RACISM: A GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

The profound intellectual, social and moral changes that were shaking society challenged people’s faith and they sought to vindicate their traditional beliefs in the old divine order” – Historian Walter Stevens.

I didn’t want to write about racism, again.

But I noticed that some of us have been reeling. We have been overwhelmed in recent weeks with racist news stories flooding our screens,  streets and even our homes.  At this time of course it seems easy and most natural to be angry and upset at the vociferous showers of hate. Some of us started screaming and shouting at the top of our voices, marching  against the ruthless cruelty inflicted on black bodies everywhere from Charleston, Marikana, Chibok,  Garissa  to the Mediterranean sea.

But even as we mourn our loved ones we must nevertheless, never lose sight of the fact that racism is not real. It is a smoke screen. A decoy, a distraction to keep us preoccupied, busy, crying and praying.  It is a psychological weapon  meant to  demoralize and  to instill fear among our ranks, to muffle our silent voices which have punctured the sonic sphere.

When I talk about racism as an illusion or as the much quoted and used academic term of a ” social construct/contract”:   I am  by no means negating its very real and often fatal physical manifestations.  I  want to point out that focusing only on race as a war we need to win is  misguided, since the war has never been about race per se. Racial classification, discrimination and or prejudice has been a very effective, efficient and powerful tool  to control the means of production and distribution of goods and services and the development of wealth.   Just as the internet is a tool for creating and disseminating information and  to control who uses it where, when and how.  Concentrating on racism as the war to win will result  in a pyrrich victory, and we have had too many examples of those.

Karen E Fields co-author of Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life, says in a Jacobin interview that ” in and of itself anti-racism only points out what racists  are doing, which gets us in a devilish circle”  i.e anti racism not only affirms and keeps the cloud of race firmly in our minds as a matter of fact, it also leads us to think and believe that racial equality is the solution or answer to  social injustice and inequality when the opposite is true. Racism is used to  entrench, reinforce and to cement structural inequalities  already in existence. Most of us know about the pyramid.

In order to understand what I mean, consider for a moment how it all began in your neck of the woods.  In my neck of the woods which is South Africa: – the English stumbled on the cape colony and set up camp, along with others as a means to secure an alternative trade route to India where their real economic fortunes lay. For a while it was simply a resting place, a place to have tea and contemplate doing real business elsewhere.  The imperialist had only a passing interest in the country and its people. But its Laissez faire  attitude soon  changed when the cash strapped UK instructed the small little cafe which was ballooning into a township to find ways to fend for itself and make money  for the crown while at it.  This soon gave  birth to the development of a commercial agricultural industry which centered on the production and exportation  of wool.  This competitive trade at the time needed two things: grazing land and labour in large quantities.  Since the crisis of the 1400 British, Dutch and other  capital imperialists have been obsessed with the acquisition of those two commodities at minimum to no cost where feasible.   In my neck of the woods  guns proved to be a highly persuasive method to convince the local population already living in Southern Africa ( the Khoi, the San, the Bantu) to avail themselves to work for free. Though it took almost the entire 16th, 17th and 18th centuries for the local population to “buy” into their scheme,  the discovery of  lucrative Diamonds and Gold deposits at the turn of the 18th and 19th century increased land and labour appetites to such an extent that  the barrel of the gun (death or threats of death)  no longer proved effective as  the only form of  persuasion.

The  Reader’s Digest illustrated history of South Africa notes that while the homestead system remained viable there was no reason for Africans to seek work on white farms – attempts to force Africans on the labour market included the imposition of a hut tax, a marriage tax, even a decree that no male was allowed to appear in Pietermaritzburg unless wearing trousers, including a creation of other dependencies (soap, sugar, creams) and increasing their artificial wants (clothes, make-up, accessories). This in addition to wanton raids, theft of cattle, kidnapping of children into forced labour and the destruction of African crop fields.

The idea of racial classification copied from the rise  of antisemitism in Europe, coupled with faux science and most importantly religious education provided a wonderful combination of psychological tools with which  to convince the now  hungry,battered, desolate and homeless masses that the only  way to survive  was to work  for a white man.

