I sit in front of his desk, in his office, in the corner, at the end of the corridor. I look at him and he looks at me. I imagine his head as a boiled egg. Hard Boiled. “Vettie,” he begins. I just started teaching here – a school preparing young people for South Africa’s advertising industries. I took the job because I needed the cash. The money’s good, great even. And besides the constant drone of various regarding the necessity of a real job was starting to wear me down. “Vettie. I want you to be part of our project of African Sensitisation.” My eyes snap backwards. But I’m concentrating on the look on their faces when I tell them I have a real job. “Eurocentric,” rolls off The Egg’s tongue, and lands with a thud. But the school is in Johannesburg’s Northern Suburbs amongst the shopping malls and walls. I’m floating. Right up to the ceiling. The Egg’s office is painted dark blue, a brand new Apple Mac gleams. Outside the window the sun is shining. The Egg looks at me. Meeting over.
The first PowerPoint of the year glows in the semi-darkness of the lecture theatre. Hailey and Jared are on their cell phones again. Up goes the Dulux Ad: The one of the couple, he, black, she, with her pregnant belly, white. Two headless bodies, blacker than black, whiter than white. The image stirred up the usual cacophony. We are the Rainbow Nation and Dulux has a plan. Once we discussed the Landrover Ad. You know the one? The one with the Himba woman. A surprised look on her face, breasts blown digitally sideways by the speed of a passing Landrover, somewhere in the Namib Desert. Opinions are divided. No surprises. The class get into it. Jared stirs up the opposition. “Come on Man!” Where’s your sense of humour? It’s only a joke and its funny!” Hailey joins in. Up goes an image of Sara Baartman. Earlier that morning, in the staff room, someone asked me about today’s lecture: “Ag. That old story. Poor old Saartjie.” By now the lecture theatre is reverberating. Ashley fires up some of the girls from her favourite seat in the front: “It’s sexist! And racist!” Ashley’s girls and one or two boys kick back at team Hailey and Jared. Class over. Cell phones light up as they leave the class still arguing. I hear their voices trail up the stairs and disappear.
The Egg hires a friend of a friend, Janet Cooper. “Look after Janet Vettie,” says The Egg, “Got some great thoughts on African Sensitisation! Let’s have a meeting next week. Ok?” He takes another sip of Coke Lite in the staff room. “By the way Vettie. You have to entertain the young people. Keep their attention. Not too heavy. Janet will give you some pointers.” Soon after The Egg and Janet invite Jonathan Fynn from KwaZulu-Natal to tell us about his lifelong immersion in the culture and language of the Zulu people. “Big shout-out to Janet!” says The Egg at the next staff meeting. “Vettie you want to add anything? No? Ok. Good. Moving on. Moving on. I want things up-beat and chipper people. Student intake gone up 2 percent. We can do better people!”
One day I wake up, and the right hand side of my body had gone numb. “Fuck!” I thought. “I’m having a stroke.” Thinking of my payslip, and Friday night Cosmopolitans at that new place in Rosebank I pull myself together. It was going to be OK. Temporary blip. I got my PowerPoint up on the screen. Today we were going to talk about cultural appropriation, the Zulu beer pot in the Ad for some or other bank. A Feeling. A Sensation. My heart’s thumping. Thump. Thump. Cultural appropriation. Ukhamba. uMqombothi. Ghosts of anthropologists in pith helmets hover in the semi-darkness. I can’t push the words out of my mouth. Something sticks in my throat. “Maybe you’re having a panic attack” – Khethiwe, a recent addition to the student body, offers. Things were moving forward. “Don’t look back. Don’t Look Back, Vettie.” “Positive!” “Stay Positive!” The week before Khethiwe told me about her uncle. Anti-apartheid activist. Permanent Damage. They put toxic stuff in his clothes. “He hates whites,” she told me. “He hates them.”
“Morning Pink Cheeks!” The Egg sticks his head in my office. “Morning Blue Cheeks!” The Egg scowls and carries on down the corridor to his office in the corner. He had asked me to find another lecturer, affirmative action. This is Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been and gone. And The Egg is feeling the pressure. Suck it up or close up shop. I put forward Nqobile Mazibuko, artist, teacher, curator and writer. Graduate of one of South Africa’s most illustrious institutions of higher learning. The Egg takes one look at her. Vision Test. No handshake necessary. He calls me aside. “Vettie. No. Not going to work”. Off he went. Back to his office. “Not going to work.”
Yvette Greslé is a London-based independent art historian and writer. Born in Johannesburg and raised in the Seychelles islands, she writes and thinks a lot about images in relation to racial violence & its historical and contemporary presence, visible and opaque. @yvettegresle