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 inclusion of Sexuality, Gender, Transgendered issues in the #RhodesMustFall movement

I first went to Azania House (formerly known as Bremner Building) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), on the Saturday after the first night of the occupation. The energy was amazing, the discussions were vibrant, and at the time I wasn’t sure if the Rhodes statue would ultimately fall or not. I was just excited to be in the presence of black students who are fighting for transformation at the university. I was excited to see students demanding to see themselves represented at this African university.

On my next visit to Bremner I witnessed a heated discussion on the issue of Gender Neutral bathrooms on the first floor because there are transgendered students in the #RhodesMustFall movement. One of the transgendered persons in the room suggested that the female and male bathrooms on the first floor should be made Gender Neutral. Others met this request with resistance for a number of reasons. The cis gender woman mentioned reasons of safety that they do not want to go into a bathroom where males can also go. One of the guys sheepishly voiced not wanting transgendered women entering the male bathroom.

The cis gender woman tried to explain that firstly she respects the transgendered person, but she really doesn’t understand transgendered issues and why the bathrooms have to be Gender Neutral. The concerns of the cis gender woman about safety issues in the bathrooms are valid in the climate of sexual violence on women in South Africa. But transgendered persons and other gender non-conforming bodies also face physical and sexual violence in this country.

The transgendered person in the conversation tried to explain that they also feel uncomfortable going into male or female bathrooms. Male bathrooms are often hostile and you are treated like someone who is there as a voyeur on male penises. The trans person also voiced that female bathrooms are also filled with cold stares and judgements and sometimes-verbal abuse.

While listening to this conversation I couldn’t help but think of how Simon Nkoli conscientised some of his comrades about homosexuality while they were arrested in the Delmas Treason Trial in the 1980’s. Simon Nkoli’s fellow comrades in the treason trial often spoke about Simon Nkoli with affection and how they learned about gay and lesbian rights from him. The transgendered person in the conversation at Azania House was conscientising fellow comrades on transgendered issues and I was moved by this interaction. It was a real and honest moment and although these students had different opinions and feelings about Gender Neutral bathrooms, it was an open discussion; it was on the table and the students were grappling.

In the end the students decided to stick paper signs designating the first floor male and female bathrooms Gender Neutral? and Gender Neutral. What I saw was the first of many discussion that I would witness about transgendered issues in Azania House and in the #RhodesMustFall movements as a whole. In the following weeks during the occupation of the Archie Mafeje room the politics of gender, sexuality, and transgendered also became central as intersectionality as a framework took shape within the movement.


The #RhodesMustFall movement has adopted Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness as the foundation for the movement. The Black Consciousness movement has in the past been critiqued for not incorporating gender struggles within the movement. The #RhodesMustFall movement made it a point to incorporate gender, sexuality, and transgendered politics as they fall part of the emancipatory project of post-apartheid South Africa.

The inclusion of gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues within a predominantly black student movement is no small victory. My sense is that continuously invoking gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues in the race conversation is what is going to deliver us. The battle for gender, sexuality, and transgendered rights has always been ghettoized and only fought by people directly affected by these issues. Our strength actually lies in our ability to see that the race issue is connected to the gender issue and the sexuality issue and the transgender issue and the class issue. In the piece How Black Women Claimed Their Place Mbali Matandela articulates the significance of having black women’s voices in the movement to amplify the specificity of the pain of black women in this country.

The psychological, emotional, and sexual violence that black women, gender non-conforming people, transgendered people are subjected to is from predominantly black men. And this needs to be addressed. The violence these groups of people are subjected to is because of the systemic patriarchal order in this country that black men are part of and need to be part of its undoing. And so it is critical then that a movement created for the dismantling of white supremacist patriarchy embodied by the Cecil John Rhodes statue must include the dismantling of black patriarchy.

Addressing the issue of black patriarchy remains an issue as some black males within the #RhodesMustFall movement remain stubborn about their conservative views about gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues. There is hope because many are willing to learn and strong black feminists and gender non-conforming LGBTI people challenge these black men.

