Race Series: The Burden Of Race

When African countries gained their independence from British, French, Boer or Portuguese governments in the 20th century, there was much jubilation and euphoria across the continent. Foreign, colonial flags were exchanged for new, national flags. Concerts were held. Families talked about the new opportunities that fathers and mothers would now have access to. Black Africans were automatically at liberty to walk around in places they were previously banned from or to live in areas they previously were not important enough to live. They were no longer to be treated like unwanted guests in their own land.

One can only imagine the 20th century mood in Africa. I’m sure it was a time of danger, great loss and sacrifice but also that of endless possibilities and optimism. My mother tells of stories of children who were eager to grow up quickly and join liberation war efforts to avenge parents who were brutally killed right in front of their eyes. She tells of a murder she witnessed when she was a child herself, white police dragging a black ‘dissident’ behind a fast-moving car while he screamed – skin peeling off. She also talks about friends of hers and many children who died young when colonial armies bombed a Zambian school where guerilla fighters were hiding. My father has brothers who went off to fight in the war and returned, but forever-changed. My mother tops her stories off with tales of excitement and pure joy on the night that the country officially became independent, the strength of the currency right after that, the peace and economic stability that followed a short civil war between rival tribes that tbh never really ended – I’ll talk about that someday maybe – and the slow but sure decline of the country after independence. I asked her many questions about it all when I was younger and got some of my answers.

You see, Africa has not always been a messy, unruly, needy place. I’m sure most people know that, at some level. We are just like everyone else. We had our own systems and ways of doing things and governing ourselves before we were introduced to somebody else’s idea of civilisation. We had pride. We – once upon a time – did not need aid and foreign cultures and influence to get by. We still don’t, but that’s a different post altogether. Is this something African leaders sat down to digest and act upon right as independence treaties were being signed? Maybe not. And that has resulted in a world of problems.

Our original systems and ways of doing things meant that everyone in the community was taken care of. But once we gained independence, we simply carried on using the British system – which was not even akin to us – and it has been abused ever since. At a community level, this meant – pretty much – that everyone had to start from scratch economically resulting in massive racial wealth gaps and the necessity for black tax – something we struggle with to this day. Another thing that was not addressed was the psychological scarring that occurs as a result of long periods of oppression, what could happen once the oppressed take charge of systems designed to oppress instead of replacing them with those that are nurturing and how this oppression tampered with African identities. People talked about how divide and rule policies increased tribal tensions but in some cases these tensions were further encouraged by incoming governments. The most prominent effort to kick-start emotional and mental healing was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Other than that, I believe a lot was left unsaid and many nuances that plague black Africans today were not demystified. These include the significance of refusing to join the Commonwealth and why that would be necessary. It has never made sense to me. Say there is a kidnapper going around stealing men, women and children and stashing them in a basement. One day this kidnapper sets everybody free but forms an association for all the people they kidnapped – with the kidnapper as the head of the association. Does this make sense? Is it not a way for the kidnapper to regain some of the control they lost? And is the victim not feeding into the narrative that they are not capable of surviving without the kidnapper? I know that, when it comes to politics and the governing of freedom, people like to throw in jargon and twisted facts and say, “You have to understand that…” No. If it doesn’t make decent sense to a child then it probably shouldn’t be happening and/or the truth has been diluted to deceive somebody and/or somebody (the victim) is lying to themselves.

That was the thing with colonisation. From the time of colonisation and continuing after independence, we began to exist in somebody else’s world. It’s just that after independence day we had the illusion of freedom. But really we became free to try to emulate somebody else’s ways, to prove our sophistication and ability to function in someone else’s world. When people talk about etiquette at high-end events and establishments, whose etiquette are you emulating? Do black Africans even know what their own rules of etiquette look like by tribe? We became free to argue for our place in the world because we inherited somebody else’s systems and did not recognise that by so doing we are enrolling to forever fight to be recognised in their world. Are you more respected if you go to African University or Oxford University? Which fashion labels give you the most clout when you wear them? Being black has become hard work; it means constantly having to fight to be respected and there is never enough for everyone in the family, the constant need to help somebody else up before you are even fully on your feet. When global summits are held, whose presidents are regarded as the top dogs? Who are the permanent member states of the UN Security Council? Exactly. We signed up to always be at the bottom of the ladder.

