The list of black people being murdered and brutalised grows by the minute. It’s not just by police officers and military but people behind the uniform they are wearing and the system, aka systemic racism, that backs up police and military action. Basically, systemic racism is anti-black practices, the unjustly gained political and economic power of white people, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power.
Placing a black President in a country such as South Africa means very little when the economy is not in black hands. We need only look at those that have the wealth to understand that the power is in control of the people who have wealth and not those living in townships.
Because when you have wealth, you have control and those who do not fall into that bracket, are used to create more wealth and increase poverty.In living colour, black and brown people globally have very little power based on the colour of their skins, and it is this that allows for the murder and brutality to continue. There has not been an overhaul of the police system since 1994, in their training. Regardless of the colour of the police or military, the “system” teaches them that it is acceptable to gun down black and brown people. In their training to learn shooting, it does not involve a white man, looking as innocent as the next-door neighbour’s son, armed with a firearm shooting black people.
The images in living colour are black and send clear messages that black and brown people are the problem. They fire at “targets” coming for them, and those targets are often not blonde and blue-eyed. Instead, by the time the police and army personnel have completed their training, all they know is that criminals and gangsters are black and brown people, primarily men, and terrorists are Muslim; so definitely not white.
Trying to live in the colour of skins in a society that’s brainwashed to view black and brown people with suspicion is attempting to dodge proverbial bullets. Because if they lived today, they’re lucky because maybe tomorrow they may not be.
The black people that have been murdered and brutalized at the hands of police officers and military personnel in South Africa and the States are defeating the ends of justice; because justice has not been served, and due process has not happened.Instead, they are gunned down like wild animals while holding a packet of skittles, drinking a beer, using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, and or fast asleep in their beds like Breonna Taylor.
What will it take for black and brown people to live in peace in a society that does not allow them to live in the colour of the skins they were born into?
Or perhaps that is the point of it all; maybe black and brown people aren’t meant to live period! How else does one explain what is happening right now or the fact that white people can go about their business never once thinking that they may not make it home alive because they could be gunned down by people in uniform tasked with protecting and serving them?
Social commentator, Nigel Branken, compiles real data that disproves the mythology around white genocide and farm attacks in South Africa
1. Farm murders are extremely rare in South Africa. In 2019 there were 21,022 murders in South Africa… of these only 57 were farm murders (less than 0.3% of murders in SA are farm murders). Farm murders’ rate-calculations, which show farm murders to be more common per population group, are flawed – they do not use the same data set for the denominator and the numerator in the calculation.
For example, they assume that farm murder numbers are only of farmers on commercial farms – but the 57 farm murders are in fact of those living, working and visiting farms and small holdings, therefore in order to calculate a rate you have to calculate how many people live, work and visit farms and small holdings every year. When you do this correctly, the rate is exponentially lower than the 34 per 100,000 murders in all of South Africa per year.
2. Every farm murder receives coverage in multiple media sources (there is no cover up).If you Google “murder in South Africa”, you will see that farm murders receive way more than 0.3% of news coverage with regard to all murder coverage. This means that farm murder receives disproportionately higher coverage than all other murder. The coverage is so disproportionate in fact that it would be fair to say that farm murders get exponentially more coverage than any other type of murder in South Africa.
3. The government does not deny that farm murders exist. Yes, the president once said, “Whoever gave him [Trump] that information was wrong, on the tweet itself he was completely misinformed. There are no killings of farmers or white farmers in South Africa,”. When taken in context, you can see he is referring to Trump’s tweet which refers to “large scale killings of farmers” and the accompanying narrative that white farmers, in particular, are targeted. There is no evidence to suggest this (as indicated above). His spokesperson clarified the context of the statement immediately. He has repeatedly talked about farm murders and addressing them, and as recently as the 15 July 2020, President Ramaphosa said “The issue of farm murders is an issue that is of great concern to us, as of course the killing of many other people including women in our country. Anyone who is killed or is murdered, is of great concern to all of us and the attacks that are taking place on farms are issues that we are concerned about.”
He went on to say, “I was talking to officials in the police today and I was saying we need to focus also on what is happening in a number of places including our farms, including the various places where our people live.” Government also uniquely reports farm murder statistics separately – so that it can be tracked and monitored.
4. Government (SAPS) farm murder statistics are accurate and consistent with farm murder statistics provided by other sources including Afriforum, the Transvaal Agricultural union, and the Freedom Front Plus. There are no other databases which show higher numbers of farm murders indicating any kind of cover up.
5. Government is working with local farming communities to keep them safe through the National Rural Safety Strategy which was developed in 2011 and is regularly reviewed and updated. This strategy was developed with organised agriculture organisations, farmers’ associations and farmer unions, all registered labour unions and civil rights organisations and Community Policing Forums (CPFs).
6. Farm murder numbers have been steadily decreasing and are at a 20 year low
2001/2 – 140
2002/3 – 103
2003/4 – 88
2004/5 – 82
2005/6 – 88
2006/7 – 86
2007/8 – not available
2008/9 – not available
2009/10 – not available
2010/11 – 80
2011/12 – 59
2012/13 – 59
2013/14 – 57
2014/15 – 60
2015/16 – 49
2016/17 – 66
2017/18 – 62
2018/19 – 57 (Source: SAPS)7.
7. Farm murders do not “all involve torture”… torture in farm murders is extremely rare. Afriforum’s analysis of torture in their annual farm attacks and murder reports show no torture in more than 95% of cases. This is consistent with rates of torture in urban housebreaking cases. The Institute for Security Studies Report: “Violent crime on farms and smallholdings in South Africa.
– Policy Brief 2018″ found that farm attacks are relatively similar to attacks in urban areas, such as house or business robberies (both of which are sub-categories of ‘robbery with aggravated circumstances’). In fact, University of South Africa crime researcher, Dr Rudolph Zinn, interviewed house robbers and created a report profiling them. The study, which is backed up by the police who have conducted similar research, revealed that as much as 13% of house robbers would torture their victims using anything from molten plastic to boiling water and hot irons to ensure that the homeowner hands over all of his valuables such as cash and jewellery. In other words, there are higher rates of torture in urban areas than in rural areas according to this study.
8. Farm murders are not only of white people – there is no white genocide. In fact the statistics and studies consistently show that whites are far less likely to be murdered than their black counterparts in South Africa.
9. There is no political motive for the overwhelming majority of farm murders… they are normally criminally motivated.Dr. Johan Burger, of South Africa’s Institute For Security Studies said: “Look, I was in the South African police for 30 years,”… “And I was in charge of investigating a number of individual farm murders. I was also tasked with looking into the subject overall. I have actively tried to find instances of political murders. But I never found even one.” He added that farm attacks may be partially motivated by the isolation of farmers; because their land is further away from neighbors and police stations, they may be easier to rob. There is, however, a political motive for exaggerating farm murders – tied to resisting land reform.
10. Every single farm murder is a tragedy and the life of every person murdered matters.We need to acknowledge that while the farm murder narrative has been hijacked by white supremacists, and they have exaggerated them and often used them to advance an anti-transformation agenda, every murder that happens in our country is one too many.
As an indigenous Black South African I write to express my dismay and disgust at the recent appointment of outgoing WITS Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib, as Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) by the University of London. Board Member Marie Staunton, the Chair of the SOAS Board of Trustees has this to say in her pleasure at his appointment:
“I am delighted that we are able to make this appointment of Prof Adam Habib as the next Director of SOAS. From an impressive field, he was the outstanding candidate to succeed Baroness Valerie Amos, our current Director.
His record of leadership in South Africa, his academic pedigree, his outspoken commitment to diversity and equality, his willingness to challenge received wisdom across society, his commitment to engagement with the student community and his vision on key issues such as decolonisation, make him a superb fit for SOAS and the values we share.”
I ask Staunton and those responsible for this rewarding of Habib, if they are aware of the disdain and anger that many indigenous South Africans have for him after his role in the utter brutalisation of Black students rising up in the Fees Must Fall movement and protest for the free education that was promised to them in the Freedom Charter? Are they aware that our Black majority views Habib as a hypocrite and a conduit for the racism that continuously plagues us?
