Pretoria High School for Girls: Black hair politics and the battle for dignity

It was just last week that my friend with a daughter in Model C high school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town was telling me about having to send an e-mail to the Mathematics teacher because the teacher made comments about the daughters hair. The daughter’s hair is in a natural mini Afro.

So when I was reading about the protests by black girls at Pretoria High for Girls this weekend, I immediately thought about my friend’s daughter. The administration at Pretoria High School for Girls, like many white South Africans, does not take seriously the dignity of black people.

Maybe it is good a good time to insert here that the South African Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, guarantees for everyone – including black girls – a right to human dignity. It reads, “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” The administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools in South Africa seem to ignore this important right while formulating “general appearance” guidelines.

In South Africa, lip service is paid to the idea of human dignity but there is a lack of respecting this right in practice. In other instances we speak of human dignity, but we have caveats, we say human dignity for all but not for the sex-worker, not for the homosexual, not for the gender non-conforming bodies, not for the black foreigner, not for the poor, and not for women.

Instinctually I want to say, how crazy is it that South Africa has a population that is more or less 80% black, but it is that black 80% that needs to modify to fit into European beauty ideals. I stop myself because although it is “crazy” because it is unjust – because it should not be so – it not crazy in that there is a history that leads us here. It is 350 plus years of colonization and then apartheid that brought us here. It is years of missionary education that was premised on racism. South Africa has a long history of denying black people their dignity, hence the specific inclusion of human dignity in the Constitution.

In South Africa we don’t always acknowledge the full impact of colonialism on present day society. In South Africa we are discouraged from engaging the history of colonialism. The history of colonialism is often neglected in discussions about race and racism and the creation of a democratic South Africa. Statements such as “we need to move on” are often used when colonialism is brought into a conversation.

What have those years done to our collective historical psyche?

What we need to interrogate and ask is why do we not engage more with colonialism and the effects of colonialism? We have a museum for apartheid, we have one for District Six, we have the Voortrekker Monument, but as my Boyfriend once asked, where is the museum or memorial for colonialism? Are we to pretend that the 300 years preceding 1948 never happened?

I suspect the answer to the colonialism museum question has to do with who has the power, – monetarily, socially, and otherwise – to realise such a museum. Building a colonialism museum would imply that there will be a place where we can go and engage with colonialism and its legacy. And yes, it would be a museum of horrors. It would be a museum where the violence of whiteness is on proper display, where it is obvious.

Instead of thinking hard about colonialism and then apartheid and their legacies, in South Africa we are encouraged to “move on” and “leave the past in the past.” This is a futile exercise of course because the past is not in the past; the past is here with us and the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is evidence of this.

You might ask what does colonialism and then apartheid have to do with the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls?


We are often blind to the ways that we are all affected by colonialism. The fantasies that white South Africans still have about black people are palpable. You see part of what colonialism has bequeathed on us is the investment in an authoritarian Christian nationalist ethos. The bizarre notion that imposing rules on how you look will instill “discipline” and make students excellent – as if you think with your hair. South African schools really need to rethink the dressing codes, the school prayers, the school songs, and school traditions that were part and parcel of the colonial and then apartheid regimes. The problem at Pretoria High School for Girls is real and its 3 centuries in the making.

The rules and regulation of grooming practices for black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls has everything to do with our colonial past and then apartheid. These grooming practices were established during colonial and then apartheid years. The idea that black people’s grooming practices must be monitored is as old as 1562. The ways that black girls are treated at Pretoria High School for Girls, and other Model C schools is rooted in the ways colonialists and then the apartheid regulated the “neatness” of black bodies.

The language of “neatness” is still part of the guidelines of Model C schools. It is used to discipline black girl’s bodies in order for their bodies to closely reflect the dominant European ideal. It is when the black girl’s hair does not reflect the European ideal that it’s “neatness” is called into question. Talk about a need for decolonising the South African schooling system.

The black girls who get into trouble with Model C school administrators are not black girls with “properly” combed European looking weaves, it is not black girls who do their hair in the “ordinary” way – an ordinary that pleases the white administrator. It is the black girl with an Afro. It is the black girl with dreadlocks. It is the black girl whose hair pronounces I am black and I know it and I love it.

Many white South Africans, including white teachers at Model C schools, have not caught up with a post-apartheid South Africa that is supposed to be rid of racism. How is it ok for a white schoolteacher to think that it is acceptable to call a black girls hair a “bird next”?