Capital or the Capitalist ideology is the driving force behind racial prejudice, it is what has shaped our economies into what they are today for better and for worse. Racism in not an issue concerning an individuals  “personal preferences” only. It’s  about securing privileged access to skills, resources, capital and maintaining tight control over those resources whether they are human or natural.  But if an individual or anything for that matter, can be profitable or  show potential to increase profit margins regardless of how that happens they (it) will have a seat at the proverbial table.

Racism is not a question of whether black, brown or oriental (non-white) people are intellectually, spiritually or physically  inferior or equal to Caucasians. It’s about who (has) can maintain control  (through arms, force, violence,propaganda) over  masses of people who volunteer or support their quest for  resources in order to remain or be in power. That’s why Barack Obama can be president, and we know of Oprah Winfrey  and a whole list of successful  black/African/Brown/Asian millionaires and billionaires, around the world.

In order for capital to thrive in the way that is has  it requires poverty and or something that can create lots of cash and fast such as a “cash cow”. There has to be a poor compliant army of workers who  are so desperate to breathe they will do anything to survive.  If you have no idea of what hunger can do, try speaking to a group of hungry men and see how far you get.   Alternatively in the world of “free markets” if  your idea sells, if your idea can make a lot of people rich quickly or in the short or long-term then you are in.

One of the richest continents ( in natural and human resources) in the world, Africa, is still steeped in an ocean of poverty and inequality regardless of the fact that not a single one of the 54 countries on the continent have a  white person as  president today.  What is  then at the root of poverty and inequality in Africa? Is it racism?

The war, if there is one, has never been about the colour of your skin, but if you think it is, then they have already won.

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BLACK AND WHITE: TELL ME SOMETHING NEW

My last attempt at a relationship was a complete disaster.

He was perfect. For me it was love at first sound.

He was not a typical Hollywood stud. But he had me at Hello, Hello.

I was skeptical. He was sure.

We drank the truth serum.

The first night was sweet.

The second night he wanted out.

I told him I understood.

He changed his mind.

The third night we heard silence.

He made coffee in the morning.

We sang a duet.

Stay.

His arms wrapped around my waist

I wore black pants and a grey top

He wore black pants and  a grey top.

I ran.

None had shown me such tenderness.

Are you for real?

He called and said we should just be friends.

I agreed and promptly stopped breathing.

A few months later he came crushing into my basement.

With his electronic baggage.

I said I could take it.

We spoke hardly.

We told each other lies.

We were happy.

In our separate rooms.

He saw me crying.

I saw him naked.

I said I love you

He said he  didn’t know what to say.

He was skeptical. I was sure.

BREAKING NEWS: YOUR RACE MATTERS

The human race and their costumes
The human race and their costumes

Recently my Facebook homepage has been populated with a litany of race commentary from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what the topic was about. I found that the issue of race keeps coming up over and over again in politics, sports, fashion, education, you name it. First it was a white girl who painted her face black with a permanent marker to poke fun at black people. The commentary there was: the joke is on her  because she will remain black like that forever, which of course in not true. Then yesterday an admission by a Kenyan Socialite that she has deliberately lightened her skin to make money because her body is a business drew much attention from local and international networks. Comments on that story were highly judgmental against “black “women’s general lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

So what is it about race that matters so much? What is it about the colour of one skin that makes it so important above everything else we share as human beings on this earth that we have to kill each other for it?
Why is race important today in the 21st century when we have more than enough scientific proof that there really is absolutely no biological difference between races except of course the colour of their skin. Maybe the shape of your nose and mouth or eyes… but isn’t that different anyway regardless? Why are people judged often solely on how they look?
I met a man the other day who said he often borrows from nature to answer life’s big questions. So I will learn from him and use “nature” to try to explain why I think race matters today more than ever but of course not for the same reasons we have been conditioned to think it does.

RACE: A KIND OF LANGUAGE

To use nature to explain the challenge of race I will not go on a wild African safari. Instead I’ll start at home. Using  an example of an animal said to be the  human’s best friend. The Dog.

Yes I am comparing humans to dogs.

In the world of dogs: there are different types of dogs, different colours, personalities, characters  and  strengths. But they are all dogs though, and the only thing that helps us tell them apart – is their shape/size and colour/character. If dogs were only short and black and didn’t come in any other variety, I’m sure humans would run  experiment testing what would happen if  mixed a dog’s genes with those of cats for example. But ultimately, if that were the case we would not be able to tell the difference between one short black dog to another. To tell the difference we’d have to spend time with each dog  in order to discover its unique peculiarities which sets its apart from the packs in order to  know the difference.

