Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stereotypes, fragmented bodies and consumerism

With the advent of the festive season the advertising industry has escalated their shock factor: advertisements seem to be working really hard to get the consumer’s attention. A few adverts have caught my eye recently—for all the wrong reasons. While browsing at Stuttafords I was confronted by an image of a woman's legs with the rest of her body forming the shape of a Christmas tree made of shopping bags. I shared the image on Facebook and friends pointed out my discomfort about the advert wasn’t irrational. One friend responded with “Woman-as-object. Shopping stereotype. Sexualization. Fragmented body.” While another cleverly joined in the conversation with “Nothing wrong, here. Just another womyn objectified to sell sh*t. Buy our sh*t. Get sex.”

The picture I took while at Stuttafords

I made my discomfort known to Stuttafords via Twitter only to be told the ad is part of a larger “Spoil campaign” with images of men and women whose faces and bodies have been replaced with shopping bags. I guess the advert got my attention but for the wrong reasons. My initial outcry was the fragmented female body but the images Stuttafords uses for their campaign feature a fragmented male body as well. This does not make the advert any more palatable but more dangerous. The fragmentation of the body in the name of consumerism highlights the consequences of the lifestyle: that we are in fact dehumanised by the need to consume objects we probably don’t need. Exaggerating is a strong feature in advertising but in the “Spoil campaign” case I think it is inadvertently illuminating about the state of our humanity in a consumerist society.

I was then struck by a PEP advert on television about quick and easy loans by simply walking into a PEP store with an ID. This is not the first ad of its kind (there’s one about a guy in a taxi who gets rejected by the bank and discovers PEP loans after all his efforts). What caught my attention in this advert was the use of the black,working class woman caricature (or stereotype). It shouldn't be a surprise that this image of the black, poor woman is used given the target market and the customers of PEP stores. It’s the same kind of woman used to advertise washing powder and chakalaka. Instead of offering poor, black women a way to save rather than spend, the advert PEP has before Christmas encourages debt. This advert highlights the lack of regard for a group of marginalised people who need financial security rather than getting into more debt in the name of the Christmas season. I am yet to see an advert about a service that encourages the stokvel savings (many black women are part of stokvels in their communities) rather than the usual image of the poor, black woman who must consume blindly even though we know in reality this kind of consumption has dire consequences for the woman and her family.
One of the woman in the the advert:

Right at the beginning of the festive season Shoprite had a Christmas advert with a striking, cute, black, little girl used in the advert. She was very light-skinned to the point where I noticed the yellowing of her skin. Perhaps it's the lighting used in the advert to highlight the happiness associated with Christmas shopping but her skin tone made me question the kind of babies that are used in adverts: mostly white children and if there are black children they often appeal to the aesthetic of whiteness with excessively light skin because white babies are more palatable to the consumer(the Telkom ad with the baby with the afro also falls into the category of yellow-looking children). 
The cute, little girl:

This shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as most black people in advertisements are light-skinned black people. They are often referred to as yellow bones: an offensive term initially used to describe light-skinned women to highlight their attractiveness. This is colourism. Alice Walker coined the phrase to explain the “discrimination within communities of colour towards those with darker skin.” This is a dangerous reality given the attention on the skin lightening industry in South Africa and the rest of the continent. And now young children watching t.v. adverts are getting a strong message about what it means to be pretty and cute on t.v. and magazines. Colourism mostly affects women as black men are seen as more attractive (think alcohol adverts in smokey rooms and pubs with sauve, dark chocolate-skinned men). The obvious problem with colourism is its link to whiteness being privileged as the standard of beauty: the closer a black person is to whiteness, the more desirable they are.

