By Gillian Schutte
*Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities.*
In the last few years we have witnessed many youths taking their lives after finding themselves on the receiving end of a cancel campaign. My own son, Kai Singiswa, was one of them, when after a fight with a male friend he was shunned and profiled as an abuser of women, an accusation which culminated in him being banned from KOP – @KopJhb. I have spent the last three years investigating the events that led to Kai’ suicide and found myself in an entanglement of outright lies, half-truths, protectionism, rampant individualism and power mongering amongst his wide circle of ‘friends’.
CANCEL CULTURE AND SOUTH AFRICAN YOUTH
Professor Rozena Maart says that: “Cancel Culture has become central to the discourse of the youth in 21st Century society as part of counterculture, steeped in the rhetoric of #FeesMustFall, where young people strategically plan the fall of their peers. The idea is that if you do something that others deem problematic –notably a strategic person in the group with enough credentials as someone who has suffered at the hands of patriarchy, real or imagined, instigates this. You automatically lose all your currency. Your voice is silenced. Your ‘fall’ is planned, systematically. You are then labelled an oppressor and parallels are drawn to your behaviour and that of the common, much reviled acts of oppression – be this racism, sexism or patriarchal oppression, even coloniality.”
Cancel culture has inexorably saturated youth consciousness in their social cultural world where hierarchical behaviours proliferate. Its purveyors proclaim with righteous indignation that their authority to shun, ban and shame their peers is premised on intersectional theory.
An example of this is seen in the management ethos of the company KOP – @KopJhb, a cultural event that is premised on the idea that they remain true to intersectionality. The two woke young owners asserted at the onset that they had created a safe space for the expression of everyone while favouring the experiences of Queer, People of Colour and Womxn bodies. Their early poster goes on to state: failure to respect and comply with these rules will result in your immediate removal.
But as many youths have told us, this space has shown itself to not be safe for them at all and that KOP’s ethos has proven to be based on false morality through the owners’ subjective and moderated engagement with the original tenets of intersectionality. They say that the banning of Kai is one such example – among others.
KOP AND CANCEL CULTURE – a case study
My son Kai became victim to KOP’S shaky intersectional premise at the end of November 2019. I remember that afternoon so vividly with him getting dressed to go to an event hosted by @KopJhb at which he was going to film, as he often did. He had spent time studiously getting his film gear together and was looking forward to the event. About half an hour before he was ready to leave he came to tell me he had received a call from one of the organisers telling him he was banned from KOP because they had received a complaint that he had abused a woman. He gave me no signs of being visibly upset saying: “Maybe it is just as well mom, because I’ve been trying to break away from this toxic group of friends.” He made a plan to go out with other close friends instead. But over the course of the night his friends tell me he began to break down and he cried inconsolably. They say his heart was broken and he could not understand why they had accused him of being a woman abuser. Kai was known as a boy who stood up for women’s rights and who came to their assistance when being harassed or assaulted in a way many of their male peers did not. He also took the ethos of intersectionality to heart and had engaged in many discussions with me on this topic. During his breakdown he asked through his tears how they had let a DJ who had been accused of rape continue to play at their events, while treating him as a criminal.
Many of Kai’s friends told us that Kop@Jhb was known to let in people who posed a real threat to the youth but who retained enough social currency for their behaviours to be overlooked. These they said, included a known drug dealer with an alleged ongoing case against him, known assaulters of women, and of course the accused DJ in question.
In the aftermath of Kai’s suicide many of his friends told me they were shocked at the decision to ban him because they had all been socialising together in the weeks leading up to the ban and that there were no signs of conflict. They said it seemed to come out of nowhere and they could not understand it at all. It was to be three years later that I came to understand the premise for this late and sudden announcement as that of a calculated mind game being played with him by a formerly close friend – a matter which is discussed in the next instalment of this three-part essay.
A month after Kai’s suicide Sipho (my husband) and I, made an appointment with the KOP Johannesburg owners, both in their early 20’s, to find out why they had banned Kai. When I posed the question to them the female owner launched into an explanation about what KOP stands for, giving us a somewhat self-involved lecture on intersectionality. She then told me that one of their friends, *Aasha*, had phoned to tell them Kai had abused her, and she did not feel safe with him being at the same venue as her. I asked how he had abused her, and she told me that *Aasha* had told them Kai had hit her with a baton and left a bruise on her leg. I asked if they had seen the bruise and she stated emphatically that she had seen it and that she had also gone to the ICU with the victim after this had happened. The male owner said he had not seen the bruise but he heard that there were photographs doing the rounds. I pushed the female owner on the ICU story and it eventually transpired that they may have gone there some time after Kai’s memorial and not after the alleged attack. *Thulani* , *Aasha’s* ‘exish’ boyfriend, told me in an interview that while he was still in a complicated relationship with her at the time, he had no knowledge of her ever going to the ICU. It was confounding that this young woman had tried to conflate the two events. Had I not challenged her on this point she would have left it as fact.