The mention of ‘his commitment to engagement with the student community and his vision on key issues such as decolonisation’, begs some unpacking.
Let us take you back to Fees Must Fall over the period of 2015 to 2017.
It was during the Fees Must Fall uprising that Habib’s hypocritical and racist attitude was exposed through his consent to the politically-motivated brutalisation of indigenous African students in protest, which resulted in scores of students being maimed and many hospitalised through the attack on them – firstly through the deployment of private security and then through the apparatus of the state security cluster, both being let loose on students under Habib’s stewardship. Why does none of this seems to matter to the London University, which seemingly rewards him for his brutality. He gets to go abroad and leave the matter of reparations for the traumatised students untended to. He is not even asked to account for his role in the multiple atrocities against the student community. Afterall, he came across as ‘reasonable and on the side of the students’ in Rehad Desai’s film on the uprising titled Everything Must Fall, as one Fallist told me.
The question this throws up for me is why the global system continuously rewards those who willingly campaign against reasonable demands from the Black collective? I am further forced to ask if some minority group members view their claim to Blackness as just another stepping stone in their career. Where is this visceral connection to what it means to be Black and indigenous in South Africa and Habib’s part time Black status? How does Habib’s claim to Blackness resonate with the masses whom he so easily throws under the bus when it comes to protecting the neoliberal system? Is he in anyway, qualified to speak on behalf of, or even represent Africans? In my view he does not represent my experience of being African or Black in any shape or form.
His political expedience and selective ideological amnesia is a case in point. As a Xhosa adage summarises, he speaks from both sides of the mouth. He is notably Machiavellian in his ability to slither to any side of the ideological scale and pretend to be sympathetic toward the black economic and decolonial struggle, while simultaneously assisting the state, in partnership with white capital, to smash a youth struggle that threatens their status quo.
I am reminded of the ideological hypocrisy that forms the basis for the charlatan relations that currently exists between the racist Israeli government and the ANC government. On the one hand the ANC officially professes, on public platforms, to support the Palestinian people’s struggle for justice, while, on the other hand, some of its leaders are simultaneously doing business with Israeli entities in trading, allegedly including military components. It is also rumoured that the ruling party receives election funding from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, a staunch supporter of the Israel policy of illegal occupation of Palestinian ancestral land. This ideological fraud is no different to Habib’s fraudulent claim to Blackness. As Biko denoted – Blackness is a state of mind.
And, just like FW de Klerk was rewarded with a Noble Peace for presiding over apartheid policies and protecting white monopoly capital while continuing to defend and paint the history of colonial and apartheid brutality with a veneer of respectability to the western world, Habib has been similarly rewarded with a Directorship position at SOAS at the University of London, for helping to defend and protect entrenched apartheid-based minority privileges and attitudes that trample on the basic rights of the indigenous majority. He too has painted the violence against Fallists in a veneer of respectability and this has obviously been swallowed hook line and sinker by his London colleagues.
This is the man who favoured the employment and deployment of militia from South Africa’s apartheid era as well as from war torn African countries, who are now employed in privately owned South African security companies. (These mercenaries, studies show, have most likely committed human rights atrocities against innocent civilians, including women, children and vulnerable elderly people in the countries of their origins before fleeing to or being head-hunted to South Africa.) It is obvious that, based on his conservative political considerations as well as being one of the pet gate-keepers favoured by white liberal South Africa, that Habib rubberstamped the employment of the former militia members precisely because they had no loyalty to, nor sympathy with, the struggles of oppressed ‘South African’ people.
What makes it worse is that these militia members are mostly in the employment and control of former apartheid security force officers who include members of apartheid ‘Death Squads’ commandos. These same security companies are often used in controversial political destabilisation of communities engaged in social transformation protest and Fees Must Fall was no different. These security bosses are often the very same players who were instrumental in the violence during the height of the liberation struggle against the apartheid regime and its state/business sponsored ‘so-called’ Black-On-Black violence, something that FW de Klerk still defends while denying ‘apartheid atrocities’ as a crime against humanity. Similarly Habib defends his heavy handed tactics against the black student collective and also denies the human rights atrocities enacted by the militia style war he facilitated against the students.
When Habib’s employed militia-type thugs could not put an end to the #FeesMustFall student protest, despite the well-orchestrated brutality towards the students, he requested and/or consented to the assistance of the Task Force Police – which escalated the brutality towards the students, as well as the workers, who had joined the protest for the promised free education and the decolonisation of the education system in the white minority dominated universities in South Africa.
Habib’s consent to the this militia style brutality on the WITS campus can be justifiably likened to the violent apartheid attack on the Black youth during the 1976 student uprising. Habib’s reckless Trump-style attitude and consent to the use of state brutality resulted in countless human-rights abuses and hundreds of young African students being maimed, many with serious injury resulting in a number of surgeries. Many faced jail time. The psychological trauma has also never been factored into the aftermath of #FMF and many of the students were, and continue to be, emotionally and psychologically traumatised by this brutality.
There is no doubt in my mind that the brutality was thus because it was a rising of majority Black students who were on the more radical side of the struggle. The Biko, Fanon and Sankara (ists) who were calling for a just, pro-black social order, received the worst of it. Habib, it seems, specifically targeted the EFF and PASMA students during his rule of terror over that period.
As a former leader of the 1976 student uprising in Cape Town, an ex Robben Island political prisoner and a filmmaker and social justice activist, I experienced and recorded this brutality directly and I state that the violence against the Black Child was no different to that engaged in by the apartheid state in 1976. Habib, in Voster-esque authority, was relentless in his will to smash the student uprising at any cost and he acted against the student community rather than with them.
What experience of indigenous African suffering and Black pain will Habib be speaking from when he arrogantly rubbishes Black Epistemology and Ontology in the current political and educational environment? In our indigenous African framework he is an upholder of the apartheid education system and just like many like-minded gate-keepers with ‘manufactured’ struggle credentials, he plays a key role in the sustaining of racist stereotyping of indigenous African people from his position as a beneficiary of the ongoing system of separate development that protects apartheid style minority privileges at the expense of the indigenous African majority.
It is also interesting to note that in certain inner-political circles in which the liberation struggle principles still exist, there are speculations about Habib’s struggle credentials, which, many have said, seem to have enjoyed a boost from the CIA allegedly placing him on the list of persona non-grata on US soil. The White-owned media houses created so much hype about this possible political stunt without probing any deeper than the surface, and one can only wonder at what their end game was. Habib’s name is nowhere to be found on the list of of the apartheid government’s formerly secret document listing the 7000 enemies of the apartheid state. Some say this stunt was a set-up to ratify his position as a gatekeeper using his ‘struggle credentials’, to give him some political legitimacy to infiltrate the African political environment for effective diversion. Who knows – but unfortunately this speculation is not easily his ignored given his pompous and off-the-cuff political rhetoric, which exposes his deeply held negative attitude towards the African people’s struggle for equality.
And again we have to ask what criterion the London University used in their appointment of this self-serving, pompous gate-keeper who masquerades behind the ‘Black Identity’ when it suits his mostly neoliberal agenda, as a suitable representative of the African subject?
How do we Africans come to terms with this affront to our collective psyche, especially in the face of Habib’s brutal repression of indigenous African students and his well-documented racism towards the indigenous African people? In his trope it is clear that Black Lives do not Matter. Why are the indigenous South African academics and intellectuals quiet about this hypocritical appointment of a known anti-black gatekeeper? What happened to the notion of authentic representation of the oppressed that was one of the mantras of the South African liberation struggle for justice , equality and democracy?
Does this mean there are no indigenous African intellectuals and academics qualified enough to head a Department of African and Oriental studies in the whole of the African continent, to a point where the hypocrites in London chose to appoint a purveyor of anti-black sentiment, and a rubber stamper of violence toward my people, as a representative of the historical and current Black condition in a country that pushes white business at the expense of all.
Adam Habib does not represent my African Identity any more than a white oppressor does. He must be called to account for his role in the multiple brutal aggressions aimed at Black students over Fees Must Fall. We will not rest until justice has been served.