I could list more adverts that have caught my attention for the wrong reasons recently. This probably means the adverts have been successful because adverts are designed to catch the consumer's attention. However they didn't catch my attention because I'm interested in the product. They caught my attention because of they are problematic and perpetuate images that appeal to negative stereotypes and racist ideas about beauty and attractiveness. Perhaps this is the purpose of advertising: to confirm our reality as consumers so that we can rely on the same tropes which define our reality. Heaven forbid advertising challenged our reality.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


So The Writer went into teaching. And she loved it. She was very happy because she had always felt that of all the work that anybody can do in this world, teaching is one of the best jobs. And for a while, everything was fine. She was a good teacher too. The children liked her classes. She made everything she taught sound as if it had something to do with the lives they lived in their homes, as well as the lives they would live one day, when they grew up. She also made them laugh about life; being young, growing up and grown-ups. One thing the children noticed was that the way she taught them made things so much easier to learn.

Indeed, everything should have ended happily ever after for The Writer-Turned-Teacher. But it didn't. She was having some completely new problems. One was that just before she took the  teaching job, she had begun to write a book which she had hoped to continue working on in her spare time. However, after some time, it occurred to her that she was not working on her book. It had turned out that teaching was not just a matter of standing in front of children to talk. She had to prepare what she planned to teach. She had to do the actual teaching. She had to set her classes some work to do in school or for homework. She had to mark the work the classes turned in, and then prepare some more work to teach. Then back to the actual teaching, and on and on and on.   

This is an extract from one of Ama Ata Aidoo's short stories "Choosing: a moral from the world of work". I discovered the story by accident. I was still studying and trying to find something inspiring to read which would hopefully lead me to keep writing my thesis. I was also going through a serious bout of chronic WAB: work avoidance behaviour so looking for something exciting to read was simply part of the process. I stumbled across on a link on the university's library website. It was a link to a writing series by African writers. I was intrigued and scrolled down the list and discovered Ama Ata Aidoo's work by chance. I read a few of her stories and started spreading the gospel according to Ama Ata Aidoo to anyone who would listen. Her stories were about women I felt I could recognise. Each story felt like an introduction to a familiar old friend or relative I had met.

The story I've quoted above became quite relevant when I started teaching. I sent it to my sister because she was going through a season of figuring things out with a new job and I thought the story would comfort her because it's a story about a woman who is trying to figure out what it is that she wants to do with her life even though she knows she wants to be a writer. Throughout the story Aidoo refers to her as "The-writer-turned-teacher". 

My sister's response to the story was surprising: here I was thinking I was sharing a story as insight for her, but instead she told me the story reminded her of me. That I was the-writer-turned-teacher. I tried to convince her otherwise but the seed had been planted and I was worried about the implications of being the-writer-turned-teacher. I didn't see myself as a writer (I don't think that has changed) but in the eyes of those around me I was a writer even though I wrote short pieces for blogs and newspapers. At the time I may have started teaching in Cape Town and like any other first year of teaching there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I had chosen teaching above the prospect of doing a Ph. D and going the research route. I felt I wasn't ready for a Ph.D. 

And now at the end of the fourth year of teaching I am reminded of this story and wondering whether I am a writer or whether writing is a hobby. The longer I've been removed from my students days, the more I am removed from the idea of being a teacher. Perhaps I became a writer because I was in a space that gave me time to write and valued knowledge production. As a teacher, I have less and less time to write. At first it was big classes and mountains of marking, now it's marking with an increase in responsibilities and the admin that comes with the extra responsibilities.

Ama Ata Aidoo's story ends with a proverb that is obscure for "The-writer-turned-teacher". Fortunately my story hasn't come to an end yet and hopefully I will figure out the balance between being a teacher and wanting to write. 

'You see?' said The Mother. 'In this life, there can only be two ways of searching for anything we want. We can begin from the places we know best, and search until we get to places we did not even know existed. Or we can begin searching from unknown places until we get to old and familiar places.'
'Which one is better?' The Writer asked, hoping for an easy answer ... just this once.
'How do I know?' her mother said. 'How does anybody know? It is not easy to be wise about these things or make rules about them. It also depends upon what we are looking for. The only thing I can say is that the places that we know well are very few. Those we don't know are many. If you think of how large the earth is, then you can see how small is the part of it that we know well. So if we are looking for something, then it might be better to start from where we know best. Because for one thing, it is not really big. So that if what we are looking for is not there, we would know quite soon enough, and then we will feel free to comb the rest of the big, wide world for it.'

