*Skin-deep in South Africa: Some Reflections on Anthony Fabian’s ‘Skin’

For a film on skin color and the politics of race in apartheid South Africa, Anthony Fabian’s newly released “Skin” goes, it seems, only skin-deep into what could have been a most arresting set of questions.  Sophie Okonedo plays Sandra Laing, a girl of colored appearance born to white parents in the South Africa of the 1960s, when apartheid reigned supreme.  Though classified at birth as white, Sandra’s “colored” looks incline the white community to treat her as a colored person rather than as one of their own.  At the onset of the film, we see Sandra and her brother Leonore being driven to a boarding school for white children.  Before too long, the headmaster summons Sandra’s parents and insists that she be taken back home:  she is too much of a distraction.  Her father, Abraham Laing (Sam Neill), is wholly resistant to the idea:  as she has been classified white, she must, in his view, be admitted to all the privileges of white people.  But, as the movie progresses, it becomes all too apparent that he is driven not merely by a sense of securing justice or privileges for his daughter.  Could it be, he wonders, whether his wife Sannie (Alice Krige) was unfaithful to him?  The rumors flying around furiously must be quelled.   The headmaster succeeds in having Sandra re-classified as ‘colored’, whereupon Abraham becomes resolutely dedicated to having her classification restored to ‘white’.

In a moving scene, Sandra and her parents are summoned before a racial classification board.  The race expert, if we may call him that, calculates the ratio of her hips to her waits, and with a ruler takes the measurement of the width of her forehead; putting a pencil through her hair, he asks Sandra to shake her head to determine whether the curls can restrain the pencil and prevent it from falling out.  All this passed for ‘science’, a holdover from the days when colonial regimes routinely deployed anthropometry and craniology to establish racial and social hierarchies.  Desperate to establish the white credentials of his family, Abraham Laing has the matter taken to South Africa’s Supreme Court, where a geneticist testifies that Sandra’s appearance can be explained through her ‘polygenetic inheritance’.  Indeed, says the geneticist to gasps from the white audience, nearly all Afrikaners have some black genes – nor should this be surprising, considering how, much as in the United States, where white slave-owners routinely bedded their black women slaves, white men readily took black women to bed while otherwise declaring that complete segregation between the races was the law of nature.  Abraham’s hopes are crushed when the re-classification of colored for Sandra is nevertheless reaffirmed; but the passage of Parliamentary legislation decreeing that children born of white parents must be classified as white eventually makes him declare victory.

Several years have elapsed as the film moves into the next sequence of events.  Sandra has matured into a young woman and is now back home, awaiting the appearance of a suitable suitor.  Abraham Laing’s repeated attempts to match Sandra to a white man are the desperate gestures of a man whose attachment to whiteness is assumed by the filmmaker, but never probed.   What is there to be probed, one might ask:  is it not evident that ‘whiteness’ confers privileges, and in a profoundly hierarchical society is the principal passport to security, sustenance, and comforts?  Sandra, however, has set her eyes on a black man, a mere vendor of vegetables and busboy.  One senses that the immense struggles to claim whiteness have taken their toll of Sandra.  She has certainly been transformed to the point where her father can no longer recognize her.  Returning from a sexual rendezvous with her lover, she is discovered in the act and confined to her room.  Throughout, her mother has been the emotional bulwark of her life; but now, facing the fury of the law of the father, even Sandra’s mother reprimands her for her unconscionable behavior.  Many a film has gone that way:  the father represents the harsh customs of patriarchy, the mother strives valiantly to soften the blows inflicted by the father and cushion her children from the corrosive effects of the relentless display of a domineering masculinity.  Sandra elopes; the lovers are hunted down; thrown into jail, Sandra is released into the custody of her parents but rejects them – when her father pleads with her to return to them, she asks if they will accept the baby she has had with her black lover, Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge).  Her father moves away dejectedly, and she leaves with her lover.  Their baby is born, but Petrus soon shows all the marks of the possessive husband.  There is no Iago scheming fatally to alienate Othello against Desdemona:  no such histrionics are required, since Petrus is little more than a small-minded lazy native.  A second baby comes along, but by this time Petrus is well on the way to spending much of his time with the booze bottle.  Years later, Sandra will walk away from her abusive husband, as she walked away from home:  as she climbs up the hill, her two adolescent children in tow, dawn breaks upon Johannesburg.