The adoption of intersectional politics in the #RhodesMustFall movement was a genius move because intersectionality is immensely beneficial in understanding the multi-layered South African context where race, class, gender, disability, and sexual identity intersect with complex results. The very lives of black students at UCT are an example of the complexity of intersectional identities in South Africa because black students come from different class backgrounds, have different sexualities, and have different gender identities and all of these must be navigated in this often hostile white environment.

For me the #RhodesMustFall movement represents the hope for the future. A future where black students see themselves in the architecture of the universities they study in. Perhaps this is a sign of how future South Africa movements will look like, that they will recognize how struggles are connected. It is in the recognising the different ways that we as black people, as poor people, as LGBTI people, as women, as disabled people, are all chained by systems of oppression. This recognition then becomes the impetus for us to come together and dismantle the systems that oppress us.

Lwando Scott 

Jesus is destructive for black people

There are two times in my life that I started to think critically about Jesus and all that he represents. The first moment was when I was in school and my friend NomaA said to me that she thinks Jesus is horrible and hates black people. NomaA said that God hates black people because he gave black women ugly hair and they have to go to so much trouble to get their hair as silky as white women’s hair. NomaA said that if God loved black people he would have given black women straight, beautiful, flowing hair and not the type of hair that needs to much labour to make it beautiful. I remember this conversation because it was the first time someone had spoken so openly to me about dissatisfaction with God.

The second time my young mind had to critically think about Jesus (I use God and Jesus interchangeably, they are after all the same person) was when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. You will remember Pecola in the book and the sadness of her yearning for blue eyes. Pecola, a black girl who prays to God to give her blue eyes so that she could also be beautiful. I remember reading the following passages and weeping:

“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 goes to see a Psychic Reader and who said:

“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.”

As you can imagine I’ve had other experiences that have made me question the concept of Jesus, but these two stand out because I was so young and both of these encounters have stayed with me. What also made these encounters special is that when I read about Pecola in The Bluest Eye, I immediately thought of NomaA and how she must have felt about black women’s hair.

Now I am a little older and I have sat through many Sociology classes that have enabled me unpack these events in retrospect. There is much to unpack from the statements made by my friend NomaA and by Pecola about the intersection of race, religion, gender, and beauty. In this piece I want to concentrate on religion, on God, on Jesus and why it is destructive for black people to believe in this construct.

The statement made by NomaA back in school about her black hair and Jesus not giving black people flowing white people hair was problematic because it relies on white supremacist concepts of beauty. What NomaA believed about Jesus on the other hand was correct to a large extent, because it is clear that if there was such a thing as a Jesus, then he really doesn’t like black people, women, disabled people, and LGBTI people. The important question then becomes why would black people want to worship a God that doesn’t seem to like them? Back in school both NomaA and I didn’t have the analytical tools to help us understand the way South African society was shaped and how race, God, and white supremacy are linked. Even though we didn’t have well developed analytical skills NomaA already felt that there was something wrong with the Jesus picture.

The character of Pecola was instrumental in helping me see the violence of Christianity on the black psyche. The way Pecola prays to white Jesus for blue eyes made me weep. I couldn’t (still can’t) get over the destructiveness of how she prayed for a whole year for pretty blue eyes, blue eyes she will never attain. Here is a black girl praying for blue eyes from a white God – it is the essence of white supremacy – black people asking to be saved by a white God by making them white. To think that black people continue praying to Jesus so that “they can be more like (white) Jesus.” You have to appreciate the wackiness 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 question of Jesus is a pressing matter for black people’s liberation because the construct of white Jesus is one of the strongest ways black people are held in captivity. I have already written about the dangers of the concept of “The New Jerusalem” and “storing your wealth in heaven” while others, predominantly white others are enjoying wealth right here on earth. The concept of Jesus is the biggest scam on the African continent and the only people who do not seem to see this is black people. It is a scam because the very people who brought Jesus here do not give two shits about him. It is people who used to worship ancestors before the arrival of Europeans who are willing to die and sometimes kill for Jesus.

