A response to Mngxitama

The Mail&Guardian of November 5 carried an opinion column by Andile Mngxitama which described Gareth Cliff as “the face of white supremacy“. Racism and other forms of prejudice are clear threats to a free society, and the FSI therefore notes with concern the racist tone and content of Mngxitama’s analysis. Pasted below is the original text of a submission to the Mail&Guardian in response to Mngxitama, published on November 12 under the title “White supremacy rant against Gareth Cliff sullies rational political debate“.

Gareth Cliff is perhaps the poster boy for a certain form of smugness, and for a television production that many might find to be aurally offensive. He might even be a racist. But no evidence that I am aware of shows this to be the case. By contrast, we do now have clear evidence of the racist views held by Andile Mngxitama.

In last week’s Body Language, Mngxitama asserts that Gareth Cliff has “normalised white supremacy” – a feat apparently achieved via his open letter to the letter to the government gaining sufficient traction that he was invited to a presidential lunch.

The key – and only – virtue of Mngxitama’s argument is that it is completely unfalsifiabe. Nothing I can say will therefore refute it, but it’s nevertheless worth pointing out how easy this style of argument is, and how little value it adds to rational discourse. We are told that Cliff is not a “conscious racist”, in other words that nothing Cliff could possibly say would persuade Mngxitama that his analysis is false. We are informed that what might appear (to someone less tuned-in to reality than Mngxitama, perhaps) to be “humanist concerns for good governance” are in fact evidence for Cliff’s racism.

But I’ve of course already fallen into one of Mngxitama’s cunning rhetorical snares by using the word “we” in the paragraph above. This word (when used by Cliff, and probably by other white men like myself), is in itself racist because it erases the “differential realities of blacks and whites”. One cannot speak of a reality one does not live in, according to Mngxitima’s argument, and “blackness” in itself defines a reality, whether we’re talking about Tokyo Sexwale or a township-dweller with no education. They are the same, and Cliff has a slave-holder’s mentality with respect to both of them.

We’re told that Cliff’s Twitter comment on Manto Tshabalala-Msimang deploys a sinister tactic involving “the truth” in a “brutal, racist attack”. But Cliff’s tweet does not mention race – it mentions incompetence and selfishness, which are character traits that many of all races saw exemplified in her behaviour. If Cliff were to say the same about Idi Amin, would that also be racist? Can whites offer no judgements whatsoever regarding non-whites?

If so, just how are we to carve up this world in which Mngxitima would have us live? As far as I know, Cliff makes far more money than me – does he not then fall outside my realm of competent judgement? Or perhaps I cannot make sense of Cliff because he lives in Johannesburg, and I live in Cape Town? Or is the claim the more atomistic one, namely that black understands black, and white understands white? The apparently impermeable boundaries between these poorly-specified categories present serious obstacles to communication in any form, and I’m therefore rather surprised that so many of us seem to muddle along, making sense of each other’s noises.

Of course, Mngxitima’s argument relies on something called “anti-racist decoding”. I regret that I’ve never drunk as deeply from the well of postmodernism as Mngxitima has, because this decoding appears to fall outside of my sphere of competence, leaving me with only the suspicion that he’s talking complete bullocks.

It’s certainly true that there are “differential realities”, and that many South Africans might be incapable and/or unwilling to understand the realities of someone else’s life. It’s also true that many of these breakdowns of understanding are manifested in race, seeing as race is still our best proxy for class difference, with class difference being the true cause of such mutual misunderstanding.

But these differential realities do not preclude communication or understanding across racial lines, nor do they preclude the possibility that when Cliff says “we”, he actually means “all South Africans”. He could perhaps be fully aware of the historical reasons why whites are (generally) richer than blacks, and the exploitation that this inequality is premised on. But he could also be concerned about exploitation in general, and have a sincere commitment to playing some kind of part in ensuring that this country doesn’t fall victim to other forms of the same social disease.

It happens to be the case that the majority of leaders in Africa’s history have been black, and it happens to be the case that the same is true in the current South Africa. This is as one would expect, given the demographics of the continent. So, if there is a chance of corruption or a culture of tenderpreneurship having a negative impact on South Africa, it stands to reason that Cliff – or any of us – would usually end up criticising someone who happens to be black.

In fact, this is exactly what Zwelinzima Vavi has been doing a fair amount of recently, but he’s of course allowed to, because he’s black. But in the context of these demographic realities, the whiteness of Gareth Cliff provides zero evidence for the criticism being motivated by the blackness of the leader, rather than by a genuine concern for the issues the letter addresses. Evidence against a sincere concern would be found in Cliff’s racist behaviour, not simply through an axiomatic premise that his opinions cannot be separated from his whiteness.

Cliff’s letter may have received undue attention, because that is the nature of the shallow pool of celebrity culture. The same is true of Mngxitama’s column, which would surely not have been published in the (usually) non-sensationalistic Mail & Guardian if not for the fact that Mngxitama is a “name”. And while celebrities may often irritate or offend in their efforts to save the world, this is an entirely separate matter from the sincerity of their desires to improve the wellbeing of both themselves and their fellow citizens.

It’s also a separate matter that black writers have been “punished for saying less harmful stuff”. If they are, then it is wrong that they are – but that says nothing about the wrongness of Cliff voicing is opinion. We can’t fix climates that might be oppressive towards free speech by placing further – and arbitrary – limitations on who is allowed to speak.

By Mngxitama’s reckoning, it appears that a) everything Cliff does is evidence of his racism, and b) nothing Cliff could do would count as evidence against this hypothesis, given the unconscious nature of Cliff’s racism. We are offered a judgement about a person (Cliff) that is prejudicial, and which does not respond to any facts, potential or otherwise, about the person in question. These judgements are also not connected to Cliff as a person, but rather to him being a white person – and this is what makes Mngxitama a racist, regardless of what the tabloids might one day tell us about Cliff.

Jacques Rousseau
Free Society Institute