Some white South Africans might have missed it, but whiteness just isn’t what it used to be. But you see blackness is also not what it used to be. As demonstrated by #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, and now #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh with regards to whiteness and previously whites only institutions, it is not business as usual anymore.

The black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are a clear demonstration that blackness is not going to be lived in ways that pleases white administrators at Model C schools. Black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are fighting back. They are fighting for their dignity. They are fighting to exist in a South Africa where their being is not measured against European standards of beauty disguised in discourses of “proper grooming.” Black girls shouldn’t be policed like this. In fact there’s already too much policing that girls experience what with the patriarchal culture that we live under, teachers cannot and shouldn’t be part of the policing. They should be helping high school girls forming positive body image.

What is taking place at Pretoria High School for Girls is shocking because black girls in high school shouldn’t have to protest for their dignity and their identity to be valued and respected. However, what is happening there it is not surprising. Model C schools have been mistreating black pupils all throughout the post-apartheid period. We have had reports of schools not allowing black languages to be spoken in class. We have seen schools with very questionable admissions policies.

Who can forget Simphiwe Dana deciding to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg so that her children can have access to good schools that offer black languages? So, no, this is not surprising. The black students I have met at university who went to Model C schools speak of the racism experienced at these schools. They speak of the pressure to assimilate to whiteness. Students are denied the Right to speak their mother tongues in Model C schools, and in addition they pick up a distinct “Model C English” accent. For most of us high school was tough, but there is a particular self-loathing that is produced by Model C schools.

The reaction from the school authorities towards the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is disgusting. It is apartheid style tactics of making the school a victim with teachers speaking of being “threatened and scared”. This is a typical whiteness response when white people and white institutions are called into order about their racism.

White South Africans are so used to treating black people and black people’s bodies with disregard that when black girls demand to be treated with dignity, white teachers speak of feeling “threatened and scared.” Of course the irony is that the white teachers are blindly unaware of the “threat” they pose to black girls identities and self-worth. They are blindly unaware how “scared” the black girls must be to have to put themselves in the line of fire with the school administration. Also, what about the fear that the teachers place on black girls who have to extensively calculate the “appropriateness” of their hair with every new hair do.

It’s impossible to miss the gendered nature of hair “guidelines” or “general appearance” guides for schools as they are often designed for girls and much less is said about boys. Since Pretoria High School for Girls is a girl’s school, I imagine the policing must be doubly intense. We are already aware of the many ways that black women’s bodies are surveilled in society. Places like Pretoria High School for Girls institutionalize the policing of black girls bodies under “dress codes.”

In the policing of black girls bodies at this school, how do they deal with the diverse ways that gender is experienced and lived. I shudder to think how pupils at places like Pretoria High School for Girls who have gender non-conforming identities, or who are forming gender non-conforming identities. The violence that must be visited upon such pupils at a school that has dress and hair policies that are admittedly “conservative.”

The “rules must be followed” and “all schools have rules” response to the protests by the black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is telling. Although it is a typical response from many South Africans who value authority and rules for their own sake, it is problematic. That “rules” must be followed even if the rules are unjustified, colonial, and affect the dignity of black girls is unacceptable.

This type of discourse is of course not unlinked to the “children must be seen and not heard” nonsense that allows for the silencing of children, where children learn to be silent even when they are being hurt. Rules do not exist in isolation. People create rules. Rules are created by appointed structures, by society with a particular agenda. Rules are set to encourage a particular way of being, of dressing, of styling. Rules are ideological, they embody the world view and assumptions of the economically and socially dominant group who govern institutions. They are underpinned by a certain way of seeing the world – what the world ought to be like. Rules are not objective. So rules that are anti-Afro are rules that are anti-black. Rules that are anti-dreadlocks are rules that are anti-black.

The problem with the white administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools is symptomatic of the problem of white South Africa. White South Africans are not invested in, and they show no commitment in fostering a nonracial South Africa. It has been lamented time and time again that the people involved in the post-apartheid rebuilding of South Africa is black people.

White South Africans are more interested in living in gated communities with electrical fences and security guards than engaging with black people. In post apartheid South Africa white people still have not taken the time to learn more about the black cultures around them. The poverty porn in Cape Town and Johannesburg galleries and the occasional Sunday braai at a place like Mzoli’s doesn’t count.

White South Africans are still living with strangers, an ideologically far away people. There is very little effort from white South Africans engaging meaningfully with black people and black cultures, and that is why in 2016 schoolteachers can say racist things about black girls hair. That is why administrators are poorly handling the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls. That is why when black girls are screaming to be treated with dignity; they are met with “rules must be followed” responses.

