I have been told never to write an article in the first person, but on this occasion I chose to ignore that advice. The reasons are many, but mainly I do not want to insinuate that I speak on behalf of any collective. I have also deliberately not quoted any thinker, including our revered Steve Biko. It is time we communicate openly about our emotions.
Since the advent of our country’s democracy and Madiba and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s acclaimed reconciliation project under the banner of the Rainbow Nation, it has generally been frowned upon to speak about the uncomfortable matter of race. This is understandable in a country trying to build a nonracial society — but it has also extracted a significant cost. Aside from using silly euphemisms to deal with what we all know to be the elephant in the room, it has also ensured that we have little or no discussion about the necessary reconstruction of black communities.
We have avoided dealing with the concept of black communities because it seems the antithesis of a nonracial society. This is false. Centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid put a severe strain on traditional community and family structures in black communities. In many instances, they were decimated by a forced migration, Western religion (which discredited everything African as a creation of the devil) and a migrant-labour system that split families. Consequently we have exclusively black communities and only the middle and upper classes enjoy racially mixed settlements.
In this regard 1994 failed to deliver any reconstructive effort. If anything it entrenched the damage by suggesting that any such work would be counter-productive. I believe this was wrong. These communities — which will remain a part of our reality for as long as we can imagine – needed a reconstruction of the black image after many centuries under attack.
Almost peculiar to these communities are problems few of us want to discuss openly lest we be called self-hating blacks. They permeate all spheres of society, from political leadership to the sinew that holds society together. They are not unique to South Africa – they are usually evident wherever you find black communities, including in the diaspora.
At a political level we are familiar with an African leadership generally regarded as corrupt, incompetent and lacking the confidence of its people. These leaders convene regular gatherings under the banner of the African Union, wallow in their sense of collective victimhood (as perpetrated by the West) and do nothing about their colleagues who are oppressing people in their respective countries. The African Union and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, had a long list of despots as chairs — Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi and now Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea are but a few examples.
These gatherings are so little regarded that their purported “African solutions to Africa’s problems, by Africans” has continued to lose credibility since former president Thabo Mbeki initiated the exciting African Renaissance initiative. This initiative culminated in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), which was, oddly, derided by some here at home. Such initiatives are exactly what is needed for the reconstruction of Africa’s political image, but the lethargy with which African governments respond indicates the fruits are far off.
The corruption, victim mentality and the inability of many African leaders to act with accountability has become an ongoing insult to blackness. We struggle to convince the world that our leaders will not try to steal elections, put cronies in positions of influence so they can loot the state, and use the victimhood of imperialism to shield themselves from justified criticism. We let this happen by claiming, shockingly, that “the West is no better”. It might be true that Western leaders have initiated wars that led to mass murder, as we have seen most recently in Iraq, but this is no licence for African leaders to act in a similarly debased manner.
This mentality extends to black leadership in the business sector, in particular in our own country. Blackness has become a commodity in which many of us trade as a means of justifying entitlement. Thus many blur the line between honest hard work and rewards. The problems of slow racial integration in business are well known, but this has also allowed politically connected and pliant incompetents to rise up the ranks in business: their blackness has more to do with where they are than what value they are able to deliver. Many who work to earn their keep have to live with being lumped together with these merchants of racial entitlement.
Those blacks who have become highly successful, either as business people or entrepreneurs (not tenderpreneurs), are usually disinclined to endow initiatives to produce others like them. They appear to have little time to be the role models so sorely needed by communities that are largely poor and have emasculated fathers because of unemployment and poor education. Their lack of activism ensures that criminals, political thieves and miscreants enjoy better visibility than they do.
The socioeconomic conditions of most black people have also meant that they are often unable to fulfil the parental responsibilities those in the middle and upper classes enjoy. Factory and domestic workers find it hard to convince bosses to allow them to accompany a child to try to enrol in a new school and unemployed parents simply cannot do that because the means are nonexistent. In many instances it is possible for parents to do this, but for some reason it does not happen. White children are usually accompanied by their parents, but black children are often seen alone trying to make their way in the world. When they grow up some try to remedy this trauma by doing it for their children, whereas others also become failed parents even when they have the opportunity to do better.
None of these things can be attributed to genetic weaknesses peculiar to black people. They are generally creations of the environment black people find themselves in, but black leadership fails abysmally to remedy this. Election promises are about material things and those who have money give handouts as an indication of their community spirit. But, unfortunately, this is not enough.
There is a need to construct a new generation of black people. These people should be intolerant of politically driven corruption. They should push relentlessly for communities that are cohesive because parents play their role, despite their difficult circumstances. This should produce parents who want to serve in school governing bodies and entrepreneurs who give extensively to education, culture and other activities. It should produce a generation of successful black men who find it shameful to drive with a whisky bottle between their thighs or spend their money drinking expensive alcohol in trendy nightclubs while the communities that raised them disintegrate.
We need a generation of black people that does not think criticising the government is anti-black. These blacks must be determined to start to build enterprises that will become global conglomerates while using part of those proceeds to uplift historically black institutions of higher learning. These black people must refuse to be defined by the victimhood of colonialism and apartheid and strive for a nonracial society predicated on cohesive, successful communities that want to build a new country.
Nonracialism is a lovely concept, but it cannot be successful when the black community is mired in problems that cannot be discussed because blackness should not exist. Having this conversation will be the beginning of a true national reconciliation project that does not deny our history but puts efforts to redress it in perspective. Anything less will ensure that we are a failed state on a failed continent.
Songezo Zibi is in the communications industry and a member of the Midrand Group