Sipho Singiswa is a struggle veteran having been a student leader in Western Cape in the 1976 uprisings. He was arrested at the age of 15 by the apartheid police and spent 2 years in and out of solitary confinement in the apartheid prison system where he underwent months of torture. He was then sentenced to Robben Island for 5 years.His name is listed on the 7000 enemies of the apartheid state.
Click on these links to view the war against the Fallists on Wits Campus.
The Vulnerability of Black Boys With Regards To Violence
I’m writing this from the point of view of a queer black feminist who has done research on race and violence, and the ways that the two intersect with each other and other aspects of identity. I’m writing this from the position of a black woman who has been told by black men that gender issues should be an afterthought when it comes to black liberation. I’m also writing this from the point of view that if I am to be against violence as an oppression, then I have to be against violence no matter who it happens to. This includes victims of violence who may one day become perpetrators of violence against black women.
This article was first written up as a presentation at a seminar titled Philosophy Born of Struggle: A Philosophy Born of Massacres. My presentation was on Gender-based Violence against boys and men during armed conflict on the African continent, and the ways in which they are excluded from narratives of armed conflict gender-based violence victimology.
This is an unusual subject: that of gender base violence against a group that is not women. I say it like this intentionally: a group that is not women. This is because if you were to search gender based violence during armed conflict, you will have millions of hits where the overwhelming majority will be studies or policy around gender based violence against women, with men as victims being an extremely rare feature.
In this article, I’ll be speaking on gender-based violence against black men and boys in general terms, focusing on three points: the definition of gender with regards to gender based violence, recognition and acceptance of the phenomenon of gender based violence against men and boys, and lastly, the impact of race on the recognition of black men and boys as victims of violence.
What is “Gender” based violence?
Within gender based violence research, gender has been made into a synonym for women. This has led to most of the public translating gender to meaning “women”. Girls are included on the rare occasion. Gender-based Violence, to many scholars and lawmakers, is not violence perpetrated against a person because of their gender. It is violence perpetrated against women for the reason that they are women. One of the arguments in those cases is that since women make up the majority of victims of gender based violence during armed conflict, then it is only logical to associate gender in “gender-based violence” with women. Another argument is that men are not really victims since any violence that is perpetrated against them is almost always by other men, within the patriarchal system that men themselves have created with the intention of oppressing and bringing harm to women, and with violence that is sometimes intended for women. Children are hardly mentioned. Girls are added on occasion to the titles of studies, but hardly focused on, whether on their own or with women whom they are generally attached to. Boys are treated in almost the same way as men in that they are usually mentioned in the context of being perpetrators of violence, such as in the case of boy soldiers, but with the need to be saved due to being children. There has been a remedy to the situation of girls not being focused on with the creation of Girl’s Studies. While there has been a concerted effort to develop a field of study concerning men, little attention has been paid to boys. And most of these developments are happening outside of South Africa.
Boys straddle between the identities of violent patriarchal oppressors and innocent children. It is due to the latter that there has been any attention to boys within the framework of victims of violence. Even then, the attention to boys is too little, especially when we know how violence affects the development of children.
Recognition and acceptance of the phenomenon
Generally, with male victims of gender based violence, there is a lack of recognition of their victimhood. Even with fieldworkers, there is not just a lack of training in recognizing the different kinds of violence that can be perpetrated against men and boys, but there is also a general lack of awareness that violence against men and boys can be gender-based. It is as if patriarchy does not feature in the violence that men and boys experience.
The nuance that “boyhood” provides is that boys are considered children in peaceful circumstances. But in those “peaceful” circumstances, they are also seen through a patriarchal gaze of being the inheritors of the strength and violence of their male elders. This contradicts the innocence that is sometimes afforded to children. Boy children have to be recognized as children and therefore the violence that is perpetrated against children needs to be recognized. When boys are raised within a patriarchal paradigm, the result is that they grow up to be violent men. It is understandable that innocence no longer applies to them at this stage as more often than not, they are willing participants in the violence that is patriarchy, no matter who it is targeted against.
The fact that most men are willing participants in the violence that is patriarchy does not negate the fact that when other men are the targets of this violence due to their gender, they are victims of gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is gender-based violence no matter the gender of the perpetrator or their victim. Just because most men are willing participants in patriarchy does not negate that vulnerability.
There are many feminist researchers who think that men deserve it/they have it coming with regards to being victims of gender-based violence. Their argument is that gender-based violence occurs within a patriarchal framework. Gender-based violence against men is therefore an attack on men in a system that was initially designed to attack women and all that is feminine. Men are then victims of their own violent oppressive system. This is then deserved retribution.
We have to be careful with the way that we construct the victimology of victims of gender-based violence. If we lean into the understanding presented above, that men who are victims are victims of their own system, then we are actively legitimizing the patriarchal understanding of what a victim is, that “real men” are always perpetrators and never victims. We legitimize the patriarchal thought that weakness or victimhood is to be equated with femininity or womanhood. We legitimize the patriarchal though that femininity or womanhood should be on the receiving end of the violence of patriarchy. That means that even when women are the perpetrators of violence, what they are attacking in their victim regardless of gender, is femininity. We strengthen patriarchy with this logic.
There is a fear that if men are accepted as victims of gender-based violence, then the female victim/male perpetrator paradigm will be under attack. So what if this paradigm is weakened or torn apart? I am of the belief that we should be attending to the victims of gender-based violence, not attending to our own assumptions and patriarchal stereotypes.
We cannot talk about the dismissal of the fact that black boys and men can be victims of gender-based violence, without talking about the impact of race on this dismissal. It is important to take note of the racist stereotypes around black men and boys with regards to violence: black men are inherently violent. It dismisses the violence that this country has experienced that has influenced patriarchy and the way that boys grow into men and carry themselves around each other and around others. Violence has been an increasing part of the lives of black people in this country, especially with colonisation and apartheid. These violent oppressive systems have woven themselves into our society and made violence seem natural in our communities. Colonization and apartheid have contributed to the socialization of black boys and men into the kind of violence that we see today. This socialization disproves the racist stereotype of black men being inherently violent because if black boys grew into violent black men on their own, then socialization into violence would not need to happen.
Just as we have been socialized by white supremacy to believe that black men are inherently violent, through that, we have been socialized to believe that black boys, and especially black men, have no vulnerability. Through accepting that black boys and men are socialized to be violent, we then accept that black boys and men are vulnerable to gender-based violence. If we accept this, we also need to accept that the socialization of black boys and black men into violence is a violation of black boys and black men.
An Open Letter to the German Association of American Studies, also known as Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien
Date: 7th June 2020
Re: Your recently posted statement on racism
I shall forego the expected formalities in my open letter to you; these are generally reserved as a means of courtesy to the person or persons whom one is addressing. Since I do not know any of your Executive and Advisory board members who may or may not have penned the statement on racism unashamedly exhibited on your website where an image of Abraham Lincoln sits boldly, I see no need to address you in a manner fitting an expected cordial exchange. There will be no cordial exchange. You disgust me, and I will tell you why, exactly.
Let me start by saying that I am writing to you from Durban, South Africa. I came upon your statement on racism as I was perusing the internet to ascertain how scholarly associations are addressing the current global protests against racism, police brutality, most of which are also organised around the broader movement of #Blacklivesmatter.
I am appalled, sickened and repulsed that an association that has, on record, more than one thousand (1000) members participating in, what you broadly call American Studies, has the gall, the absolute nerve, the audacity, to offer its members, scholars who work in the area of American Studies, the global community of scholar-cum-activists who draw on American Studies, and the world at large, four sentences of crude, dissociative, out of touch crumbs clothed as words! This is your official position on racism, murder and the killing of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour around the world where protests have emerged in support of recent events in the United States but also to draw attention to similar acts of injustice in their own countries? Your statement, composed of four sentences, which reeks of a gross lack of historical, ethical and social responsibility, let alone intellectual integrity, is nothing but a slight of hand, a dismissal, a cowardly passive-aggressive gesture of your own complicity as members of this advisory and executive board of the very racism you can barely speak of, hence the four flimsy lines parading as sentences.
