I wouldn’t be surprised if the two white South African students—Mark Burman and Ross Bartlett—who donned blackface and dressed up as “Venus and Sarena Williams” at a party at the University of Stellenbosch were sitting around a fire last week to celebrate the Heritage Day holiday. They might have even called their friends doing their gap year in London to say they should come home, because South Africa is such a lekker place to be.

This is because Burman and Bartlett (and their friend, Michael Weaver, who posted the picture on Instagram) are probably not the kind of proud virulent racists who are not embarrassed to use social media to spout their offense. To find those, hang out on the Facebook page of say the Afrikaans ‘artist’ Sune Bridges’ (the daughter of the late balladeer Bless Bridges) that for some reason Facebook has not remove yet. Rather our Blackface students are so comfortably ensconced in a privileged bubble, that the notion that their blackface might be deeply offensive did not even occur to them. (It was telling from responses to the incident that many whites, including on social media, despite all the evidence to the contrary dating back to the middle of the 19th century when it was the most popular weekend entertainment for and by whites, or blackface’s continued use in Leon Schuster’s films, insist that blackface is not a South African tradition.)

The everyday lived experience of these white students at the University of Stellenbosch (an institution of which I am an alumnus and a former staff member) would in all likelihood not be very different from those at other higher education institutions which are still grappling with transformation – as a similar recent case of blackface students at the University of Pretoria, or the racist instances at the University of the Free State attest.

But perhaps even more shocking are the attempts by readers of online news sites where the story was posted to predictably try and pass this off us innocent student fun and criticism of their actions as exaggerated political correctness. The comments also show up the nature of the online public sphere in South Africa as skewed in terms of race and class. Online news sites and social media such as News24 (or comments on Mail & Guardian stories) remain spaces where South Africans feel comfortable and safe to express their prejudices. (BTW, journalists are not oblivious to this: How to moderate these vitriolic comments was the topic of a panel discussion at the South African National Editors’ Forum or Sanef meeting in Cape Town earlier this year, and is an issue that deserves continued scrutiny and debate.)

Sometimes you have to wonder when white South Africans are going to own up to history.

Perhaps more interesting is the question why students at one of the country’s elite universities would lack either the knowledge or the sensitivity to prevent them from engaging in such offensive behaviour. The two students in the picture probably belong to the ‘Born Free’ generation of people younger than the country’s democracy itself – if they don’t know about the history of racism in the country or the offensiveness of blackface, they either never paid attention in history class at school (or it most likely never taught) or they arrived at university with an inherited view of the world that has been so ingrained, so naturalised that acts like these won’t register as wrong on their moral compass. Their half-hearted apology indicates exactly this. “There was no racial undertone to the costume”, they protested on Facebook. What exactly a ‘racial undertone’ might be to a portrayal so racial that you had to use shoe polish (or whatever) to accomplish the ‘costume’ is difficult to fathom.

It is this inherited set of attitudes and beliefs – that the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen, called Knowledge in the Blood that is the most insidious and therefore the most difficult to undo. (Some might say Jansen undermined his own work with his tendency to forgive racists at his own institution too easily.)

Individual acts of blackface such as the recent ones at the Universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch have to be condemned and the students should be held accountable beyond half-hearted ‘apologies’ only aimed at deflecting blame. But more important than bringing these individuals to book is to undo the worldviews, attitudes and ignorance that allow environments to exist within which these acts can occur in the first place. This is where a structural response becomes imperative: to think again about the political economy, the educational system and the social environment that perpetuate ignorance and individualises racism in order to sustain its own existence and avoiding demands for transformation.

It is in the interest of say, the media or the university, to deny that it has any stake in the socialisation process that brought the students to this point. The denial of racism in the public sphere has become a fine art in South Africa. Express shock, individualise the culprits and move on–in that way the structures remain intact. There will be those that will point to these incidents to say they are responses to white fears, political correctness, affirmative action, blahblahblah. Should you be tempted to engage in that discourse, please first check your facts.

The story of two grinning, smug, ignorant white students in blackface is therefore not only the story of yet another set of individuals that made asses of themselves, nor is it the story of the internet trolls that rush to their defence. It is also, and perhaps even more so a story about the lack of transformation in higher education, the continued asymmetry of power in the social domain and the political economy of social media that allow middle class, white voices to make the most noise in and about South Africa.

That old excuse of ‘We didn’t know’ (previously also heard as ‘Ons het nie geweet nie’ and ‘Wir haben es nicht gewuszt’) may be factually accurate, but it is never an ethical defence. Everywhere these words are heard, they are an indictment of structural inequalities, the domination of power over knowledge, and the failure of the moral imagination. The struggle of man against power, as Milan Kundera told us, is the struggle of memory against forgetting. It could be amended to read: The struggle of the present against the past is the struggle of understanding against not-knowing. Don’t say you didn’t know, or you didn’t mean it. That is besides the point. You were not born outside of history. Find out. Question. Change. And for those that do know, and do care – parents, teachers, lecturers, public intellectuals – the job is to keep making sure that ignorance isn’t bliss.

Further Reading

On Safari

We are not just marking the end of 2019, but also the end of a momentous, if frustrating decade for building a more humane, caring future for Africans.

Time travelin’

The Chimurenga arts collective explores the relevance of FESTAC, a near forgotten, epic black arts festival held in Nigeria in the mid-1970s, for our age.

Detritus of revolution

Nthikeng Mohlele’s novel Small Things (2013) provides a rejoinder to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), depicting a black man’s perspective on the failures of South Africa’s transition.