After further questioning they admitted they did not know the exact story but that they were beholden to their “company’s intersectional ethos” and made the call to believe the victim first. I asked them why they had not investigated the accusation before becoming judge and jury and they prattled on about how the accusation came to them late and though they did not know the full story, it was still being spoken about in their circles. They reiterated that they made the decision for the sake of their company’s reputation. I asked them if they knew when this alleged attack took place, and they gave vague answers saying they had heard it was an occasion where Kai was playing a game in a car and had hit the alleged victim and fought with his friend *Thulani*. I again asked who had seen the bruise and the female owner told me that *Aasha* would be the person to ask because she herself does not know.
Later in the meeting – and after informing them that I was a seasoned journalist who frequently wrote on intersectional and gender justice issues – I asked again if she had seen the bruise. At this point she changed her story and said she had not, in fact, seen the bruise or the photograph of the bruise, but based off other people’s opinions she knew there were bruises. I was dumbfounded by her earlier declaration that she had seen the bruise and had gone to the ICU with the *Aasha*. It was a conversation that pretty much followed the pattern of rumour and gossip, where falsities are casually thrown into the mix and come across as fact. This is exactly how malicious untruths proliferate.
We pointed out that they are known to have a DJ working at their venue who had been accused of rape and challenged them on their double standards. They denied knowing about this rumour, stating that we had certainly confused KOP with the night club CEREBRAL. We challenged them further telling them that we knew the accused DJ and we knew that he played at their events – including the event from which they banned Kai. They continued to deny that they had knowledge of any such rumours and intimated that it was part of a campaign to sully their reputation.
Sipho told them that there is no way they could not know because other KOP DJ’s, who were close friends of theirs, were central to the telling of this story and had at the time, pressurised Kai to cancel him. Kai had spoken to me in-depth about this allegation and asked me what stance he should take if it remained a rumour and the alleged victim did not lay a charge of rape against the alleged perpetrator. It was a complex engagement.
The young male owner said that even if they had known about it there was nothing they could do because it did not happen on the premises of their KOP event. I asked them if KOP is where the violation had to take place in order for them to ban someone and he answered yes. I pointed out the contradiction of their assertion and asked why then, they had banned Kai based on an allegation of abuse that did not happen at KOP but had supposedly happened two months earlier in a car on the highway. They spin doctored their ethos for a while in disingenuous declarations packed with further contradictions.
I informed them that we were at home, two months earlier, when after the reported fight in the car between *Thulani* and Kai, a crowd of youngsters arrived at our house to continue the party. This is where *Thulani* and Kai began to fight on and off at our Lapa. As eyewitnesses ourselves, we clarified that the fight at our Lapa was between the two boys and that no girls were involved in the physical fight. We were mystified that Kai had been accused of wilfully hitting a girl with a baton when we knew this to not be true. At the time of this meeting we had already heard various accounts of the events but did not have a full account of what transpired in the car other than the fact that Kai was playing a game in the back seat and *Thulani* had punched him.
After this meeting we decided to investigate the story further.
In our investigation we pieced the story together through other eyewitness accounts. According to these accounts the story begins with the aforementioned fight in the car, two months before Kai was banned from KOP. After a 21st party he had invited his friends to our house to continue the party at our Lapa. On the way Kai had started playing a tapping game on his legs and the legs of the two girls, *Aasha* and *Sara*, who were sitting next to him in the backseat of the car. *Thulani* was in the front passenger seat and *June*, Kai’s girlfriend, was driving. They were annoyed by this and asked him to stop. According to *Sara*, Kai was not being violent but was being like an irritating little brother and did not stop. This is when *Thulani* turned around and punched Kai in the face. Kai was shocked and angry. They began fighting between the front seat and the back seat and the fight escalated. *June* was forced to stop on the highway where the boys tumbled out and continued to grapple with each other on the road. The girls were freaked out and phoned their friends in the other car on route to our house. Eventually they arrived and Kai and *Thulani* stopped their fight, got into the friend’s car and both cars drove to our house.
