Today is March 19. Tension fills the Rhodes University campus in the small South African university town of Grahamstown. The university’s student representative council had announced a day earlier that a meeting would take place today to allow the student populace, the various student representative societies, and university management to discuss the ructions taking place at the campus and at other universities across the country.
Students run rhythmically through the university’s passages and alleyways, spilling out onto the main road leading to the Great Hall, where the meeting is to be held. They sing protest songs and struggle hymns with passion and an intuitive harmony. One group of students chant “Yinde Le Ndlela Esiy’hambayo” (the road we are traveling is long) as they pass by. The group immediately behind them, sing the elegiac Senzeni Na. I step aside to bear witness to the cacophony, as though trying to recall the days of a revolution I was born too late to witness.
The Great Hall is filled to capacity with students brandishing cardboard signs bearing different phrases. Life is hard without a laptop, goes one. #WeCantBreath, goes another. #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall, also feature. As the crowd settles, the hall turns from a place of protest to one of testimony. Students line up on stage to express their concerns, with the vice-chancellor looking on. Booing, clapping and singing accompany each grievance voiced.
The meeting is approaching its third hour. A young lady is given the microphone. She steps forward and introduces herself but seemingly can’t find the words to articulate her concerns. She stutters, tucks her lips into her mouth and closes her eyes. The room falls silent. She draws her face into one hand while the other falls from the microphone and comes to rest at her side. Resignation. She is in tears.
“Be strong, gal!” someone shouts from the back of the hall.
“We got you, sweedaat!” another voice shouts.
The hall breaks into a chorus of encouragement as the young lady gathers herself. Finally, she speaks.
“I am black. I am a woman. I was raised by my grandmother. I come from a working-class background,” she begins.
She strikes me as someone who has lost something important, yet cannot afford to mourn. Her strength and resolve menace me. It is as though she is calling on a part of myself I refuse to think about. I sense in her testimony a confrontation of this refusal. The hall is too full and too still to exit unnoticed. I am trapped for my own good and I know it. So I sit and listen.
“I come to Rhodes and the culture tells me that we are not enough,” she says.
Her voice begins to shake again, but she maintains her posture.
“The culture here tells us that we need to qualify ourselves each and every day to maintain the fact that we deserve to be here,” she says.
In that single sentence she captures one of the most elusive and violent experiences endured by souls in black skin. I feel something in me relax. A cryptic muscle that has been working faithfully to maintain the burden of perpetual conviction comes to rest. Her words unlock a cache of emotion now available for my claim. An unusual reassurance. I smile.
“It is through our lecturers, who are condescendingly patronizing towards us; the white students on this campus just don’t understand,” she continues.
She is now governed by the story she’s telling. Her narrative surpasses her tears. I place my hand on my chest to feel the resonance of her words, for these are truths I have been living to negate and disregard for as long as I can recall.
“They hurl insults at us. They call us stupid. They call us angry for no reason. They call us illogical. Yet, they don’t understand the lived experience of what it means to have the color of this skin on this very campus. There is no cushion that [softens] the blow of being black in this institution!”
This final affirmation destroys the illusory freedom to which I had begun to become accustomed. I am overcome by betrayal, by being the betrayer, and the feeling startles me. My solidarity with her seems to be a farce now. We are not the same. The truth about our differences makes me feel as though I am being tricked by everything about me, once again. I pick up my camera and continue to take pictures to distract myself from contemplating this particular truth which her testimony has revealed.
It is May 1. The young lady’s words still mark my conscience, forcing me to pick apart my emotional response to her. Her testimony leads me consider the generation betrayed, and the generation made complicit. It leads me realize that the Rainbow Nation project, so proclaimed by Nelson Mandela in the year before my birth, has failed the young lady, myself and many others of my generation. It also makes me realize that the idea that some of us were ‘born free’ into this Rainbow Nation works only for some, among whom I am included.
As I begin the task of freeing my mind from these ideologies of the South African democracy, I have no choice but to reflect explicitly on my intimate relationship with white hegemony.
The story of who I am should make me the idea sop for the propaganda that has sold an optimistic yet inaccurate story about the quality of South Africa’s reconstruction and reconciliation project. I am a black child born after 1994 and whose parents’ affluence has allowed me to transcend the absolute and relative poverty that is the norm for other black children so born. I was born and raised within the meters of Africa’s richest square mile. I am not the first in my family to go to university and I am unlikely to inherit the financial obligation of supporting extended family members. While I am proficient at three indigenous South African languages, I am more proud of being able to speak the kind of English that astonishes even white people. The extent of my fluency in white culture has afforded me experience in the corporate sector, even at my young age. I have even defied stereotypes by being one of the few blacks to compete in aquatic competitions at a national level for two consecutive years. I am socially, economically, politically and even epistemologically of value to whiteness. White hegemony has recognized my capability to understand its culture; it has praised me for participating in it. And, more so, it has rewarded me generously for assimilating into it.
How I relate to white hegemony is undoubtedly rare, though not exceptional. And it is becoming less rare by the year. It is similar to the stories of others of my generation who have consciously or unconsciously assimilated into whiteness. However, to avoid generalizing and grossly simplifying this topic, I will speak only of my own experience. In that experience my relation to white hegemony contains three main elements: exclusion, comfort, and fear.