Let me restate your words to you here, in blue:
The German Association for American Studies (GAAS) notes with concern the resurgence of racism and racially motivated violence in the United States, and also in Germany and Europe.
Let me say from the outset, firstly: American Studies, in my view, means all of the Americas not only the United, States, which you seem to be prioritising but which none the less, you seem to know little about. Secondly, there is no resurgence! What we have witnessed around the globe, and I do not wish to focus on one killing, is a continued onslaught of the killing of Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour in the United States, the rest of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany and many parts of Europe, let alone and around the world, for centuries! Have you not paid attention to the protests of racism that Germans of African-American descent have staged for decades in your country which is also their country? Which resurgence? Wake up and smell the blood dripping on your streets above your fancy coffeehouses.
We consider it one of the most basic civil rights to publicly protest a citizen’s death at the hands of a police officer.
You do? Why are you telling your members this? You call this a statement? This is the second sentence in your statement, and here you lecture, offer permission for the brutalised and humiliated to protest.
Peaceful protests are the political and cultural backbone of any democracy that is worth its name.
Are kidding me? Again: is this seriously all you could come up with as a group of educated people, calling yourselves “advisory” and “executive”? You are so completely and utterly ill-advised on all grounds that it is embarrassing, mind-blowingly disgraceful, and yet, you state this as though you are speaking to your ilk in a manner and tone as if there is an agreed upon code of etiquette: speak down to the natives and the Blacks and show them how to behave! I can think of several profanities that would be suited to hurl at you for forcefully forgetting, for your foggy memories, and your feeble, I repeat, feeble, announcement of how to address the current world crisis on racism and police brutality.
We support peaceful demands to address the injustice that is racism, and we urge governments to respond to those demands by taking strong measures against racism in the name of democratic civil society.
First you start with a declaration: you tell us who you are and note your ‘concern’ with the ‘resurgence’. Then, you continue with your consideration – how noble of you – wherein you speak of basic civil rights and how to proceed in the face of racism, murder and police brutality. Thereafter, you move to instruction – telling people how to address systemic, structural and institutionalised racism, which has led to murder and genocide. Last but not least, you offer you conditional support – how terribly sweet of you! You instruct on peace, urging protestors to act in a manner that has historically not borne any results except more racist attacks and more brutalities, then you urge governments to respond in the name of democracy!
Have you forgotten about the atrocities of the First Reich in Namibia, between 1904 and 1908 where Germany sought out an African country as testing ground for what you would later inflict upon Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s? And, before you throw your textbooks at me that stink of colonial amnesia, do not tell me that it only happened in the 1940s! Germany started and is responsible for the first genocide of the twentieth century and yet you lecture us on peace! Remember, how millions of Nama and Herero people were massacred despite the inaccurate numbers noted on wikipedia, at the hands of your forefathers, the monetary value of which were inserted back into Germany for your benefit, and whose African skulls were held as trophies for gleeful photo opportunities to parade the delights of your conquest! Have you not learnt anything from Karl Jaspers, on Metaphysical Guilt? You write of “racially motivated violence” like inept, politically unaware, ignorant and arrogant neo-colonials, whose violence is not only strongly embedded in your passive aggressive four sentenced execution of a false consciousness beaming with White pride – what I call the violence of the colonial letter – but one that forgets that your careers are based on the very acts of violence that are committed upon the bodies of Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour, toward which you show no dignity whatsoever. There is toilet paper that is stronger and weightier than what you offer your members.
Let me tell you a little bit about your history and why you have no business telling protestors against racism and police brutality to be peaceful, let alone how to dismantle systems of oppression: it speaks volumes about your lack of agency:
Remember, how Germany colonised the Americas between 1528 and 1546? I speak here of Venezuela, St Thomas, Crab Island, Trinidad and Tobago, Southern Brazil and Guiana, among others? Four thousand (4000) enslaved Africans were brought to those regions, by force, with violence I might add by your forefathers and foremothers, which you are now against, to work on the sugar plantations they established to shove money into Germany and grow its early empire building mechanisms. When these acts of usurpation, enslavement and occupation, all with violence threaded through each and every act, brought financial benefits, more Germans were brought in to occupy Chile, Nicaragua, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Paraguay and Chiapas Mexico? The position you put forward as scholars from Germany leaves the imagination little to offer; since I find your position so offensive I have allowed myself the mental picture of you as the Lady Macbeths of Europe: constantly washing your hands, believing that it is clean.
Remember, how during the 1670s, Germany continued to usurp, violate, massacre and kill Indigenous people and Black people in the United States after “winning over” from the British, in other words, murdering as secondary usurpers, in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia, among others, setting up homes like you would later do in Namibia, remaining completely composed and distant from the very crimes you committed, with calmness, and with raised noses just in case you could smell the blood of the very violence you now seem to suggest is not the proper road to democracy? Can you still smell the blood of the massacres you committed and as such, feel compelled to tell the colonised and the oppressed not to fight back against regimes who continuously seek to dehumanise us?
Remember, how in 1884, your forefathers sat around tables at the Berlin conference, and with papers filled with sweet little special requests from their wives and lovers in the Fatherland, as they made decisions about which African countries they should usurp, violate, enslave, massacre, kill and maim, for land, minerals, and the prospect of a better life for people like you who know serve on scholarly American Studies Executive and Advisory boards, telling colonised and oppressed people not to be violent towards colonisers, racists and regimes who are violent towards us? Oh, and least I forget: what were the rewards for your efforts? Namibia, East Africa, the Cameroon, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, the South Pacific! Where you invited by people from the abovenamed countries to come over and violate us, usurp our land, kill us, massacre us, take our wealth . . . I mean usurpers and colonisers did not come to Africa because we were poor – you were. We were rich, and you usurped, killed and maimed around the world, accumulating our wealth as you went along. Good heavens, at one-point Germany had histories of violence, usurpation and enslavement in twenty-two (22) countries where you had massacred and murdered in order to control and take charge of the humanity of others in order to give yourselves one. Where is your record of peacefully protesting your own poverty of mind, soul and stomach? Where?
So, remove your pathetic four-sentenced statement and get a grip! If you cannot write something substantial that speaks to centuries of oppression, usurpation, racism and police brutality then don’t write it at all. You’ve made your position very clear – you are group of spineless, motionless, educated people who have no education whatsoever except contempt for oppressed people who are now fighting, in the best way we can, against regimes of violence, which much like the violence of thought you uphold, we have to fight! You are completely ill-equipped to serve the scholarly community of American Studies and have no business calling yourselves advisors and executives of an association purporting to study the Americas. You have betrayed hundreds and thousands of scholars who have put decades of good, critical, solid work into American Studies in Germany, and in other parts of the world, and to which I have only one demand – that you resign from the Executive and Advisory Board immediately.
Gillian Schutte writes about shining the light on whiteness and white privilege.
As a white person privy to a gamut of white attitudes, it is of great interest to me to explore how these divisive perspectives of white privilege proliferate in a way that contributes to an alienating of those who are not white.
As a long-term wife and mother in a Xhosa family, I am also often intimately engaged with expressions of the experiences of black society in relation to white society.
It is the combination of white attitudes and black responses that informs my writing about whiteness.
I do not seek to set myself up as “the only good white” in South Africa, as many of my opposers have told me. I simply mean to shine a light on the unresolved and deceptive premise of whiteness and white privilege, a destructive phenomenon that many whites are oblivious to.
Whiteness is a category that has been recognised to be false by scientists, as well as race and evolutionist theories. The racial category of “white” cannot exist unless in relation to, or in binary with, other classifications in the racial man-made hierarchy that has itself been fabricated and perpetuated by whiteness.
Only by defining the racialised “other” is whiteness able to define itself as a race elevated above other races.
Whiteness exists in a parasitic symbiosis with “the other”, upon which it builds the false global system of white privilege – a system that is dependent on the oppressed “other” for manpower, yet whose humanity it has discarded over centuries to justify its means.
