Thursday, June 13, 2024

About Wilderness Safaris calling one-sided, prison-rules assault ‘physical altercation’

If you scoured the Wilderness Safaris press statement on the brutalisation of a former employee for “shock” and “disgust”, you would certainly have been disappointed. Incidentally, the release uses the noun variant of the latter word to describe its impression of the incident.

“Wilderness Safaris is aware of a video circulating on social media of what appears to be a senior member of staff in a physical altercation with a fellow employee,” the statement reads. “We as Wilderness Safaris watched this video with as much disappointment and frustration as the public, for we have zero tolerance for violence of any form and this is well documented in our Code of Conduct.”

In fairness to the company, a variant of “assault” is used in the statement but even then, only once. On the whole, one is disappointed and frustrated by the sterility of language used to react to unrestrained use of animalistic violence from the high noon of the Dark Ages. As a well-developed international language, English has much more robust vocabulary – like “we watched in horror and disgust, a video …”

While very short (13 seconds), the video in question tells a 1513-word-long story – which is how long this article is. The thumbnail shows the left profile of a black T-shirted white who appears to be choking a black, whose head is little more than pixelated blotch, against a greyish structure with one hand while holding a cigarette with the other. The white man is a manager at a Wilderness camp in Kasane and the black man is his junior, a chef.

The video opens to a non-social-distanced, toe-to-toe sight of the white man berating a much younger black man in a loud voice but the words are inaudible. Three seconds later, he plants his right hand on black man’s chest and with a really hard shove, sends him hurtling across a short distance and onto a section of a low unplastered wall. There is a jarring cracking sound from the impact as the victim lands on the wall with his back, losing balance and sliding against the wall down to the ground. Closing in fast, the attacker breaks the victim’s fall by grabbing him by the neck and as he is lifted up, the victim defensively grabs his attacker’s wrist. 

Resting his left hand on top of wall for support and using the wall as a fulcrum, the attacker pushes the victim down hard, forcing his back to curl into an excessive arch. He follows up with a front knee strike to restrain the lower part of the body. Struggling to free himself, the victim executes a basic defensive maneuver: he twists his body counter-clockwise, manages to loosen the attacker’s grasp and wriggles free. Seconds later, he slides out from under manager but trips and tumbles to the ground when the manager tackles him with his right foot. He quickly bounds to his feet and as he regains balance and mobility, dust patches can be seen on the back of his white, Mahotella Queens-style uniform shirt.

Hand first, a black woman holding a cellphone enters the frame from the left at this point and momentarily, this looks like if-my-brother-is-in-trouble-so-am-I moment. Not really. When the victim takes a step back in retreat, the woman appears to literally lend a helping hand, gently laying it on his back. Never once is she aggressive but the dark corners of social media have derided her as a sellout and bootlicker helping a white man box a black man in. On the off-chance that the latter claim is true, she could well have been thinking about her job security. Upon this intervention, the manager, who is now off-frame, commands in a loud voice: “Sit down!”

The fourth actor, who possibly filmed the incident, is male and stays off-frame the entire time. Between the point where the manager has pinned the chef against the wall and after he gets up, a gruff, Afrikaner-accented voice is heard to issue a succession of unevenly-sequenced “Yea” that sound a lot like encouragement at least nine times.

Was this an “altercation”? The answer is, what is an altercation? The most authoritative lexicographic source of the English language (the Oxford dictionary) defines it as “a noisy argument or disagreement.” By extension, physical altercation is an argument that involves force or physical aggression – a fight in everyday language. A fight involves two active participants but in the video, only one person used physical aggression. The only way this could have been a physical altercation is if the victim’s passive contribution of his body for assault is considered participation. If the chef had roundhouse-kicked the manager or attempted to aeronautically launch him into outer space with a Mike Tyson-quality upper cut, there would indeed have been a physical altercation. Nothing of the sort happened.

Bar brawlers, who have had to take a very long break courtesy of COVID-19, will attest to the fact that in situations where mutually-assured facial disfigurement is guaranteed, there is never the luxury of wading into a fight one-handed while puffing away with the other hand. The middle finger, which is paired with the index finger when holding a cigarette, is especially useful when the hand is balled into a fist. That is because that finger forms the one knuckle that delivers punches, which, in the language of the penal code, occasion actual bodily harm. By fighting one-handed, the manager was non-verbally communicating the very clear message that he knew the chef wouldn’t fight back.

Ordinarily, words like “shocked” and “disgusted” are used to describe what the Wilderness Safaris manager did. While those are not the words Wilderness Safaris uses in its press statement, there is having to recognise that one can’t be too prescriptive about choice of words because people choose those that express how they feel about something. The authors of the statement chose words that convey how they felt after watching the video. 

One part of the Wilderness press statement is confusing, precisely because it contradicts itself. It says that the incident happened in “late 2019” (there is no such date in the Roman Calendar) and was “never formally or procedurally reported” to trigger appropriate official response.

“Issues like lockdown and slow reopening of the camps since that time made it even more challenging to resolve rumours, despite conscious effort in this regard by Management,” the company says.

“Never formally or procedurally reported” is evidently meant to justify why a whole year went by without the company taking action. Why would there have been need for management to actively pursue a matter that it says it saw no need to pursue because such matter had not been formally reported to it? Why would an idle rumour have been of concern to management months after the fact?

“Resolve” is itself both an awkward word and unusual process for a situation where a crime has been committed and an investigation was required. It is certainly not a good and joyous day when a company with the largest stake in Botswana’s most lucrative tourist asset and which, by its own account, has zero tolerance policy for violence, chooses to “resolve” rumours of violence than to use the immense resources at its disposal to actually investigate such rumours. Lastly, as used in the statement, “conscious effort” is ultimately meaningless because while the term suggests a vigorous set of administrative actions, not a single action is actually mentioned.

Sunday Standard was able to track down the victim but he declined to comment. In the circumstances, we are left to rely on what has been alleged online: that, in the midst of the worst lager drought in living memory, he took the fateful decision of helping himself to the alcohol in stock.

The Wilderness statement reads: “The staff member who was assaulted is no longer with Wilderness Safaris; his matter was addressed via internal Human Resources processes for lapses thereof.”

These seemingly harmless words conceal something deeply disturbing. After subjecting the victim to a prison-rules assault, the manager also got to direct HR to fire him while he kept his own job for more than a year after the incident.

Courtesy of the video, Wilderness Safaris finds itself in a snake pit with large doses of venom being injected into the body corporate from all six cardinal directions – including by staff members. Online, some staff members have anonymously alleged that at one Wilderness camp, Setswana, which is the national language, is prohibited while Afrikaans, a South African-origin language that some associate with apartheid, enjoys as much use as Botswana’s official language – English.

In totality, the incident would seem to confirm contention by some that while geographically African, the archipelago of luxury safari resorts in Kasane and the Okavango Delta collectively represent a white ethno-state whose default settings are purposefully oriented towards preservation of white privilege – like brutalising black people with impunity. In that regard, the bigger tragedy here is not what happened to the former Wilderness employee per se. It is what that assault represents in the broader scheme of things.

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