A children’s book that sparked outrage across the country because of its racist representation of coloured culture is a prime example of good intentions and bad execution. There is even an online petition calling for the removal of the book, called Rainbow Nation Navigation.
— Thoriso Moseneke (@ThorisoMoss) February 11, 2017
Paula Marais, wrongly labeled the lead author, spoke to Abongile Nzelenzele on Cape Talk to give her side of the story on the book, reiterating that she is just the publisher of the book. “In fact, the chapter that [Nzelenzele] just read from, I didn’t write at all,” she said.
But she does hold herself accountable for the prejudiced description of coloured culture in the book. She gave an emphatic “of course” when asked by the host whether she takes responsibility for the book. ‘‘We got it wrong. We apologise, but our intentions were good and maybe we’ll get it right the next time.” For Marais, the past 72 hours have been traumatic, as well as for her family, and her brother, who had approached her with the idea for the book.
Rainbow Nation Navigation, written more than seven years ago, is a book aimed at portraying South Africa’s cultures in an everyday fashion and explain its various nuances – something Marais noticed was missing from South Africa’s bookshelves.
“There was nothing that said, you know, we’re modern people. We’ve got our traditions, you know, this is how you can greet me. If I invited you to my wedding, this is how you could be respectful at my wedding.”
The book contains chapters on various cultures in South Africa, but the writers seem to have missed the mark when it came to the chapter on coloured culture. The backlash, which hit her hard on Twitter, resulted in Marais deciding to retract the book. In response to the backlash, publisher Logogog set up a forum where members of the coloured community could provide feedback on what to change in the chapter.
Books like the 1 @Paula_Marais published about coloured people are the reason why there’s such a big international misrepresentation of us 😡
— Monique Mortlock (@MoniqueMortlock) February 12, 2017
“I said at the right at the beginning of this storm, people please email me. Let me know what I’ve done wrong. I understand you’re upset. I can see particular areas where you’re really upset, I totally get you.” However, Marais received hate messages and death threats via the channel and she’s only had one positive interaction. The woman she communicated with suggested to her that she change, among other things, the images in the chapter. Marais has been in contact with her since and hopes to meet her after this whole “nightmare” is over.
Reading from a statement written by her brother, Marais said: “We would like to amend it as we still believe that cultural understanding is something that can benefit South Africans. That said, we’ve had very strong feedback from the coloured community and they do not wish to be categorised.”
Marais expressed her disappointment that the coloured community has opted not to be included. “So how do we proceed? We can’t leave out one of the largest constituents of our nation. But we do not want to cause any further offence.”
It seems like Rainbow Nation Navigation was written with good intentions. Learning about different cultures that are worlds apart from one’s own is a positive way of overcoming prejudices and misconceptions. But a lack of understanding, which is what the book was trying to overcome, is what led to its downfall. Books have a universal reach and misrepresenting a group can have detrimental effects on that group’s efforts to secure a positive and respectful place for itself in the wider world.
What is discouraging is that Marais’ attempts at rectifying the wrong were overlooked and met with derision and threats. Behaviour like this stops the conversation and discourages people from trying to learn where they went wrong. Marais, who comes from what she calls a “rainbow” family, believes that she is being unfairly labeled a racist in the conversations on social media, and she is working on renewing her relations with the coloured community.
She says she and her brother “are reaching out to the coloured community to… first of all, let us apologise for any offence we’ve caused, that was never the intention, never, never, never. That’s not what we stand for. That’s not what we believe in. That’s not the intention of the book”.
You can listen to the full interview here: