and in his spare time listens to hip hop and rants. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.