At our Lapa Kai and *Thulani* began fighting again intermittently and this is where Sipho and I became eyewitnesses. From inside our house we heard what sounded like shoving sounds and Sipho, went out to break up what was a fight between *Thulani* and Kai. Kai told his dad that *Thulani* had punched him in the face in the car and it was his right to fight back, but at that point Sipho was only interested in stopping their fight. In the four hours or so that the youngsters partied at our house, Kai and *Thulani* grappled each other three times and the third time *Thulani* had punched Kai in the face again, by his own account. Sipho was fed up and told them all to leave our property. At this point Kai was fuming about the fact that *Thulani* had punched him again.
After Sipho’s instruction to the youngsters to leave, *Thulani* says that Kai ran down the driveway with a baton. He allegedly took a swipe at *Thulani*, who told us he blocked it with his arm and ran outside. *Sara* and *Aasha* came up to the house to inform us that Kai was wanting to continue the fight – and Sipho ran down, took Kai in hand, and told all the friends to leave and not come back. He stated that when he got there the youngsters were still hanging around in the garden and *Thulani* was way up the road, while Kai was being held back by a friend. Later eyewitnesses told us that they had not seen Kai actually hit *Thulani* because he had run up the road when he saw Kai coming down the driveway.
When interviewing *Thulani*, I asked him if *Aasha* had been hit with a baton at the house and he said: no she had not. To this day we do not understand how *Aasha* had conflated the tapping story with the baton that she allegedly told the Kop owners Kai had hit her with. There were plenty of their friends with whom they could have verified the allegation, but they chose to ban Kai instead. It is baffling that when Kai informed his friends that he had been banned for abusing *Aasha* with a baton, none of them challenged the KOP owners on this erroneous account of events but chose to be bystanders. In interviews with friends all of them, including *Thulani* said that they did not think it was fair for Kai to have been banned from the event.
The day following the fight *Aasha* is said to have sent her friends photos of a bruise on her leg, alleging that Kai had wilfully attacked her the night before. However, to go back to *Sara*’s interview, she told us that Kai never attacked any girls in the car, and he was not tapping on their legs with enough force to cause a bruise. She said that *Thulani* had steadily tried to get at Kai over the seat and that *Aasha* may have been bruised when he was clambering to get at Kai. *Aasha*, she told me, was sitting next to Kai and was close enough to possibly have gotten hurt in their fray. *Sara* added that at no time did Kai try to hit them, run up on them to attack them and that it was only the tapping on their thighs that took place. She concluded that the only violence that had taken place was between *Thulani* and Kai and that *Thulani*’s punch was thrown out of anger at Kai, not as a defensive measure. She also said she had heard about the photo of the bruise but had never seen it.
Some three years later, all of the friends interviewed have said they did not see the bruise nor the photo. I recently reached out to offer *Aasha* the chance to tell her side of the story, account for her allegations and produce the photo of her bruise. She did not respond.
We asked why, if by *Aasha’s* account, she was attacked by Kai in the car, she stayed at our house for four hours or so, after such an occurrence. Friends said that they had no knowledge of her having been hit or bruised because she never mentioned any of this at the Lapa. The matter of the alleged bruise had only came up the following day.
Sipho and I, as eyewitnesses to their departure from our property, are certain that when *Aasha* came up the driveway to tell Sipho that Kai was still wanting to fight, she had no signs of injury and all the youngsters left our property in one piece before Sipho closed the gate. We are also certain that no one was injured and that Kai was the only one who was punched.
In our interview *Thulani* told us that he punched Kai in the face in the car because he would not stop when the girls asked him to and insists the Kai intentionally hit his girlfriend on her leg. Later in the interview he told us that he did not really know what was happening in the back seat but that he got mad at Kai for not listening. By all accounts punching someone in the face is a potentially lethal act and if a criminal charge had been laid against *Thulani* he would have had to explain why he did this when Kai posed no physical threat to the girls nor him. That Kai had not stopped and irritations escalated has, it seems, been framed as an assault by *Aasha* and *Thulani* – though Kai told me, and *Sara* verified, that the tapping was playful and Kai had no intention to harm the girls. According to *Sara* after Kai was punched in his face violent words were exchanged.
THE UNMENTIONED BREAK-UP OF THULANI AND AASHA THE NIGHT BEFORE
*Thulani* told us that he had punched Kai in the face again, at our house, because Kai was arguing with his ‘girlfriend’ *Aasha*. What *Thulani* did not mention in his account was that he had broken up with *Aasha* at a party the night before and that Kai and *Sara* had looked after *Aasha* that night, so upset and humiliated was she that *Thulani* had broken up with her in full view of their peers. Kai had told me this story the following day and said that *Thulani* had told him he had to break up with *Aasha* because his mother wanted him to end what seemed like an unhealthy relationship and she did not want her spending weekends at their house.
