Is being offended so offensive?

I’m a columnist, so it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with a fellow traveller such as Kuli Roberts.

As you may know, she was recently fired as a columnist by Sunday World for a piece she wrote for the tabloid making derogatory statements about coloured people.

When the storm erupted around her column, I quickly looked it up online. Indeed, it was offensive, making a succession of insulting generalisations about coloured women.

Here’s the thing, though. I’d actually bought Sunday World that weekend – I do most weekends – and I hadn’t bothered to read Kuli’s piece.

Why? Because Bitches Brew is hard work. The premise of the column, as far as I could tell, was to disparage in turn every sector of South African society. It was bitchy to the max, offensive, striving to be funny, but seldom pulling it off.

It was meant to be provocative, and it succeeded. Read that column every week and you could not help but be offended.

Most of Kuli’s bile seemed to be aimed at black men for being philanders and not taking care of their kids. Black women also got stick, for settling for men who didn’t deserve them. Whites didn’t escape her ire – for being unrehabilitated racists, if I remember correctly. And so, eventually, coloured people’s turn came.

As always, the prose was blunt, racist stereotypes were trotted out – possibly to be satirized, but this didn’t come across at all.

And somewhere, the wrong person read that column.

For years, Bitches Brew had been going about its bitchy, nasty business on page 7 of Sunday World and readers had simply let it be. “Ag, it’s just Kuli,” they thought. “She’s being a bitch.”

But once someone had taken offence and drawn attention to the column and it was taken out of its context, it stood naked. When you don’t see it in context alongside the equally disturbing celebrity-dissing handed out by Shwashwi, or the regular, thinly sourced allegations of infidelity, fraud, pregnancy, drug use and bankruptcy in which this publication trades, then the piece becomes truly shocking.

But it was out of context.

Soon after the outcry erupted Sunday World editor Wally Mbhele announced the piece had shown “clear prejudice against a section of South African society” and the column would be discontinued.

I don’t believe he should have done that. Surely the point of the column was always to be provocative. It succeeded wholeheartedly. I found it uniformly offensive every time I read it.

But is it that wrong for someone to be offended? The column succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in stimulating debate. It shocked us out of our blissful denial and got us to confront the deep racism that still exists. And that is the sign of a successful column.

South Africans should be grown-up enough to respond coherently, with wit, to expose weak arguments and ignorant racism. Do we need to be protected from offence at every turn until we can no longer defend ourselves?

Sure, Kuli was offensive. But I think she wanted to be. Her satire was clumsy, though, and her attempt at comedy came across as a racist rant. She should have delivered a sincere apology and been allowed to continue.

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

One Comment

  1. I fully agree with you on this one Hagen.
    its unfortunate that there wa someone with a lot of time on their hands to take this on…

    Bitches Brew serbved its purpose- endinding it was a wrong move.

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