There is a total disregard of the black girls personhood. In this climate, in this culture of ignoring the dignity of black girls, Maliaka Eyoh’s words, a grade 12 pupil at Pretoria High School for Girls, become that much more prophetic when she states, “When we stand together, our message is stronger. We understand that we cannot trust two old white men who work for other old white men to stand up and combat the injustice and incite the change we need.” Maliaka Eyoh understands that she has to fight for her dignity and the dignity of other black girls. She understands the poverty of white South African’s will to meaningfully engage with blackness.

Many South Africans are proud of the black girls of Pretoria High School for Girls. We are excited for the world these black girls envision for themselves. A South Africa that is not anti-black. A part of me, a big part of me wishes that these black girls didn’t have to do what they did. And as I wish this, I am reminded of one of my mother’s favourite 16-century English proverbs, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” A luta continua.

The “first black” and Racism as distraction

There is a carelessness in the way South Africans and the South African media discuss issues of difference. Whether these issues of difference are about race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and/or class they are all often dealt with in sensationalist headlines and with disregard of the people affected. You would think with our horrible history of discrimination, and our talk of creating a more democratic and empathetic society, we would be more inclined to pay attention to the way we address issues affecting marginalised communities. I want to use the example of the “first black” to illustrate the ways in which little attention is given to details in the way we talk about race and how racial injustice from the past is always with us, even when we fail to acknowledge that.

The way in which we talk about the “first black” person to achieve a certain milestone in their professional careers is problematic. The first black cricketer, first black president, first black scientist, first black book, etc, have all made headlines. Recently when Cape Town born South African cricket player Temba Bavuma scored a test century, the headlines were “the first black cricketer to score test century.” Now Temba Bavuma IS the first black to achieve this feat in an “official” cricket-sporting event and should be congratulated. So I appreciate the need to recognise people’s achievements, and to praise black people for being outstanding in their professional fields. What I do have a problem with is how being the “first black” is always the leading statement, the prefix, and the introduction to that black person. A google search for Temba Bavuma will show all the headlines with the tittle “first black.” The fact that a person is the “first black” to achieve a certain goal, which often, and certainly in Temba Bavuma’s case, is true, often overshadows the achievement. An achievement, of course, that white cricketers have been achieving for a long as long as South African cricket has existed.

I find this problematic because it often ends at the “first black” and does not continue to substantiate why this is the case. When the “first black” statement is not qualified, there is an underlying assumption of meritocracy and that makes the “first black” sentiment hugely problematic. It is disingenuous to just state that someone is the “first black” to achieve a professional milestone, like the one achieved by Temba Bavuma, without stating the reasons why there’s never been a “black cricketer” to achieve what he has achieved. By leaving out the qualifying statements of why someone is the “first black” suggests that there has never been a black person who has had the ability to do what the “first black” has done. This is obviously not true, there were and there continues to be structural impediments for black people being able to achieve all kinds of professional milestones. The way life was organised during the colonial years and then during apartheid made sure that black people didn’t have access to many professions. For example before Nelson Mandela became the “first black” president there were plenty of black people who were capable of being president of South Africa. They couldn’t run for president because there was a system of apartheid that prevented black people from participating in politics in South Africa. During apartheid black South Africans were legally barred from participating in national sports like cricket, which obviously meant that there would be no black person to achieve a test century in the sport. On top of that, it has been hard to transform sporting institutions in South Africa to include black sportspersons. Almost all sports that were dominated by white South Africans during apartheid have been inundated with critiques of the lack of transformation.

Also, if we are going to talk about the “first black” we should probably also keep in mind that there are many black people who achieved great milestones in their professional fields that were never given the recognition they deserved. Professor Archie Mafeje and Hamilton Naki were both great in their professional fields and were mistreated in their respective fields. Archie Mafeje was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and then the appointment was withdrawn because of pressure from the apartheid government. Hamilton Naki was a laboratory assistant to Christiaan Barnard and was not really given the credit that was due to him as he worked with Dr. Barnard. These are two of the most well known cases of people denied recognition for their talents and professional abilities.

What I am trying to demonstrate here is that black people have had abilities to do all kinds of great things, but there were systems in place preventing them from realising their human potential. All of this history is left out when we write and talk about the “first black” without qualifying the statement. The “first black” does not exist in a vacuum. The “first black”, or I should say, the-lack-of-there-being-a-black-person-to-achieve-this-in-the-past can be explained by history and not by merit or ability and that our misshaped society is a product of colonialism and apartheid.

