Racism in South Africa – a note on Irvin Khoza

This past week has had South Africans return to that national sore, racism. On Monday, Irvin Khoza, chair of the 2010 Soccer World Cup Local Organising Committee, responded to a difficult question by telling the concerned reporter to “stop thinking like a kaffir”. The question reportedly concerned strained relationships within the committee, stories of which have also been popping up.

Khoza tried desperately to explain and defend his racist retort, but he dug himself in deeper:

“I know the word also has another meaning, but in the context in which I used it, it refers to dubious character and unreliability,” said Khoza on Tuesday.

Khoza said he was tongue-lashing a black journalist and that the word was appropriate “for him to understand what I meant. He was being wilful”. (News24, 19 February 2008)

He doesn’t really explain, specifically, how this particular context in which “kaffir” means “dubious character and unreliability” differs from, say, an Apartheid context in which “kaffir” might mean “dubious character and unreliability”. The same can be said for “being wilful”.

Khoza was responding from a position of pressure and might not have had the time to really reflect on the context; might not have thought, in that second before he spoke, that part of the differing context – and which may license the racist language – was, perhaps, that he himself is black. But this is more or less what an M&G columnist implicitly believes:

The term kaffir is a word imposed on black people by racist whites. When Irvin Khoza accuses other blacks of “behaving like kaffirs”, he is thus accusing them of acting in keeping with standards set by the white racists. (Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, M&G, 21 Feb. 2008)

Although Moya doesn’t spell it out, the subtext in the above is that being black provides the license to call another black person “kaffir”. The turn happens between “racist whites” and “When Irvin Khoza accuses”. The “but” has been elided, but it returns in “thus” to oppose the two meanings – between the use by “racist whites” on the one hand, and the use by Irvin Khoza, on the other hand. Khoza, writes Moya, accuses someone of “acting in keeping with standards set by white racists”. In other words, it is fine for a black person to accuse another black person of conforming to a racist stereotype by using a word from a discourse that has a long history of doing just that.

Moya goes on, not all the time quite assuredly, to point out different contexts in which this might not be problematic. Throughout runs the idea that the use of “kaffir”, by black people, is in fact a politically valuable deployment because it warns the (black) target of the offense against “perpetuating the myth of black incompetence and impotence”. I’m not sure Moya is on firm sand.

What is missing from Moya’s analysis of the Khoza incident is an analysis of power, because it is in the context of power that racism is best understood. And it is the context of power, surely, that determines racism. Put another way, racism is a function of power, an expression of power, as much as it enables the perpetrator to gain power.

Might it not be that Khoza, irritated by an impertinent journalist, is lashing out from a position of power? Might it not be that Khoza inhabits fully an apartheid discourse? He may not be a politician, but he is a businessman and chair of the FIFA Local Organising Committee, granting a press conference. The journalist, unnamed and over whom Khoza has now laid a complaint, is certainly in a lesser position. The journalist needs Khoza more than Khoza needs the journalist.

It is thus ironic that Khoza thinks “kaffir” was an appropriate word to use because the journalist was being wilful. In doing so, Khoza assumes and inhabits a space of power no different from that Apartheid space from which wilful (impertinent, uppity) “kaffirs” could be kept in their place.

On the second count as well then – racism as enabling the perpetrator to gain power – Khoza is racist because by using the racist slur, he sought to quell a difficult, uncomfortable question, and thus to silence the journalist.

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