A portrait of racism: The Making of #MattTheunissen, by a former classmate

I went to school with Matthew Theunissen. We weren’t
friends, but our matric class was small enough that you got to know everyone
pretty well.
I wasn’t his biggest fan, and I can’t say I was surprised when,
just before this furore broke, a screenshot of his now-famous Facebook status
popped up on my phone along with the message, “Remember this oke from high
school?” Nevertheless, it was disheartening to realise that what the Class of
2007 was eventually going to be famous for was one man K-wording himself into
social oblivion.

This isn’t a character assassination: Matt has already
assassinated his character enough himself, both with his original post and with
his tone-deaf apology on Cape Talk that sounded – in the words of my housemate
– as if he was a small child caught by his teacher pulling another kid’s hair.
“Sorry, ma’am. No, I didn’t mean to pull hard. Ja, no, I
promise, I won’t do it again.”

Much of the discourse around #MatthewTheunissen is that he’s
just another typical white Capetonian: a closet racist. But Matt is not a
typical white Capetonian: he’s a typical white guy from KZN, which is actually
where we grew up. We might, if we’re feeling cynical, even call him a typical
white South African. Because, be honest: every white person in this country
knows a man like Matt – not someone who merely grandstands about BEE at the
braai or quotas in the Springboks, but someone who believes that every
contentious thing in our changing society is sharply, deliberately and
personally pointed at them, and chooses only the most base and disgusting
language to express it.

Our school – Crawford North Coast, a small private school in
Tongaat – is what outsiders would call “diverse”. When Matt said on radio that
he had friends of colour – the old “my best friends are black” bit – he was
technically telling the truth. Personally, the vast majority of my friends at school
were black or of Indian descent. In later life I thank them for engendering in
me a decent perspective on things, or as decent a perspective as a bunch of
football-obsessed, thunee-playing hormone factories could piece together
between themselves.

On the surface, Matt had every opportunity to not end up
being – to use his word – a “proud” racist. He grew up spending most of his
time in a co-educational environment in which there was a high degree of
cultural and linguistic mixing, in which he could be (and was) friends with
black people who – thanks to the relative privilege of a private school – were
economically as secure as he was, and in which he could receive an education of
the highest order. It was a rare privilege for us to grow up in a place where
this was all normal; in a wet-dream portrait of a transformed nation at the
schools level.

But it didn’t work. Obviously. To still think it’s admissible
to seriously use the K-word, even in private, is a state of failure for any
white person with ambition to live in South Africa. Most of us seem to think
that South African society will, as generations go by, reach a state of
equilibrium, with racism eventually dying out year by year, and the old
economic and social ghosts of colonialism and apartheid eventually dissipating,
as if by magic. It’s not quick, but eventually we’ll get there, you know.

But everyone must know that Matt only speaks like he does
because the people around him permit it, and perhaps even encourage it. People
like him might now think twice about using the K-word again, but likely only
because they don’t want reprisals, not because they don’t mean it. The public
sphere has very little bearing on the private in this case, and Matt’s outburst
– like Penny Sparrow’s, like any number of outed bigots of all backgrounds and
colours – are the tip of an iceberg, whose base is vast, invisible, and
threatens to sink our society.

This specific controversy, however, personally convinces me
of something I’ve considered for a long time. Simply – and this is an obvious
point – it is not enough to achieve an outward veneer of “transformation” in
our public spaces. But, to go further, without the intentional education – in
schools and offices, of all South Africans – about how racism, sexism and prejudice
underlies and predicates our society, we’re stumbling toward the future.

School taught Matt and I about orgasms and how to avoid
contracting HIV, but no one told us what the K-word does to the psyches of
black people, or what sexual harassment does to a woman. That was left out, for
us to learn – or not learn, blatantly – for ourselves. Maybe if our life
orientation teacher, or our history teacher, or our headmaster properly opened
up that conversation in our multiracial classroom – instead of surreptitiously
avoiding it in the way adults tend to do – Matt wouldn’t have resorted to
racism when criticising Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula about his policies.

But this isn’t just politics, or just about social justice:
this is our daily lives as South Africans. Maybe, if that difficult
conversation was encouraged, one of our black friends or black teachers would
have explained to the non-blacks in our class the baggage that
that word carries, what specific horrors
it represented; things that Matt and I and everyone else would have been forced
to consider as part of our education. Things that we might carry back into our
laagers.

It’s a pipe dream, maybe. Maybe it’s naïve, but if that
happened I can’t help thinking then that Matt maybe wouldn’t have ended up
forcing legions of black people to relive their own humiliation, driving them
in rage to dig up his personal details and upload them to social media. Maybe
he wouldn’t have empowered groups of white bigots, who now celebrate him for “telling
it like it is”.

Maybe Matt wouldn’t have disappointed every decent-thinking
person he knew. And maybe Matt wouldn’t have ruined his young life. It’s all so
preventable.

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