By Ken Barris for the Sunday Times
The End of Whiteness: Satanism & Family Murder in Late Apartheid South Africa
Nicky Falkof (Jacana)
The book focuses two intriguing lenses on the closing decades of apartheid, namely Satanism and family murder. Falkof’s gaze is productively offset, as her centre of interest is really how the media constructed these seemingly unrelated subjects, and in doing so, how they reflected the social dynamics of late apartheid.
Head of the media studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Falkof has comprehensively researched her argument and mined data from the popular media. Her writing is lucid and her treatment of the subjects is interesting, leaving The End of Whiteness accessible to both general and academic audiences. It is not without its faults though. One of them is structural – she keeps returning to the same points of discussion from different points of view in different chapters, so a degree of avoidable repetition is built in.
I have a few quibbles with the argument too.
Falkof refers for example to “the Satanic panic that swept white South Africa” at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release, and describes it as a reflection of anxieties about both the collapse of white rule and the divisions within Afrikaner and other white identities. While there is no doubt that such white anxiety was (and still remains) forcefully present, I am not convinced there was a massive panic about Satanism at the time. I recall a much greater panic in white quarters about the coming of democracy itself.
This reference to the scale of the Satanism scare is densely elaborated. Falkof notes that she is “interested in Satanism as a symptom rather than a cause of social anxiety, so no, I’m not making any claims about numbers or spread”. However, her argument that the Satanism scare is a societal indicator does rest to some degree on its scale. Falkof’s focus throughout is how the media mediate. The danger is that they invent as much as they report, and density of reporting is not the same as density of occurrence on the ground. Her project – to show how media distortions open up the prevailing ideology – is entirely legitimate.
In the section on family murder (where in most cases a father murders his family and then commits or attempts suicide) Falkof argues that such murders reflect a breaking point, a faultline in which the contradictions and internal stresses of maintaining apartheid identity are confronted with the threat of its ending.
She deftly dissects various ways in which these events were represented, and the contrasting ideological positions so revealed. These range from critiques of the apartheid-defined patriarch subsuming the identities of his spouse and children, to the conservative view that the Afrikaner was under unbearable pressure in an increasingly hostile world.
In her conclusion, Falkof concedes that whiteness – an all-embracing, unconscious sense of privilege and rightness – has certainly not ended. But her book is really about perceptions. “If not an end to whiteness,” she notes, “then symptomatic reactions to the fear of the possible end of whiteness, the loss of power and privilege.” She notes ironically that even now, despite the power that whites retain, “we still operate within the same discourse of fear”.
Ken Barris’s collection of short stories, The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions, will be available in April 2017.