I didn’t follow the tweets and facebook discussions on the DA youth poster 3 weeks ago. Also decided to wait a while with responding, since the hype and emotions around it doesn’t necessarily create the ideal space for reflection. First: I don’t think they were necessarily wrong to create the poster. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what the poster is portraying either. On the contrary, I think the nerve that they touched with the poster need to be examined, and that we can learn a lot by slowly reflecting on our instinctive reactions to the poster. I do however think the poster is naive, and that if a romantic and/or sexual relation between a black man and a white woman is the symbol for the future that they are working for, then we need a new opposition party. So let me explain.

Some responses to the poster had so-called “moderate” voices fall back upon hard-core racist rhetoric. Comments such as “I am a DA supporter, but this is like cross-breeding a goat and a sheep” do reveal the depth of racist formation in South Africa. After a long history of attempting to convince the country that indeed that was some inherent difference associated with a few biological markers (primarily skin colour), it would be naive to think that 18 years of democracy would exorcise these ideas.

But responses on a “lighter” note is just as revealing. Decades after we have found consensus in academia that there is no such thing as “race”, that external biological markers are not revealing any internal qualities, we still find “caring” responses about the fact that the children from a mixed-race sexual relation would have no identity, or about the fact that cultures are incompatible. These attempts to justify our discomfort with an image need to be examined, its a deep reminder that we have a lot of baggage to work through.

However, what the poster are best at revealing remain hidden from public discourse. It is the instinctive feelings from those of us who have been trained on politically correct responses. I don’t use politically correct in the negative sense here! There is things that we know is acceptable (such as sexual relations between consenting adults regardless of the racial categories in which society place them), and therefore wouldn’t voice critique upon, yet continue to struggle with internally, on an emotional level. Deep within ourselves, hidden from the media, twitter or blogs, is the question whether we ourselves would be willing or able to disregard race when reflecting on our possible sexual relations, or those of our children.

I write the previous three paragraphs not as a kind of guilt trip about the deep racism which “others” still reveal, but rather as an attempt at an honest reflection from within the “own” position of white South Africans. To some extent our reactions to the poster does reveal the depth of what a racist past has done to us.

If we are to move beyond this poster, if we are to move towards the future which the DA imagine, then it might help to stop and reflect on where our instinctive responses come from. The relation between sex and race has been important throughout the development of racial notions during modernity. Studying this remain important if we are to de-racialize society, if we want to undo the effects of a system of white superiority. Within a system in which strict biological markers was associated with internal qualities, sexual relations across these racial boundaries create many questions on what the quality would be of the children born from these. The particular fear is that the “pure” white race, with its superior qualities would become extinct when mixed with “inferior blood”.

But more is at stake here. Black and white bodies is defined to some extent in relation to sexuality. The black male body being associated with a “sexual predator”, always seeking to prey on the white female body, to rape the white female. The black female body is defined as the tempter, responsible for tempting the white male body into unacceptable sexual relations. Furthermore, the black female body is constructed in the gaze of the white male as a sexual object, a body good for the gratification of white male sexual desires, as long as these remain out of sight, since the children born from these relations will be of  “lesser quality”. In contrast to the black female body, the white female body is supposed to be “pure” (reminding that race and gender cannot be separated). And the white male body? Well, since it is white males that construct identities under a racist patriarchal society, these bodies are possible considered the most perfect beings, in perfect balance. But the modern history of racism is scattered with the untold stories of white men raping black women, to some extent being the act against which many of the above notions is constructed.

I point this out as a reminder that indeed the DA is on to something when they imagine a future where the racialised nature of sexuality no longer determine the social networks of society. On a side note this short reflection should remind us that if they changed the poster around so that it was a black male and white female, they might have found themselves with even more fierce reactions, but let’s leave it at that.

However, I found the poster to be deeply dissatisfying. Not merely because it was provocative (sometimes public images need to provoke reaction to stimulate public reflection), but because I find it somewhat conservative… and yes, I did intend this last statement. Let me explain.

The poster seek to reveal the depths of our personal prejudices and fears concerning race, and imagine a future no longer determined by these. This is its strongest as well as weakest point, as one of my mentors sometimes said. While I tried to point out the strength of this image above, the limits need to be discussed as well.

Let’s put is this way: while more difficult to portray in a single image, an image imagining a future where schools reflect the reality of the country, and where we don’t look twice at this might have been more radical. A future where if I drove past any primary school, the playground would reflect kids exhibiting features which once was used as markers dividing people, and where these markers would no longer determine who is in this school. In short, an image imagining a future where basically every school would consist of a majority of black kids and a minority of white kids, merely because race no longer determine where kids go to school.

Or what about an image of a South Africa where the super-rich no longer dominate in extremely expensive residential areas which exclude the majority. What about an image which imagine a future where my level of education and my position at work no longer determine who my neighbour would be, a future where the vast inequalities no longer exist. While the relation sex and race is indeed very important, and has been an important contribution to maintaining the racist social structure of society, exclusionary economic practices has been as important, if not more. Merely accepting a future where we don’t look twice when a white man is in a sexual relationship with a black woman to some extent simply reinforce the existing status quo, a status quo where a small, generally economically secure, white minority mix freely with the emerging black middle class and elite while assuring that the privileged position of some (although the image of exactly who the “some” is might change) remain intact and the majority remain in dire circumstances (the majority in South Africa remaining, and possible remaining for the imaginable future, the Black African population).

