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Mermaids

2015-03-07

Doubting stuff is not a crime

Nothing is what it seems, and demanding the truth – about people’s motives, for instance – is a universal right

It is strange to find yourself unsettled by a mythical creature. But after watching a modern choreography about mermaids in one of the annual Dance Umbrella festivals, I found myself brooding about things not being what they seem – the challenge posed artistically by this universal underwater legend being life’s perpetual illusions.
A dazzling multimedia and dance combo, it was called Ningyo, comprising in Japanese nin for man and gyo for fish, and I suppose its unexpected gender ambiguity was where the trouble began in my head. Nothing thereafter was what I expected. The performer writhed but hardly danced. The music oscillated between delicate nuances and deadening beats so that no rhythm emerged and discordance reigned.
Having assumed that mermaids were quintessentially female, here was a sexually ambivalent, repulsive and possibly dangerous version suddenly morphing into a blonde seductress – a mixture of attraction and repulsion, a woman-child between the waves covering much of the stage; then suddenly a femme fatale at the crest, sometimes prey but also huntress, alternately monstrous and beautiful.
Not that the confusion matters in the case of mythical mermaids but the show’s dramatic duality was, of course, meant to make us think about our own complex natures. Confoundingly for me, a journalist obsessed with news, the troubling Caster Semenya case was playing out at the time and my thoughts lingered on the visible and the invisible – one of the dance’s themes.
As global speculation fell on young Caster’s innocence or complicity, the story had started to spin rather like the dancer playing on stage with her shadow, dissolving it and then escaping from it. Was the runner fake or one of the fastest women alive? That was the unambiguous question.
Casting patriotism aside, we can surely all be forgiven for wondering if an athlete who improves her speed so dramatically over a brief period is concealing performance-enhancing secrets: how would anybody outside a laboratory know the truth? What I am absolutely sure about, however, is that the accusations made against her abroad were not motivated by racism, as some of my countrymen have incautiously claimed.
People everywhere are entitled to ask questions. Doubting stuff is not a crime, racist or otherwise. Indeed, demanding the truth is a universal right.
Frankly, I’m alarmed by the prevalence lately of racist paranoia in our midst (black and white being thankfully among Ningyo’s more symbiotic themes). The accusation that our financial executive is unfairly dominated by minorities is, for example, profoundly unnerving to those of us who champion meritocracy, particularly in specialist fields. Equally disconcerting is the insistence by the opportunistic Mr Justice Hlope’s supporters that judicial transformation, which has apparently happened very quickly indeed by many informed accounts, is not happening quickly enough. How on earth is one to judge?
Do we sweep such worrying racism charges under the carpet, as our president has recommended, or rather debate the culture of hatred from which they arise, as one of Zuma’s ministers suggested?
I believe our cruel history impels us to keep gazing into the multiple mirrors that reflect not only how far we’ve come but how far we have yet to go in reforming our attitudes towards each other. Apart from the politics of unreconstructed whiteness, we might usefully examine whether finger-pointers like Julius Malema and John Hlope are themselves racists. There was a time when the charge could be leveled only at whites because it reflected the prevailing power relationship between the races. But now that the country has a growing black middle class, are some of the accusers equally prey to bigotry?
I noticed when compiling this column that my own hyper-allergy to racist thought and deed made me hesitate over a sensitive description I found while researching the mythical qualities of southern Africa’s indigenous mermaid, the momlambo, who turns out to be indisputably the queen of love and desire but appears not only to demand violence from her suitors but to believe that the majority of men wander around thinking of nothing but sex all day. Was this a racist image, I pondered. Does a white writer discuss so dodgy a discovery in a country with stratospheric sexual abuse, or just leave it to the Xhosa storyteller, Dwali Nekompela, to explain blandly: “If he wants (the momlambo’s) body under the same blanket, he must cause the death of his own father. As a reward, she will be his lover, providing him with wonderful crops, rich herds, everything he desires.”
Inevitably, the eternal vigilance bequeathed to whites with the end of apartheid occasionally inhibits the honest investigation of our society and its opposing beliefs. That’s fair enough. But, hallelujah, how racially-free, guiltless, gender-neutral and generally liberating a relief it was to see the US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps simply laughing off an accusation that he was actually a fish posing as a man, his accuser, a British journalist, fearlessly stating that “sport is increasingly the showground of the freakishly proportioned”. Boldly, she drew attention to his abnormal wingspan with arms outstretched, his weird torso and his odd little legs abbreviated by large flipper-like feet which, she said, would guarantee him a winning place in a shoal of black marlin.
Unfair advantages? Insensitivity towards the disabled? Envy of a winner? Or free comment in a free world?
People will always suspect celebrities of trying to push their God-given luck or cheating. Indeed, some players, especially in sport and politics, will use any plot or ploy to get ahead. One woman’s sense of fair play may be another’s shameful dodge: it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. As wise old Oscar Wilde observed: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple”.
From mermaid myths to racism real or imagined, hardly a day goes by without “the facts” looking murky to me.  Nothing is but what is not, to paraphrase another literary prophet, Shakespeare.  The readiness with which some of our public servants have resorted lately to violence to achieve pay increases may well contain dishonest spin, for example. Seeing our soldiers marching on Union Buildings to protest against what they say are slave wages was designed to disturb us: the fact that they were resorting to self-interested violence when we trust them to be our ultimate national guarantee of law and order was calculated to unhinge, I realize in retrospect.
But it was only when officials told us that the rioting soldiers had not tried particularly hard to negotiate their grievances through appropriate channels before taking to the streets with sledgehammers, pangas, knobkieries and knives that I started to wonder. Are we being conned? Violence has been seen as a legitimate tool for achieving political ends for so long in South Africa, why wouldn’t it become the soldiers’ first rather than last resort in grabbing attention?
The uncertainty over people’s motives is enough to make you as dizzy as Ningyo’s whirling dancer. How to distinguish truth from daily lies? Illusion from reality? And without transgressing the shifting boundaries of public racism or private ambition. These are worrying questions.
The answer, I suppose, is that life’s as fathomless as the ocean, mermaids of indeterminate virtue, flat-footed fish, Malema and Hlope being just a few of the symbols of our perpetual perplexity.

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