A friend of mine recently sent me a video from Stan The White Guy who has some interesting things to say about black people and about Jesus. Stan says a number of things that are true including:

“We use white supremacy and religion to mind fuck brown people.”

“If you believe in a God of your enemy, you are an idiot.”

“We gave you this God because we knew by worshiping a white God you will be worshipping us (white people).”

“You will never fight against us because subconsciously you will be fighting God.”

 Watch the video here.

The relationship between Jesus and white supremacy is destructive for us not to pay attention. The relationship black people have with Jesus is psychologically damaging for us not to critique it. We need to question the concept of Jesus and the things black people do in the name of God. The construct of white Jesus is part and parcel of  the systematic structure of white supremacy and it needs to be challenged and even if God is not willing, it needs to be overhauled. I would rather black people worship dead grandmothers and dead grandfathers a.k.a ancestors than to worship a white, blue eyed Jewish guy who was born from a virgin.

Written by Lwando Scott 

“Respect your elders” – critiquing older black people

A couple of months ago I went to a conference on African development and the presenters at the conference were talking about the possibilities of development in different parts of Africa. As the conference proceeded with dignitaries from different African countries and representatives from different developmental agencies I asked a few critical questions about development, which were left unanswered. Developmental agencies have the habit of speaking about development without saying anything. At some point during the conference after expressing concern about the motives of development in Africa I was shushed by an older black man who said, “you need to respect your elders.” This statement shocked me because I was really not expecting it in that setting, but there it was. Now, this is not the first time I have been shushed by someone using this statement, in fact I here it almost too often.

When I ask difficult questions to older people, particularly black older people, I am told that I should not speak to elders “that way.” I have learned that “respect your elders” means that do not be critical, it means do not ask questions that are potentially embarrassing for older people, and do not contradict older people. This can be really tricky for us young black people who want to question the ideas of older people in our communities, who want to ask difficult questions about our cultures, and who want to hold older people accountable for their actions. Without being disrespectful.

It is easy to understand that people who are older have gone through life and have accumulated experience and can make sound judgement because of that experience. But it is also true that young people might have a different vision of the future and that future vision can contradict the current ways of doing things. I do not think however silencing young people by saying, “respect your elders” is a productive way of dealing with dissenting voices.

Of course “respect your elders” can easily be translated to “do not question your elders” and I find this problematic on many levels. The big fallacy behind the “respect your elders” statement is that older people, or more precisely older people in positions of authority, know better. We know this is false because history has shown us that older people sometimes do not know any better. Just as history has shown us that young people, like the recent 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, do sometimes know more than older people. Age is not a barometer of good or bad ideas. Age should not be used to silence people with opposing ideas. There has to be a free flow of ideas, even when people disagree on those ideas.

Of course the idea of “respect your elders” is not unlinked to the ubiquitous belief that black people must agree on everything and they must stand by each other no matter what. The idea that older black people can’t be critiqued is unsound and it is a destructive way of living our lives and building a better South Africa. Even when people are related they sometimes disagree. We can’t be afraid of critiquing each other as black people for fear that you are going to be regarded to be as a traitor. We need to have dissenting voices and we need to be able to call each other out and hold each other responsible in order to build great communities. Critiquing another black person is not an automatic solidarity to whiteness; on the contrary I think being able to critique each other strengthen us as communities.

The idea of being able to ask difficult questions, and critique each other also has to do with our ability to be honest with each other. It is a way to keep each other accountable to each other as community members. If we aren’t able to call each other out, who will? If we can’t set each other straight, who will? How are we supposed to build a strong society with functional communities if we can’t be honest with the critique we give each other? This is not to say that the critique can’t be given in a respectful manner, but it has to be given. It is necessary to critique the current structures of society like the government and/or our current cultural practises that are unhelpful in the building of a functioning and healthy society.

I think it would be helpful for all of us to understand and function under the philosophy that no one is above criticism. No one is above being called out particularly if they are engaging with people in a public forum. This is even more so for individuals who represent people in any government office. Ward councillors are not above criticism, professors at university are not above criticism, radio presenters are not above criticism, religion in all its varieties is not above criticism, President Zuma and his ministers are not above criticism, and even my mother is not above criticism.

