/ 9 September 2020

The pencil test still colours the rainbow nation illusion

Mural Of Mural Featuring South African High School Activist Zulaikha Patel
Mural featuring South African high school activist Zulaikha Patel

Hair is a bunch of dead cells that lie on people’s heads and can be found on other parts of the body, that is for people who are not bald or do not live with alopecia. Yet, so much meaning, power, identities and connotations are imbued in it. Hair on a global scale is gendered, racialised, sexualised, deified and politicised. As such, hair is not just a natural or superficial object, hair is a site of identity formation and contestation, alive with complexity, history and politics.  

There is a plethora of  popular culture and academic analysis of hair and in starting to write this article I wanted to delve deeper into these, to speak to how problematic, offensive and racist the Clicks ad was, yet I do not think that I should do that because, as Toni Morrison wrote: “[t]he function, the very serious function of racism 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 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 you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dig that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” 

This hair fiasco is that one more thing, one more thing to denigrate us as black people, one more thing for us to react to, one more thing for us to prove our beauty, one more thing to hurt us, one more thing … there will always be one more thing.

I echo Morrison’s words in that I am tired of explaining my being and constantly defending my humanity. I am exhausted of explaining racism, be it covert or overt to the perpetrators.  I am tired of my worth being debated. I am tired of being a hashtag. I am tired of being tired.  I am exhausted, me and my ancestors are tired of experiencing racism, both historical and present. All the darkies in me are tired. 

The reason for my penning this article then, is bigger than what I dub the “Clicks pencil test ad” which has brought the country to a standstill. The reactions on social media with the hashtag #CLICKSMUSTFALL trending and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) allegedly threatening to shut down and vandalise Clicks stores across the country speaks to how people are tired and offended.  

This is not the first time that corporate South Africa and/or multinational companies have been in hot water over racist and/or problematic advertisements: H&M was once called out for its ad which alluded to a black child being a monkey, Dove was also embroiled in a racist tussle when in 2017 they suggested that only white women are beautiful, that blackness must be washed away. I would have to write a whole book to list all the other incidents, but this is proof enough that this is not an accident and that people are not overreacting. 

Oppressive regimes

South Africa has been through numerous oppressive regimes; among them are the slave trade, colonialism and the infamous apartheid government. The apartheid government was one of the most inhumane systems of racial segregation in the world. Apartheid, in my view, was a crime against humanity and I struggle to take seriously anyone who argues otherwise. The basis of that government was the pure belief that blacks were inferior ipso facto; whites were superior. 

Although writers such as Zimitri Erasmus have shown that “race” is a socially constructed idea and thus not real (scientifically speaking), the apartheid government made its effects real, material and tangible. The apartheid masters passed laws to ensure that everyone adhered to the imagined race hierarchy. 

At the top were whites, then Indians, coloureds and lastly blacks. Black people, then called “African” “Native” or “Bantu” were at the bottom of the totem pole. Black people were subjected to countless legislation (over 250 laws were passed) to further entrench the idea that they were sub-human. 

One of the first laws to be passed by the apartheid government was the Group Areas Act of 1950. This Act designated spaces for particular races, for instance District Six in Cape Town was designated a whites-only area in 1966 and black and coloured people were forcibly removed. They also passed the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 and the Promotion of Bantu Self-Governance of 1959 to further entrench apartheid. 

The laws respectively put in place the notion that black people are not equally human and do not belong — and the government made sure there were signs everywhere to remind the population of this.

One act which classified people according to their race was the Population Registration Act of 1950. It formalised and laid the basis for racial policies of the apartheid government. An Office for Race Classification was set up to overview the classification process. Classification into groups was carried out using criteria such as outer appearance, including the person’s head hair as well as other hair found on the body. People were infamously forced to undergo the “pencil test” to determine their race. This wrenched children from their parents and tore families apart.

The past is ever-present

That past is never past, it is eerily present and haunts us daily. It is very hurtful when some of us, who still bear the brunt of our horrible history, are constantly told we are being fussy, overreactive, playing victim or are unforgiving.  

Our current narrative as a country is that of claiming we are a rainbow nation, where different “colours” are embraced and the pot of gold can be shared by all. The reality is that a lot of people still live in dire poverty, people still can’t get certain jobs because of their race, and some of us are told we are “unprofessional” or have dirty hair because we have dreads. 

We live in a contemporary narrative of apathy from whites who have the country’s wealth and pain and anger from blacks, who still bear the brunt of inequalities. Most black South Africans feel pain, sadness, hatred and anger that has been suppressed. They are constantly reminded by those with the means of production that they do not matter. 

South Africa is struggling and the pseudo-reconciliation that was touted for years under the banner of “rainbow nation” has cracked.

No reconciliation without justice 

In my view, there will be no reconciliation without justice and that justice includes  sharing of wealth, land and opportunities. People do not eat emotions, people want equality. I once said that white people must start “doing sorry” instead of saying sorry, because words are futile when you go to bed hungry or are constantly experiencing the insidious racism in education, media, law, religion and other spheres that white supremacy still controls. 

In 1994, political power was handed over to black people, yet economic power was not. True freedom and transformation will be achieved once black people can honestly say that they belong to the South Africa of the Freedom Charter — not with mere words but in tangible ways. 

Ultimately, we are stuck in a vicious cycle of always reacting to provocation from those in power, economic and otherwise. Black people are covertly and overtly told that being black is a crime, a sin, a bad thing and one of the ways to address that is to make sure that we are independent as a people. 

As I have said elsewhere, South Africa is a wounded country, we are bleeding, internally and externally. There is a piercing hurt that has still not been processed or addressed, a hurt so infinitely deep and ginormous that even a quarter of a century of time has not healed. 

The sore festers and erupts in the reactions that are now seen — it is not just hair, it is not just an ad, it is the ripping of a bandage from that rotten wound which we have been told to ignore for years.

A quote from Mmatshilo Motsei summarises my feelings towards racism: “Fighting to be human in a world that would rather turn you into a beast is the most horrific life experience. Learning to ‘re-create’ yourself as James Baldwin tells us to do, when we are overtly told (in the old SA) and covertly (in the new SA) that being black is bad is a painful but necessary project.”

Paballo Chauke has a master’s degree in biodiversity conservation and management from Oxford University. He is a training co-ordinator, a Mail&Guardian Thought Leader contributor and runs his own podcast Conversations with Chauke

 *For a different view on this topic please read The burden of collective black victimhood 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.