Paul Kivel, author of Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work For Racial Justice, writes: “Racism is based on the concept of whiteness – a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence.
“Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”
In the past 50 years or so, this system of whiteness has “granted the other” a chance to join the whitist global economy – but with restrictions and parameters and often as shareholders, junior partners or managers of white monopoly capital that has accrued wealth over centuries through the system of capitalism founded on slave labour.
The manufactured discourse that upholds this unequal system is one that pretends not to be racist while invariably indulging in racist practices. It is this narrative that I seek to unpack along with other contemporary race narratives that have proliferated since the advent of globalisation.
Its lexicon works to uphold and validate neo-liberalism by seeking to distance itself from racism in words, but not in practice.
I have chosen to deconstruct this fallacious model of whiteness in the South African context by drawing from the work of race theorists in other settler societies, such as the US.
This is my attempt to understand the unresolved space of race relations in our new democracy and to unpack the multifarious narratives the white society has constructed to protect its privilege in the new South Africa and globally.
I locate myself as someone who was born into the racist whiteness construct and as such am in a constant reflexive mode of working through this programming.
As an activist I try to work towards genuine race abolition in a context that is available to me. I have little tolerance for the reinscribing of white privilege through the disingenuousness of those who mark their latent white superiority by language of false “reasonableness”, which interprets progress only by their values and attitudes.
Hence you find some “reasonable” white liberals berating me for attacking the core of white selfhood and who hide behind demands for reasonableness when they perceive attack.
This is their last refuge in protecting the underground laager of their zeitgeist. The irony of defending the zeitgeist, built on the historical and contemporary theft of selfhood to achieve white autonomy and dignity and by guarding what was stolen by racial classification, is lost on them.
Surely it can only be a false sense of self that relies on the advancement of one’s dignity by hanging on to subsumed identity theft? How can one “race” own the privilege of selfhood by ripping the experience of self from another through a historically violent, abusive and racist system?
Apply gender theory to this phenomenon if it makes it easier – we all know that an abusive man does not stop his violence until he is forced to.
People cry white guilt when it comes to insulting race justice activists – but one would have to be a sociopath not to feel any guilt about the generational privilege accrued to whites, so gauchly visible alongside the generational oppression heaped upon the Black majority. It is the absolute disgust at the state of affairs brought about by the historical capitalist pursuit of wealth and privilege by a minority at the expense of larger humanity that drives me.
The human suffering, cruelty and psychopathy propagated by this system cannot be acceptable, especially in the guise of being “reasonable”.
I do not want to uphold and perpetuate an arrangement that benefits some and creates indefensible levels of suffering for others.
We should all have the privilege of living with dignity, of being able to engage in intellectual, artistic and spiritual pursuits and have our humanity acknowledged.
Buying into false race and class constructs destroys our common humanity, whether we are engaged in this consciously or unconsciously. I believe that until we are able to rid ourselves of our racist indoctrination and white privilege we will remain complicit in the perpetuation of a system that can only be described as anti-humanity.
Until we have overthrown a method that perpetuates these false divisions, that benefit the rich and elite at the expense of the poor and oppressed, we must put aside our individuality and fight for the rights and dignity of the collective.
In this way my treatment of the race issue is located in a framework of “socialist ubuntuism” or egalitarianism, and I treat class as a race phenomenon in the context of South Africa.
My interest and reach lies within the ambit of whiteness discourses in relation to blackness, power and class; and my focus is often on the binary between privilege and poverty.
Over the past two decades various whiteness narratives have popped up from different positions – with the bulk of the white population casting itself in the role of “victims of the black majority”.
These narratives have taken the form of calling high crime rates in farming areas the “genocide” of white farmers, and the diatribe about BEE and that “the blacks steal all the jobs”. Most subtle is the abuse of the “rule of law” narrative to feed unconscious resentment for loss of power and to shift blame by assuming false moral authority.
These narratives seldom take note of the issue of poverty and privilege, but remain rooted in the “us and them” continuum.
The narrative that often escapes scrutiny is the “new liberal double-speak” that pays lip service to non-racism in a vacuum of self-reflection and results in a covert racism that manifests as a subtle practice of resentment towards black excellence, or exaggerated outrage towards black failings, while denying this fact or remaining unconscious to this reality.
This is the language of institutional racism. In my framework I am aware that while most whites are taught to remain oblivious to the manner in which their privilege continues to oppress blackness, not all whites are unaware of their privilege and racism.
There are white progressives, who have what theorists have called “attitudinal activism”, and who do the work towards transforming racial attitudes.
Contrary to what many believe, I do not write on this topic because I hate white people or loathe my own white skin, or because I want all black people to love me, or because I am mean, nasty, aggressive and rude.
I write about whiteness because I cannot sit back and witness the utter destruction that a system of disproportionate white supremacy has caused in the world.
I am passionately against a capitalist, whitist order that has benefited, as well as schooled, white people into a mindset of fear and loathing of the monsterised other and rabid protectionism over their privilege. Compassion for collective humanity is not a whitist practice – instead compassion is reserved for those who look and think like them. It is the opposite of the sophisticated and regenerative life system known as uBuntu.
I continue to deconstruct racism in my writing because I believe that if a critical collective of white people join in the move to obliterate this deceptive consciousness premised on racial falsities and discourses that pay lip service to empty notions of non-racism, then we will stand a chance to regain our humanity.
This opens up an opportunity to reclaim a sense of self that is not premised on the defence of a system that seeks to oppress others – and which will make way for a future where we acknowledge and celebrate our humanity only because every person’s humanity is acknowledged and celebrated equally.
Until then this divisive system of whiteness will make us “whites” redundant to the paradigm shift driven by the very people who have been oppressed for centuries by a bigoted and chauvinistic organism that classifies some as more human than others.
There is another way.
* Schutte is a founding member of Media for Justice, a social justice and media activist as well as a documentary film-maker.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
Suicide is on the increase – especially among the youth.
Statistics from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) show that 9% of all youth deaths are due to suicide and that this figure is on the increase. In the 15-24 age group, suicide is the second leading – and fastest growing – cause of death. Children as young as 7 have committed suicide in South Africa. Every day 22 people take their lives.
I had gone over these statistics when writing about depression and unemployment over the years. I never imagined that I would have to relate these statistics to my reality . But I did when on 1 December 2019, Sipho Singiswa and I, lost our only son, Kai Singiswa, to suicide.
Kai had just finished second year university exams and was ready to enjoy his holiday. He was doing well at Wits film school, was popular and full of fun. He had spent the week with a few friends in and out of our house, and the weekend at our home with one of his best friends. On Saturday they went to a car wash event. As usual he hugged and kissed us good bye and as usual we told him to stay cool, not drink too much and keep safe.
Like many parents we worried about our son out there. What if he got attacked for his cell phone. What if he got into a physical brawl and something irreversible occurred? What if there was a car accident? But when he turned 18 we had to let him be his own person. He had recently turned 20. We could only keep the lines of communication open, share knowledge with him, give him boundaries and trust in his sweet nature to protect him from harm.
The next time I saw Kai was the following morning. He arrived home upset and I could see he had been crying. He was upset about a series of events that culminated in an altercation with a friend. His friend had told him no one likes him anymore and that he was worthless. My son thrived on loving and being loved in return. He displayed the hallmarks of a highly sensitive individual and empath. He had spiralled into a dark hole of self-loathing and despair over the course of the night.
I held him and began to speak him through his anguish. I reminded him about his strong personal qualities and his talent in filmmaking. I spoke to him about the fickle nature of social groups and reminded him of what an honest and forthright person he has always been. I told him how much we cared for him. Sipho came outside and asked why we were in the hot sun. I told him our boy was upset and we went to the lounge to speak about it.
Kai and Sipho spoke father to son and Sipho counselled him with love and concern. After the session Kai high fived us, hugged us and said he was going to bed. He seemed stable and in better spirit. I offered him tea and he said he was going to drink water and sleep it off as he always did. He told us he loved us and went to his room.
