Society

'It's not surprising that born-frees are racist': Experts weigh in on Miss SA saga

24 May 2020 - 00:00 By ALEX PATRICK and BELINDA PHETO
Miss SA hopeful Bianca Schoombee was forced to withdraw from the pageant after offensive tweets surfaced on social media.
Miss SA hopeful Bianca Schoombee was forced to withdraw from the pageant after offensive tweets surfaced on social media.
Image: Instagram/Bianca Schoombee

The n-word might be ubiquitous in rap, but that doesn't give everyone carte blanche to use it.

That was the warning this week from Wits University historian Hlonipha Mokoena after two Miss SA entrants saw their hopes crumble over teenage tweets containing the n-word.

When she was 14, it emerged on Tuesday, Bianca Schoombee used the n-word and repeatedly referred to women as "sluts" and "bitches".

On Wednesday, the 21-year-old stepped away from the 2021 pageant, and on Thursday she parted with modelling agency Sync.

Then social media sleuths found the n-word in posts from 2010 to 2013 by another entrant, Oneida Cooper, who said she would not yield to "cyber-bullying" by withdrawing from the competition.

"I wish nobody out there is subjected to the cruelty of what I've endured in the past few days," said Cooper, daughter of struggle veteran Sathasivian "Saths" Cooper, who was locked up for nine years during the apartheid era.

Cooper, 27, said the Covid-19 lockdown had given people more time to persecute others. "Tweets ... amongst my teenage girlfriends that have been circulated have been geared at presenting me in a negative light," she said.

I wish nobody out there is subjected to the cruelty of what I've endured in the past few days
Miss SA hopeful Oneida Cooper

"To have certain individuals trying to break down your race, your culture, your political stance from a few tweets is so unfortunate because it is far from the truth. It would be remiss of us ... to not believe that people can grow."

Schoombee initially agreed to speak to the Sunday Times, but yesterday changed her mind when the newspaper declined to sign a legal waiver.

Mokoena, from the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said popular culture and social media had created "the false impression that the n-word is democratic and that any black person in the world can and does use it".

However, "only African-Americans can and should be allowed to use the word. As black South Africans, we have a country run by us, a constitution that we have written, and a set of rights which are every day protected by the law.

"African-Americans do not have that power and so the n-word is what in America they call 'fighting words'.

"Social media has unfortunately trivialised this word ... It should always be clear that the word will never be acceptable to use by anyone whose ancestors have never been hung from a tree. Period."

Other experts said it should not come as a surprise when the born-free generation expresses racism. Diversity and transformation specialist Dr Claire Kelly said oppressive systems, behaviour and attitudes did not stop with the end of apartheid, and people with a struggle history were not immune from racism.

"In general, white life is valued more than black life in SA, white culture is valued more, white aesthetics are valued more. So no, it is not surprising that the 'born-frees' are racist," she said.

"We mustn't think that people who were in the struggle or who have parents who were in the struggle are somehow exempt from these things. It's about perpetuating the narrative that white/light is superior and black/dark is inferior, and that happens in many different ways."

Language practitioner Cornelia du Plooy said words do not easily change their meaning no matter who uses them.

"It's not just about the intention behind the use of a word that's deemed offensive, it's about the place that word holds in society, the harm it's caused, that gives it more or less power," she said.