“Too subtle” is how an editor friend described my take that in post-apartheid South Africa, blackness is a weakening tie. South Africans don’t understand subtlety, he said.
So this is me, blunt.
Black and Jew are not the same. And South Africans of Indian descent are not in business with one another simply because they trace their ancestral roots back to the Indian sub-continent. The models of community-built success that Slikour and Songezo Zibi think blacks should emulate are based on strong ties. Familial relationships. Religion. Culture. Language. Some of these bonds have existed for millennia and in most cases sprung up organically, from the inside out. These ties do not exist between South African blacks because blackness here is a false identity in that it was imposed on a group comprised of different cultures, beliefs, cultural practices and ceremonies, and languages.
Blacks aren’t fools. Blacks are disparate communities and people forced together by colonialism and apartheid. And blackness can serve no greater purpose other than what it was created for: rallying together black men and women “around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin – to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.” ~ Steve Biko.
By defining blackness as a tool to defeat colonialism and apartheid, I’d like to think Biko knew that one day these, the forms of oppression that gave rise to blackness, would die and take blackness with them. This is why he said, “Black man, you are on your own.” It was a message directed to us, the post-apartheid generation.
No longer now are you automatically an activist just from having black skin and trying to make a life in a system that oppresses black skin. You are on your own. Blackness is dying, and we should celebrate that because it means freedom is coming to life.
Granted. Apartheid isn’t completely dead. It’s said we’re living the days of its legacy, which by definition is racial. The majority of those living under the yoke of perpetual servitude are still black. But in 1994, apartheid as a system died formally and dealt a mortal bow to blackness as a tool of mass mobilisation. This means that new ways must be found to rally people around causes that allow people to realise their freedom. By focusing solely on blackness as that tool, I fear we’re dooming many to lives of servitude.
The anger over Brett Murray’s depiction of Zuma is an example of how this can happen. One of the interpretations are that it is commentary on black male sexuality. Many are outraged that a white man would dare do this given the history of white portrayals of black sexuality. An injury to one is an injury to all, they say. They have in effect taken commentary on one man’s sexual practices and applied it to a whole group of people and used the history of the oppression of blacks to defend the said sexual practices.
Ashleigh, a brilliant young writer at Live Magazine SA, used an allegory that blew my mind to explain what tradition and heritage can become if unquestioned. I’m probably going to mangle it, but it went something like this:
A young girl saw her mother slice off the top of a leg of lamb before putting in the oven to roast it. The girl asked her mother why, but her mother did not know. That’s what she’d seen her own mother doing. The two of them went to the girl’s grandmother to ask her. The grandmother said she’d seen her own mother do it because the oven they had at the time was too small to fit the whole roast, so she’d slice off the top. Grandma just did it out of habit even though she later bought a bigger oven. The girl’s mother, who also had an oven big enough, did it because she’d seen her own mother do it.
Polygamy (and the tradition of patriarchy it stems from) is that act of slicing off the top of the leg of lamb. Do we understand its origins? Have we assessed whether in today’s circumstances, the practice is still appropriate?
The rights of women in polygamous marriages is murky water and Zuma, during his rape trial, laid bare his thoughts on the power dynamics between men and women. He claimed these to be Zulu tradition and culture. If Murray’s painting is to be interpreted as commentary on that, then I say all that the artist has done is play the role of the young girl in Ashleigh’s allegory.
By using blackness to silence questions about patriarchy, we might be condemning women to lives of servitude to men. This should not be allowed to happen. The questions must be asked, and I do not care who is asking them.
UPDATE 1: One fair criticism of Murray’s work is that it’s unimaginative, literal and derivative. I agree. That was my reaction too when I first saw it, but I’ve since changed my mind. William Kentridge spoke how as an artist during the anti-apartheid movement, he’d ask himself, when creating his work, “Would this be useful for the revolution?” By asking this question, he said, the art disappeared. I can’t say for sure whether Murray intentionally sacrificed artistry for pragmatism, but viewing the painting through this lens of whether it has been useful for agitating change and measuring that usefulness by how many people it has snapped awake, I believe it to have been quite useful.
UPDATE 2: Cartoonist Zapiro has joined the fray, replacing the penis in Murray’s painting with another shower head. Once again people will say it’s racial. But what has Zapiro said here that others have not said? Off the top of my head, Justice Malala, Brutus Madala, Palesa Morudu and several other commentators have all said the exact same thing.
I think almost all of South Africa’s cultures say respect your elders. I ask, do we understand where this came from? And have we asked ourselves here, in these circumstances and applied to this specific man, is it appropriate? This is about Zuma, not about — contrary to what SADTU, the ANC Women’s League and whomever else would have you believe — every single black person in South Africa. If we use blackness to prevent questions being asked of our leaders, what justice is there for those who they have failed?