Black-on-black: The ugly truth

Why do some black people insist on bringing each other down, and is our government guilty of this too, asks Mpho Moshe Matheolane.

Why do some black people insist on bringing each other down, and is our government guilty of this too, asks Mpho Moshe Matheolane.

Last week, while sitting in one of those supposedly trendy hangout spots in Braamfontein, I noticed an elderly black gentleman by the table next to me. He had a Gwede Mantashe-like disposition, and looked rather trendy himself as he worked on his iPad.

It wasn't long before we stumbled into a conversation, lamenting this and celebrating that. Admittedly, conversations with strangers tend to be forgettable, but sometimes you are lucky enough to find a diamond in the rough, and are left a little more enriched than you were before. 

While we spoke, a young black man, probably my age, walked into the coffee shop rather haphazardly.
He didn't seem too sure of why he was there, but having spotted us, decided to plonk himself right next to where we were seated. We continued our conversation until the young man jumped in, with a request for money to "get back home to KZN".

As I thought of a diplomatic way of letting him down easily, the elderly gentleman took the knife by the sharp end, telling him that it was exactly that kind of tactless approach that was not going to get him anything. He went a little further, chastising his intrusion into our conversation. "Leave us alone please," the elderly man said.

The young man, realising the futility of his efforts, stood up shaking his head, his eyes flashing a strange mix of confusion, anger and a bitterness that seemed to whisper "black-on-black" as he made his way to the door. I sat there trying to make sense of whether the look in the young man's eyes was justified. Had he been a victim of black-on-black? I concluded that he wasn't.

So what is "black-on-black"? Well, if you are black, you know what I mean. Of course, I highly doubt that it is a condition limited only to black people, but for the purpose of this article we will concern ourselves with them. To begin with, black-on-black is not some highbrow concept limited to the preserve of the intellectually pretentious. It is an everyday issue that usually involves one black person treating, regarding, speaking of and even thinking of another as undeserving of any act of good faith.

It can be subtle, but sometimes it is more brazen, such as when you find yourself in the queue at a store, only to have the black cashier turn, within seconds, from friendly (to the white person who went before you) to irritable when it comes to you.

Black-on-black is effectively the very counterweight to the idea that black people should be building each other up. Unfortunately, it is a condition born out of and perpetuated by the relations that black people have between each other, although a case can arguably be made, I am sure, that the colonial projects of yesteryear were highly successful with their "divide and rule" mantra, and that black-on-black is merely a product thereof.

The more I have thought about this rather unbecoming social phenomenon, the more I have come to realise that it goes beyond mundane activities. In fact, it is my contention that it could easily find use as an effective anti-rhetorical device, especially against politicians.

I am inclined to believe that any act, or rather, failure to act, on the part of a black government such as ours, in meeting the needs of its major constituencies, is a perfect example of black-on-black.

How many of us watched in embarrassment as our minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, made her half-hearted attempt at an apology for the undelivered textbooks debacle in the Limpopo province? Denying her responsibility (and that of any other member of her department), she even went so far as to read out the apology from a prepared speech – a clear sign that she either did not apply herself to the matter, or quite simply didn't grasp the immensity of the situation.

Suffer the black child at the hands of black leaders, I thought.

We need to start getting angry, and speaking out at any sight of this malady. There are many examples of black-on-black that I can think of. Acts of xenophobia, tribalism and class discrimination are intricately woven into it. Discreetly, it has morphed into one of the small tears wearing down the fabric of our society, and it is a tear we cannot afford to ignore.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry. Read more from Mpho Moshe Matheolane