After understanding the idea of everyone being open for critique, particularly people in public office, South Africans need to cultivate a culture of critiquing each other’s ideas without attacking the person who presents the idea. For example, there is a difference between critiquing the idea of assisted suicide from attacking and vilifying the person who believes in assisted suicide. It is possible to critique the idea of assisted suicide without talking about the personality or what you personally think of the person who is arguing for assisted suicide.

The issue of being able to critique elders is not easy because South Africa’s past of colonisation and then apartheid, in that many people feel African practises like the rule of “respect your elders” are not adhered to because they are destroyed by the previous oppressive regimes. This is a legitimate point of contention, and needs to be discussed at length on its own. I understand the complexity of living in 21st century Africa where traditional values are jostling with western culture for the dominant narrative. But in the same ways we critique and reject western ideas of normality that dominate our lives, we need to have space where we call into question African traditional cultural practices that are problematic and sometimes destructive. I refuse to participate in the charade where African traditional cultural practices are used as a way to escape accountability by silencing dissenting ideas.

Reflections: Memoirs of a Born Free


Author: Malaika Wa Azania

Written by: Lwando Scott 

When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. I have a thing for clever book tittles and I love smart book covers. There’s even a book covers archive that I visit more often than I should. Memoirs of a Born Free touches on subjects that almost every black South African will have experienced. Reading this book I could see myself and I could remember the experiences I’ve had navigating South African society. I could see the lives of thousands other young black people who have travelled a similar road as Maliaka Wa Azania.

Firstly I love how Setswana is peppered throughout the book. The use of the African language in this book is reminiscent of the way we speak; it is the way black people converse in everyday life. The code switching between English and multiple vernacular languages that is present in my everyday conversation with other black people is very much present in this book. Malaika Wa Azania succeeds in translating everyday reality, the everydayness of her life into paper and it is such a pleasure to read. She also tries to convert certain vernacular phrases like “njengamathe no lwimi” into English “inseparable as a tongue and saliva” and obviously it doesn’t sound as punchy in English as it does in the vernacular, but the message is sent.

Malaika Wa Azania’s battles with navigating white spaces and white culture is a recurring theme in the book. She addresses her dealings with white supremacists culture when she talks about how when she attended Melpark Primary School, which is a former Model-C school with predominantly white students and white teachers, and felt like part of her was left in the township of Meadowlands Zone 8. That part of her was not welcomed in this white establishment.

What connects me to this book is also what frustrates. On the one hand I am glad that I have someone who understands what it means to be young and black in South Africa, but it also means that there’s something horribly wrong with social structure of South Africa that young black people are experiencing similar racial and class problems. Black people navigating predominantly white spaces are constantly complaining about the need to assimilate in order to be taken seriously, or seen as part of institutions in South Africa. The irony of-course is that assimilation often results in just as much alienation and humiliation as non-assimilation.

Reading this section of the book reminded me of three studies that have been conducted at the University of Cape Town about black students struggling to navigate the former whites only university. These are the studies:

  1. Like that statue at Jammie stairs”: Some student perceptions and experiences of institutional culture at the university of Cape Town. By Melissa Steyn and Mikki van Zyle (1999).
  2. Not naming Race: some medical students’ perceptions and experiences of ‘race’ and racism at the Health Sciences faculty of the University of Cape Town. By Zimitri Erasmus and Jacques de Wet (2003).
  3. Coming to UCT: Black students, transformation and the politics of race.” HUMA Seminar presented by Dr. Shose Kessi (2014).

All of these studies point to the alienating and humiliating nature of former whites only institutions that are refusing to transform and culturally embrace the post 1994 student body. What Malaika Wa Azania’s experiences growing up as a “Born Free” is indicative of the experiences that black students on different schools and campuses around the country.

The alienation depicted in this book is worsened by the humiliation of poverty. Although Malaika Wa Azania writes about “drawing strength from poverty”, it is painful to be reminded about one’s poverty on a daily basis at predominantly white schools by whites and sometimes black kids from middle class homes.