While I welcome the challenge the DA Student Organization bring concerning the way in which sex and sexuality has been racialised, and indeed I hope that they would do more than a poster, and contribute to a healthy public debate on the actual complexities involved with their image, the poster still leave me wondering whether they are willing to voice the necessary critique against exclusionary economic practices, internationally, but with its counterpart in South Africa. Will the DASA be willing to imagine a future where we will not allow residential spaces which exclude the majority and which are ecologically unsustainable, schools which are only for the elites while many rural black schools provide horrible education, super-salaries for some while unemployment remain a primary challenge. All these questions has as much to do with race as sex has to do with race, but they force us beyond the questions of personal prejudice. While the sex questions might contribute to renewed challenging of structural racism in the long run (a different argument, but I do think that it is indeed the case), on its own it might just comfort us into believing that racism is merely about not being willing to date a black or white man.

Since December 17 thousands have been joining facebook groups and reading newspaper articles about the law which would ban teen kissing. The law cab be found in the CRIMINAL LAW (SEXUAL OFFENCES AND RELATED MATTERS) AMENDMENT ACT, which, sadly, I believe few have read. But then again, being an 80 page document, this is no wonder:-)

For quick reference, you the debated lines can be found on page 3 (2 of the PDF) in the third last bullet, and page 24 line 35 to 26 line 12 (pages 13 and 14 of the PDF), with important definitions on page 12 (7 in the PDF) line 32-36.

It comes down to this. It is theoretically possible that someone could make a charge against children between age 12 and 16 kissing, or partaking in any other form of consensual sexual contact. However, if both parties was between these ages, charges has to be made against both (thus, a daddy mad at his 13 year old daughter’s 14 year old boyfriend cannot take him to court without taking his own daughter to court as well, if I interpret this correctly).

Most of what I’ve read in the document, and I haven’t read everything, I find to be helpful. Stricter laws on sexual offenders will help us a lot, as well as the broadening of the concept of rape, some of what I’ve read would seem to help victims of rape who in the past would have had a much more difficult time proving what happened in court (for example the fact that if a guy now has sex with a drunk girl, this can be considered rape). But this one point about consensual sexual acts (including kissing) seem to be causing some trouble, and the media is helping the idea that the whole law is simply about teens kissing along.

One of the fastest growing facebook groups in South Africa is Everyone Against the new Kissing Law, with the related Kiss in Protest!event is growing fast. The idea of this event is a type of guerrilla war, where they would gather in small groups all over the country and protest against this law. Protesting would involve:

“On 1 January at 12:00 people hang out together at the different places with their banners and Tshirts and badges and stuff… Those who want to kiss can kiss or hold hands or hug or just hang around & hug people who walk by or kiss them on the cheek… the whole idea is to show that kissing is harmless and the law is a freaken joke!”

There seem to be a typo in this quote, the event is actually supposed to start on January 5, Saturday, and then continue every other Saturday henceforth.

So, a few thoughts I’m having: You will notice that participants in the facebook groups are pulling things out of proportion, for example by mentioning 100’s of police appointed to watch over teens at movies, this do not seem to be what the law implies (you might want to read some of the discussion threads in the first-mentioned group. The discussion there seem to be of a bit higher standard than the hundreds of wall-posts). On the other hand the law does seem to be infringing on the rights of teens. I cannot see what good can come from taking a 15 year old kid to court for kissing her boyfriend. My experience is that this would ultimately end only in rebellion, and in sexual activities being taken even further underground.

But the intended guerrilla war being planned also leaves me with an extreme discomfort. First of all, although the authors of the groups seem to be fighting for the rights of kids, they are now rallying kids themselves, kids of age 12/13 even, to take part in a political protest. Furthermore, the way in which this is done is through public display of affection, not in itself problematic, I think, but when display of affection becomes a political means to an end, I wonder what we have gained. A law might again be changed, but what are we teaching these kids? Although the taboo nature of sexuality is an extreme problem, taking it into the realm of public entertainment, and even political protest, is not teaching teens anything about the beauty of sexuality. If you want to make out a public protest at Menlyn is not the place to do it.

Time will show what will be happening on Saturday, and in the coming weeks. On the one hand this is a very good example of how a tiny part of the law can be blown up by the media, while much more important things remain in the dark. In spite of my own discomfort with this part of the law, and I am very much uncomfortable with it, I wish all the energy going into this would have gone into showing children (according to the definition within this act) their rights when it comes to rape. Still huge amounts of children never report when being raped, don’t talk about it, and feel that coming out will only cause pain, without any consequences for the rapist.

I’m currently consulting with a lawyer friend, so might have some more accurate thoughts later next week. But in the meantime, what’s your thoughts on the whole thing?