To demonstrate a moral counterweight

Jacques Rousseau – who pointed out that story about Ntokozo Qwabe’s gloating triumph over a restaurant server to me – has some inconvenient observations on the reaction to Qwabe’s gloat.

First, what that reaction was:

Sihle Ngobese (SN) visited the restaurant, found the waitress – Ashleigh Shultz (AS) – and gave her the tip that the RMF table could (and should, unless they received terrible service) have given her, were it not for the fact that they objectified this woman as a placeholder for white oppression, despite knowing nothing about her, her politics, or her financial circumstances. (Something they of course should have been aware of is the likelihood that, as a waitress, she and some hypothetical intersectional movement might well find some common ground on the issue of class and privilege.)

Roman Cabanac and Jonathan Witt (who host the Renegade Report podcast on CliffCentral) started a Twitter crowdfunding campaign that ended up generating R44 778 in donations for the waitress in question. (Another crowdfunding effort also sprung up, generating an additional R15 000+.) [EDIT: Twitter user @GarethKourie points out that this second campaign has reached $5000, so, more like R70 000, meaning that AS has now been tipped around R115 000.]

Later on, we find out that the waitress has a mother who has cancer. This information was however not available at the time the campaigns started, so should be irrelevant to any analysis of whether the campaigns were appropriate or not – they were not generated to raise money for cancer treatment, but to offset her experience of abuse by RMF, and to demonstrate a moral counterweight to the callousness of NQ and his dinner companions.

I think you can sense where he’s heading – this kind of thing can turn into a version of the lottery, so it’s as well if the goods and bads of it are sorted out. Jacques doesn’t think they are.

Both of those goals could, in my view, have been achieved without creating the impression of a couple of (literally) white knights charging in to protect one of their own against the (literally) dark forces of RMF. And, creating that impression simply lends credence to one of the legitimate concerns of the RMF movement, namely that white South Africans (and people, in general) are far too unaware and unconcerned about the fate of black people compared to the fate of other whites.

And what could do a better job of demonstrating that than a windfall for a white worker stiffed by a black customer?

It’s of course true that it should, in theory, be possible to separate these issues from race, and to simply regard this as an act of generosity. But to think that people will (or even should) do so now in the political landscape that is South Africa is either naive or wilfull denialism. To refuse to countenance any criticism on this topic – as the Renegade Report hosts have done in their Twitter responses – is difficult to read as anything other than a commitment to making a point, rather than being humanitarians, even if the outcome of their commitment is a plus for humanitarianism, on balance.

That seems right to me. I think the point was worth making, but as Jacques says, it could have been made without the winning-the-lottery aspect.

This waitress is relatively undeserving of this gift compared to so many other people. The gesture can’t help but appear to be motivated less by generosity than by a vindictive “sticking to to NQ”, showing how much of a better person “we” (the donors) are.

And, as I said on Twitter, you’ll find that (or at least I find, and I eat out too many times every week) black waitstaff are routinely treated rudely, and (I imagine) tipped less generously than white ones, assuming that the level of expressed respect correlates with the level of financial support offered as tip. My claim is not that “if you can’t help everybody, you should help nobody” or something of that sort. Of course we are forced to pick our causes.

My point is that helping this one is a strike against the “fascist” RMF (as they have been described by at least one of the Renegade Report hosts), masquerading as charity, and that the optics of this case are exceedingly poor, serving to reinforce negative racial stereotypes.

It doesn’t help the argument to assert that some of the donors are black, or that this sort of argument is of the “social justice warrior” variety. The latter is a vacuous slur that completely escapes the force of argument in the sense that even if it’s true (and it is) that some folk concerned with social justice are knee-jerk thoughtless reactionaries, not all of them are. Arguments need to be addressed on their merits, not with cliches.

In short, it’s complicated, and a big windfall for the server isn’t necessarily the best response. It occurs to me to compare Kate Smurthwaite’s response to the nasty people who procured all the tickets to her Goldsmith’s show and then didn’t go, leaving her to perform for seven people – she requested donations to a charity for refugees, which got a windfall of several thousand pounds.

Read the whole post, because it’s excellent.

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