'Yes, Mother. Thank you Mother,' The Writer said.
Hadn't her mother also said a long time ago that it is always better to speak to a young person in proverbs and not just talk to them?

The Writer sighed. She knew the discussions were over.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Marching to the Union Building

I'm not a student. Technically. I deferred my studies for the year. Until last week Friday I had decided to distance myself from the student movement happening across the country. I kept my opinion to myself. In fact I don't think I had an opinion because I felt that I had done my time in university. I suffered through it making sure I completed my undergrad being funded by NSFAS. I thought that's what everyone did: make a plan until you get the degree. Suffering wasn't only about the finances. Culturally I tried to keep a low profile because I didn't fit into the middle class culture at Rhodes University. I went to one Trivrsity because I was on SRC that year and had to be present. Beyond that, I kept to the academics, working to make extra money and volunteering in Rhini.

But current university students have decided that the status quo is not good enough and have slowly made demands because what is happening in the universities needs to change. And they are right. So I decided I would participate in the march to the Union Building because it's important for me to show solidarity to what current students are facing. The student movement is not simply about universities but it's also about South Africans being able to make demands in South Africa twenty-one years after the promises of the 1994 moment have not been met.

Marching through Pretoria and trying to get a glimpse of the number of students who came.

Everyone has a vested interest in university and what it means in South Africa. Many people also hold an opinion about how activism should be done in South Africa and others have ideas about what change really looks like in South Africa. I've become quite fuzzy on all these issues and going to the Union Building on Friday was a small way of re-igniting the questions I have about how things ought to be in South Africa because we all agree that the world isn't good enough and we have to make it better. But how? There are so many battles to fight and many organisations doing good trying to challenge the world as we currently experience it.

I also went to the Union Building because I had the opportunity to do so. There was no school on Friday. This is significant because my current school has allowed me a way to hide away from many realities in South Africa. If I want to I can choose to be disengaged about politics and blame it on the mountain of marking I have every other week. But the truth is I don't want to get lost in the comfort of my privileged work environment and safe home. I want to be involved in the world outside my comfort zone but most times the effort seems disingenuous. When Marikana happened I was at school having a normal day and it was images in the Cape Times that made me aware of what was happening. I was hurt that the moment had passed me by because my world had become so small and insular.

"I am done with the ANC" a banner hanging outside one of the residences on our way to the UB.

As a student I had found a balance between the outside world and the comfort I had in a privileged institution. I knew what was happening in the community around me and it didn't make me smug but it made me aware of the need to hold onto some idealistic dream I had about the world changing. But as an adult this has become a little fuzzier. I am no longer surrounded by blind idealists who give of their time not expecting anything in return. I am surrounded by adults who concerned about playing house, advancing in their careers, the petrol price increasing and getting their kids into a good school amongst a list of other seemingly banal, but important preoccupations.

Perhaps there's a sense of missing being a student now that I'm supposed to be an adult. I miss the hope I had that the things I did and wrote about really mattered. I miss the meaning I attached to my life and the ideals I had. I've lost some of that since becoming concerned about pension funds, paying tax and saving for my retirement annuity. I don't know how to balance being an adult in a world where I have ticked all the right boxes and therefore live a life that is relatively cushioned. I hate being an adult because it has strangely shielded me from what's happening. My life has become smaller and I have to force myself to know what's happening outside my little world.

I went to the Union Building because I remember what it was like worrying about my fees and hoping NSFAS would accept my application. I know the sinking feeling when NSFAS says they won't cover all the fees and you have to find R4000 which seems insurmountable because I had promised myself I would sort myself out because I knew my family couldn't support me financially. Unlike students depending on NSFAS a few years later, I had someone able to pay the shortfall NSFAS couldn't cover. I can never forget the financial burden that university has been for me. And sometimes I wonder what it was worth? Going to university has allowed me the perks to live a strange middle class existence that allows me to dip in and out of the real world whenever I want.

The unfortunate part of the march: people started fires while students
were waiting to see if President Zuma would address the students.
There was more than one fire started by a group suspected to be
ANC members sent to discredit the march. 

