To have once been black is worth more than it is to be merely human today

I haven’t always been a Sunday newspaper reader but am quite enjoying this newfound discipline to occupy Sundays now that I have moved to the Cape and every single day with good weather shouts out to you to take a hike or admire the beauty or go here or there. No! There is work to be done and we can’t always be out there catching the sun and in my case the other challenging things that come with it.

This week the Sunday Times grabbed my attention.  John Pilger – The ANC has betrayed SA and Njabulo Ndebele – It’s time to shed ‘blackness’ in particular caught my attention and it is a response to the latter that I feel most drawn to make, although Mthombothi on ‘where are the new ideas’ (I have a few) is also tempting.  In fact, let me just put it all out there – the article on teeth grinding (to which I am a newcomer), the article on Abba (of which I am an old fan) and the Party People page were all well worth the detour to the local Spar. So thank you Sunday Times for an edition I actually what’s-apped people in Joburg and Durban to buy.

But Back to Black and I think there are issues that Ndebele raises that must surely resonate with many South Africans.  As a teenager I was immersed in the teachings of Black Consciousness and BC leaders through family in a way that relatively few so called Indians in Durban were in the 70s and 80s. Ndebele talks about finding one’s place in the world. All of us have to do this all the time and the political, social and economic heritage of South Africans makes this a fraught quest. I lived in Johannesburg for 23 years and not once in all of that time did my blackness ever come into question in any way that was memorable.  During this time I was only once asked if I was Indian and on that occasion I was in Brazil and it was more appropriate to point out that I was in fact African and once the ‘de Sud’ or South was out of the bag then the smiling response was ‘Oh, Mandela, Nelson Mandela.’  I would then bask in the glory of our global icon, feel the comfort of the rainbow and not feel forced to interrogate my labelling of myself any further.  Move to the Western Cape and it’s a different story altogether.

Not quite two years in and it is a question I have had to confront repeatedly from random strangers and my clumsy, confused sounding responses are fast eroding the confidence I once felt in my blackness. Take the example of the sweet little old lady who won’t let me sit next to her because she is saving two seats for family members. I smile and say I’m happy to sit in the row behind but she attempts to smooth over the rebuff by asking if I am Indian.  She herself looked pretty Indian and all she was trying to do was to establish something common between us. Places of worship are meant to provide a more embracing space for belonging. How ‘true’ to myself or my political heritage would I have been if I had said no I’m black. In a different setting perhaps I would have launched into my standard response but in that instant, it seemed petty. Her first port of call in identifying with me was via my physical attributes not my well-considered and long clung to political belief that I am black.  I have invested so much, for so long in being black that I find it incredibly difficult to respond comfortably in the affirmative to Indian.  Indians live in India. And if South Africa was a simple country or even had a name as all other countries do then I would be that.  An Azanian. A Zyborgian. Since we continue to see fit to call ourselves the south part of a continent then I am a South African.  But this has never been enough.  I am a black South African. Ndebele writes about his perceptions of the South African “black” galloping downhill especially over the past 5 years.  If this is true then it is not the “black” that I and many others have aspired to be through the philosophy of black consciousness and it is a great pity that more so called ‘blacks’ have not managed to free their minds sufficiently to take up his challenge: ‘It is time that the South African “black” began to appreciate the value of aspiring towards the universal […] So am I “black”? I once was but no more.  Am I an “African”? Yes but with qualification… Am I a “human being”? Resoundingly, yes!’ 

I wish that my response to being a “human being” could come from the strong place of affirmation and certainty his does. But for me there just isn’t enough guaranteed goodness or substance to recommend being a human being.  Did I mention that I had skipped straight through to Section 2 of the paper in a determined effort to avoid the Tambo, Pistorius and Pascoe articles on page 1?  Being a “human being” or even a citizen for that matter is by no means the conclusion of the liberation journey. Human beings are easily tempted and gravely fallible creatures. So we need qualifiers like ‘humane’ or ‘responsible’ or ‘compassionate’ or ‘decent’ to preface the entity we aspire to be. From this point of view, being Black was for me a far more positive and motivating thing to be because I was relinquishing claim to the heritage of my ancestry in order to identify with and belong amongst the displaced majority of which I was a part in the land of my birth. Black consciousness and a unified oppressed class was the real threat to the apartheid regime and denouncing tribal association for the sake of unity made good political sense.

What would make good political sense 20 years into democracy? To recognize and acknowledge that the world is a very different place today and that we need to educate ourselves to see our particular challenges as a nation within the context of things universal. I attended the first press junket organized by Tozie Zokufa of the Humane Society International (HSI) last week. There were many in that gathering who would call themselves anti-speciesist and a great deal of tolerance was extended between the likes of ‘happy pig’ farmers and vegans.  Perhaps we should give up National Braai Day and reconsider what National Heritage Day should actually be about instead of simply aspiring to oppress the next voiceless entity in the pecking order. Ndebele has prompted us – each and every one of us South Africans – to ‘aspire toward the universal’.  Is there a fallacy you are clinging to that no longer serves South Africa and prevents us from moving forward? For each of us what needs to be released will be different.  If you don’t know where to start maybe take the advice of Alice Walker:

“It is time to circle. I advise that everyone […] call up between seven and eleven of your staunchest, smartest and most thoughtful friends, and that you create of yourselves a circle that meets once a month in each other’s homes. There, in the safety and privacy of that sacred space, enter thoroughly into dialogue about what you wish for and will work for in your country.”

Maybe this is how we find our place in the world.

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