Blackness is dying, and we should celebrate that

“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.

Brett Murray’s “The Spear”

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.

Zapiro’s joins the fray. Sunday Times, 20 May 2012

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?

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9 thoughts on “Blackness is dying, and we should celebrate that

  1. jacqui says:

    Post blackness in our lifetime! I am looking forward to that cos its sometimes exhausting esp when culture is brought into it and no-one knows why.

    • zamo says:

      what, about post blackness are you looking forward to Jacqui? What is blackness? and what about its post-ness are you looking forward to? when culture is brought into it? what is ‘it’ Jacqui? and surely there must be a person who brings culture ‘into it’ – it can’t happen by itself. i suspect that if you asked and listened to the person bringing culture ‘into it’ you may find that THEY know why they bring it ‘into it’. In fact it’s quite likely. and this person does not quite fit into the no-one who does not know why? or are only certain people someone and those someones don’t know? and won’t ask or listen to the no-one who knows? i am asking and i am listening.

  2. luca says:

    … as I recall it was that inability to “do subtle” that gave South Africa some of its power over me, awkward outlier. What value ambivalence or nuance when the problems were indeed, always so blatantly, crudely “black and white”. Man up, boytjie! And it could well be because I remain outside, looking in, but now physically far from that country, that I find this consideration so attractive. It suggests — subtly — a way back, a way in. Who knows? But thanks for the opportunity to dwell with it.

  3. Mmailane K says:

    Agree that we should question common practices and culture as these should evolve as time changes. I can never understand people who claim its disrespectful to debate and ask questions of these. This is necessary for the advancement of us as a people. There were probably good reasons certain cultural practices developed and these reasons will not always be applicable. I don’t believe in blindly following these, much to a lot of people’s dismay.

  4. tessa dooms says:

    The difference between Murray and Zapiro is that Murray fails to answer the question “useful to what end?” Now one could argue that art is meant to be open-ended, “speak for itself” as Murray put it, but that is the problem with unimaginative art it does not even inspire me to think about its uses, it may as well be a bowl of fruit with the fruit having a political name…because as satire goes it lacks punch. The public reaction is fully indicative of this…people are responding to this as literal art cause that’s what it is…and those who have tried to make deeper inferences (i.e. The black sexuality moaners) are clearly grasping…because there is nothing there but a man and his penis (and a well endowed penis at that)…sure it draws attention to his sexuality…but what comes next?

  5. tmob says:

    I missed your earlier article on how blackness is dying. It is an interesting contribution in what I what I thought was an anemic “pop” discussion. On the death of blackness; I think it is in retreat because it does not have a voice to give it clear direction. The general media is hostile to it, black solidarity is lampooned as the epitomy of the rediculous. When forces like patriarchy, lust and greed highjack blackness, the progressive black voices lament the blind spots of blackness and quickly abound it.
    My take is that blackness is in retreat out of neglect. Black patriarchy abuses it for its own lustful ends. Black elite exploit it for block votes.

    I had never defended Zuma’s embarassing antics and I have always felt that observers and commentators were free to call it as they see it. On this painting, however, I feel it is my blackness that is under attack, Zuma is just a proxy. To conjure up long held racist stereotypes about black male sexuality, by an experienced and well read white artist, must have been deliberate. By taking offence I am not in anyway condoning the unbridled lustful appetites of our man from Nkandla. I am merely saying the painting is racist in its commentary.

    On patriarchy; I was hoping, praying, that patriarchy would not be part of discussions around this painting as I think it is a separate struggle to be waged (hopefully in the second transition). But I realise now that it denialism on my part. It is so obviously at the centre of this controversy.

    I said earlier that my sensitivities were offended that a white artist who should know better, would so callously evoke one of the worst images of colonial dehumanisation. It is my blackness that took offence. I intentionally ignored how patriarchy could part of the narrative. It chose not the shackles of patriarchy binding blackness.

    Your point about the death of blackness bringing true freedom does not hold because black people are opprosed by other things. Blackness must survive and strive. But first it must wage a struggle patriarchy and truly free black people. Blackness must be anti-patriarchy.

    • bobwakfer says:

      “I had never defended Zuma’s embarassing antics and I have always felt that observers and commentators were free to call it as they see it. On this painting, however, I feel it is my blackness that is under attack, Zuma is just a proxy.”

      There is an old expression that says “if the shoe fits, wear it”. Why isn’t this picture exactly what it is? A picture and statement about a debauched politician. If you “feel under attack” I can only assume you know the shoe fits, because by writing the above you are publicly wearing.

  6. Martin says:

    Wow. One of the most well thought out and articulate blogs I’ve read in a while.

  7. RK says:

    Biko’s statement, “Black man, you are on your own” was the foundation of BC separatism – a realisation that the fight against apartheid can only go forward with a black struggle independent of white SA liberal opposition to apartheid because, structurally, white liberals could not fully comprehend the position of black people and therefore could not really speak for the black oppressed.

    I think there is a definite need for an anti-racist approach to political analysis in SA, but I don’t think the need for black solidarity is going to disappear soon. The problem, as you put it, is indeed the way black solidarity allows the target of political struggle to be mis-diagnosed. But that is really because black solidarity forges a solidarity across class lines, and different classes have different material interests. Of course, during the anti-apartheid struggle, this cross-class mobilisation was the only way to forge national opposition to apartheid. But it was often middle-class, educated people leading the struggle. The post-apartheid government will ride this loyal solidarity til Jesus comes, irrespective of the massive economic differences between the political class and its middle-class support on the one hand, and SA’s poor classes. Uhm, so maybe, yeah, you’re right… racial solidarity needs to give way to class solidarity.

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