So there you go. Humans are like dogs. We’re the same. And since we are so much alike in every way imaginable, race becomes important. If we were all black and looked exactly like me – exact copies of who I am, Jedi Ramalapa with my history and everything that I am now there would be no US, but only ME or as the Rastafarians like to say, there would only be I and I.  I will be the only person I know because there would be no one else who is different from me. There would be no “other”one who would be me, I would be you. So I need there to be white people, Chinese, Indian people, black people, short people, tall people, all colours because that’s the only way that I will ever know that I exist as a human being . I know I am human because you are human, but I know I’m me because you are not me even though you are, like me, human.
This is where I think where the notion of I am because you are –” umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu “– I am human because you are human comes from. I know I am me because you are not me. If you were I wouldn’t be who I am. I will not be able to tell myself apart from any other human person because we would all be exactly  the same. Imagine if we all had the same thought, at the same time, felt the same, had the exact same families, backgrounds, histories, and training, skin colouring, feelings at the same time what would make you different from me? Nothing. If you were me, the whole world would be sitting at Lucky Bean in Melville, Johannesburg writing this blog post. But there would be no one singing, cooking or making food because the whole world would think like me, feel like me want the exact same thing as I want right now. Nothing else would be happening.
You wouldn’t exist as an individual, because I am exactly the same as you so we are  ultimately,  one.

BUT THAT’s NOT THE REASON WHY RACE MATTERS

So race matters only in so far as like the clothes we wear helps us to tell each other apart even though we are all part of the same thing or source. That’s the only thing. There are of course many other things which make people different. Where you grew up,  your  environment and what you were taught. Depending on where you come from and how you were educated about yourself, that  differentiates you from the next person. The differences between humans though are beyond skin. Take for example my siblings and I. We were all raised by the same parents, lived for the most part under one roof.  But we are all distinctly different from each other and we all want to do different things with our lives. My brother has chosen a different life for himself where he feels needed and wanted as an entrepreneur, my younger sister is married with children, my oldest sister has not lived anywhere else but at home with my parents since I’ve known her, I have traveled the world and still have itchy feet to this day. We all love music, we appreciate dance, education and the value of hard work but we appreciate those things in our own unique way. So even though we share the “same” DNA we are all different, even if we may share similar features, even though our skin colour is the same and from the same person. We are as diverse as the vegetation in nature.

IT’S OUR DIFFERENCES THAT MAKES US WHO WE ARE.

So I am Jedi Ramalapa, only because there is a Peace, Victoria, Didi and Immie in my life. I am who I am because no one else is like me, even though we share the same genes. I “wear” my genes differently and how I “wear” my genes changes also with time and the environment. But Victoria the “quiet” one in my family has strengths and skills I don’t possess, she knows things I don’t know, understands and interprets the same facts we both know differently. Her perspective is different from mine. Same with Didi, Immie and Peace. We have the same reference point but not the same perspectives, understanding or way of doing things. And that’s what makes us individuals. The me I am, only make sense in the difference that makes you who you are. I need an Immie,  a victoria, a Didi, a Peace in my life, because they in their difference complete me. They compensate for my shortfalls or should I say make my strengths more visible or are strong where I am weak and vise versa. We all have a role to play in life and our roles are as unique and different as life itself. I need another to be me, you need me to be myself not a copy of anyone else to be you. That is why we’re all, regardless of our colouring, irreplaceable.

Perhaps this is only a notion parents with more than one child can understand, but I’m definitely sure that if I can understand this so can you, child or no child.

So in all the debates about race, the issue is not race necessarily, but the desire to control and have power over another human being or a particular group of people that we decide at some point or other is inferior. They are not intrinsically inferior they just have different strengths and weaknesses to us. In order to control anyone or anything, you must insist on their weaknesses, highlight the points at which they are wrong, more than the points where they are strong and ‘right’.

Needless to say there is no wrong or right necessarily, what exists are the norms which we decide as a community should be deemed right or wrong in order to further perpetuate the notions of superiority, power and ultimately control.