While reading the book I had a laugh out loud moment when Maliaka was insensitive to a school teacher who was crying in front of her class over her dog that had recently died by laughing at the woman’s tears. Malaika couldn’t understand why someone would cry over the death of a dog, so different the worlds that Malaika and her teachers and fellow students lived in. The relationships white people have with their pets was humorous to a township kid who grew up with stray dogs. In the township even yard dogs never reduced their owners to tears when they died.

I personally identified with the struggle for education in Malaika Wa Azania’s memoir. She passionately discusses the impossible task of trying to get a decent education in this country if you are poor or from a working class background. The odds are against you in every possible way, and reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of my own quest for education which has not been easy, particularly when I was finishing matric and about to starting university. Just like Malaika Wa Azania, my mother lost her Pick n’ Pay job in my matric year, and the future was so uncertain at that time. I was anxious about a future that could possibly never be because all my hope was in getting a decent education in order to escape poverty. And in this country, a decent education requires a decent income.

Not having money to register at her first choice high school, Malaika ends up going to another school, and she was grateful that the school had proper facilities unlike the townships schools. The poor education and poor infrastructure that is common in townships schools inhibits the success of black pupils. In the past 20 years township schools have only deteriorated and some have shut down. Where I grew up in Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth, about three schools close to my house have closed. The ones in operation, including the one I went to as a kid, are falling apart with toilets not properly working and sometimes with no running water.

Malaika’s mom valued education and she does whatever is necessary to ensure that her kids go to school, to the point where she worked herself into a psychiatric hospital. Whoever said hard work doesn’t kill, has never met black South African single mothers. It would seem that Malaika’s mother, just like my mother, took Nelson Mandela’s words to heart that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words have propelled me to aggressively pursue my education even in the hardest of times.

The one aspect in the book that left me feeling a little ambivalent was when Malaika Wa Azania was talking about being taught about apartheid by her family. I imagine that white young people are also getting a version of apartheid from their parents, and I am interested in how the white telling of apartheid would be similar or different from the black telling of apartheid. Although I think that apartheid history is important to teach and to be talked about, I am concerned about one-sided stories about the past from families. I wonder what this “family education” does because we need to be mindful of transforming South African society, and not create another generation of people who think along apartheid lines.

Malaika Wa Azania says that “merely by being born black in this country you had problems.” Malaika speaks to the ways in which our society is structured; that your blackness ensures that you are positioned at a disadvantage is South African society. Transforming this country is harder than people anticipated it would be in 1994. Memoirs of a Born Free is a book I want all my friends, my cousins, and my professors to read. This book is a reflection of our country told by a young black woman who is trying to find her place in the world and South Africans have so much to learn from it. Malaika Wa Azania chronicles the everyday struggles of young black people in the “new” South Africa. Malaika is the embodiment of Nina Simone’s “to be young, gifted, and black” and I am super excited that I live in a South Africa where young people like Malaika are taking their place.

Inserting your Blackness

Being black in Cape Town can seem potentially lonely and alienating. When I walk into a restaurant, bar, or club in the Cape Town city centre I often notice one or two other black faces. Unless you choose to visit what is widely known to be one of the predominantly “black” institutions in Cape Town, a sea of happy white faces will confront you.

It is not uncommon to go out to one of the beaches in Clifton and only see white bodies spread on the sand. It is also not uncommon to visit a museum or the opening of art exhibitions and only see a handful of black people in the crowd. Many black Capetonians choose not to frequent spaces that used to be “white only” under apartheid. Consequently these spaces continue to be whites only spaces. There continues to be a separation between what people consider black spaces and white spaces. The same is true for spaces that are considered black; very few white people choose to frequent such spaces.