Claiming that a person is the “first black” should come with a qualification of why this is the case, because otherwise it feeds into an already existing negative narrative about black people never having had the ability to achieve career milestone. White people are very quick to point out that someone is the “first black” to achieve something, and black people are always ready to celebrate being the “first black.” My gripe here is with black people celebrating being the “first black” instead of critiquing why they are the “first black.” Yes, celebrate the fact that you have achieved something amazing, speak about working hard to achieve it, but also mention that people before you weren’t given the space to do what you did. It should be taken for granted that many more black people would have done what the “first black” did had they had the chance.

We must also be mindful that we are living in post-apartheid South Africa, where black people have more access to institutions that were previously denied to them because they were whites only institutions. Obviously there will be many “first black” achievements, but we need to be attentive of the ways in which we report on and talk about these “firsts.” We can’t feed into the narrative that there were no black people capable of professional milestones before the post apartheid “first black.” In our excitement, and it our quest for higher achievements, let’s think twice about celebrating being the “first black” because you are only first because generations of our ancestors were unjustly and sometimes violently denied access and some recognition.

One of the reasons that black people react with such excitement to the “first black” sentiment is because we care way too much about what white people think. Although Toni Morrison’s literary career has been about teaching us to avoid the white gaze, although Steve Biko taught us to ignore the white liberal and if they want to help, they should go teach other whites about racism, and although Frantz Fanon gave us a detailed account of the complexity of decolonisation and ignored white people altogether in Wretched Of The Earth, we still care about what white people think. In South Africa, black South Africans care way too much what white people think of them. Blacks care too much for the opinions of white people, while white people at best often treat us as invisible. There seems to be a constant need for black people to prove themselves and to prove their humanity to constantly disbelieving white people. In South Africa whiteness is a hard-wired social structure since 1652, and it is hard to get rid off. I suppose it takes more than having the right to vote to shred generations of self-loathing. What is even more frustrating is that even with a black majority government, white people’s opinions are still highly regarded. Why do black people care so much what white people think? I find the white alter that black people worship at exhausting. The white worshipping is exhausting to read about in newspaper pieces, to hear about it on radio, there’s recently even been a book dedicated to white people (which is topic for another time).

The reactions over the racists remarks made by Penny Sparrow on her Facebook account was one of shock and disbelieve by many South Africans. Penny Sparrow, a white woman realtor from KwaZulu calls black people monkeys and bemoans black people taking over the beaches on New Year’s Day. She then goes on radio and tries to justify the racist’s comments, and all throughout this a race war is raging on social media about her comments. There are three things I want to address: Firstly my first reaction to Penny Sparrow was that this is not shocking. This is a white South African being a white South African. I find it disingenuous for South Africans to act shocked as if white racism is an infrequent occurrence, while it occurs everyday. Angela Davis was on to something when speaking at Centre For The Book in Cape Town when she spoke about our complicity to racism by acting shocked every time there’s a racist incident as if it’s out of the norm, when it is an everyday practise. The real surprise is not that penny Sparrow said the racist things she said, the shock is that South Africans were shocked.

Secondly, Penny Sparrow is not alone in her racist thinking, many white South Africans share her sentiments. We all know that racist language is part of dinner table and around the braai fire conversations; Penny Sparrow is the one that got caught because it was on a social network. She probably thought she would get a few Facebook ‘likes’ and laughs and it would be the end of that. Now she knows social media is a different beast all together, and not as safe as a whites only Friday night dinner for six.

Lastly, linked to the first and second point, Penny Sparrow’s racist verbiage follows on the footsteps of some really horrifying racist incidents that have taken place in the last few years in different parts of the country. The year 2015 deserves honourable mention. There was that Guardian piece that asked if Cape Town is racist, and then there was Cape Town school that was involved in a racism row, then there was the UCT students who attacked a black woman in Rondebosch, there was also the horrific video of black kids being beaten by a white man, then there was the Stellenbosch professor who was fired over a racist SMS, and who can forget Tim Osrin who assumed Cynthia Joni was a prostitute in Kenilworth and attacked her (as if being a sex worker is an invitation to be beaten). So no, Penny Sparrow is not a shocker at all.