In the cycle of life we are all equal, yet different. What makes nature so magnificent is the one thing we refuse to acknowledge in our human relationships. Difference makes  harmony possible.  There is no harmony without difference.

So yes you matter,  your race or whatever colouring you are matters. But not anymore or less than the next person who appears different from you. They make you who you are. Without them. You can’t be. You.

So instead of focusing on the superficial race arguments, lets talk about how to change the systems that make discrimination based on skin or anything else possible. Why should we fight about the very thing that makes us stronger as a human race. Why should someones skin be the basis on which you decide how to  treat them, when you yourself need and want the very same things as the other person? Food shelter, love, community, understanding, freedom. Why should someone else die for your comfort? Why can’t we use our strengths as individuals, races  and or communities to build a better world. We all need each other. No one is wholly and entirely self-sufficient. Not even the people we label crazy. I cannot exists without you, is the bottom line, and neither can you. Even if we all looked exactly the same,  we’d still be different or find  reasons to discriminate against each other based on other differences such as country or continent, age , gender, sexuality. Race would not matter then.

So why should it now?

What you choose to do with your body or skin, is ultimately up to you and no one else.

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A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.
Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed  the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist.  So since  we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am,  with you.  So this dear one  is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move  forward. I no longer wish to be  entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from  living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of  contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going.  Everything in its own time.

So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was  assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated  to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.

START FROM THE BEGINNING: A COLOUR PIECE

Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure  what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area.  It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner  political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country.  So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African  to be racially classified  this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between  races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese  etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a  “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together.  The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier.  When the group areas act law was  implemented  the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation.  Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale  but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.

I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it.  He smiled and said  “do it  for TV Radio and Online”.  I summoned the  courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was  the structure  I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what  event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?.  ” Ouma  Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.

TWIN-SOULS: NEVER CHANGE

Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools.  This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”.  The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa;   through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy-  running while the  limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.

WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE: SHIFTS HAPPEN

This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me.  I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.

SO THIS IS WHAT ALL THIS WAS ABOUT.

So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.

Can you imagine?

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?

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So many people who consider themselves progressive  have their own weird notions about the native, but they all have one thing in common. They want to decide who the native is and they want to do good things for him. You know what I mean. They want to lead him. To tell him what to do. They want to think for him and he must be accepting of their thoughts. And they like him to depend on them. Your Zuma makes an excellent “good native” for progressive folk. That’s why you like him”  – Frederick Cooper, Conflict and Connection -re thinking Colonial African history  ( Abrahams 1963,68)

I wrote the following piece “Un-begging to be white” in  2011. I continue to think deeply about  many of the issues raised in my piece since and more so now that I find myself re-listening to archive testimonies from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1999). Testimonies from which South African writer, poet and journalist Antjie Krog (whom I deeply admire) wrote her most famous non-fiction book Country of My Skull.  The bubbling racial (sic) tensions in South Africa today and around the world make this piece more relevant.  I would like you to keep these words by  Nobel Laureate, Political activist, professor novelist and former Auschwitz prisoner and survivor – Elie Wiesel,  in mind as you read. Prof Wiesel believed strongly that indifference is the  epitome of evil. And offered memory as an antidote to it. Below is his answer to the question on how to fight indifference, he said:

Through memory.  Memory may not be the only answer but there is no answer without memory. As a writer I have always been tempted by silence. I have tried to introduce silence into every word of mine. I have tried to surround my words with silence. And yet I know that  though the memory of silence is important, the silence of memory would be scandal. ( Wiesel 1988,19).

UN-BEGGING TO BE WHITE. (sic) Recently I  had a matter of fact conversation with a dear friend. It was matter of fact because it was what I assumed to be a matter of fact tale of (my) life. The on-line conversation revolved around my progress in securing accommodation. I was looking for a one bedroom flat. My dear friend was assisting me by finding links to places she found thousands of miles away from Johannesburg the city I inhabit.  And here’s the matter of fact part, I found myself typing this: In this situation I wish I were a white, rich woman, because I think it would make the process of finding a place easier. She responded by saying, being a  “white South African is not easy. It’s hard, because you’re always looked at, judged at face-value, assumed to be a bad person (racist)”. I brushed over her comment by saying yeah but there are pros and cons (to being black or white) and in this case I think it would be a pro for me as I would be able to eliminate all other possibilities.  She said she didn’t think it was a racial thing. I agreed with her in part. But instead of telling her this I continued by saying that two of my friends ( white expats) were also looking for accommodation  and while viewing a cottage in Brixton they were told that they were only considered because they were white . The landlord  didn’t want black people living in their backyard.  At that point she said she didn’t want to have a black/ white conversation and promptly logged off.