There are many reasons why black people do not inhabit these predominantly white spaces. Fear of being discriminated against (it still often happens), being mistreated, receiving bad service, and generally being made to feel as if you do not belong or as if you are invisible are some of the reasons often cited by black people for not occupying predominantly white spaces. Many city centre establishments are also more expensive and because of economic apartheid many black people are economically excluded from such spaces. And generally the more expensive the establishment, the more unwelcoming it will treat black patrons. I have listened to black friends and acquaintances complain about some of their negative experiences at different locations in the city of Cape Town. I have never heard my white friends complain of similar experiences. These are all valid reasons not to go to predominantly white spaces. It can be painful and emotionally charged to be confronted by this kind of exclusion and prejudice, which makes them hard to deal with.

But no one said the struggle for justice and equality will be easy. That is why I contend that despite the danger of experiencing racism, maltreat, and bad service in spaces dominated by whites black people should insert themselves into predominantly white spaces. We need to fight for and assert the freedom promised by our Constitution. Although it might not always be comfortable black people need to insert their bodies into these spaces. Black people need to be more aggressive about physically owning spaces in Cape Town. Black people need to be vocal about mistreatment, and not just shrug it off as “another day in the city.”

The presence of black people often makes white patrons and white owners ‘uncomfortable’ in institutions that are used to having an almost exclusively white clientele. This is especially true if there is a critical mass of black patrons and not only the odd black face making white patrons feel good about embracing diversity. But this is not the black person’s problem to deal with. Black people need to resist being chased away from establishments by subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ‘you don’t belong here’ gestures. Black people need to be more vocal about mistreatment at these establishments and call institutions out for their bigoted ways. There are so many channels, both formal and informal, black people can challenge predominantly white institutions for their racism.

By insisting that black people insert themselves into predominantly white spaces, I am not underestimating the trauma and the indignity of racism. After experiencing mistreatment it is perhaps an instinctive need to protect yourself that make people threaten to never go back there again.

I think black people should not shy away from confronting these emotionally charged and possibly humiliating problems head on. Instead they must let the establishment know what they are doing is wrong; raise hell if it is warranted, but promise to come back. They must put an establishment to terms and demand an improvement in service. They should threaten such establishments with exposure in the printed and social media. They should threaten to approach the Human Rights Commission and take up the racial discrimination.

Threatening never to come back lets the establishment off the hook, especially if you are not going to take the matter to social media or lodge a formal complaint. Black people often let establishments and people in establishments get away with racism and mistreating black patrons because black people often don’t want to start trouble. The fear of a little bit of trouble will always prevent people from voicing their grievances and blacks need to rid of themselves of that fear.

Establishments must realise that the people have the power to call them out on their racism. Mistreatment and racism at predominantly white establishments is an unfortunate legacy we have inherited from apartheid, but here it is, we need to have strategies to deal with it and ultimately change it. This change will not happen while black people let white establishments mistreat them and then say nothing or just threaten never to return. Black people need to hold white institutions accountable.

It is very easy to say, why don’t black people just go to black spaces where they won’t experience any racism or mistreatment. It is easy to have this separatist way of thinking and doing things, but this is exactly what apartheid was about. We are living in a new era now, one where we should all be busy with the project of rebuilding a non-racist, non-sexists, and non-homophobic society, and having separate spaces for black and white people goes against these ideals.

South Africa is 20 years into its democracy and we should really be working harder to integrate South African society and to smash both the overt as well as the subtle forms of racism (the latter often being invisible to many white people) that still permeate our city. Also, black people who live in Cape Town should be able to experience ALL of Cape Town, not just the places in which black people are tolerated. All who live in this city, not just a few, must experience the beauty of Cape Town and its establishments. It is terribly unjust how people from different parts of the world are made to feel at home in Cape Town, while the locals, who make this city work, can’t enjoy the city. It is not unheard of to meet black locals who say that they were born in Cape Town but they have never been on Table Mountain or they have never been to Robin Island and express wanting to go. This is all linked to people feeling like they can’t enjoy some of these Cape Town institutions because they are often treated like they don’t belong to the city.

This upcoming summer and beyond, I challenge black people to insert themselves into the predominantly white spaces that they are yearning to visit. Black people should resist the intimidation by white institutions and insist on their black presence be felt all over this city. To black people all over Cape Town, this is your city.

 Own it!