My approach to the whole Penny Sparrow saga is really informed by my approach to most things concerning white people; don’t waste your time thinking about what they think. It is a waste of time thinking about what white people think of you. It is a waste of time and energy trying to convince white people of your humanity. Having to defend your personhood is already dehumanising. The best way to deal with white people and their ignorance is to ignore them and continue with our work of building a better country and ultimately a better world for black people. My approach to white people is informed by Toni Morrison’s philosophy of racism as distraction. She said:

“It’s important to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

Toni Morisson spoke these words in 1975 at Portland State University, but they are very relevant for South Africa in 2016. Ironically when Toni Morisson made this speech she also mentioned South Africa, and the absurdity of race because the South African apartheid government had just made Japanese people “honorary whites” in order to conclude trade agreements. The words spoken by Toni Morrison are pertinent for black South Africans. Understanding the function of racism as distraction is very liberating. It also enables us as black people to ignore the likes of Penny Sparrow because the hatred she harbours has nothing to do with black people but with herself. The distraction caused by Penny Sparrow is evident in the way she absorbed national attention. Penny Sparrow wasted all of our time when we engaged with her as if she is someone to be taken seriously. Even talking about Penny Sparrow in this piece, I feel like I am wasting precious minutes of my life that I will never get back. But I have to make a point about her and what she represents. This is the first time that I am actually engaging with her racist rant. Even the political parties like the DA, lead by Musi Maimane and ANC Youth League, that normally don’t agree were said to be pressing criminal charges against Penny Sparrow. Think about all the energy, all the uproar about this woman’s racist rant, the newspaper articles, the radio discussions, they are all a distraction. We, black people, have more important things to discuss and to work on.

I absolutely don’t have time for white people like Penny Sparrow. I am ethically above the likes of Penny Sparrow. Penny Sparrow is morally lacking. Penny Sparrow and white people like her are not worth my time and energy or any other black person’s time and energy. She does not deserve all the attention she received from black people. The perfect reaction to Penny Sparrow is to ignore her, as if she doesn’t exist, as if she didn’t say anything. We, as black people, should not care what Penny Sparrow and other white people like her think of us. We should be focusing on creating a better country for black people and not allow distractions by racists like Penny Sparrow. We, as black people, have a responsibility to each other to make this country work. We have a responsibility to young black South Africans to ensure they understand racism as a distraction, and really not about them but about the white people who are racist. The project of rehabilitating our consciousness and this country is our responsibility. The decision is ours on how much power we are going to give to Penny Sparrow and her ilk. I, for one, refuse to be distracted by Penny Sparrow.

The slow violence of Jesus and the narrative “waiting for the New Jerusalem” for black people

Pecola is the little black girl who yearns for blue eyes in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. You will remember the gut wrenching yearning for blue eyes exhibited by Pecola. Pecola prays to God, every night for a whole year, to give her blue eyes so that she also could be beautiful. She prays for blue eyes so that she could also see beauty. She makes her plea to God every night for a whole year because something so beautiful, like blue eyes would take a long time to come to pass.

In the novel Toni Morrison writes: “Each night without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that would take a long, long time.”

After praying very hard for a whole year for blue eyes, Pecola does not get her blue eyes. She then turns to a Psychic Reader for help and this is what the Psychic Reader says:

“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… a little black girl who wanted to rise out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. For the first time he (Psychic Reader) honestly wished he could work miracles.”

In my initial reading of the book, The Bluest Eye, I was struck by the intersection of race, beauty, and gender. The violence of Eurocentric beauty ideals is something I already had been familiar with at the time. A visit to the magazine section of Exclusive Books will quickly show you what is considered beautiful in our society. In reading the book I didn’t labour much to be able see the psychological effects of white supremacy on Pecola and how it affected the way she saw herself and how she saw the world she was navigating.

The psychological violence of white supremacy on the black psyche is something that has extensively been written about particularly in the 60’s and 70’s in America with black American’s fighting against American racism and the negative depictions of black people. Figures such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and particularly Angela Davis spotting her Afro would become a popular image that even today evokes Black Power sentiment. Out of this movement came slogans like “black is beautiful” and “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” And currently the psychological violence of white supremacy has also been talked about extensively in the Rhodes Must Fall movement, to substantiate why the Rhodes statue Must Fall, at my current institution, the University of Cape Town. The students in the Rhodes Must Fall movement argue that the statue is a constant violent reminder and glorification of Rhodes and his colonial crimes.

