Don't tell me who I am, black man

What's in a name? For South Africa's coloured community, how they are described is so contested, it boils down to the essence of their political self-identity. (David Harrison)

What's in a name? For South Africa's coloured community, how they are described is so contested, it boils down to the essence of their political self-identity. (David Harrison)

There is one debate about coloured identity that I do have a strong view on. It is the arrogance with which other people want to impose on coloured people what they should think of themselves. The latest person to do so is the African National Congress’s Gwede Mantashe, who has said that coloured people must accept that they are also black. This infuriates me.

It is not the place of Mantashe, or any person who is black African, to prescribe to coloured communities how they should self-identify. It is a debate that must take place among coloured people because identity runs deep, and it is the shared experiences and histories of coloured people that must inform how they – how we – want to self-identify. To impose political identities on coloured people from outside the community is to rob us of our agency to think through these complex moral and political issues that are implicated in the history of coloured people.

I have experienced this arrogance several times. Try hosting a radio debate, for example, about coloured people and within seconds you will have some black African listeners call in and say, with utter confidence, like someone thinking they are expressing a blatantly obvious truism: ‘We are all black! Coloured people are black! Why are we even discussing this topic?! That kind of remark rolls off people’s tongues, like white listeners who respond to radio debates about racism by shouting their own presumed truisms: “We are all human! Races do not exist! Why are we even discussing this topic?”

Hold on, South Africans. We need to learn, as writer Sisonke Msimang put so well, to ‘live in complexity’. Of course races are not biologically stable concepts. But that does not change the history of racism, nor the fact that we have racialised identities as a result of the history of colonialism and apartheid. We cannot wish these lived experiences away. It is possible for race to be a social construction and still be a concept that operates on the world in the most powerful ways possible. Indeed, that is exactly the history of this country.

So, firstly, we need to disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that races do not exist and we should not talk about race. Races exist as social realities, and that is why racism was possible at all. To eliminate racism totally, we need to accept that racial identities continue. And that these identities remain a defining fault line in post-apartheid South Africa.

Secondly, black African and coloured people have, in general, very dodgy attitudes to one another. Many coloured people I know have racist attitudes to black Africans. Many black Africans I know have racist attitudes to coloured people. And many have an incredible number of false, and harmful, stereotypes they associate with one another. That is the legacy of racism. Apartheid was so powerful before we dismantled it politically that it succeeded in driving a wedge between us as blacks and coloureds. We have work to do to defeat the social consequences of apartheid.

That, in part, is why I hate it when a black African caller wants to shut down a conversation about coloured identity by saying that we are all black. Because it is insincere! Mantashe, too, is insincere! If the ANC took seriously the fact that we are all black, then Trevor Manuel would likely have been president by now. There is a glass ceiling on your career inside the ANC if you’re not black African. That is not anything the ANC should be ashamed of just yet. It is a reflection of what apartheid did to us: it divided us. And we have not yet closed those divisions. It is also the reason why coloured voters in the Western Cape do not have a natural home in either the ANC or the Democratic Alliance. Because apartheid left us feeling like we’re essentially not black, and not white, and we associate those parties with racial essences.

My grandfather swore, in his old age, and voting for the first time in 1994, that he would not vote for the ANC because he didn’t trust blacks. ‘Look what they did to Rhodesia!’ he told my 15-year-old self. This stuff has not vanished. And I bet you many black Africans who say that coloureds must accept that they are black themselves display odious attitudes towards coloured people. There is a necessary, difficult and overdue conversation that coloured and black African people must have about how anti-black racism resulted in us ‘othering’ one another. That discussion cannot be silenced by Mantashe imposing black identity on coloured people who do not want it, or do not feel that they have yet been heard on the issue of their own alienation from the new South Africa. Sadly, Mantashe’s view underscores why coloured voters are floating voters. We are not at home anywhere politically.

The way forward is to accept that there are no truisms. There are no easy victories to be had, only long, hard and difficult conversations to initiate. I have, for example, referred to myself as “culturally coloured”. Many coloured people hate the word “coloured”. Some prefer “so-called coloured” or “brown” or “person of mixed descent” or … other possibilities. What’s in a name? A lot. And that debate alone merits a self-standing dialogue within the coloured community.

A second discussion is about whether or not it is tactically and politically sensible to simply subsume our lived experiences under the term “black”. Should we take up Mantashe’s advice and self-identify, simply, as black? Isn’t that the ultimate middle finger to show the ghost of Hendrik Verwoerd? I do not know. I cop out of a definitive view by thinking of myself as politically black and culturally coloured, of course. But what does it mean to be “politically black”? That, too, requires a self-standing dialogue.

A third discussion must explore the impact that shame has on us as individuals and as a community. It chokes us. It stops us from doing work we need to do. That, too, requires a self-standing dialogue.

Finally, it is overdue that we archive and publicly celebrate and know the men and women who are loosely referred to as “coloured”.

Our history needs to be known popularly, our similarities understood and differences across the country cherished. And my nephews and nieces need to be able to know the contribution of coloured people to this country in a way in which I, shamefully, do not.

  This is an edited extract from Run Racist Run: Journeys into the Heart of Racism by Eusebius McKaiser, published by Bookstorm



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