In our interview *Thulani* avoided my question as to whether the bruise could have been caused by himself as he clambered over the seat to get at Kai. He showed no remorse at the fact that he had punched Kai in his face twice. *Sara* indicated that she had picked up a vibe between *Thulani* and Kai at the 21st party and she sensed things were not right. She says that this vibe may have been there because Kai had, as is his nature, been unable to leave *Aasha* in distress the night before (when *Thulani* broke up with her) and had offered her a place to stay at his house in case she harmed herself. This is what Kai had told me the following day when I asked why *Aasha* was in his room. Kai also told me that he thought *Thulani* was an arsehole for breaking up with *Aasha* at a party instead of somewhere private.
Some friends have speculated that perhaps *Thulani* felt shame at his actions and was mad that Kai’s kindness towards *Aasha* had shown him up as insensitive. Kai was known as a caring friend who was not one to witness distress without offering his assistance. They also say that *Aasha* was incredibly broken by the break-up and perhaps wanted to retain the relationship with *Thulani* and she may have acted in a manner to protect *Thulani*. There has also been speculation that *Thulani* may have, in his fury, emotionally manipulated *Aasha* in her vulnerable state to make a false accusation against Kai. *Sara* told us that *Thulani* and *Aasha* did re-bond over their decision to teach Kai a lesson by cancelling him.
What came out quite strongly was the suggestion that *Thulani* went all out to cover up his potentially criminal role in the fight by laying the blame squarely at Kai’s feet and that he was central to the profiling of Kai as a monstrous abusive male in a calculated orchestration of lies – starting with an alleged bruise. This begins to take on the proportions of the Johnny Depp / Amber Heard trial.
*Sara* added that after the fight at our house they all went to another friend’s house where a discussion ensued about how unacceptable Kai’s aggression was. She said that *Thulani* and *Aasha* were pushing for them all to shun him and when they showed no real interest in this *Thulani’s* anger at them was palpable.
RECONCILIATION, REJECTION, REMORSE – AND THE LACK OF IT
Kai was very upset by the events of the night before and still angry at *Thulani*. I spoke with him and asked him to cool off at home for the week. This is when he made the decision to apologise to his friends for not stopping the tapping when asked to and for engaging in the ongoing fight with *Thulani* instead of deescalating the situation. He set about sending apology notes to his friends who witnessed the fight. He also set up meetings to resolve the issue face-to-face. Many accepted his apology, saying that Kai was genuinely remorseful and had made steps to work on himself.
During this period, the female KOP owner told me that she had knowledge that Kai had met with *Aasha* and they had a positive and reconciliatory conversation in which they expressed their love for each other as friends. I informed her that I had knowledge that Kai had been in venues where *Aasha* was during this period as he had told me that she had come to ask him a question at a venue on one occasion.
At this point I had taken Kai to see a specialist, at his request, and he started on a course of anti-depressants which the specialist said would balance out the chemistry of his still developing brain and help him cope with stimuli that may trigger anger. But according to friends *Thulani* was adamant that Kai needed to be taught a lesson and that he was the wronged party. He refused the apology and overtures to meet with Kai and told the girls who decided to continue their friendship with Kai that they were disrespecting him as he was “protecting them from Kai.” They said they were ghosted by many in the wider group as a result.
Despite Kai’s earnest attempt to set things right and to be accountable for his role in the fight, what followed was a two month orchestrated campaign that profiled Kai as a violent drug addled woman abuser which culminated in his being banned from KOP.
KOP AND SOCIAL CURRENCY
Some of Kai’s friends say that he was profiled and crucified by KOP as a way to ratify their ethos because he did not hold enough value for them to afford him the same protection they afforded their DJ, drug pushers (who apparently, are a necessary element to their party world) and their friends with social currency. One of his friends said that they just threw Kai away because they had got what they wanted from him and had no more use for him. Kai had made plenty short videos on KOP, at his own expense, showcasing their event on social media. At the time of this event KOP was working out of The Third Place (Now Bunker) Newtown. They are currently working from Smoking Kills Bar in Melville.
(Part two to follow) THE ORCHESTRATED CAMPAIGN AGAINST KAI SINGISWA.
*I reserve the right to tell this story, not only as a learning moment about the dire effects of cancel culture on the youth, but also to restore Kai’s reputation and dignity as he is no longer here to defend himself in the face of the ongoing posthumous profiling of him by those who act to protect themselves.*
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