Cape Town - The City’s Mayco Member for Safety and Security JP Smith came under fire on Wednesday for saying he would not be mentioning an MC’s surname at an event because “the vowels were too awkwardly placed” - and there is a reason it sparked such a furore.
Dr Mark Hoskins, who lectures on theories of race, political philosophy and South African politics at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), explained that the backlash needed to be understood within the broader context of South Africa.
“South African society is ubiquitously racial, and why it is still guided by a racial logic needs to be understood within the historical and material context of British colonial capital and its exploitation of the gold fields of the Witwatersrand. It is within this context where racism in its egregious excesses are rooted.”
"JP Smith’s remark is a modern-day remnant of what was started with the discovery of gold a hundred years ago with British colonialism, and further consolidated under apartheid.
“Racism, therefore, is ever-present in South Africa in its virulent form as espoused by Penny Sparrow, Vicky Momberg, Adam Catzavelos and, in its more benign form, which in American parlance is termed a micro-aggression,” Dr Hoskins said.
The incident took place on Wednesday when Smith was attending a film industry engagement.
When it was time to acknowledge the event’s MC, Abongile Nzelenzele, Smith said that he was not going to attempt to say the surname of the Cape Talk presenter, and that Nzelenzele’s surname should be simple, like “Smith”.
“To our MC Abongile, I’m not even going to try that surname dude, it has too many vowels, too awkwardly placed. Need to have a nice, short, compact one like me, ”Smith“. It also ensures anonymity...”
Smith’s faux pas was posted on Twitter, accompanied by a clip of the incident.
Regarding the incident, Smith initially refused to comment, saying he would rather speak to Nzelenzele first, before addressing the situation publicly.
The City of Cape Town later, however, commented on the matter on Twitter:
“The City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security, Alderman JP Smith, has called and spoken with Mr Nzelenzele. He confirms that he took no offence at the remark, nor did Mr Nzelenzele think there was any ill intent.”
Good day,— City of Cape Town (@CityofCT) September 8, 2021
The City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security, Alderman JP Smith has called and spoken with Mr. Nzelenzele. He confirms that he took no offence at the remark, nor did Mr. Nzelenzele think there was any ill intent.
Hoskins added that Smith’s utterances could be construed as a micro-aggression because it deploys subtlety and deflection to racialise.
“He hides what can be inferred as a racial mind, which is not unlikely in South Africa presently across the racial divide.
“We racialise all the time - we make assumptions about other race groups with regard to what they eat, how they dress, how they talk and how language is used and spoken; Afrikaaps is a case in point,” Hoskins said.
“Members who belong to a particular racial group, too, make jokes and lampoon each other within the racial group about certain cultural markers that are defining of that racial group. These racialisations are most times innocent and done unconsciously, and in other instances perpetrated with the intention to malign and harm.
“Having said that, in JP Smith’s case, as a controversial public figure, it would have behoved him to have made the time and effort to find out how Abongile Nzelenzele’s named should be pronounced.”
Hoskins explained that because we live in a hyper-racialised society, Smith’s utterances came across as particularly egregious.
“Maybe he intended it as a joke, but the hyper-racialised context trumps the possibility of it being intended as a joke or an innocent utterance.”
Reactions on social media have been less than kind, as many took issue with the moment and expressed their anger.
White privilege in action is not having to respect another human being enough to even bother trying to pronounce their name, simply because it's outside your "norm".— Robert (@RobForbesDJ) September 8, 2021
They don't seem to realise that this act of racism affects more than just the victim. It demonstrates an attitude to racism in general. Also this idea that racism only affects who it was aimed at. The city now just spamming people the same response. Again, shame on @CityofCT https://t.co/pGzA1FOIvc— Andreu (@zebalon_CULE) September 8, 2021
I bet he can pronounce bartholomeu dias jan van riebeeck apartheid perfectly. https://t.co/kwDAzWg2pq— Reeves (@singfromthehair) September 8, 2021
The most ironic part of this is that Nzelenzele actually sound a bit like H*len Z*ille but he doesn't struggle with that name https://t.co/XNbg0iEgSp— danielsunss (@danielsunss) September 8, 2021