On securing independence, perhaps we could have sat down and defined what sovereignty really means. We could have said, “Okay, so now that we have our land back, how best can we function in this world that will become a global village where we will never be the chiefs if we exist in somebody else’s blueprint? How did we live before? Do we need presidents? How do we facilitate trade and good relations with other countries now that we know they exist – without relying on them? Do we need to join organisations where we will always be the bottom of the barrel? What is the benefit of joining them and how can we secure those benefits amongst ourselves, without joining them? What does prestige look like to a black African? A Harvard degree? That’s someone else’s world and standard. What must it look like, ideally? We do not have to inherit systems that were used to oppress us. That will encourage corruption, which might get out of hand. We can build on our own. How can we reestablish our dignity? What does prosperity and good etiquette mean on our own terms in the 20th century, the 21st and going forward? What should we make sure the schools teach the children? What should we include in curricular and what should we leave out? What should we add? We cannot simply pass on only what schools were teaching during the colonial era. We have our own legacy to pass on to our children, our own mark to make. How best can we teach children to think outside the box and be problem-solvers instead of employees? White Africans do not typically teach their children to be employees. Why?”

When Meghan Markle joined the British royal family did people not think black people had won something? If the whole world does not find it a huge win if a white person marries into a royal family in Africa, why are black people celebrating the opposite? It speaks volumes of where our self-esteem is. Now many have backtracked and said she’s not black so it’s really not a win but that again is a tell. You shouldn’t be gauging your wins according to how someone else has let you exist in their world. Self-respecting people don’t do that. If you really thought your intrinsic value is at par with a white person’s, you wouldn’t think like this. (We know that in reality, in the real world, it is not but within yourself it should be; you should mean a whole lot more to yourself than what the world tells you you mean. And that further proves my point: instead of reconstructing our world our way, we signed up to constantly need to qualify in someone else’s world.) So before anyone ever acts racist towards you, you’ve already brought yourself down a few notches.

The lack of self-awareness among African leaders and the lack of simple pride has resulted in massive losses for the rest of us. Massive, generational chaos: the burden and confusion of being black – which is otherwise a very good thing. (Black children who are not raised in families who care about complexion – hard to find but they exist – and fitting in with white people all love their skin and hair and language and every other black thing they own; it’s simply unnatural not to.) Of course, we’ve had a few good leaders – Thomas Sankara being one of my favourite. But many leaders, simply forgot who they were. You would have to have no dignity whatsoever to allow someone else to come into your home and make you a puppet. It should be unthinkable. Yet here we are. Yes, there were powerful European countries involved, etcetera. But then England is a tiny island that does not have an independence day to celebrate and, at some point, ruled a good portion of the world. There are ways to be who you want to be. Post-independence, some African countries never really gave themselves a chance. We did not do the necessary mental work.

Next weekend, I’ll talk about the sustainable systems we had before we came into contact with European settlers. Also, as always, there are silver linings which we need to be capitalising on instead of destroying. That might be the end of this series.

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Copyright © 2011 – 2020 Tebogo Ndlovu

PS: Thank you for your time and attention 🙏🏾. It’s quite a long article.

Race Series: Language

Northern Ndebele is my language of expression. English is also my language of expression. When I am feeling tender-hearted and sensitive, particularly loving, hurt and angry, excited, dark, I lean on English to express these emotions. I think a lot of people here do that in one way or another. Our pets have English names, come to think of it. And little girls’ dolls names are in English as well. But when I am disciplining myself, I do it in my vernacular – Northern Ndebele. My vernacular is like my parent and I have a formal relationship with it. English is my companion and our relationship is informal. This is not how I’d prefer it. I’m regurgitating facts. Ideally, my mother tongue would be how I express myself because that’s how it should be, right? Ask yourself: does it even matter? Yes and no. But before I get into my opinion on that, let me tell you how it happened.

