When white women paint their faces black to mock a marginalised por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion, it can be called geno­cide, writes Nadira Omar­jee

CityPress - - Voices - Omar­jee is a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Wits Cen­tre for Di­ver­sity Stud­ies

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.

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