Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Mistaken Identity

Over the years I have been trying to understand what it means to be a black person in post-apartheid South Africa. My identity is shaped by growing up amongst black people like myself. I have also spent extended periods of time with the others from the South African population groups. In all these I have learned that the black man is perceived differently by almost all the population groups. What is astounding in this lesson is that the white view of the black is the more dominant.

I have been fortunate to have had people who were conscious of the challenges that the black man is confronted with throughout out my life. I would listen to the many discussions that my parents would have with some of their visitors at our household, or when we would visit some of their friends. You see I was born at the time when the fight against apartheid was gathering its momentum; I was in grade 6 in ’94 in a school dominated by the Indian population. I had an appetite for reading material and would read my dad’s literature on the defiance campaigns and the struggle against apartheid. My mom’s trade union newsletters gave me a sense of pride as a young black boy that the black man was reclaiming his position in society. All this made me conscious of race by that age. During break time at school we would sometimes play soccer with the other boys and to form teams we would say “it’s the blacks against the Indians”.

I remember one occasion when my family and I went grocery shopping at the Hyperama. For the little boy in me this was a grand occasion because it also afforded me the chance to get a close look at white people and their habits, a chance to play games that their kids played as was shown on television. Whiteness seemed a grand life for me. Together with westernisation it continues to be portrayed wonderfully in the media. Our limited exposure to reading material meant that we paged through magazines while picture reading. We would say to each other, “the page on the left is yours and the one on the right is yours”. As we paged through the magazine we would then celebrate or lament at what the pages revealed. If your page did not have any fancy pictures with white models showcasing clothes or a certain lifestyle you would be the loser. This is not senseless blabber as you may probably think; I am trying to paint the extent to which I comprehend my blackness.

By the time I was a teenager I was attending a school that was dominantly white. In my grade 8 class we were only 4 black people in a class of 32. Contrary to what I had learned in my mom’s newsletters over the years, numbers did not matter in this new environment. One had to adopt another strategy if one was to advance change in the way blacks were treated in this school. Before you make quick conclusions, I remember only two occasions where we were referred to as kaffirs during my time at that school. In retrospect, this made the white people seem good to us. They were giving us education and Christianity; they knew these were good for us. If we refused these, we would turn out like other black people who were lazy and drunks they told us. The prospect of being lazy and a drunk did not appeal to me so we worked harder and accepted our situation. With that said, I came to know for sure where my place was in the greater scheme of things. Building solidarity seemed the next best strategy but I quickly learned that as the 4 black people in the class we saw the world around us very differently.

It is hard understanding my blackness in post-apartheid South Africa. Through my experiences of advancing the struggle against racial inequality I have come to learn of others like me who are also struggling. They are in other parts of Africa, in Asia, in the south Americas, in Scandinavian Europe, in all parts of the world. While they are not black like me I have found that they are struggling too. In their struggles I have found solidarity. In their pain I have questioned my alleged freedom; how can I be free when others are suffering from one form of oppression or the other? Even if they may not be in my immediate environment I find it hard to consider myself a free man. I find it hard to live with my fellow brothers and sisters who consider themselves free. Those who see themselves as free celebrate and claim that they have the vote; yet this vote yields no change in the status quo. The only change I see are the faces of government. It is hard to understand my blackness in relation to these group of people. It is even harder to comprehend y blackness in the midst of those who advocate that we be colour blind. In the quest to defeat racial inequality and embracing my blackness I have encountered an enemy more sinister; colour blindness.

My blackness is intertwined with the struggles for emancipation of the people of Palestine; it is rooted in the cause for justice in Yemen. My blackness is the face of poverty in India; it is in the labours on which capitalism thrives. My blackness is the cry for a better education across the world, it is echoed in the billions of youth with no jobs the world over. My blackness is drained in the blood that is throughout Africa today, it is seen in the eyes of hungry children. My blackness is suffering at a time when the world has every means to make me heal, to make me whole. My blackness is beyond skin colour. It is an identity of the poor, the forgotten citizens the world over.

My blackness has been misunderstood because many have feared it. The winds of change forever blow and they awaken my soul to a new day. My blackness is the only hope for humanity. It carries no gun and is clothed in love. My blackness is an embodiment of Ubuntu; it is the understanding that no human being should dominate another. My blackness is the protection of children from hunger and disease; it is empowerment for the women. My blackness is in restoring pride and dignity; it is in standing side by side as brothers and sisters knowing that we are all not destitute.