Sipho and I discussed what more we could do to help Kai through this transition from boy to man. It seemed so hard for him. He had begun to suffer from anxiety and depression and, like many of his peers, was on anti-depressants. For the most part he was happy, highly functional and socially popular. He got out of bed every day. He finished his assignments at varsity and his marks were good. He spoke to us about his daily life and he partied with friends.
After our discussion I got dressed to go to the shops relieved that my child was sleeping it off. On the way out I went to check up on him. That is when I found Kai hanging from his gym.
There are no words to describe what happens to a mother who finds her child after suicide. Call it an atomic explosion that eviscerates everything you ever believed to be true. Your solar plexus implodes, your heart shatters and your womb is torn from your body. You hear a disembodied primal mother scream that is yours and not yours. You fall into a timeless black hole with no material safety holds to grab onto, and you keep falling.
Sipho had to take Kai down while I tried to phone an ambulance through my screams. He was the father who had cut the umbilical cord of his son when he was born and now he had to cut the cord from around his neck at his death. His pain and trauma is immeasurable.
My first instinct was to go off all social media on the morning we found Kai in his room. But he was a popular boy and many of his friends were in anguish when they heard the news. In no time youth media was adorned with photos of our child and speculation was rife. I wanted to be the guardian of his truth and so I made the decision to let people know what had happened. Except that what I shared on social media was only a fraction of the story of the complex inner life of a boy child born into a time in the world where there is a crisis of meaning, where depression and anxiety is almost the norm for the youth of today, where justice is nebulous and where competition and materialism are the skill sets taught to our children through multiple social media channels that overwhelm young minds.
Societal Pressure in a world of artifice
We can no longer ask the question why our children are choosing suicide over life.
We need to reflect instead on what this current era offers our children and why it is not working for them – because if we were to be totally honest we would acknowledge that they live in an era of cutthroat materialism that aggressively sells them the idea of instant gratification instead of patience and compassion. This can only be a shallow and empty path, which they are pressured to pursue by society at large in order to grab at success. Many are led to believe that they will be one of the lucky few who make it on YouTube on a par with Kim Kardashian. Yet underneath this aspirational trajectory the youth are craving to feel real, to feel loved, to feel connected in the world. Social media can only offer them a false sense of connectedness and one so tenuous it can all come crumbling down in an instant.
In this era of artifice, where fake news, fake tits, twits and duck lips crowd their social networks, our children unconsciously crave authenticity. They are faced with multiple stresses and demands and those who are wired to be empathetic and sensitive, experience cognitive dissonance and an ongoing existential crisis in this world that demands ego and more ego.
This is a catastrophe experienced by the youth globally and this intensity is magnified in a country such as ours, where they are forced to witness massive social cleavages, and if middle class, they are expected to normalise this reality. The sight of toddlers virtually shackled to street corners with parents begging from those in cars, impoverished youth washing windscreens for a buck, and sprawling shanty towns next to opulent neighbourhoods, are supposed to be ignored somehow. And what of the youth that live this reality as the desperately poor? Their lives become cheap, they turn to Nyaope, petty crime and other self-harming violence.
These times that we live in have been described as ‘traumatic experience’ for all people but mostly our youth, who are terrified of a world that births a Greta Thunberg and her apocalyptic forecast of environmental death and destruction in the near future. Many already face a daunting reality where unemployment is rife, fresh or potable water is fast becoming a scarcity, fake food is packaged as healthy and GMO is forced upon them via staple foodstuffs. They are faced with the unnerving future of global warming, crime, geopolitical terrorism and possible displacement through capital driven development and war. And amongst all this madness, this greed and inhumanity, they are told to become a success, to join the society of cutthroat competitiveness and pull themselves together.
Add to this onslaught sociohistorical decimation of family structures, peer non-acceptance and betrayals, their own trepidation about an uncertain future and a sense of terror about not ever being able to achieve their expected goals. Who would not be overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness, and feelings of worthlessness? The conflict in them is a heightened one at their age-of-becoming and the inner crisis overwhelms them. So tenuous is their hold onto meaning in this environment of falisty that if there is any shift that upsets their already fragile balancing act – they are likely to be pushed to the very edge of despair for reasons we might consider fickle. We might even ask them to man up or grow up when what they need to hear is that they are loved… really valued and that there is hope.
Our son never could ignore these glaring contradictions presented to him in everyday life. He was hyper aware of the many historical and current injustices in our country and cognisant of the social violence heaped upon the majority. Like most middleclass youth he too tried to erase this truth from his conscience through partying and the pursuit of pleasure, and like many young ones this drove him to look for peer relationships where none existed and left him dissatisfied, hurt and sometimes angry.
As parents there is little we can do about their choices when at a certain age in their development our children place their hope in these peer relationships – by their deep connection on the spiritual or hedonistic level. This is where they find their sense of self in relation to others. Our artistic sensitive kids soon find their escapism in sad boy subcultures that romanticise suicide and birth a philosophy that speaks to concepts such as the 27 Club, where they joke about partying themselves to death before they reach adulthood, because there is no meaning left for them in a world that builds binary on top of binary and manufactures faux morality, faux politics, and an economic system that will never deliver anything that satisfies what it means to be fully human, to be truly free, to be kind, to be loving and compassionate. They party hard so that they can forget for a moment that we live in a global reality of cruel and mammoth extremes.
And this does not always work. In fact, it throws them into more crisis when they come to the realisation that they are bonded in emptiness and a lostness that will never fulfil their state of constant craving.
This white supremacist neoliberal capitalist system has robbed our youth of reflection, of security, of faith in their inner life. Their libidinal is no longer about their own minds, their own passions and their own joy felt in the connection between mind and body and soul. Joy is packaged in labels, chemical highs and material oblivion. And those not born white are left with the added anxiety in the knowledge that skin colour often determines whether they will be the recipients of material and personal security.
My son was a loving and compassionate soul. He was grounded in love. He cared deeply about those close to him. He cared about those who suffered around him such as homeless people and he always took the time to greet the less fortunate on his path and share a smoke or a laugh with them.
Like many of his peers he lived this existential crisis in real time and he spoke to us about it often. He internalised his fear and developed what he referred to as his dark passenger, a part of himself that he felt he had no control over. It was that injured aspect of himself that could never quite match the joyousness of his childhood with the reality of the world today. The idea of a future escaped him though he was provided with all the tools to access a stable future.
Kai’s feelings of hopelessness and anxiety were also exacerbated by what he had witnessed unfurling in our lives as I became the target for mass cyber-attacks and death threats because of the nature of work I do. He was aware of the danger to our lives as a family when men parked outside our house for some weeks after the judge Mabel Jansen story broke and we received threatening messages in our postbox and on social media.
He also had to be made aware of the sensationalist tabloid reportage on an accident that happened on our film set in 2018 on which a close friend of ours, Odwa Shweni, fell to his death when a cast member took it on himself to call the first take in the absence of the director and AD and then allegedly set about proliferating a fake narrative of what happened in order to take the heat off his pivotal role in the accident. I had also reached the precipice of death in this accident and Sipho had pulled me from the edge in that split second before I fell to my death. Our beloved son Kai had to live this traumatic aftermath with us as we mourned the death of Odwa while many of my detractors pushed out multiple lies and used the death of our friend as a political football – the utmost manifestation of the norms and values of this fake news hyper ego driven world.
Kai cared for and protected us around this time and we tried to protect him from this cataclysmic unfolding of accusations and declarations of guilt on a matter that remains sub judice till today. We had hoped that this defamation campaign would not enter his world out there but it did when, in one of his Wits film school lectures, a Sunday Newspaper article was used as a reference about how not to make a film and our child was deeply upset and angry. We have to ask how, in an institution that prides itself on educational values and excellence, an article that clearly states the case is sub judice, is taught as fact.
And we have to recognise that this is exactly what happens in a neoliberal corporatized reality where truth no longer holds as much sway as sensation and the pornographising of tragedy for revenge and clicks. When Kai told us of this lecture, he pretended to be casual about it but in the weeks of our mourning when many of Kai’s distraught friends visited our home, I was told by one of his close friends that he had relayed the story of the lecture and the event to her brother and he was angry, distressed and tearful. My heart broke when I realised exactly how this cataclysmic event had impacted our son and how he had, in true Kai nature, tried to protect us from his own trauma around this event.
