There’s a world of difference between being offensive and being oppressive

As debate, not all of it polite, or cogent, rages on about Ntokozo Qwabe’s refusal to tip a white waitress at Obz Cafe in Cape Town last week, MOHAMED JAMEEL ABDULLAH argues the incident may be described as “offensive” but it certainly is not “oppressive”. 

As a society steeped in rampant inequality and social tension, we’ve become hyper-aware of how we treat and impact the lives of others. This is mostly good. It means we’re making a move towards a learned and informed empathy. This helps us move closer towards a unified vision of how we feel our society should look – and more importantly, a shared vision on the steps we need to take to get there.

Part of this endeavour has involved tackling systems of oppression. Recognising them, deconstructing them, and plotting ways to dismantle them. If you’ve been exposed to any mainstream social dialogue over the last year or so, you’d probably have heard of some forms oppression might take: sexism, cissexism, classism, racism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, colourism. Yes, I know, that’s a lot of “-ism”s. If you’re like me and weren’t aware of many of these: now might be a good time to look these up – it can be really helpful in not being (overtly) problematic.

Right now there seems to be a trend in confusion in understanding what “oppression” really is. I mean, what makes something oppressive and another thing just really mean? Or are they the same thing?

Short answer? They’re definitely not the same thing, but are sometimes linked.

Exploring the terms

Being offensive, nasty, mean, unpleasant or unkind is an interpersonal offence. That is, it occurs in a personal exchange between individuals within the context of a relationship – where one individual is left personally offended. The exchange could occur via a medium (e.g. social media) and the relationship form could vary (from intimate partner to outright stranger).

Oppression is a systemic feature of a society, understood as a form of exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, cultural dominance or violence. It’s done by one group with more authority/power/privilege over another. The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s usually a statistically notable feature of society – present in political, social, economic and cultural institutions. From this we know that it must therefore exist on more than an individual interpersonal level for it to be thought of as a social oppression.

With these tools in mind, let’s look at some interesting scenarios.

Scenario 1: Lx is walking down the street and a stranger tells them that their very expensive, and currently trendy, hairstyle is “basic”.

Analysis: Now that stranger probably deserves a righteous slap because Lx’s hair is definitely perfect. They also had no right to comment on a stranger’s aesthetics. It was no doubt offensive, but was this oppression, though? Given the ambiguity of this simple example, I do not believe we can say that the above is an example of oppression. It was merely an interpersonal offense.

Scenario 2: Penny Sparrow remarks on social media that the Durban beaches are overrun by “monkeys” (referring to black people) and expresses disgust.

Analysis: No doubt here. It’s utterly offensive and plays into the racism in SA. While not only marginalising folk, the cultural hegemony of such voices tend to indirectly feed into economically visible features such as “white” dominated beaches being valued higher. Such dehumanising sentiments thus further feed into the reality of black social exclusion.

Scenario 3: Benjamin, a representative from a multinational mining company in Australia, comes over to South Africa after hearing about platinum deposits in the Eastern Cape. He pays off opportunistic community leaders to convince the people living on the land to legally sign over their property in exchange for minimum wage jobs working in the mine. Some of the landowners, convinced of the better prospects, happily give up their land. Months later, they find that they’re now labour living in terrible conditions and are selling off the mineral wealth they used to live on top of.

Analysis: This one is interesting. On the one hand, this is pretty much the definition of exploitation. It’s literally neocolonialism. Not coincidentally it’s also based on possible outcomes of what’s currently taking place in the Amadiba community in the Eastern Cape. What’s interesting is that at no point during the engagement was there any sense of interpersonal offense between Benjamin and the landowners. The landowners willingly, legally and happily signed over their land. Yet despite this, I’m of the opinion that what took place in this scenario is entirely more heinous than Penny Sparrow’s racial slurs. People were manipulated into becoming willingly exploited and the real quality of their life was robbed from them. Ironically, this is how much of oppression functions: with a smiling face, legal support and capital backing. One might not even know that it’s happening to them.

Scenario 4: Ona, a Black woman, is being served by a white waitress, Becky. Ona, a first year student at UCT on a bursary, is the first of her generation at university and lives off the stipend for daily expenses. Her working class family back home live in Nyanga, and it is expected that when Ona receives her degree, that she’ll help out with the family’s expenses. Becky lives in Pinelands with her middle-class parents, and although being given a housing and food allowance by them, is expected to fend for herself in all other terms of income. Becky thus works as a waitress to get by until she finishes her diploma in web development at which point she’ll be independent. Upon being given the bill by Becky, Ona writes on the bill: “Will give tip when we get the land back.” Becky reads the message and has an emotional breakdown. Ona is approached by a white male manager and is reprimanded for her treatment of Becky.

Analysis: Elephant in the room aside, I think this scenario is very important for us to engage. Ona’s message no doubt offended Becky. It was unkind and made many assumptions regarding Becky’s social standing. Becky in this situation was in a position of serving Ona, which has immediate implications of the power relations involved at that moment. In that instance, there seemed to be definite social class dynamics involved. Yet Ona’s sentiments and lack of tip also have no real impact on Becky’s life in the greater scheme of things. Ona, as the one with less social power in society, has not the power to truly oppress Becky in any meaningful way. In fact, given the legacy of South Africa and dominant social culture of Cape Town which promotes “colourblindness”: Ona’s act of politically racialising the act of not giving a tip, immediately marginalises her.

Ona offends Becky and affects her temporary emotional well-being on an individual level – this is mistreatment. But oppression? At the end of the day, Becky goes home to her normal life. Tomorrow she may wake up and find out that the white community, acting as the financial vanguard of fellow whites, have raised around R30 000 for her. One wonders whether this would happen had Becky not been white.


It’s important to note that offence should never be taken lightly. It’s often very difficult to know what a person’s story is – words can tip people over the edge, given the appropriate context. And offending people is in no way revolutionary – it does not change the status quo. Practising kindness is indeed a virtue – yet the absence of it does not oppression make. To equate the two is compare petty bullying with hegemony; unkindness with violence; alienation with apartheid; disinterest with erasure; meanness with dehumanisation; bitterness with ethnic hatred.

While part of the society we’d like to envision would no doubt include apparent kindness on some level, scenario three outlines how twisted that can be if the friendly smiles and politeness act to veil honest underlying realities of subjugation. When one comes to value interpersonal sanctity over the sometimes-harsh realities that come with unearthing legacies of injustice: then know we’ve found ourselves in a deluded world. A nation built on the façade of rainbows.


Mohammed Jameel Abdullah is a fallist.

Featured image by Ra’eesa Pather