Old white lefties turn into old white reactionaries

If you’re as committed as Jonathan Shapiro and Brett Murray reportedly were in refusing to fight for apartheid, surely being offensive about the people you fought alongside isn’t the best way to express yourself?

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By: TwitterButtons.com

CHRIS VICK in Business Day

Oudtshoorn. 12 July 2012. 11h10. TIME for another media award. This week it’s the Spear of Social Cohesion, which goes to Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, for his “dick” cartoon in Friday’s Mail & Guardian. The cartoon shows a penis-shaped President Jacob Zuma gazing into a mirror signed by The Spear artist Brett Murray. Alongside the image is the limerick:

Though sex is his publicised sport
Zuma took the dick-painting to court
Suing Brett’s free expression
Confirmed the impression
He’s as big a dick as we thought

Shapiro explained, in a media statement released by “his office”, that the cartoon captured his sceptical view of the national “social cohesion summit” organised by the government last week to help overcome decades of apartheid separation. In making his statement, he may have been hoping to steal back the limelight from Murray, but — thankfully — in doing so he didn’t get the nation back to war over a drawing.

The cartoon was, however, condemned pretty roundly, including everyone from AfriForum to the South African Communist Party, the government, the African National Congress (ANC), the ANC Women’s League, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and a whole lot of other notables.

Even the editor of the Mail & Guardian was forced to admit: “It’s possible to concede that it is not a great cartoon.”

How ironic, then, that an expression of your lack of faith in social cohesion instantly creates social cohesion across the entire spectrum of political thought?

This discovery is surely almost as profound as that of the Higgs boson. Shapiro, it appears, has found the real “God particle” — not by smashing particles together in a tunnel under the Swiss Alps, but by rubbing a pencil on a piece of paper. All that’s missing is the headline: “Rejection of social cohesion creates social cohesion”.

Due to the import of this discovery, and the background and profile of the protagonists, the judges of the Spear of Social Cohesion have suggested an additional award: the Flipside Medal, awarded to white “lefties” in the arts and media who have publicly turned right. To qualify for the Flipsider — a two-faced coin made of white gold — you must have played a role in the struggle and then have adopted particularly offensive positions from behind the shield of your proud past.

The judges have suggested the medal be pressed and sponsored by Numsa, which said in response to Shapiro’s cartoon: “We can come to no other conclusion but to accept that some white progressives of yesteryear have become racist and colonialist in their outlook since the advent of our new democratic dispensation.

“The likes of Zapiro and Murray can no longer hide their hatred for black revolutionaries to drive our society towards a non racial, non sexist, democratic society.”

Although they are by no means the only contenders, Shapiro and Murray are clear front runners for the first Flipside Medal. Shapiro certainly has the stronger struggle credentials: According to Wikipedia, “he refused to carry arms” for the apartheid army and “became active in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and was monitored by military intelligence.” He is described as being “an important participant in the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), designing its logo”. In 1988, he was detained shortly before leaving SA on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Murray was, according to public record, not quite as active an activist but was by no means an apartheid beneficiary. City Press recently described him as having been “actively engaged in anti-apartheid student politics and the battle against conscription into the army” — although it appears he had nothing to do with designing the ECC’s logo. In a recent art magazine interview, Murray said his work “addresses the clash between Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism, the old and the new S A s”. He explained: “With my work I hope to critically entertain. Through satirical and tragic reflections on SA, I hope to shift people’s perspectives and change people’s minds .”

Shift perceptions he certainly has — and, along with Shapiro, has prompted Numsa’s observation about the “white progressives of yesteryear”.

Is it true, though, that so many white progressives have become reactionaries? And if so, why are white people who were progressive during reactionary times becoming reactionary during progressive times? Surely, if you were committed to social cohesion by trying to build a non racial society during minority rule, you should be committed to social cohesion by trying to build a non racial society during majority rule?

And if you’re as committed as Shapiro and Murray reportedly were in refusing to fight for apartheid, surely being offensive about the people you fought alongside isn’t the best way to express yourself? Or does the fact that you were progressive during a state of emergency give you a licence to be reactionary in a state of democracy? And if so, does that make you any different from the people you lampoon and ridicule?

• Vick runs Black, a communications consultancy. During the 1980s, he played a minor role in designing posters and newsletters for the UDF and ECC.

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