The conversation left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It left me pained,and I had to really take a long, hard look at myself. I wished  I  could take what I said back because just like my flat hunting experience, I wasn’t sure if the conversation had ended because she really had to go or because I had hurt her feelings and she wasn’t willing to  engage with me anymore. I had said to her that I wish it were simple; either the place I was looking for had already been taken or that I couldn’t afford it.

But I found myself thinking that perhaps there is more. After the conversation I had to question whether as a black South African, race is my default answer to all my problems? If I don’t get what I want – do I always assume that there must be a racial rationale? Why had I thought to even say that, why was that the uppermost thing on my mind?

Even as I write this I am finding it hard to pin down my thoughts, my reasons, my position. Why was  her response to what I thought was part of my normal so disturbing for me?  Did it disturb me because I had never  thought of what being a white South African must be like, feel, like taste like? Is it because I did not have a white South African view to life,  my vision is skewed by my skin colour,  my skin  colours how I look at life, defines how and when I move. I tried to think about her statement: How hard it must be to be a white South African; a descendant/beneficiary of a white racists regime, carrying the guilt of privilege, the burden of wealth on your skin; – despite what your actual personal circumstances may be. The assumption that you are racists, just because you are white.

It does sound hard and harsh. Just as hard and harsh as being black. So where do we find common ground. How can my statement not hurt my friend whom I love dearly who is also a white  South African woman? How can I be sure that race has nothing to do with my difficulty in securing a place to stay, in one of the richest, leafiest suburbs of Johannesburg?

The conversation reminded me of an experience I had in Cape Town a few years ago. I had been in the city  on a work assignment when it was finished I decided to stay on for a few days to experience  more of the city.  I decided that booking into a backpackers would be the most affordable option for me since it was after all a last minute plan. Cape Town’s long street was central, and offered a host of social venues where I could meet new people as I knew no one in the city.  That night accompanied by a friend and colleague I walked down Long street  and  knocked on  every backpacker  – there were many of them.  Most of them were full, others  didn’t answer the door. Eventually we arrived at one where the door did open. They had  room(s) available and I could  afford it.  There was just one problem. I was South African.  They had a policy that explicitly  favored, preferred  foreigners over locals.  I asked why in exasperation and fatigue and the man replied saying something I didn’t quite hear because the I was thinking of where the hell I was going to sleep that night.  Yes, my race was the last thing on my mind.

But on re-telling the story to friends and colleagues they found it a veiled racist’s rejection. They found that whatever reason he had given was hard to justify in a country where racial segregation shaped every part of our lives. Then in 2004, I could not  sleep at a backpackers  which  had  a room I could afford because I was South African. But Cape Town is another country – or is it? Do other countries reserve accommodation only for foreigners too? Where locals are not allowed? Maybe. But I have come to define that incident as being a racist one  even thought I didn’t think of it those terms initially. And wonder to this day,  if the story would be different had I been a  white female. Of course I have no way of knowing this for sure.

Did that experience raise my antennas? To  label anything I could not understand as being racist?  Am I a walking talking racist person?  How can I have a colour-blind outlook to life? What does being colour blind mean, where do I draw the line… when is it acceptable to take issue? When is it not? Is my assumption that life must be easier for South African (rich) white women or white people in general true? Is  it fair?

When thinking about this, Antjie Krog’s book, Begging to be  Black – comes to mind. Perhaps I may be subconsciously begging to be white also, as she is begging to be black. To be under a white woman’s skin, to  think as  a white person does, to feel & smell as a  white person.  Maybe I have white person envy.  My black friends often remind me, tell me, state it as a matter of fact  whenever they can, that I LOVE white people. They say it as if it were a crime, something bad, that I should be ashamed of. I cannot count how many times I’ve had to count how many black friends I have to justify the number of white people I hang out with. It is an interesting subject. I think it  really would be  more interesting for me to  say that I am begging to be white.  I would be the embodiment of the the oppressed, who Frantzs Fanon described thus : “Having judged, condemned and ignored their cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual habits, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing , of enjoying himself the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man”  Frantz Fanon.

