‘Burning whiteness’, a personal experience

Retired journalist Ed Herbst pens “Burning whiteness”, a personal experience in Kleinmond, Western Cape, in 2002

21 May 2016 – Encouraged by constant articles by Cape Times reporter Carlo Petersen inciting them to greater efforts, the Rhodes Must Fall movement escalated from inflammatory rhetoric to assaulting University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price on 9 November last year, and then to the torching of the university three months later.

I analysed these events, from a media perspective, in two articles, “Portents of Anarchy – A pre-arranged #RMF agenda?” published on the Biznews website and “Arson at UCT: What you didn’t read in the Cape Times” which was published on Politicsweb.

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As I pointed out in the latter article, the reconstruction costs of our fire-gutted universities, the results of the RMF campaign, will exceed half a billion rand. When, however, an influential magazine like The Economist headlines an article with “Whiteness burning”, the long term costs in terms of driving away foreign investment is incalculable.

http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east- and-africa/21693278- students-are-throwing-colonial- art-pyre-whiteness-burning

Harking back to Kleinmond 2002

I experienced something similar 14 years ago when I was an SABC television news reporter based at the state broadcaster’s regional office in Sea Point, Cape Town.

All the major news offices in Cape Town received a Cosatu press release on 9 January 2002 inviting them to a news conference in the small coastal town of Kleinmond the next day. The presser said that Cosatu would expose racism.

Here is the SAPA version of what transpired the next day – by no means does it tell the full story.

Anger after barber says no to curly hair

A Kleinmond barber in the Overberg has denied chasing a 17-year- old youth out of his hair salon because he is black. The barber said he had never been trained in cutting African hair textures and told the youth to have his hair cut elsewhere since he could not do it properly.

The youth has now filed charges of crimen injuria and assault with the police against Flippie Otto, who claimed on Wednesday: I can’t chase anyone, I have a wooden leg. It’s not true that I chased that young man away.

“There was a coloured guy who came here for a cut. I told him that I don’t cut curly hair because of the texture.”

The youth, Nico Martin, came face to face with Otto on Wednesday during a protest march organised by black residents of the seaside town.

Martin, who had been holidaying in Kleinmond, said he went to Flippie’s Men’s Hair Salon for a haircut last Saturday. He alleged Otto had sworn at him and threatened him. “I told him that I didn’t understand because I wanted a haircut, not trouble,” Martin said. “I feel sad and hurt. I don’t like people who treat black people like that. We should be treated equally.”

Several residents of Kleinmond said they had also been turned away from the salon.

The Western Cape secretary-general of the Congress of SA Trade Unions Tony Ehrenreich, who led the protest with local African National Congress leaders, said there had been several incidents of racism in Kleinmond.

Overberg ANC chairman Thomas Jansen and Kleinmond ANC councillor Peter Makka pledged to work with Cosatu to root out racism in the region.

“Burn the whites!”

Here is what I experienced. Other journalists who were there at the time were Eric Ntabazalila, then with the Cape Argus and now with the NPA and Aeysha Ismail then with e.tv and now a public relations practitioner.

The venue for the press conference was the local civic centre. Behind Ehrenreich sat several local Cosatu members. He introduced the complainant, Nico Martin, a strongly-built young black man, probably aged about 16 – 18 years. According to their narrative, Martin had courteously approached Flippie Otto, proprietor of Flippie’s Men’s Hair Salon and asked for a haircut. He said that Otto had verbally abused him, threatened him with physical assault and chased him off the premises.

Martin, I was later told, was at the time the guest of Ehrenreich at his country retreat in Kleinmond.

Ehrenreich then turned to the Cosatu members behind and asked for their response. The reaction from the first one was electrifying and left the press corps, myself included, stunned.

“We must burn the whites – like they do in Zimbabwe!” was his ear-piercing shriek.

There was an appalled silence and I waited for my younger colleagues, who were as shocked as I was, to respond.

The chose not to, so I did.

Mr Ehrenreich – you have brought us a long way to attend a press conference at which we understood that you were going to ‘expose racism’. What sort of racism are we talking about – the racism, we have just experienced?”

He speaks from a background of poverty and deprivation,” was Ehrenreich’s pompously dismissive response. In his arrogant attitude there was not a hint of apology, still less concern.

Eric Ntabazalila then raised his hand. “Tony, have you seen this guy” (Otto) – he asked, clearly somewhat perplexed. “He’s old and frail, he’s just come out of hospital – and he’s only got one leg.” What he was pointing out was that it was implausible to suggest that a frail, elderly man with a wooden leg would have deemed it fit to threaten a much younger, much stronger man with assault, let alone would he have had the physical ability to chase him off the premises.

This concern Ehrenreich also dismissed with a wave of his hand.

The cameraman and I then left for Flippie’s Men’s Hair Salon. It was situated next to  a garage on the town’s main street, near the petrol pumps where several young coloured women were busy filling up cars.

