It must have been during those hazy childhood years whilst watching attentively as my grandmother put on her best dress and those glimmering brown shoes as she made her way to her Madam that I began to learn that there was something inferior about being black. It was something about the way my grandmother’s face lit up each time she spoke about her astute mulungu (white person) who knew something about everything and had a house so fancy, that she–being the inferior maid that she was–was not allowed in unless she was cleaning.
Even in this ‘new democracy’, as children we grew up being told just how superior white people were, how they were able to get things done, properly, and on time. In fact, this discourse was so common in our daily lives that we would often refer to anyone, regardless of race, whose performance was something of a superior nature, as being ‘white’. For example, when we were practicing our reading at home, the person who read best would often receive a complement that went something like, “X reads very well! X reads like a white person”. To this day, my grandmother still refers to my sisters and I as being “white” every time we choose to do anything that is considered ‘better’ at home. Naturally, as kids we grew up aspiring to be more like a white person, because apparently being black was not good enough.
Relax, this is not about why we need to discuss race in order to move past it. Rather, it is about why we need to discuss what racism did to the “black” person’s self-perceptions in order to move past deeply entrenched false identities. I must admit, I too am a culprit when it comes to perpetuating this misleading thinking about black people; the subtle comments my friends and I often make in the midst of a ‘black taboo’, or the little screech here and there every time a black person does something ‘inappropriate’. I was also one of the people who were accustomed to using phrases like, “typical black person”, or “a true darkie” in my daily conversation, and it wasn’t until recently that I came to terms with the underlying connotations of these socially accepted slips.
It all took place in a room filled with vivacious young people, who also happened to be black, but had seemingly forgotten that they were (judging by the comments made in their avid debate about the failings of their community). The initial question was, “what does this ‘new South Africa’ mean to you?” And to my very surprise, the responses were incredibly positive considering the fact that they live in a fairly poor part of South Africa. These young people felt that the government had done an astounding job at bringing about development in the country; the only problem was that the black people in their community insisted on being “corrupt, lazy and greedy”. In a study conducted by Khosi Kubeka, a Social Development lecturer at the University of Cape Town, on Black South African adolescents’ construction of racial identity, one of the young people states, “We would not be able to do anything, us as black people, without whites. They have ideas and they do things properly”.
I was greatly challenged by these comments and the thought of them being deeply rooted in some of our minds troubled me considerably. The change that occurred in me that day was simple, I replaced the “they” with an “I”. It is true that according to the denotations of race, I am black, and every time anybody makes a generalization about “black people”, I am also included. Perhaps the mistake that black people make when they make stereotypes about other black people is that they forget that they too are black. The discourse around this topic is flawed and therefore misleading; it is not, “they are lazy, greedy and corrupt”, it is, “I am lazy, greedy and corrupt”. Funny enough, when I say this, the very same black people who make these gross generalizations turn around and say, “No, I am not lazy, greedy and corrupt”, and I say, “But you are also black. If that is what black people are, then how can you not be?”
To a large extent, I am not fazed by what the rest of the world says or thinks about black people, what concerns me most is what black people think about themselves because that poses a greater threat. When I asked Khosi what she thoughts the reasons behind this issue was, she took me back to a statement made by Hendrik Verwoerd about 60 years ago:
“What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”
I am not insinuating that we should continue to blame current mistakes on the past, but what I am saying is, besides the deprivation of land, opportunity and wealth, apartheid (similar to colonisation) did something much more profound to us- not just as blacks but as human beings–it shaped the way that we think about ourselves and one another.
It is unfortunate that even though race does not exist, it is now such a great part of our lives, and though it would be easy to ignore it (because we so desperately want to move on) perhaps it is best that we deal with its consequences. We are first and foremost human; this is what truly defines us. However since we have learnt to identify ourselves as black, white, Indian, Asian or coloured, I will say this: I was raised by five incredibly strong women. They were hardworking, intelligent and dignified. They sacrificed their lives for the betterment of our family and worked tirelessly to put food on the table. Yes, they were black, but they were certainly not lazy, greedy, incapable, or corrupt.
“Hold your head as high as you can
High enough to see who you are, little (wo)man
Life sometimes is cold and cruel
Baby no one else will tell you so remember that
You are Black Gold, Black Gold
You are Black Gold”
Nondu is currently doing her final year at the University of Cape Town studying towards a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in International Relations and Organizational Psychology. She is a young enthusiast who is incredibly passionate about development in Africa and takes particular interest in youth activism in bringing transformation to the continent. She recently graduated from the South Africa-Washington International Program where she participated in an intense leadership training program and had the opportunity of representing South Africa in Washington, DC for six weeks. She now hopes to make use of the lessons that she learnt from the program to empower other young people in her community and also start her journey towards developing Africa.
The South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP) is a six-month leadership, service and professional development program that recruits 15 high-potential South African students from three top South African universities each year in pursuit of its mission to inspire, develop and support a diverse new generation of emerging South African leaders from multiple disciplines.