It’s been nearly two years since Kiné Dineo Mokwena-Kessi’s column “Black in Cape Town? Brace yourself” was published on IOL and in the Cape Argus and sparked a backlash that eventually saw comments being closed on the IOL website. We spoke to Kiné , who is now based in the UK.
How do you feel about what happened?
Fingers crossed, that article is my ticket to university! I mean, it’s downright impressive that a 16-year-old with an opinion made the South African public lose its composure. I still stand by every word I wrote. Though, I don’t like when people refer to 16-year-old Kiné as brave. Bravery implies that I felt the fear and did it anyway. No, I was fearless. Had I foreseen the wrath of my readers, I don’t know that the piece would’ve been as impactful or honest.
With hindsight, there are things I would do differently in managing the response. I honestly did not expect that backlash, and was unprepared for how it would make me feel. The insults, I took in my stride; the self-doubt, not so much. 1000+ comments of passive-aggressive critiques, misguided advice (I’m talking to you Mr. ‘If you don’t like it go home’), and comment section tantrums about the volume of my hair were…character building. I only wish I’d come up with a more measured response. But hey, hindsight is 20/20.
You are living in the UK now. Why did you leave Cape Town? We hope it wasn’t because of IOL reader comments.
I’m fleeing something far more terrifying than reader comments: KIPPER syndrome. Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement. You may be thinking, “Oh she’s young! What, 18? She’s got plenty of time.” But 18 quickly turns into 18 years later, and before you know it I’m pushing 40 and entertaining in my mother’s shed! It’s a slippery slope people, and I’m getting out. So, I’m attempting adulthood living in my grandmother’s spare room in London instead.
IOL has since closed comments on all our stories. What do you think of this decision?
I am immensely grateful for the media house taking action and protecting the dignity of all IOL writers. Nobody should have to put up with online abuse. That said, I think comment sections can work if they are properly policed. Screening comments and users would not hinder online debate. It simply weeds out those whose sole purpose is to offend. Shamelessly racist, sexist, homophobic, bridging on crime-against-humanity opinions would still get posted, just under the guise of decorum.
I write to be read. The whole point is for people to engage with what I have to say. If anything, the comment section on my piece was a fascinating article in itself, a tense snapshot of the social climate around race in August 2014. I don’t think the answer is censorship. It’s installing measures that ensure a minimum of human decency.
We couldn’t find you on Facebook or Twitter. Have you abandoned social media? If yes, why?
My online presence has always been sporadic, which I’m not proud of! Actually, since the article lots of young, creative, ambitious people with something to say, have reached out to me. I have found so much freedom in sharing what I write and I should use social media to develop and discuss those ideas. It’s a work in progress!
Do you still think Cape Town is the most racist city you’ve lived in?
Don’t get me wrong, Cape Town’s racism is viciously visceral. The city stands unflinching in its many contradictions. But, it’s not the most racist city I’ve lived in.
The thing is, I was living in Cape Town when I realized I had been facing racism my entire life and would probably continue to experience racism for the rest of my life, no matter my location. Cape Town got especially lambasted because for the first time in a along time I was home. Had I been given the same generous platform that the Argus provided, but in Joburg, or in Tokyo, or in Cardiff, the sentiment would’ve been similar.
Realising one’s blackness is a rite of passage, a fundamental part of our growing up. It just so happened that I was coming of age in Cape Town, South Africa, Africa. Being made to feel so unwelcome, almost foreign, in a place where I had also found such a sense of belonging, is a particular brand of frustration that is difficult to describe. It hurt.
What do you think needs to change in Cape Town for the city to be less racist?
That’s a good question. I don’t have a straightforward answer. Racism is contentious in part because, yes, it’s about land, and access to university education, and about the quota of faces on TV. But, it’s also about personally unlearning behaviors and attitudes of inferiority.
I’m gutted to be missing the inspiring movement sweeping South Africa’s universities. That’s an exciting answer right there, fearlessly deconstructing the reality of institutionalised racism, owning the spaces we, as black people, have every right to be in.
How do you deal with racism when it happens to you?
Pragmatism. I’ll Facetime my mum about that incident on the bus; I’ll crack a joke with my friends about how we’re that rare breed of gifted black people with impeccable diction; I’ll sarcastically contribute to that class discussion and wind up my teachers; and when I’m tired, I’ll just make a mental note of it and get on with my day.
Black people experience racism every single day. The trick is to acknowledge when it’s happening. Occasionally, I’ll write a controversial article for a daily newspaper and get it published online. But that certainly hasn’t proved pragmatic.
Have you encountered any racism in the UK?
I’m typing these answers hunched over my laptop in a hipster London café. There’s an old West Indian man reading the paper at the table next to me. “Have you encountered any racism in the UK?” I turn to him and ask. There’s a pause and he stares at me before nonchalantly answering “No. Never.” We both burst into laughter. “That’s a dumb question” he chuckles.
Now, I imagine that what he was trying to say was “yes”. Racism is part of the societal norm in the UK. Granted, context matters: Being a black person in London, and having to go to Harlesden, a more prominently black area, to buy hair products, is not the same as being a black person in rural UK, where you’re one of few. And those experiences of being black are certainly not the same as being a black South African in the Cape Town “matrix”.