I went to the Union Building  because a part of me wants to be part of some struggle because I don't know a life that doesn't have some kind of struggle or complexity. I don't know easy and I'm uncomfortable with the easy life I seem to have landed myself in knowing that my life is not the norm for many young black people across South Africa.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Founders' Day

I probably should have taken more pictures. Today was a good day. The kind of good that happens when the expectations have been met: we were excited, we sang the hymns, we oohed and aahed at the wrong and right moments, we walked around the school and hostel marvelling at the new improvements which are evidence of the school's progress. The assembly unfolded as it should and I knew every hymn except the second verse of "Dank God, dank hom alom"-- no surprises!

Here's the evidence:

The crazy class photo at the Old Girls Guild dinner.

last night's dinner
Selfie-gone-bad with Ms Felton--best teacher in the world and Kath Furman, the day's guest speaker

Class of 2005 vs the 2nd team. We lost 4-2

The legendary team: thanks for taking one for the team
I shan't go into the politics of the day. My nostalgia will not allow me to use that lens today. Here's to the next 10 years.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The ten year reunion

About a year ago I was in East London packing up my mother’s house and rethinking the idea of home. My mother had just had a stroke and my sisters and I had just under two weeks to wrap up my mother’s life as she could no longer live alone because the stroke was quite severe. We decided she would move to Durban to be near my sisters. As a result of my mother leaving East London I realised East London could no longer be home. It became the place where my childhood and adolescent memories had meaning. 

My visitor status was highlighted last night when I arrived at the airport. Instead of using public transport or asking my sister to pick me up, I hired a car and drove along Settlers Way on my own for the first time in my life. The road was familiar after the many trips to and from the airport and living in Sunnyridge (a suburb close to the airport) for many years. I’m not sure what I expected to happen on the short trip to my friend’s house: perhaps the cops would emerge somewhere and tell me they’ve never seen me drive on this road and therefore I had no right to be there. Or perhaps I feel like a fraud: I’ve never had to be an adult driving myself around in East London. That’s what my sisters are for. I’ve never been in East London without having a home to go to with my mother waiting to see me. I’ve never been in East London without being my mother’s daughter.

Coming back to East London for my high school reunion highlights my visitor status even more. I doubt I would be spending a few days of my holiday in East London if it hadn’t been for the reunion. Many friends have eschewed coming to the reunion and I find I have had to explain my choice to come back; even to myself. I was invited to speak at my school’s prizegiving five years ago while I was still studying in Grahamstown. I was surprised by the invitation and it came with a mixture of honour and horror that I would be the person saying a speech at my school’s prizegiving like all the white men and women who had done while I was in high school. I realised that I neither remembered their faces nor their messages. 

Like many people: I had a bitter-sweet experience at school. I mastered the art of being the good student and staying out of trouble and mostly had a holistic experience peppered with assimilation along the way i.e. the coconut. I liked most of my teachers and left matric with a glowing testimonial with the list of achievements I had accumulated in the 12 years as a “Clarriebag”. School was mostly a safe space in comparison to home where my family was fracturing while trying to survive: my father’s unemployment, my mother’s volatile and aggressive behaviour and my sisters’ quietness. School and books kept me sane. Unlike my sister (two years ahead of me)I didn’t have many friends. I wasn’t as beautiful and popular as her and I lived the quintessential high school existence vicariously through her: the rugby games, the dances, the boys and the rebelliousness with drinking and smoking. 

A whole itinerary has been mapped out for the weekend: an old girls’ dinner tonight, Founder’s Day assembly on Friday, followed by a hockey match followed by drinks and finally brunch on Saturday morning. I’m grateful for the somewhat busy schedule because I’ll have little time to naval-gaze about my sense of loss or displacement in a place I was once so certain about. I will also have a chance to meet up with old friends and decide whether I want to see my cousins or not (usually my mother insisted I see them); people I may not get a chance to catch up with again after this weekend. It feels as though there’s a lot of meaning to the weekend and no meaning at all.