The exclusionary nature of my assimilation into whiteness encourages me to think of myself as a survivor who is set apart from inheriting grievous disadvantages passed on to the average young black person in this country. It forces me to consider myself (and to be considered by others) different in many material and unquestionable respects. It forces me to think of myself as the exceptional black, taking from me the right to speak from my own perspective on issues such as #RhodesMustFall. I am beloved by the gate keepers of this hegemony, yet resented by those who have yet to be accepted into it. Therefore, I am in a difficult predicament whenever I attempt to articulate the ways I relate to the symbolic, cultural, economic and institutional remnants of a colonial past.
The comfort in my assimilation to whiteness is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it releases me from certain psychologically and emotionally taxing ‘fixtures of blackness’, such as having acute concerns about topical social issues such as poverty, and participation in political and social organizing on campus. I don’t, in other words, have to define myself as black and to unite with other blacks to overthrow the hegemony as I have been accepted into the hegemony. The price I pay for this, the price white hegemony demands, is that I remain silent, preferably ignorant, about certain aspects of civil life. My assimilation into white culture requires that ‘being black’ become an occasional fixture of my identity instead of an integral part of it.
When the March 19 meeting took place, I was faced with a conscience-threatening dilemma: Do I attend the meeting and commit to the cause, risking ideologically betraying the hegemonic project I have unapologetically, but uncritically, endorsed my whole life? Or do I not attend the meeting, comforted by the assurance that I will not be chastised and labeled morally irresponsible for abstaining from the conversation in its entirety? Ultimately I attended, and the young woman’s testimony uprooted my comfort. Her state of insecurity on campus, owing purely to the fact of her blackness, is evidence that the presence of black bodies in an institution such as this is not enough to transform it into a place not only tolerant but welcoming of and changed by difference.
Her words devastated me. Had I not passively and successfully learned to mimic whiteness, I, too, would share her concerns and insecurities about being black on such a campus. My sense of security is nonetheless hollow because I have been preoccupied with trying transcending the psychology of inferiority by assimilating into the culture that imposes it: I internalize, then set myself apart from those condescending words of the patronizing lecturers against which she protested. I endorse my privileged silence when white students dehumanize their black peers for not conforming to the norms of white etiquette. I am welcomed into spaces of social, corporate and political engagement without challenge, as I am symbolic proof that the white hegemony’s project of ‘civilizing’ the native is not a myth.
The fear-oriented element of assimilation dictates that punitive consequences be taken should there be defiance of any kind that threatens the unity between this hegemony and I. While I have not experienced significant losses from renouncing my participation in whiteness, the element’s aim is to instill the kind of fear that impairs rational thinking. Therefore, the thought or act of questioning, challenging or offending any part of this hegemonic project is inhibited by my phobia of doing so. The comfortable and exclusionary natures of this hegemony create, for me, a prison whose bars I have been indoctrinated to not break.
I realized this when my journalism and media studies tutor asked the group recently:
“Who feels at home here at Rhodes?”
The majority of the room raised their hands. Only three hands were missing from the gaggle eager to say why they considered Rhodes University a home away from the homes they came from. The three hands were all black. I took a look at my own hand raised unconsciously in the air and felt guilty. I guess, in truth, I did consider Rhodes as my second home.
My lecturer picked me to start the conversation. I can’t remember what I said but I know I was sarcastic and amusing, because fear barred me from being forthright and raw in challenging the comfortable lives of the majority of the room. What was supposed to be a fierce debate about the contemporary legacies of figures such as Cecil John Rhodes became, with my assistance, an unreflective and safe discussion. My complicity in this resigned me to silence for the rest of the discussion.
Had I been the kind of person in whom the redemptive power of honest and inconvenient conversations trumped the fear of rebelling against the hegemony, the appropriate answer I would have given to that question should have been: Yes! I feel most comfortable at Rhodes University, because it is more than an escape from the pretenses of northern Johannesburg where I am from. There is neither defeat nor victory nor struggle for me here. The institution does not dare challenge my identity in ways which matter. As a black member of the elite, Rhodes University is a secluded and affluent space that affords me the ability to unconsciously refine my mimicry of white hegemony, in peace.
My relationship with white hegemony does not solely refer to my interaction with white or black people. It does not directly refer to my attitude towards race and class issues. Nor does it speak about an experience which can be regarded as a norm. It is merely one of many examples that reflect the state of South Africa’s transformation project. My relationship with white hegemony speaks about the inequalities between advances in the structural transformation and regressions in the quality of lived human experience. It speaks about the disparities between material equality and psychological poverty. It speaks about how hegemonic systems of oppression mutate and subsequently continue thrive within eras of democracy.
South Africa is not a phenomenal country. It is a country famous for its phenomenal events and supposedly miraculous transition from white-minority rule. However, we are misguided in thinking that the story this country ought to continue telling is one wherein we are survived by our ability to reproduce these events globally regarded as admirable and miraculous. The Rainbow Nation and Born-Free ideologies are contemporary examples of these induced miracles. These two ideological projects have distracted us from doing the hard work of healing our society from the core. The endorsement of these ideologies has inhibited us from having necessary, honest and inconvenient conversations about our experiences and collective identity. The unfortunate reality is that these democratic ideologies belong irreducibly to a time where freedom still has the power to choose its proprietors.
We think we are free, yet all we have ever done is cover gunshot wounds with plasters.
*This essay is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the author’s blog, SuburbanZulu. The title of this essay is mildly influenced by notions of engagement relating to an academic paper which is still in the process of development. That particular paper is researched, developed and written by Siseko H. Khumalo.