The “salon” was a small room with two or three normal chairs facing a mirror on the wall. Upstairs was a single-room flatlet.

Throat-slitting gestures

A dozen or so Cosatu members had followed us and had surrounded the little shop. They were pounding on the window and screaming at Otto, who sat ashen-faced and cowering in the corner as they made throat-slitting gestures and shook their fists at him. To distract him – I estimated him to be in his mid-seventies – I sat him with his back to the window and his persecutors and we bounced blue-gelled tungsten lighting off the ceiling. This allowed us to balance the backlighting and use a smaller camera aperture for more depth of field so as to reveal the thuggish Cosatu threats the old man was experiencing.

Haltingly, he said he had recently come out of hospital after a heart operation. Just prior to that a leg had become gangrenous because of his severe sugar diabetes and had to be amputated. As a result, he was struggling with his balance as he got used to his replacement wooden leg. He told me that he had politely asked the young man (Martin) to get his hair cut elsewhere because, he said, he had never before cut what he called “ethnic hair”. He was accordingly scared of repercussions if he did not possess the requisite skill to produce a satisfactory result. He denied being rude or threatening the young man with assault. He pointed out that he was not strong enough to assault anyone, least of all a strong youth more than half a century younger than himself and his false leg made the allegation that he had chased Martin out of his shop self-evidently absurd.

When the camera started rolling and was pointed in their direction as they toyi-toyied outside Otto’s little shop, Ehrenreich’s threatening compatriots immediately took fright, decamped and marched triumphantly to the local police station where they laid charges of assault and crimen injuria against Otto.

As we left Otto’s shop after the interview, the garage owner approached me. He was seething with anger. He said that Otto was frail, sickly and had no support system and so he had allowed him to stay at no cost in the upstairs room and to earn some money at his trade, hair dressing, in the ground floor room so that he could buy basic necessities.

I was running out of time, so I asked if I could, with his permission, interview his women petrol pump attendants because they must know Otto and were people of colour. He agreed.

Ken julle die ou man?” I asked the first one (Do you know the old man?)

Dja, hyse jintelmin. Hy kannie loepie, so ons doen sy inkopies en dan sny hy onse hare verniet.” (Yes, he’s a gentleman. He can’t walk so we do his shopping for him and he then cuts our hair (in return) for nothing.)

I gaped – “Hy sny julle hare?” (“He cuts your hair?”) I asked incredulously.

Dja!” she affirmed, somewhat perplexed at my surprise. I moved with the microphone to one of her colleagues and then to another. They all said the same thing. Otto was a kindly, courteous old man who was “sieklik” (sickly) and they were happy to help him. He, in return, cut their hair at no cost. Granted, their hair was of a different texture to Martin’s but they were not white and they contradicted the image that Ehrenreich and his Cosatu colleagues had sought to inculcate in the reporters at the news conference – that Otto was a rabid, white supremacist who hated people of colour, behaved abusively towards them and threatened them with violence.

It was a wrap – time to start the 90 minute drive back to Cape Town and to edit what we had shot

Hate-filled tirade

What I did not have was the Cosatu member’s hate-filled tirade against whites that we had experienced in the civic centre. The cameraman was getting wide shots and audience cutaways at the time.

I edited the story as a simple chronology and included the details of Otto’s medical condition.

The police never bothered to follow up the frivolous Cosatu charge and Flippie Otto died shortly afterwards hugely traumatised, I was told, by his experience.

Ehrenreich’s open antipathy towards white people has not diminished in the interim.

Just before the 2014 national elections he was quoted in the Cape Argus on his policy perspective. His ambition he said – in an article headlined ‘We’ll sack whites if ANC wins in Cape’ – was to impoverish half the white civil servants employed in the Cape Provincial Administration by taking away their jobs.

The article continued: Labour lawyer Michael Bagraim said Ehrenreich’s call was “not only reckless, but illegal”.

“The law is absolutely clear in that no business can retrench or dismiss for any reason in order to ensure that the equity targets are met.”

The call was “social engineering at its worst” and a form of “ethnic cleansing”.

“Clearly, Ehrenreich has no business experience, and the suggested management of the province would lead to anarchy. The statements made that white senior civil servants in the provincial government should be sacked must be seen as the rantings of a supremacist organisation.”

That is a lawyer’s perspective. For myself, Ehrenreich’s statement, like his behaviour in Kleinmond, seemed devoid of grace and the much-vaunted concept of Ubuntu to which the African National Congress constantly refers.

Furthermore, it seems light years away from the idea of nation building through reconciliation which motivated Nelson Mandela throughout his adult life.

On 3 August, Cape Town’s voters will decide which they prefer – the Ehrenreich approach or that of Nelson Mandela.

Ehrenreich is leader of the opposition in the Cape Town City Council

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