Just what is the heart of whiteness?  Where is the heart of the whiteness that has no heart?  And, yet, sunk in its darkness, whiteness is still inescapably desirable to others.  We all have heard of creams to lighten the skin color, and there are innumerable ‘home remedies’ to scrub away the darkness.  One such remedy, a poisonous concoction of chemicals and cleansers, makes Sandra’s skin erupt into boils.  This is the nearly ineradicable poison wrought by apartheid and racial ideology.   One of the many pillars of whiteness in South Africa was the Byzantine system of classification, enforced through a maze of written and unwritten laws.   Though white and classified as such, Sandra is reclassified as colored at the instance of the school headmaster, and her father wages what purports to be a heroic struggle to reclassify her yet again as colored.  His success is short-lived:  seeking acceptance among black people, Sandra seeks — shockingly, valiantly, inexplicably — to undo her privileges and seeks reclassification as colored.  A visit to the government office charged with such matters reveals that Sandra cannot will herself into extinction as a white person.  That the state should find objectionable the efforts of colored people to prove themselves white comes as no surprise, but perhaps even more objectionable, in principle, is the apostasy of those who disown the ancestral privileges of race.  Perhaps there is enough in the film’s scenes to point to the filmmaker’s recognition of the oppressive ostentatiousness of classificatory schemes, but nevertheless I had the feeling that the politics of classification is insufficiently probed in “Skin”.

In the aftermath of the end of the apartheid, the film moves to a closure by reuniting Sandra with her mother.  Her father has long since been dead; for some twenty odd years, Sandra has been separated from her mother.   Women are the only strong characters in “Skin”:  the men are morally crippled by patriarchy, energized only by authority, and confined in their actions by a maze of laws and the force of custom.   Everyone’s focus will perhaps be riveted upon Sandra’s father, but there is no more pathetic creature than her older brother.  Protective of his sister, he turns, suddenly and ferociously, against her when their father tries to hunt her down after her elopement.   Abraham and Leonore make a huge bonfire of everything that might remind them that Sandra is part of the family.  Fire is cleansing and redemptive, and men are incapable of moral reflection. The film makes the attempt, but only inconsequentially so, in putting forth the idea that the authority of the state and the paternalism of the father are born of the same seed to dominate.  No new ground is being tread here, and even the idea of the quiet but strong and determined woman, whose inner strength prevails against all odds, who knows no end of oppression, has now been encountered often enough to constitute a predictable trope of what might be called movies in the ‘inspirational’ mode.  Sandra has weathered many a storm, and the viewer feels relieved at what is evidently her quiet triumph.  One wishes only that the story of the new South Africa were more congruent with this flash of inspiration.

*Gambling on Gandhi: On Being Timid and Taking Risks

Three years ago, the Times of India (Delhi) asked if I would write a piece for its op-ed pages on Gandhi.  I had just returned from a visit to South Africa, where, to mark the launch of satyagraha on September 11th a century ago, Shyam Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma had been screened – on a screen inside a Durban casino!  All proponents of the ‘postmodern Gandhi’ should take note.  To make my way to the screening, I had to pass by slot machines and blackjack tables.  Gandhi being a prohibitionist, the organizers decided to dish out their chosen (and from their standpoint more acceptable) form of poison:  huge glasses of Coke (‘The Big Gulp’) and large buckets of buttered popcorn.  All this, obviously, in the sweet memory of Mohandas Gandhi, on whose dietary habits I wrote a few days ago.  Have not many thousands of texts reminded us that the path to goodness is strewn with obstacles, hardships, and temptations?  And I was only going to a screening, not to the mountaintop.  In the event, perhaps that evening set me thinking about gambling, and some weeks later, when the Times of India asked me to pen an article on the occasion of Gandhi’s birthday, I submitted the article reproduced below.

Yudhisthira and Gandhi, as I argued in my article, belong to the epic imagination.  Perhaps the last thought that will come to a person’s mind in thinking of Gandhi is to associate him with gambling, but Gandhi was quite certain in his mind that he had taken an immense gamble in putting the country on the road to mass nonviolent resistance when there was no precedent in history for supposing that such resistance could be politically efficacious.  I went on to argue that we, too, should gamble on Gandhi – moving against the current of feeling which insists upon the mantras of globalization, neo-liberalization, and development as the panacea for India’s ills, it is perhaps time to take a serious look at his life, work, and ideas.  I entitled my article ‘Gambling on Gandhi’, but the Times of India’s editors must have found the idea of Gandhi as a gambler bizarre and unsettling for their readers.  So, in publishing my piece on 2 October 2006, they gave it the title, ‘Experiments with Truth’ – whatever the immense charge this title carried when Gandhi authored his autobiography, it is now prosaic beyond words.  Of course, if the Times of India is unable to take even such a small risk, the likelihood that we will gamble everything on Gandhi is much to be remote to be viewed as anything other than amusing, harmless, or quixotic.


