Letter from Hobeni, 22nd Sept. 2014

Indian Ocean at Mbanyana

One of the great things about internet access is that you can take part in campaigns, such as the current one about the Exhibit B event at the Barbican, from a great distance.   For those of you who do not know, Exhibit B is a conceptual art event – the concept being that black actors should be kept semi-naked, in a confined space and chained, rather like what the apartheid police did to Steve Biko as they were brutally murdering him.   Brett Bailey, a white South African artist, argues that his purpose is to make people confront racism.   Others say that it objectifies and demeans black people.   It has certainly stirred a debate, if not necessarily in the ways that the artist intended.

My experience of the last two months is that white racism in South Africa has to be challenged.   From what I have seen, voyeuristic interpretations of black people within a racist society are definitely not the way in which it should be done.   The first thing that is obvious about mixing with the white community in Hobeni is that they are deeply grieved.   They feel that they are misunderstood, and that they were forced into compromise 20 years ago by international pressure (sanctions did work) by people who did not understand their situation.

One indication of this was someone singing “Asimbonanga”, a tribute to Mandela which was sung at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.   I said “Oh, Johnny Clegg’s Savuka” and got the immediate response “A song of the enemy and it still is”.   I froze, and really did not know what to say.

But even worse was in the local bar.   A toddler was playing on the floor and someone said “That kid’s got a touch of the tar brush”.   I had not heard that phrase since I was a teenager in Ilford 50 years or so ago and to be specific the phrase I heard then was “a dash of the yid and a touch of the tar brush”.   I had to explain to an American researcher what it meant.   It was the phrase that persuaded me to join the Redbridge Community Relations Council and to help to set up the Redbridge Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (RCARAF).

On this occasion, the problem was easy to solve.   I played with the child.   I pulled faces at her and she laughed, and then she pulled faces at me.   And soon the whole bar was laughing at the two of us pulling faces at each other, and somehow her colour was no longer an issue, except in the mind of the racist who had raised the matter in the first place.   Well, I am sure that it was, but hopefully the people in the bar had learnt that this was a child, and that children should be enjoyed.   This is how you challenge racism.   Not by setting up constructs of exploitation, but simply by rejoicing in our common humanity.   I am so happy that I was able to do something so simple

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