Going back to Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel, while I could point to the troubling effects of gendered white supremacist notions of beauty, I was blind to the slow violence of the “fervent praying” that even when she was discouraged, she continued to pray. Even when she wasn’t getting blue eyes, she continued to pray. It would take me years before I could see what Rob Nixon (2011) calls the “slow and lasting” violence and make the link between Jesus and prayer and slow violence. You see the slow motion butchering of Pecola by praying every night for a year for blue eyes, ironically I was sluggish in picking this up. So my sluggish, my own slow realisation of the slow violence of white Jesus and of prayer is indicative of the very imperceptible nature of this form of violence. My own negation of this particular violence reveals the way in which this is not considered violence but just the way things are. Jesus and prayer is what people call upon when they are distressed.

So the character of Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel was instrumental in shaping my thoughts on the slow psychological violence of Jesus, and prayer on the black psyche. The pain conveyed by Toni Morrison is slow and immense and pushes me to critically evaluate the idea that Jesus and prayer are violent. I couldn’t, I still can’t get over the psychological destructiveness of how she prayed for a whole year for pretty blue eyes, blue eyes she will never attain. You have to appreciate the fuckery of it all: here is a black girl praying for blue eyes from a white God – it is the epitome of white supremacy – a black girl asking to be saved by a white God by making her white. Because lets face it asking for blue eyes is to ask for whiteness.

When I was in school and when I attended church, I was taught that I should try to be more like Jesus. There are multiple scriptures in the bible that call on black people to be more like Jesus. John 13: 15, John 15:4, John 15: 10, First Peter 2:21, First John 3:24, and the list goes on. Now in my Sunday school books Jesus had long golden and sometimes brown straight hair with blue eyes. In the many black houses I have visited, the pictures of the last super or of Jesus and his disciples are of European descent. This is the Jesus that black people must pray to and want to be like. There is no escaping the calamity of the relationship between black people, Jesus, and white supremacy.

You see reading this book I understood Pecola because I was Pecola. I too grew up in a church going household. The first church I ever went to was the Don Bosco Roman Catholic Church in Port Elizabeth. See as a little boy I also used to pray, I used to pray for a deeper voice because mine was allegedly too girly, I used to pray to stop lusting after other boys, I used to pray that I played better soccer, because being a black boy in the township and not being able to play soccer is social suicide. I prayed to be more butch. I prayed to be normal. As a young boy I was aware that yearning after other boys is playing with my chances of accessing heaven. I was experiencing ridicule for my gender non-conforming tendencies.

Of course like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel I prayed to no avail, I still have an allegedly effeminate intonation, I still had dirty thoughts about other boys and I developed an aversion to sport.

When I think of Pecola praying and I think of my young self-praying, I am held captive by the slow production of self-hate. For both Pecola and my young self, prayer and in turn Jesus are an active participant in the slow production of self-loathing. The double effect conundrum is that Jesus is the reason for the self-hate, and he is also the fixer of the reasons you self-hate, which is why you pray. There is a slow violence in the promise of prayer; there is a slow violence in living life in the hope that things will be better once God decides to intervene. The slow violence is in the constant nature of prayer; it is the everydayness of prayer that is destructive; it is the constant need to feed the beast.

Currently in black South African communities God, Jesus, and prayer have a very strong hold in the way people live their lives. When I think of black churches, black funerals, and other black spaces like a moving bus, it is common to hear songs and preaching about the New Jerusalem. I want to focus on the narrative of the New Jerusalem, the coming of the New Jerusalem to be exact, because this narrative plays a crucial role in the construction of black people’s lives. The New Jerusalem narrative filters through black lives, and determines the ways that black people respond to life. You must understand that the New Jerusalem is more than a geographical location, it is an ideology.

Now you must imagine that people go to church almost every Sunday. These messages about the New Jerusalem they hear on a weekly basis. Some people go to church more than once a week. The New Jerusalem narratives mostly function on a subconscious level. These New Jerusalem narratives manifest gradually, what Rob Nixon (2011) terms “a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space.” This is what I am trying to demonstrate here. These narratives are quite alive in reality, they manifest in black people’s lives.

The “New Jerusalem” first appears in the Book of Ezekiel as a prophecy. It also appears in Revelations 20-21. As with most bible scriptures, what the New Jerusalem narrative means varies from church to church. I would imagine the white English interpretations of the New Jerusalem might differ from white Afrikaans interpretations; just as both of these would differ probably from the black Xhosa congregations’ interpretations of the narrative. I am really only concerned with black interpretations, particularly Xhosa interpretations.

iJerusalem entsha ezofunyanwa ngabo bathe ngokubephila emhlabeni bazinikela ku Yehova. Abantu abozofumana iJerusalem entsha ngabo bathe bavuma uYesu. Silindile iJerusalem entsha. Translation: Those who have given themselves over to God while on earth will inherit The New Jerusalem. Those who will inherit the New Jerusalem are those who have accepted Jesus. We are waiting for the New Jerusalem.

