Friday, May 13, 2005

The Unbearable Whiteness of Cleaning

Hectic makes you smart! Before you get too excited, read Dale ‘Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation’ Peck’s excellent slash-up of Star Wars.

Anyway, while the management discuss our electrifying new format, there’s still room for us lowly hacks to spin out a bit of incendiary politix.

A few months ago, I was walking down the Durban waterfront with two similarly complexioned companions (I’m guessing my white-maleness is less than entirely concealed in these posts). A blonde surfer dude stopped us and, with conspiratorial nod and no attempt to his hide his distaste, asked if the beaches we had past were ‘all black’. Now I’m not sure how much this says about the guy’s character as a person – growing up in this country does some funny things to you. But I resented the easy assumption that we were on the same side, that we were in this thing together (whatever thing he had constructed in his head. The Durban beachfront has evolved – depending who you talk to - into a vibrant family paradise, a black wasteland, or something in between). The political manipulation of identity has a rich and varied history in South Africa. So perhaps I was offended by the sheer prosaicness of the comments, the numbingly suburban alliance of white people getting together to share their panic and indignation at the black folk. (No, I was offended because the guy was a stupid fuck.)

But things are changing. Not too long ago I noticed in one of those multi-page glossy ads those big stores use to clog up our print media (this one was for, I think, Makro or Game) models wearing the latest in that quintessential South African fashion piece, the maid’s uniform. (Is there any other outfit that so explicitly designates the wearer’s social position? But I’m getting ahead of myself). Something was different though: one of the models was a white woman (a white man may have transgressed people’s sensibilities just a little too much). Never mind that this was a glib gesture of social responsibility by cynical ad people (I’m just bitter because they won’t give me money), this profound little moment in SA cultural history should not have passed unnoticed.

But why should this image be so arresting? A lot has changed over the last ten years. The distribution of wealth is shifting (markedly, if painfully slowly). The trappings of upward mobility attach themselves to all sections of the population. The demotion of the formerly privileged (the perceived flipside of promoting the ‘previously disadvantaged’) is similarly an unremarkable, if not a necessary, phenomenon.

Look closer at the composition of the outfit. Two features stand out. First – at least in the caricature of the popular imagination (a la Madam & Eve), complete with oversized apron, full-length domestic overall and headscarf –is the effect of exaggerated utility. What the hell are domestic workers made to do? (Vacuuming at nine, dusting with active uranium at ten…) The point is that the outfits are clearly and specifically for work. There is no risk that the wearer be mistaken for an ordinary member of the household. (You have to be careful when you take these people into your home, you know.) The wearer is marked out as employee, there to serve. She may spend her time in your home, probably she lives there (sort of), but she at least bears the insignia of service. Maybe that will halt her assimilation into the home. And the uniform is not neutral. The wearer is not broadly placed as some provider of service, a commissioned broker of goods. She is not your doctor or your lawyer. See the apron, the prominent feather duster: she carries the ignoble gear of manual labour; she cleans my oven and dusts my shelves. Strilli Oppenheimer is teaching her gardeners tai chi, but she might do better to give them pin-stripe suits.

The uniform is loaded with another significance. The white lady seemed out of place because we are unused to seeing white people in marginal employment. But let’s not exaggerate this claim. As noted, the economy is changing, and it is a dubious facility to be alarmed or especially surprised at the sight of a white beggar or a black person driving a Mercedes. (With reference, of course, to race. Perhaps you are alarmed at the sight of anyone performing either of these activities.) And there never was anything specifically unusual about the sight of anyone brandishing items of genuine utility. Looking at images of a white guy wearing hardhat/welding goggles/surgical gloves is unlikely to produce any great astonishment. Neither is a more affected uniform certain to be notable. An image of a white woman in a French Maid’s outfit may be provocative, but not for reasons considered here. Rather, the South African maids outfit denotes, or is that is too strong a quality, is closely associated with, ‘Africanicity’ or simply with Africans. For the sake of this post, I had hoped for an easy correlation – long overall denotes Venda blanket, doek in imitation of Xhosa headdress – but this seems unlikely. In fact, I’m unconvinced that there is any obvious connection. But there does seem something intentionally agricultural, perhaps ‘primitive’, in the get up. As if the maid has been plucked from a tribal village, her dress pleasantly civilized, and given respectable employment in a respectable home. Perhaps this is a little excessive. But it is undeniable that to most people (of all races) the maid’s uniform is something naturally associated with Africans (read: with black people). In fact, my notion that there might be some hidden link between ethnic and domestic dress might derive from little more than this deeply ingrained association. Perhaps the outfit is not modelled on the traditional but, like in the eighties burning tyre was to flaming spear, has been acculturated into the indigenous. (Traditional African artefacts: beads, Moropa, Omo.)

