AN ASSAULT ON DIGNITY
When white women paint their faces black to mock a marginalised portion of the population, it can be called genocide, writes Nadira Omarjee
According to the Geneva Convention, genocide – in its broad definition – is an “outrage to personal dignity”.
The painting of black faces on white skins and the donning of domesticworker clothes can be read as an “outrage upon personal dignity” of a marginalised group of people in the South African context.
The historical events that led to the inclusion of “outrage upon personal dignity” within the definition occurred during the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
It was the specificity of acts that robbed families of the bonds of love.
In Bosnia, Serbian lieutenants and colonels sodomised Bosnian fathers and sons in full view of one another. These fathers and sons were never able to face one another after witnessing the horror and shame of their violation.
The atrocity associated with a taboo (homosexuality) removed the dignity of these men. It was a deliberate strategy to break familial relations leading to a crucial moment in international law when sex crimes in the context of wars became war crimes.
What bearing does this historical illustration in the former Yugoslavia have for post-apartheid South Africa?
Let’s go back in time to the former Yugoslavia when ethnicity was not a premium.
Instead, people lived side by side and intermarried, living and loving the other/neighbour.
But this changed with the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
A need for an identity stripped the bonds of love that existed between the self and other/neighbour. A fight for statehood played out in identity politics with people doing (performative aspect) ethnicity.
It was in the doing ethnicity that the backdrop for genocide occurred in the former Yugoslavia. But what does doing ethnicity mean?
Early this month, two young, white, female students at the University of Pretoria dressed up as black domestic workers.
A photo of them smeared with black polish went viral on social-media sites.
What seemed an innocent act of dressing up as domestic workers became an outrageous offence in post-apartheid South Africa. Why? What were some of the responses to this photo? Many thought it was distasteful, but not a travesty of justice.
Others were insulted and felt that black people’s dignity was being denied by the mockery of painting on black faces.
Why such diverse reactions to what seemed to be a rather innocuous act?
Simply put, in a country where passing narratives for racial purity seem an ever-present illusion, white bodies occupy a privilege that continues to be perpetuated within material circumstances of the national body politic.
On the other hand, black women are still by far the most marginalised in post-apartheid South Africa and material circumstances have shifted insignificantly for them.
Painting on black faces by white women becomes an act of genocide when it mocks and strips the dignity of poor, black women who are the nurturers and displaced mothers of privileged South Africans.
The mockery of poor, black women is not solely felt by them, but by the price they pay for abandoning their own children to nurture, in most cases, white South African children.
Painting black faces on white people is an act of genocide because it mocks the burden and indignities of poor, black, domestic workers in South Africa.
It is an abomination in the face of the very need for social cohesion that is being sought to re-establish dignity after a history of apartheid.