From the Times of India, ‘Experiments with Truth’, 2 October 2006:
It is that time of the year when, in a ritual invocation, many people find it necessary to proclaim that Mohandas Gandhi, in India also the ‘Father of the Nation’, is still ‘relevant’.  There are those who, witnessing the continuing violence in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan, or the recently ‘concluded’ blitzkrieg launched by Israel on Lebanon, or indeed the myriad other instances of acts of violence, terror, and aggression that comprise the daily news bulletins, aver that Gandhi has never been more necessary.  Since the human addiction to violence scarcely seems to have diminished, the Gandhians view the Mahatma’s staying power as a self-evident truth; however, another class of his admirers read the same evidence rather differently, as an unfortunate sign of the fact that Gandhi’s teachings have been repudiated if not rubbished.  The small voice of nonviolence, many agree, is seldom heard in the din of violence.

In 1907, the Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce, published a book entitled What Is Living and What Is Dead in Hegel Today? Croce knew better than to ask if Hegel was ‘relevant’, which is, to put it bluntly, a word strictly for the unintelligent, certainly for those who are apolitical.  Nevertheless, if the more familiar variation of this question inescapably presents itself to anyone confronting the figure of Gandhi, we must surely ask what kind of Gandhi, and whose Gandhi, we seek to invoke when we wish to stress his relevance.  One of the most enduring aspects of Gandhi’s life, one only infrequently understood by most of his disciples and admirers, is that he seldom allowed himself the comfort of platitudes, just he was quite mindless of established conventions, the protocols of social science discourse, and the known parameters of dissent. Around the same time that Croce had finished writing his book on Hegel, the young Gandhi, providentially ensconced in South Africa, was embarked on a novel political and moral experiment.  Quite oblivious to history, he declared, in his seminal tract, Hind Swaraj, that ‘Nonviolence is as old as the hills’.  At the same time, he was the first to recognize that where others had embraced nonviolence strictly from expediency, ahimsa was for him an inextricable part of his being.  He was always the first to recognize that he was his own master and disciple and was unlikely to carry anyone alongside him.

Even many who openly admire Gandhi doubt the efficaciousness of satyagraha.  In his own lifetime, many claimed that it could only have succeeded against an allegedly mild-mannered opponent such as the British.  If Gandhi could not forestall his own violent death, if indeed his teachings appeared to have left little impression upon his own countrymen, should we at all expect the primacy of nonviolence to be recognized by actors in the modern nation-state system which was born of violence and, as contemporary politics more than adequately demonstrates, feeds on it at every turn?  In his defense, Gandhi argued that nonviolence is not merely a weapon to be adopted or abandoned at random will, and that practitioners of nonviolence are ethically bound to understand that shortcomings in the application of nonviolence do not reflect upon any limitations inherent to nonviolence itself.  Moreover, though it is commonplace to view Gandhi’s adherence to nonviolence as a measure of his alleged romanticism and failure to recognize the inescapably coercive nature of modern politics, it is telling that Gandhi did not construe himself as an uncritical proselytizer on its behalf.  When asked by the American journalist Louis Fischer why he did not preach nonviolence to the West, Gandhi replied:  ‘How can I preach nonviolence to the West, when I have not even convinced India?  I am a spent bullet.’ However enthusiastic a missionary Gandhi may have been in the cause of ahimsa, he abided by the injunction that it is morally indefensible to propagate teachings that one is unable to observe in one’s own life or within the ambit of one’s own community.

On a recent visit to South Africa, I attended a special screening, cosponsored by the Indian Consulate-General, of Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ at a cinema complex in Durban on September 11th.  Such is, of course, the American monopoly on world events that by far the greater majority of people will have to be reminded that September 11th marks not merely the fifth anniversary of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but also the anniversary of the coup that overthrew Allende’s government in Chile and, even more significantly, the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of satyagraha by Gandhi in Johannesburg.  This cinema stands in the midst of the Suncoast Casino complex, and by way of refreshments invitees were offered free Coca-Cola and popcorn.  Gandhians will doubtless take umbrage at this heady combination of junk food, sugared drinks, and the ultimate vice of gambling being put together at an ostensible homage to the Mahatma.  It is certainly true that the well-intentioned admirers of Gandhi remain utterly clueless about Gandhi, and do not understand that Gandhi, engaged in the relentless pursuit of truth, would have been at least as vociferous an opponent of sugar, modernity’s preeminent mass killer, as he was of alcohol.

In truth, however, the casino may be the most apposite place to reflect on Gandhi.  His followers might be reminded that Gandhi took a great gamble when he endeavored, as his assassin charged, to foist nonviolence upon India. Like that other troubled gambler and paragon of truth in Indian civilization, Yudhisthira, Gandhi gambled away everything and put his life on the spot. No more interesting gamble has perhaps ever been waged in contemporary history, and Gandhi’s critique of modern knowledge systems, his interrogation of received notions of politics, development, and dissent, and his suturing of nonviolence to mass resistance all stand forth as vivid testimony of his political genius and ethical probity.  We should be immensely grateful that he took the gamble that he did.

The question for us, therefore, is just this:  will we content ourselves with mindless discussions of his ‘relevance’, or are we willing to gamble ourselves on Gandhi?