Our young man was a special soul, a caring soul and he loved to have fun. He cared too deeply as an empath. If his love was not reciprocated, his entire reality was threatened and he would rage against those who created this imbalance. He craved for balance and a world that reflected back his empathy and his capacity to love. He wanted kindness. He wanted his parents to be safe and he loved us a fiercely as we loved him. His line of communication was open and we spent many a time discussing his crisis. We did all we could to help him navigate this difficult transition from boy to man – but in the end, the hurt and the trepidation and the anguish that he had bore witness to overcame him and he found this world too painful and limited a place to continue to inhabit.
Our son Kai took his own life on his own terms in a moment of utter turmoil over peer-non acceptance which culminated with his major anxieties around all that I have spoken of above. This was the catalyst for his feelings of hopelessness and lack of will to live in a realm that offered so much pain, delusion and lacked heart. At the time he was fragile, strung out and hurting deeply. We listened, we counselled, we loved him and did not judge him for his fragility.
His memorial service was overflowing with traumatised youth who also loved him and gave testimony to his loving nature. Many spoke to us about how Kai was the go-to-guy whenever they were in crisis. He picked up those 3AM calls when his friends were feeling suicidal. All spoke of his openness and sheer ability to love with no boundries.
We have lost our beloved son. This is an immeasurable wound that we now traverse. But he has also left us, and all who knew him, with the gift of love.
Go well my love.
If you suspect that your child is depressed, anxious or suicidal please see the contacts below.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG)
On 12 April 2018 we witnessed our dear friend, Odwa Shweni, tragically fall to his death while working as a cast member on our film. Odwa was a remarkable person who dedicated himself to his role because he believed in the social justice message of our story, which is a hybrid film that presents a searing critique of cyber trolling and racism. Little did we know how the tragedy of Odwa’s death would lead to further tragedy, and how our own lives would be further devastated by his loss in unexpected ways.
In the aftermath of the tragedy the media justly exploded in sorrow at the loss of an extraordinary person. However, there was also a dark and destructive explosion of speculation on social media where people, who did not know Odwa, or the facts of the case, wrote insensitive and derogatory slander about my partner Sipho Singiswa, and me. Rumors, untruths and conjecture also proliferated in the mainstream media and culminated in a City Press article that seemingly pronounced us guilty without any proof of guilt. Crimes and Misdaads in Rapport also published the same piece, again with no proof of guilt.
While Odwa’s family were grieving, and while investigations into the incident were underway, we believed it would be callous to comment. We did not want to centre ourselves in the narrative, and any attempt to correct the glaring errors in reporting felt as if we were putting ourselves and our feelings ahead of those of his family and friends. In retrospect, we should have done so because our silence led many to believe we were complicit in his death.
The time has come to correct the erroneous media accounts by stating what we had in place for our shoot.
Permission to film on the private location.
Permission to enter through the Monks Cowl tourist route.
Three medics on set, and a helicopter on standby.
Two guides organized through the private location – the guides were
also to be spotters on location.
A safety and fight co-ordinator, along with Shweni and Singiswa as fight choreographers.
Our safety person was also to act as Assistant Director for the fight scenes.
Safety mats as well as extra safety gear.
Contracts and insurance coverage.
Accommodation at a reputable Berg resort that did our catering.
Safe props including rubber knives on all our sets.
LOOKING BACK AT OUR PREVIOUS SHOOT
Our previous shoot at the Berg in December 2017 had been beset with logistical difficulties due to incessant rain. It was here that lead protagonist, Louw Venter, had seemingly decided to make an already difficult shoot much more difficult by throwing violent tantrums on our set and always when Director/Producer, Sipho Singiswa, was off set. Four sources report that he shouted and swore at them, telling them how useless and incompetent they were. A member of our crew told us that when Venter ranted and swore he thought he was being racist, but then he would joke with them the next minute, so he was confused.
A wardrobe assistant, who had been at the receiving end of one of his massive tantrums, says he accused her of spreading rumours about him being difficult to work with and of not performing her duties. She recalls that he called her useless and used the f-word repeatedly. In this instance I had heard loud shouting as I drove on to set and came in towards the end of this tantrum. I approached Venter when he stalked off set screaming expletives and he shouted in my face that they were all fucken useless. A witness to this particular explosion says he was totally out of control throwing his weight around.
When we spoke to some crew members about his behaviour they said that they often experience this behaviour from actors on shoots and though it upset them they were used to it. One source told me that if they complain they are often ignored and they feel as if they have no rights because when the camera starts rolling actors have all the power and some use it to undermine them. Our Assistant Director relayed to Singiswa that he was used to working with Venter and that this behaviour was not unusual from him. The decision was made that they would continue to work with him in an effort to finish the shoot.
Later that day, when I met with Venter about his issues, he gave me a long list of complaints, including the catering from the three star resort. It seemed nothing was good enough for the irascible Venter.
Despite the difficulties we finished the scenes. It was during our preliminary edit that it became apparent that the lead protagonist, who was playing the role of the husband, had not pulled off his character effectively. We realized that we would have to recast him and reshoot some of the scenes.
We recast Shweni as our lead protagonist. In our first preproduction phase we had auditioned Shweni, who we had turned down for the role despite his enthusiasm and fighting skills, because he had no acting experience at all. Shweni was disappointed when he did not initially get the role and very excited when I invited him back. We coached him in his role for weeks.
We had also hired Eugene Snyman as a fight and safety co-ordinator. It was agreed that Snyman would act as assistant director on the fight scenes as he had the experience to break down the sequences into blocks. Weeks were spent working out the parameters for the fight choreography and making sure that they consisted mainly of contained grappling moves that did not pose a danger to the cast members. Singiswa, who has a background in Kyokushinkai, Shweni who had a background in Judo, and Arno Botes who brought in Krav Maag, assisted in the design of the fight sequences and they began rehearsing the scenes to film for dissemination to the cast.
In February, I had sent Louw Venter an email with a preliminary textual sketch of the fight scene. After the choreography team had completed their sessions the plan changed, and I sent him another email on 4th of April, informing him of the changes. I attached the video to show him the new fight scene and to find out if he was comfortable with it. He sent me back the following message.
“Hi Gillian. I have watched the fight sequence video. It looks cool. As long as we do things safely. Kwaai…”
Reports in the press after the tragedy make no mention of this email communication and refer only to the first email sent to him a month earlier.
The waterfall scene was recorded in the shoot schedule and sent to crew and cast in advance. We had meetings at our production offices to discuss the terrain and the scenes with the crew. Our director of photography (DOP) met with us to discuss the fight scenes, was shown the videos of the fight scenes and was sent video tutorials to ensure he understood how fight sequences were shot.
THE WATERFALL SHOOT
On the day of the shoot we successfully finished some scenes on the hill, despite Venter acting out again and throwing around loud disruptive commentary. At one point he shouted out “Why do I get the feeling that this is going to be a day I regret for the rest of my life.” We then moved onto the waterfall location, where Singiswa had set up a 16 foot crane as a safety measure, instructing crew and cast not to go beyond it. It must be noted that the waterfall location offers a sizeable flat rock plateau and was, at the time, open to the public.
On location the crew began to set up their rig and were given the safety parameters by Singiswa and Snyman. Singiswa checked with Venter and Shweni to see if they were comfortable with the location for the shooting of the scene. They both acknowledged that they were. Venter told Singiswa and me that they wanted to rehearse the scene thoroughly before the shoot.
Both Venter and Shweni assisted Singiswa in gaffer taping down the safety mats in place and they discussed the scene. There was only one move in the fight scene that required a landing mat and that was the judo slam, which Shweni had included in the scene as a judo practitioner as one of his moves. The fight scene was otherwise grappling moves on the ground. It was agreed that they would rehearse the controlled fight moves under Singiswa’s role as one of the fight choreographers and Director, while Snyman dealt with crew safety and set up. Shweni informed me that he had already thoroughly practiced the choreography with Venter at the resort while they waited for the location call.