One of Apartheid’s more despicable achievements was the distortion of identity. Note that the effect of the maid’s outfit was not merely to mark out the black person as submissive, but also to mark out the submissive person as black. It’s unlikely there was a conscious effort to create the image of African woman fulfilling her traditional duty through cleaning Madam’s house. But this is what inevitably emerged from a culture in which the link between servitude and race was constantly emphasised. Or rather, poverty and servitude were artfully pushed out of the picture. Your role, your social function, was not simply affected by your race – it was overwhelmed by racial considerations to the point where other considerations of self were clouded over. If you were black and exploited, you fought for the liberation of black people. A white drudge with an abusive boss lobbied for more unity within the volk. Apartheid’s supreme accomplishment was to blur the natural divisions of class, replacing them the fault lines of race.

It is a shame to see the present government exploiting these false alliances. Because of our history, the vocabulary of race is legitimate and indispensable. Reforming distortions of the kind that exist here requires clear reference to the racial composition of society, and remedial action based on these terms of reference. And it is necessary to identify and categorise individuals in terms of race if the previous travesties of category are to be corrected (i.e. racial distinction is, in terms of the corrective action we must take, at least as real as it was previously made to be). Affirmative action is not only defensible, it is vital. At the face of it then, ‘Black Empowerment’ seems like a noble and legitimate gesture. But it is a sham. Government’s much-vaunted ‘sound macroeconomic principles’ are well and good if you happen to be a sound microeconomic individual. If, like the majority of the population, you live in poverty and squalor, these principles are small comfort. Why should a person in these circumstances support the government? Because he is black, and the government is empowering black people. The BEE debate is often distorted by jealousy or bitterness (not to mention those relics incredulous at the thought of a financially astute African). As individuals, are the new billionaires deserving of their cash? It’s not a bad question. Certainly no reasonable observer would argue that Sexwale, Ramaphosa or Macozoma are – by the standards of liberal economic orthodoxy – unworthy of their achievements. These are some of the sharpest, most capable, most charismatic leaders, who have used their acumen and connections to stunning effect. That is what the finest business people do. But of course we must be constantly vigilant, with the multitude of new entrepreneurs and various openings for corruption and incompetence. My purpose in this statement of the obvious is to demonstrate how easily details can bog us down, and distract us from questions of principle. If there are white billionaires, then there damn well better be black billionaires. But do we want any billionaires?

That last question is one we ought to be asking more often. But I will leave it open. My central point is related to, but not about, economics. In emphasising its economic actions in terms of ‘blackness’, the government is obfuscating natural class divisions. ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ is a sham not because its actions are illegitimate or that it empowers the wrong people. Within a certain theoretical frame of reference it does all these things – in principle – very well. But it distorts this reference. Government wants you to think that if you are jobless and starving and without access to lifesaving drugs you are being taken care of. There is an aggressive policy of black empowerment, thus, states the equation in its most basic form, you are being empowered because you are black. This is a lie. Because principally – in terms of civic action, in terms of real life relevance, in terms of life and death – you are no longer black, you are poor. And the poor are being screwed. It’s time for the working and unemployed classes to assert their identity. It’s time to refuse to be spoken for under the mantle of ‘blackness’. It’s time to demand the empowerment of the poor.

The revolution is coming. We’re here to give it a hot soundtrack.


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