Written by Lwando Scott 

White Supremacist Roots of “Yellow Bone”

The term “Yellow Bone” has gained popularity amongst young black people and it is used in everyday conversation when referring to light skin black people. This term seems to appear everywhere, on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook used to describe people and also used as a hash tag. The term yellow bone is used as a supposedly positive description and reference to black people who have light skin.

Urban dictionary describes yellow bone as “the lightest type of light skinned black female. They can often be very rare to see in comparison to other blacks because there are not as many of them in the general black population.”People seem to really enjoy being called yellow bone because it supposedly means that they are beautiful and as Urban Dictionary put it “rare to see.”

This term is used to suggest that light skin black people are beautiful but it also means that they derive their beauty from the fact that they have light skin. On occasion I have heard people relay their disappointment that someone is yellow bone but is not beautiful. They are disappointed because light skin should get you closer to beauty and some yellow bones don’t seem to make most of their proximity to whiteness.

The description of people as yellow bone and therefore beautiful is very revealing. Firstly, it reveals the ways in which the power of white supremacy continues to rule the consciousness of black South Africans. Black people who use the term yellow bone have internalised white supremacy notions of beauty.

Secondly, it reveals how racism as a system of oppression can function without white people present because black people have been thoroughly schooled on how to be racist to each other. This is something Angela Davis touched on recently when she gave a talk in Cape Town when she said, “other races, like white people, do not have to be present for us to be able to identify racism.” Yellow bone is a white supremacist narrative and tinged with dangerous ways of quantifying beauty and quite honestly psychologically unhealthy.

Lastly, it reveals the long lasting fucked up psychological effects of white supremacy on black people. That people believe that light skin makes them “better” people or more worthy. A light skinned acquaintance recently referred to himself as a yellow bone and spoke about how “poor dark skinned people” (sic) were jealous of him because he is a yellow bone. I didn’t survey the “dark skinned” people, so I don’t know if they really were jealous of his yellow bone-ness. Regardless, I find this term absolutely abhorrent.

Yellow bone talk relies on standards of beauty established through colonialism, slavery, and apartheid. The narratives that established white people as “beautiful” and black people as “ugly” are ever present and continuously reassert themselves in terms such as yellow bone. This is a fact pointed out recently in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont who wrote a piece on Nina Simone where she said “the aesthetics of race – and the loathing and self-loathing inflicted on those who vary from accepted standards of beauty – is one of the most pervasive aspects of racism, yet it is not often discussed. The standards have been enforced by blacks as well as by white.”

We, as black people, need to reject white supremacist notions of beauty like yellow bone. We need to be very conscious of the ways in which we buy into “white is right” discourses and actively challenge yellow bone talk. Of course this is very hard to practise because we are inundated with all kinds of things that tell us white is beautiful and black is not.

This yellow bone narrative is not divorced from wider problematic race issues in this country. A walk through CNA or Clicks magazine section will reveal the overwhelming majority of white faces and bodies on the cover of magazines. Never mind the fact that this country is predominantly black in population. Media representation, or lack thereof is implicated in the ways that people construct ideas about beauty. In a country that is predominantly black it is problematic that white bodies represent most things associated with beauty.

Now the big structural problems, like the magazines and the beauty product industries are hard to change, but what we can change is ourselves and how we view each other. We, as black people have to fight against privileging white bodies as measurements for beauty and recognise beauty in each other in all our shades.

The hierarchy of skin tones is nothing new in black communities. The use of whiteness or proximity to whiteness as a barometer of beauty is also not new. What really drives me to write this is the “new” ways in which black people perpetuate white supremacists notions of beauty on other black people. These “new” supremacists ways reassert themselves in the supposedly “post-race” and “born-free” generation.

When I think about the term yellow bone, I can’t help but think of Steve Biko and his insistence that “by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”

It would seem to me that yellow bone talk does not move us towards emancipation; on the contrary it moves us to imprisoning ourselves with limited, Eurocentric notions of beauty. With the popularity of terms like yellow bone, it is very evident that Black Consciousness is still very relevant for black South Africans, and maybe even more so for the “born-free.”

Written by Lwando Scott