“That’s what old Henry Ford said back then about his cars.” Gertruida folds the newspaper with a sigh. “I suppose it was acceptable in those days. We are currently far too inclined to be sensitive about these things. Just look what’s happened in Stellenbosch: two young ladies expelled for painting their faces purple. Some insist that they were doing the blackface-thing.”
“Blackface? What’s that?” As usual, Servaas displays his ignorance of trending news.
“Look, here’s the picture of the ladies, all dressed up to attend a student theme function as interstellar spacewomen.” She holds up the picture. “Hard to see any racist slur in that.”
“That looks like purple.” Vetfaan says after a few moments. “And they got expelled for that?”
“What’s a blackface?” Servaas persists.
“Well, you see, it’s an old theatre tradition. When white people portrayed so-called black characters, they used to paint their faces black. Many, many well-known actors did that, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Irene Dunne, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Chester Morris and George E. Stone. At the time, this wasn’t seen as racist – rather it introduced audiences to Afro-American culture…or so some historians say. Remember Zwarte Piet? In the Netherlands he’s a much-loved character. Or…to be more precise…he used to be universally accepted as Santa’s helper. But, sadly or not, even his role and character has become the centre of a debate on racism. Some say it’s bad, others don’t.
“The point is this: times have changed. Things that were generally acceptable fifty years ago, are now frowned upon. Today, society does not accept the blackface on face value alone any more. The calendar has ticked over to 2016 and people are much more sensitive about these things than in the previous centuries. No longer are we prone to joke about heritage or race – it’s become a serious matter.” Gertruida finishes with a flourish, happy that she’s made her point.
“Um…” Kleinpiet turns to page three. “If that is true about Stellenbosch, what about these students in Johannesburg? This is the Wits law school, so they have the right to free speech, I suppose. And see what the University had to say about it: ‘The university’s management said it had been advised that legally‚ the campaign may not be a violation of Constitution‚ which provides for freedom of expression unless it constitutes incitement to cause harm. “In this instance‚ while the messages are certainly hurtful‚ we have been advised that they may not directly incite harm.’.”
“Ag, Kleinpiet, racial tension is as old as the hills, man. Since the beginning of time, people have taken to accentuate differences – colour, culture, tradition, religion – the whole lot.” Boggel serves another round, trying to ease the tension in the bar. “It’s a bit silly, really, when you think about it. Look at our country – we are all here, moulded together into a single nation. Why on earth spend so much time trying to alienate each other, while we should be working together to build a better future for later generations? You know what’s happened? We’ve lost the vision. We’re destroying the dream. If we cannot find a way to live together in harmony, we’ll destroy each other. Banning two girls with purple faces and pussyfooting about freedom of speech are just symptoms of a society grappling with deep-rooted insecurities. While we are so terribly conscious of race, we are polarising what needs to be united. I find that exceedingly sad.”
Gertruida, at loss for words for a while, eventually nods. “I’ve got two quotes for you. The one is from Robert Sobukwe, who said: . ‘The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. In our vocabulary therefore, the word ‘race’ as applied to man, has no plural form.’ This was in 1959. The other is by Henry Ford himself: ‘I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.‘
“These two men made statements we can take to heart at this point in our country’s development. Sobukwe emphasised that we belong to one family. Ford maintained that our actions today determine our future – and that the past is of little consequence. Both were saying we must look ahead, not back. We should never poke fun at other cultures, that’s true, but we must stop skewing social morals, for goodness’ sakes! How can we object to purple faces and turn a blind eye to racist graffiti?
“It’s time for us all to start accepting some facts. We do have a colonial past – like most of the world. Slavery was accepted by our forefathers – it doesn’t imply that we still embrace the concept. Cecil John Rhodes did live here and he contributed both positively and negatively to history. Many individuals and groups forged the country into what it is today – from Kruger to Verwoerd – and we cannot change that history, even if we wanted to. That’s why Ford is correct: the only history worth anything, is the history we make today. I do so wish people bear that in mind whenever somebody wants to polarise society for political gain. Even our prez, when he sings about shooting the farmers.”
She falls silent, eyeing her little audience. There is another quote from Ford she’d like to tell them about, but she decides it’ll sting too much. No, better to remain silent on that one. It’ll only cause a protracted debate that’ll go around in circles forever, Still, it’s one of her favourites.
‘As long as we look to legislation to cure poverty or to abolish special privilege we are going to see poverty spread and special privilege grow…’
“…I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near…”
“....It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.” Dan Heymann