The question of Jesus is a pressing matter for black people’s liberation because the construct of a white Jesus is one of the strongest ways black people are held captive. Here I am NOT concerned with the issue of whether Jesus is real or not, whether he lived or not, whether he is really blond or not. I am interested in interrogating the slow violent construct of Jesus and the New Jerusalem narrative as real in the ways that black people experience it and live it. I find the narrative of “The New Jerusalem” and what that ideology represents a slow motion butchering of the black psyche. It impedes self-realisation and it hinders the rejection of inferiority complex that plagues the black self.

Firstly the Coming of the New Jerusalem narrative is closely linked to the narrative of “storing your wealth in heaven.” This is amongst the most popular bible quotes, that one should not accrue wealth whilst on earth, they should rather go to church and store themselves illusive “heavenly treasures.” This narrative is troublesome because is promotes complacency in black people. It promotes the idea that people need not try and be wealthy, while wealth would improve their lives. It paints the idea of wealth in a negative light for black people, while others; predominantly white others are enjoying wealth right here on earth.

The irony is that it is people who used to worship ancestors before the arrival of Europeans who are now obsessed with the construct of Jesus. You have to appreciate the peculiarity of it all, that although black people have been “emancipated” from colonialism and in South Africa also from apartheid, they continue to be enslaved to a Jesus that was an instrument in their colonisation.

The storing of wealth in heaven narrative is connected to my second point, which is the construction of poverty as virtue. Black people aided by the church often couch poverty and struggling as virtuous things. That it is noble to be poor, that it is better to be poor, and all of this is captured of course in the bible verse that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye a needle than it is for a rich person to inherit the kingdom of god.

The narrative of the New Jerusalem linked with the issue of storing wealth in heaven and then paired with the construction of poverty as virtuous has destructive manifestations for black people. These narratives ensure that the cycle of poverty is entrenched in black families because generations of black people do not leave inheritance for their children. These narratives create self-loathing black people, and then exploit that self-loathing to sustain systems of exploitation. The New Jerusalem narrative pacifies black people from demanding more in this life; demanding more from their relationships, their work life, their communities, and their government. To echo Karl Marx, these narratives encourages black people to believe that the afterlife will be better which lulls them in the current life, which renders them incapable of demanding a decent material life.

Black Consciousness pioneer Steve Biko was very much attuned to the issue of Jesus as a black problem. Biko asserted that “because the white missionary described black people as thieves, lazy, sex-hungry etc, and because the missionary equated all that was valuable with whiteness, our Churches see these vices not as manifestations of the cruelty and injustice which blacks are subjected to by the white man but inevitable proof that after all the white man was right when he described us as savages.” Frantz Fanon also issued warnings about Jesus in Concerning Violence when he said, “The church in the colonies is the white people’s church, the foreigners church. She does not call the native to god’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few are chosen.”

The narrative of “the new Jerusalem” is an ideology that has been slowly slaughtering the lives of black people. The relationship between black people, Jesus, and white supremacy is psychologically damaging and warrants critique. We need to question the concept of Jesus and the things black people do in the name of God. The systematic structure of white supremacy, which is part and parcel of the construct of white Jesus, needs to be challenged and even if God is not willing, it needs to be overhauled.

Township life and black psychological impairment

Going back to where I grew up is always an interesting experience because I run into my younger self in weird ways and I am confronted with the many ways I have changed since I left Port Elizabeth. I am confronted by the life I knew I never wanted hence I escaped to Cape Town. This past week I visited my mother who still lives in KwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I often visit at least once a year. It was depressing to visit the area I once called home, I suppose in some ways it is still home. Although, now I call Cape Town home – politics of a black person from the “Eastern Cape” calling Cape Town home notwithstanding. When I arrived in KwaZakhele from the airport I was welcomed by a smell of disappointment and total neglect. Instead of the area improving in post-apartheid times, it is depreciating. When entering KwaZakhele, from whichever direction you are welcomed by rubbish everywhere. Old decaying buildings close to people’s homes have turned into dumping grounds. People are living amongst rubbish and life just goes on. My mother told me that she takes her own rubbish to a waste-disposing site about 10 kilometres from where she lives because waste pickup in so erratic and inconvenient.