The instruction to the actors on location was to rehearse the fight in slow motion and Singiswa informed them that the scene would be filmed in blocks. He also informed the actors that they were to enact their moves away from the water towards dry rock and gave instruction that they were not to touch the water at all as he would create the face in water scene with a go-pro under water at a rock pool on the resort.
During these rehearsals the medics were called onto the rock plateau from where they were set up around 10m away (not 300m away as reported). They had just attended to our make up lady who slipped in a shallow puddle on the way to the location (not into the river as newspaper reports allege).
The scene was repeated numerous times while Singiswa spotted and gave instructions.
Rehearsals were halted and I, via Singiswa, gave the instruction that the fight scene would be filmed first. I then left the DOP with the instruction to set up the cameras for the first take while I went to the hillside to call the production manager to bring the jackets down for the actors to wear after the scene. They were to wait for the director and AD to set up the take.
VENTER CALLS THE SHOT.
Snyman tells the account of him standing with Singiswa some distance away from the stream on the rock plateau where they were about to discuss the logistics in preparation for the first take, when they heard a commotion behind them and turned to see Shweni in the water.
Snyman and Singiswa immediately ran towards the water to try to get to him. Singiswa recounts that he shouted to Shweni not to struggle, but he was too late and Shweni had floated into the middle of the stream out of reach. He saw Shweni being carried over the edge of the waterfall. As he watched in horror he then saw me in the water, also being carried to the edge.
Moments before Shweni’s fall I was returning with the production manager and the jackets and I observed, from a distance, an aggressive fight playing out in full swing and not in slow motion, contrary to the instructions that were given to the actors during the rehearsals. I began to run toward them. Seconds later I saw Shweni struggling in the water. I instinctively ran into the water and lunged at him to try to get to him and ended up in the stream myself. I fell on my backside whilst trying to get to Shweni and as I watched him going over the edge I too was being carried to the edge of the falls. I found out later that Singiswa managed to save me in the nick of time. I have no recollection of being saved as I had been looking over the precipice of the falls and remember being swung in the opposite direction. I grabbed onto some grass. That is the last thing I remember. When I was back on dry rock, I began shouting for the helicopter and the medics, who were already running towards the scene as they were situated behind a bush on the location. Later they told me they were told by the crew to get out of shot so they moved behind a bush close by.
In my out-of-body state I began running up the hill because I knew that the helicopter was on the next door farm. When I got to the Monks Cowl entrance, I jumped into my car to drive to the helicopter farm and was intercepted by a police reservist who had received the call about the accident. He told me that it was too late for the helicopter, though it was still light.
Later, while I was in our hotel room in shock, Singiswa arrived to tell me that the crew and rescue team as well as the police were at the resort and wanted statements from everyone but that they knew I was traumatised from my near death experience and would interview me at a later stage.
I then received a call from the Digital Image Technician (DIT) complaining that he had not received film cards the entire day, so I drove down to the camera crew accommodation and found them unpacking the equipment. When I requested the cards, they became belligerent and hostile, insisting that the cards had been lost at the waterfall. It was only when they were told by Singiswa that the police insisted on receiving the cards as evidence and that the hotel would be placed on lockdown until they handed them over, that the crew gave him the cards. He handed them to the police immediately who went to view the cards with the DIT. After viewing the last card shot on the day the police requested a copy of it for evidence. Singiswa signed an affidavit given to him by the police to say that the footage would not be tampered with and a copy of the footage was made in the presence of a police officer and handed over.
The footage reveals the camera crew taking instruction from Venter to do the first take. They were not given instruction to shoot the first scene from the Director or the AD, as required by their contract. When the assistant clapper loader was asked later why she had responded to an actor calling the scene, she said both she and the DOP were confused about Venter calling the scene, but he was insistent, saying, “Let’s shoot the scene” and they all obeyed. She stated that she fell in line because the crew told her to write it up. The rest of the camera crew refused to answer any questions when asked.
What we see on the clip is Venter shouting – “I’m calling the scene OK.” He then shouts, “Action 3,2,1” and rushes into the fight scene looking angry. He and Shweni meet each other with incredible force and the fight begins in real time, ignoring all the safety protocol that had been rehearsed before. The fight scene is quickly thrown out of the safety parameters, and they are facing the wrong direction. Their movements are enacted toward the stream instead of onto dry rock. It is also clear that they have missed out on three moves of the choreography and that Shweni is seemingly disorientated by this. He shifts his body into the wrong direction. At this point Venter delivers a knee blow to his face and Shweni, who appears to be fighting for his life, backflips into the water. There is no backflip in the fight choreography. He was meant to fall to one side .
Venter has Shweni’s head in his hands and appears to be doing the head drown even though Shweni’s entire body is in the water and even though he was told more than once that the head drown was going to be cheated in a rock pool on the resort. Shweni does not lift his head at this crucial point and it seems that Venter is holding his head down while enacting the head drown. Venter, seemingly, only realises what has happened when Shweni starts to get carried downstream by the water and people start to scream. He makes no effort to grab Shweni’s ample dreadlocks but puts his hand on his head and looks directly into camera expressionless.
THE ACTORS AND CAMERA CREW ACTED OF THEIR OWN ACCORD
It is apparent from the video footage that the actors and camera crew at the relevant time acted on their own accord and without permission of the Director and the fight coordinator/AD who were in the process of discussing the safety parameters for the take. The fight scene ended up outside of the designated safety parameters that had been rehearsed thoroughly. It is badly framed and there is no artistic direction. Had the AD and director been present they would have called a halt to the take as soon as it went out of the safety parameters and as soon as the actors involved started the fight scene in real time.
When I asked about the accident Snyman says that it was brought about by a cast member “not acting with due diligence but above the authority of the director by giving instructions that are not within his or her contract as an actor or cast member. He displayed irrational and irresponsible behaviour.”
Singiswa says that the actor clearly decided that he had the authority over him to take over the shoot while he, the director, was discussing the logistics with the safety co-ordinator. This endangered the lives of the cast and crew as he took on himself the multiple roles of Director, Assistant Director, and safety/fight co-ordinator as well as actor.
Says Singiswa, “he has allegedly told the press that this was a dangerous location so we have to then ask what possessed him to behave so impulsively if he felt they were all in danger? As an experienced actor and director he would have walked off a set that posed any kind of danger. This is an example of the arrogance of a certain ilk of white men who feel that they have a god-given authority over Blacks. The majority of our crew are Black and it was only Black crew members who reported being at the receiving end of Venter’s violent verbal abuse. Perhaps this is what SAGA, IPO and other film organisations should be investigating.”
Venter had signed a contract in which it states that he will:
4.3 abide by all reasonable instructions and directions given to him/her from time to time by the Company concerning his performance; and
4.4 be present as and when required by the Company at such studios or on such locations as the Company may from time to time direct; and
4.5 comply with all studio and filming location regulations in force from time to time;
THE TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES OF IRRESPONSIBLE REPORTAGE AND MALICIOUS SOCIAL MEDIA CONJECTURE.
After almost two years of lies and malicious speculation on social and mainstream media, I have decided to give our account of Odwa Shweni’s tragic death on our film set in April 2018. This cruel media onslaught has not only caused us terrible trauma, it also impacted negatively on the life of our son, Kai, who died through suicide in December 2019 after months of anxiety and depression, much of which was brought about by the many false allegations against us, anxiety exacerbated when one of his Wits lectures used the factually inaccurate City Press article in a lesson as an example on how not to make a film, something we only became aware of after his suicide.
I wish to stress that we are not the only victims of this story. Odwa is. So are his family. A rookie actor was bullied by an experienced one to ignore his instincts and the strictures of his contract, and in doing so he fell to his death. We have tried to ensure, despite this, that Odwa’s family received financial compensation through our insurers, because he was our friend.
The footage, which is in police custody as evidence, supports our version.
Rest in Peace Odwa Shweni and Kai Singiswa. You are both loved.