That would be a logical  and easy assumption to make. An automatic logical expression of my oppression would be to hate  myself, my heritage, my identity, my background.  denying the past.  I would be and probably am  no different to  those  people who bleach their skin in order to have a fairer complexion, who loved their masters more than themselves,  who devised ways to straighten their hair, so that it’s lighter, softer and gentler to the touch. Those among us who dated and married white men so they could have nice brown and light-skinned children who would by extension have a better or easier hand at life. In this world which favours lightness – the closer one is to the Aryan race the better.   But I have never until that point given much thought to what being white must be like, except for the fact that I think the experience whatever it may be, must be generally easier than being a black woman.  I guess I never had time to think about how hard it must be to be white  – because I was busy trying to survive. Live.

Or perhaps my begging to be white could be an equally condescending and patronizing exercise as found in Krog’s  analysis of black culture  or ethos …” how they think”, her musings in orderly, efficient  Europe about the missed  benefits of Ubuntu. I could wonder how Europeans rationalize and justify their ideas  of “civilization” and if they are proud of the civilization (s) they have achieved so far in Africa and in Europe. The African continent should be by now a bright shining example of white innovation, intelligence, supremacy. After years of practice in Europe their systems, machinery,isms, education,  industrialization etc should have been easier and faster to implement here. How then has their efficiency, precision, logic, analytical mind (s) , all the “good” and genius that has  always been their birth right benefited anyone?

I am not begging to be white or black for that matter.  What I am doing is begging to understand why it is that I should (must) understand, how hard it must be to white – when the very  white people have not tried to understand what it must be like to be black – and their only reflection on the matter is only in response to their own guilty feelings about what black people must think and  feel about them? Why is it that I must be asked to constantly  measure, balance my experience, be polite, nice, not hurt any one’s feelings, to hear all sides before I can say something which is  my experience – not a feeling, but a fact. When it might reflect badly, upset, offend a white person?  Why must I understand that all black people are lazy, that we have never invented anything, that we are thieves, corrupt, diseased, as a matter of fact and  that the only way I can succeed is with some assistance or sponsorship, the AID of white people, why is it that I should be asked to understand that I am who I am, know what I know, live the way I do, speak the way I do, am because of my colonial saviours, because if they hadn’t  saved me  – I probably would be living in a rural mud-hut dressed in nothing but cow skin and breeding millions of children for  an old abusive patriarch if not dead?

Why must I understand that most things about my life have nothing to do with race actually, when they don’t understand that everything about their life is about race, because of race? On a more personal level, why is it that I cannot speak about my experience without being a racists ungrateful and disrespectful person. Why can’t we have a conversation?

I would love to live in a world, where I didn’t have to sell my DNA/My soul/My dignity in order to have a roof over my head. I would love to live in a world where my house is your house; my land is your land, where community is community. But I don’t and that is largely because Europeans, thought it  backward, uncivilized, uncultured, primitive and un-educated  to share. So they took that away centuries ago, made sure that any semblance of equity  was thoroughly destroyed. So yes, for me right now, in this country it is a matter of fact that it would be easier for me to find a place had I been white and rich. I look forward to the day when this would not be a matter of fact. 

” Historians of economic thought should be heedful therefore, not only of what gets said, but what is left unsaid.  And what in a sense cannot be said in arguments and articles meant to be heard and paid attention to. By considering the relationship between power, interests, and rhetoric among the elite producers of economic knowledge. Historians of economic thought may be able to further illuminate the nature and history of story-telling in economics. But in connecting these accounts historians of economic thought (must) should recognize that they themselves are storytellers, building partial accounts of the partial accounts written by economists. To the extent that the storytellers of economics however have been selected and socialized  to believe in and to have a stake in stories of individual objectivity and the free market place of ideas, these storytellers will continue  to present themselves as authoritative agents of truth. And as long as the rhetoric of the discipline in enforced thought and intellectual hierarchy resistant to transformative challenges, the telling of dissonant stories remains  fraught with professional peril.Diana Strassmann; The stories of Economics and the power of the storyteller (1993)