When I arrived, about 5 houses from where I grew up, the floodlight that provides light for a massive area at night was lying on the ground. My mother informed me that the light was taken down around March/April 2014 to be fixed and it’s been lying on the ground ever since. The area gets really dark at night and people don’t feel safe, not to mention that some people still use the outside lavatories at night and so it’s difficult for people who don’t have well lit back yards. Some homes are so poor in this area that having a light bulb outside is a luxury. Rumour has it that when the people asked the ward councillor about why the light was taking so long to fix, he keeps on giving people nonsense excuses about parts of the light coming from overseas, but the best one was that there’s only one person who can fix the light and he was currently in Cape Town on another project.

The minute I arrived home it was one horror story after another about crime in the area. It’s so unsettling to realize that your family members are living in such a dangerous place particularly because I live in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Cape Town – which of course does come with it’s own set of issues. Most of what I saw and experienced in KwaZakhele this past week I have read about and I have seen it in townships in Cape Town, but what really struck me about KwaZakhele was the continued downward spiral of the area and people’s lives. Since I have left KwaZakhele, every time I go back it seems to be more depressing than the last time I visited. The area feels like people have just given up on life. It looks and feels like young people have no dreams about their futures. Many of the people I went to school with are unemployed and wake up to stand on street corners and ask for spare change from a passer-by who looks like they might have a coin to spare.

Like many townships around the country, KwaZakhele is a product of the Group Areas Act. KwaZakhele is an area created during apartheid to house black people in Port Elizabeth. There are many other township areas around South Africa that are just like KwaZakhele. So, in a sense there’s nothing unique about KwaZakhele. Like many townships KwaZakhele has 4-roomed matchbox houses that were built by the apartheid government in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The area was even nicknamed “4rooms” after the houses that were built in the area. Some families added more rooms to their houses using either bricks and cement or corrugated iron, or plywood amongst other materials. What is troubling is that these matchbox style types of township houses and areas are still under production by the ANC government. New houses and areas have been created to house black people and often these new areas are in the outskirts of cities, which is really the continuation of apartheid geography where black people live far away from white suburbs and the city centres.

My trip to KwaZakhele left me asking myself, why are people not more upset about the state of things where they live? Why are people not doing more to improve their lives in townships? Why are people not putting more pressure on their ward councillors for better services? Why aren’t people shaming their ward councillors on local newspapers? Why aren’t people taking care of the areas they live in? Why aren’t people requiring better infrastructures in the new areas where they live? I am sure there are a number of possible answers to these questions, and I won’t try to tackle all of them.

Although there are many service delivery protests around the country, I think one of the major problems in KwaZakhele and possibly other townships is that people don’t really believe they deserve better. This is captured succinctly by the popular phrase in Xhosa “ubungenayo nale indlu” (you didn’t even have that house) that often shocks me when I ask people about rejecting poorly build government houses. People often say that you can’t reject what you have been given by the government because you didn’t even have it in the first place. So people accept whatever they get. I find this troubling because it speaks to a deep-seated inferiority complex.

Although there are a number of processes in place in post-apartheid South Africa aimed at redress like affirmative action and land redistribution, although both imperfect they are mechanisms to redress South Africa’s gross inequality. What has been neglected in post-apartheid South Africa in the quest to redress the past is the psychological effects of colonisation and apartheid on black South Africans. I think as a country we underestimate the psychological violence that has been visited on black minds by the past regimes, a violence that continues in varied ways in post-apartheid South Africa. A more cynical view would say that white capital and the black government understand the psychological impairment caused by colonialism and apartheid of black South Africans and use it to retain power and control of the masses. What I witnessed in KwaZakhele this past week cemented to me that black people in KwaZakhele, quite possibly in many townships around the country, don’t believe they deserve better than the lives they are living. People have bought into the inferiority they have been fed by colonialism and later apartheid and the current black government doesn’t seem interested in reconstructing the psychological health of black South Africans.

The psychological effects of colonialism and apartheid does not just affect poor black people who live in townships, it affects middle class black people in white suburbs, who navigate their new surroundings as if they don’t belong there. It affects our government officials who seem to be blind to the levels of poverty, crime, and general degradation of places inhabited by black people. I think that a psychologically healthy black population is necessary in order to have a relatively functional democracy in South Africa. White South Africans also need their own projects on working on their psychological damage done by colonialism and apartheid. People often think white South Africans are spared psychological damage because they are on the other side of power, but they are also psychologically screwed up and need to unpack the ways they are implicated in the continued degradation of black life in this country and what they are doing about it.

Written by Lwando Scott