Students surrounded the statue of Cecil John Rhodes when it was being removed from the University of Cape Town campus on April 9 following the success of the #RhodesMustFall campaign.File picture: Schalk van Zuydam

Switching off the microphone which amplified black anger is racism by proxy, writes Gillian Schutte.

Johannesburg - I am an ardent supporter of using a “profane tongue” as a protest-performance tool to challenge and interrupt the violence inherent in the dominant discourse.

I am also a supporter of the poo wars and regard the unfolding of the port-a-potty protests as the most potent disruption of elitist hegemony in post-apartheid South Africa – followed by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

At a time in our history where the collective is brutally suppressed and black anger is presented on mainstream media as the ultimate violence, the marginalised masses find new and inventive ways to make their grievances heard.

If this means spewing the human waste which they are forced to live in into the sanitised public spaces of the well-heeled, then we should applaud their bravery and inventiveness.

In a neo-colonial world order where democracy and human rights for the rich means “shoot to kill” for the poor, it stands to reason that protest becomes a desperate cry for the recognition of the collective and individual humanity of the disenfranchised.

Like it or not, defecation is the most visceral and inevitable aspect of being human no matter what your class, race or gender.

By importing the unfettered faeces of the poor collective, who live with dismally inadequate sanitation, into the deodorised spaces of those who are able to flush their own faeces away in toilets, they are successfully exposing the extreme and dehumanising cruelty of a capitalist system which privileges some and entirely deprivileges others.

By the same token using “dirty language” to express frustration at enduring white hegemony or at political elitism is an equally valid form of insurrection, as is stencilling profanities onto monoliths of race-based power rooted in a protracted history of colonialism and representative of entrenched white male privilege, such as Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Of course the common-sense response from the privileged class to to this is usually shock and outrage.

They decry the animalistic behaviour of the filthy-bodied, filthy-mouthed, uneducated poor.

They criminalise their desperation, cover their noses, eyes and ears and demand “these people” are disciplined, incarcerated and even massacred if need be.

They consent to the militarisation of the police to keep the “unclean” out of their pristine spaces. Sometimes they use elitist theory to delegitimise the intellectual premise for black protest in supercilious articles brimming with white supremacy masquerading as academic thought.

Theirs is an infantile semantic reaction. They decide how things ought to be and transpose their own set of meaning and values onto the poo protests, onto Rhodes Must Fall and onto the defacement of Jameson Hall.

Instead of engaging the semiotics of this protest action from the subaltern perspective, they insist this is just bad behaviour. They develop top-down arguments to criminalise black struggle and to silence black rage.

Italian theoretician Antonia Gramsci argued capitalism maintains its control not only through state violence but also through a hegemonic culture, which propagates its own values and norms into a “common-sense value system” that is imposed on all.

Its managers are enacted through lobbying and political funding into the realms of political influence, the mainstream media, the judiciary and the academy.

Through this well-oiled network they work together to maintain the status quo.

It is through social and mainstream-media chatter that the middle classes become the self-appointed arbiters of norms and standards as they move towards being the new dictators.

The state, as it becomes increasingly corporatised and oligarchical, readily obliges. They rely on the middle-class consent to keep the masses down – ensuring that the collective is broken, abused, and fractured to avert real possibility of mass revolt.

Civil rights activist, educator and author Dr Cornel West talks of this syndrome in the US context in his critique of President Barack Obama. He calls it the co-opting of black individuals by neoliberalism.

“We live in a time of ruthless ambition and individual upward mobility. This has largely obliterated the collective fightback and basically the black elite have betrayed the black poor,” West writes.

The black elite class is what the Left critics refer to as neoliberal blacks who are useful to white hegemony, because they can easily pay lip service to the black cause in a convincing language – but when it comes down to it, it is clear which master they serve.

In South Africa, this is seen in black protectors of white hegemony – social and media gatekeepers who perform as if they are critical of systemic issues, but scratch the surface and it is nothing more than self-serving empty rhetoric which is “well adjusted” to the status quo.

It is they who snatch the mics off expressions of black anger when their masters become uncomfortable.

In an entrenched hyper-capitalist system, such as South Africa, the dominant discourse enduringly emanates from white monopoly capital bolstered by the black elite who benefit from it.

It remains a “master narrative” based on bourgeois norms and values.

This narrative is often at loggerheads with the wider black narrative – especially when the black elite chooses to rebel against this white cultural hegemony, as happened around “The Spear” debacle.

But for the most part, the state is complicit in the white cultural and economic hegemony in the country.

It is no wonder a young black member of the audience shouted out “f**k whites” at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture – in utter frustration at the constant pushing of systemic whiteness in public spaces as well as the co-option of radical spaces by an increasingly corporatised liberal academic echelon.

It is also no wonder in an epoch where rampant individualism has taken the place of the collective, as observed by West, that a black liberal celebrity compere would take it upon himself to cut off the mic held by the frustrated interjector.

Switching off the microphone which amplified black anger, metaphorically and literally, is just what is expected of them. They are willing to be the mascots of what West calls the “superficial spectacle and hyper-visible celebrity born out of the culture of raw ambition and instant success”.

They are co-opted and incorporated into the neoliberal regime and are used to legitimate the “colour-blind” capitalist agenda.

But when they are exposed for doing the master’s bidding and reveal themselves to be complicit in the liberalist anti-black agenda, they quick-talk their way out of it using tricks of the tongue and duplicitous discourse inherent in the nature of neoliberalism.

They play host to a non-existent radicalised consciousness and claim white supremacy is high on their agenda.

Yet you will be hard-pressed to find a radical critique of capitalism and its reliance on the violence of white hegemony in their body of work.

As Angela Davis has warned: “Since the rise of global capitalism and related ideologies associated with neoliberalism, it has become especially important to identify the dangers of individualism. Progressive struggles – whether they are focused on racism, repression, poverty or other issues – are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism.”

The act of switching off the microphone of a black person expressing his anger is the violence of whitist-complicit bourgeois hegemony. It is racism by proxy.

It decides on what the rules of engagement will be. It decides on the parameters of “freedom of expression”. It decides on what is acceptable or moral behaviour.

It trivialises black protest voice as fraudulent or labels it as violent.

If it is called out, it will easily use the progressive Struggle language available in its arsenal, to deny this conservatism and appease a black constituency.

The new liberalist trend is to push the dominant discourse and then attack dissenters with self-serving platitudes about their own “progressive” agenda while dictating the terms and policing black rage. You can’t push whitist cultural hegemony and then claim, in double speak, you are doing the opposite. Oh, wait, apparently you can in this slippery neoliberal epoch, which relies on forked-tongue discourse to maintain the status quo.

Who but the chattering class is buying it? If you use the master’s tools to manage “black rage” or shut down counter-hegemonic language then you are working for the master – no matter how much you bleat the opposite.

* 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 Indendent Media.

The Sunday Independent