When I was a child, we went to school to study three out of four primary school subjects for seven years in English. We would then come home to play sometimes in English and to watch cartoons always in English. When Voltron defended the universe, he did it in English. When I bought fairytale books with my prize-giving money won at a ceremony conducted in English, the books spoke in English about Medusa and the story behind why cats purr. Why are those the books I chose? They were the ones which captured my imagination. Sometimes they were Ndebele folklores but that was the only type of Ndebele story I saw at that age and I didn’t gravitate towards the Ndebele folklore genre.

When we graduated into high school, the witches cast spells on Macbeth – an opening scene that made a lasting impression on me – in English, while in Ndebele we covered books about struggle and Naomi – who bled to death shunned after giving birth out of wedlock. Remember, the vernacular stories were limited to one subject in the curriculum and to one source (school). I enjoyed the Ndebele stories we read in high school, but they reminded me of struggle and abuse – while it seemed we could dream in English. We could suffer, we could become unsexed royalty, we could be twisted and evil, we could be nymphs, we could be wayward without dying for it, we could be defeated, we could be powerful, we could do mathematics, we could go to space, we could travel a good portion of the world, our parents could have a doctor in the family…in English. There were a myriad of all kinds of stories communicated to us from all types of media in English. Hence, my interpretations for a wide range of situations and stimulus were all done in English before I ever realised it. Ndebele taught me to be good. English gave me the language for the other sides of myself and my observations of the world. That was not ideal but that’s what happened.

That said, identity is not black-and-white. Who you are is not simply a case of what you were born into – even though we are taught the opposite. It’s more about what you are exposed to and, subsequently, what you choose to expose yourself to. And sticking within the confines dictated by what you were born into may be the best way to limit yourself and to never figure out who you really are. The mix of cultures and languages (as well as the exposure to different people) does have a silver-lining. We were raised watching Korean dramas, Nigerian movies, American TV shows, South African soapies, bilingual, eating traditional and Western foods… This gave us a certain acknowledgement and respect for other people. As well as agility whenever we stepped out of our own communities. So where does it cross over to become unhealthy identity politics?

In our communities, there is a tendency to place people into categories based on the twang of their accents. If words are pronounced closer to the American or British way, the person is said to be fancy, dignified and ‘probably comes from money.’ At private schools, children make fun of peers who do not sound slightly Western or who have a heavy ‘African’ accent. There is also slang that is used in the locations (cramped residential areas where black Africans were resettled in the cities during the colonial era) and slang used by blacks and mixed-race peoples who live in the suburbs.

Language then acts as a marker to identify socio-economic backgrounds and, sometimes, social status. Language is one of the ways in which history has left a stamp on post-colonial societies and thus complicated African identities. People used to live very separate lives, differentiated by tribe and colour. But now each person is an individual melting pot, interpreting their linguistic inheritance in their own unique way. Some people make sure that they succeed financially and take their children to schools where speaking vernacular languages is discouraged or not part of the culture of the school. They then proceed to speak only English at home, thereby alienating the child from vernacular languages. This is their way, whether we want to admit it or not, of elevating their social status – because a certain breed of spoken English and accent is seen as a status symbol. When people move overseas, some change their accents as quickly as possible and make sure to call friends back home wearing the new accent to emphasise that, indeed, they’ve made it. The changing of accents is not always about survival in a foreign environment. There is a difference between being fluent in a language, and altering the way you sound because you believe it will make you more valuable in this world. Is that not a symptom of an identity crisis? I have never heard of an Australian who moved to South Africa and immediately ‘upgraded’ to a Xhosa accent. Have you?

So does it matter if a black African expresses themselves better in English? In my opinion, only if the expression tells that they would feel inferior if not for the English language or the accent of those who came with it. In tomorrow’s article, I outline my take on how and why this identity crisis persists and the significance of managing it.

Thank you for reading! Your time and attention is much appreciated.

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Copyright © 2011 – 2020 Tebogo Ndlovu