SUNDAY TIMES - The black man's burden
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Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Joel Netshitenzhe, 2016-02-21

The black man's burden

Durban's beachfront drew crowds of holidaymakers on New Year's Day last year to beaches that were once the sole preserve of whites.
Image: JACKIE CLAUSEN

Black South Africans ought to set their sights a lot higher than equality with whites: they should work towards a new civilisation, says Joel Netshitenzhe

Spare a thought for Penny Sparrow and Dianne Kohler Barnard. Even for those of us who used enviously to walk near the then whites-only Durban beachfront to marvel at the umbrellas of white families enjoying themselves, dotted across the largely empty sands, today's crowds can conjure up images of an invasion. (Africans were allowed a dip in the sea only in places such as stony Umgababa, some 40km away.)

And so, spare a thought for Sparrow and Kohler Barnard if for them life before 1994 is remembered with longing.

Of course Sparrow and her ilk know that, strictly speaking, there are black monkeys and white monkeys. The fundamental issue transcends monkey business. It is about a sense of entitlement to historical privilege. It is about nostalgia for what was and the rationalisation of what remains.

South Africa's history and demographics have rendered our land a giant social experiment. It defies the typology of colonial settlement followed at independence by mass emigration back to the metropolis. Sociologists coined the notion of colonialism of a special type precisely because the settlers had decided to make this their permanent home.

To turn the provocative, racist and sexist prose of Rudyard Kipling on its head: in South Africa, "the white man's burden" has, in theory and in actual practice, become "the black man's burden" ("man" used here to denote the more universal "human").

Liberation under such circumstances posits the possibility of co-option and assimilation of the liberators into the dominant paradigm of the metropolis. The definition of such liberation can, among the black elites, easily revolve around the mantra "We have arrived".

The danger arises that social progress is narrowly measured, by the multiracial elite, in terms of the pace at which the black elite ascends to the social pinnacles of the metropolis. Both elites then worry about the crumbs to be thrown to the multitudes along the fence of social division.

  Blackness cannot be defined by howls of pain in the face of a stubborn and all-encompassing racism

The fundamental issue arises: how can Blackness be defined under circumstances such as these? In any case, do such typologies as Whiteness and Blackness exist?

Liberation should not entail the homogenisation of South Africa's diverse people in an imaginary melting pot. Indeed, the basic tenets of our constitution, captured so splendidly in the motto of the coat of arms, !ke e: /xarra //ke (Diverse People Unite), recognise the identity of being South African as but an overarching umbrella under whose shade reside endless multitudes of "sub-identities", including across the black population.

At base, racism exists in the unequal distribution of wealth and income. It feeds on inequitable access to opportunity and services, and thrives in social networks of varying utility for the rich and the poor.

The many fracas that South Africa today experiences - in the racist taunts o n social media , in the campaign for access to and transformation of higher education, and in the recurrent battles on the shop floor and in local communities - are not disjointed events: they form part of the chain of deficits in our search for a democratic and equitable society.

These deficits include the experience of young professionals who encounter a glass ceiling and stubborn colonial culture in the workplace; and a "fog of racism", subtle and blurred.

Blackness cannot be defined by howls of pain in the face of a stubborn and all-encompassing racism. As during the struggle against apartheid colonialism, it should define its mission as being to resist, to persuade, to teach, to cajole and to lead in the name of an all-embracing humanity.

Some 22 years into democracy, the impatience is palpable; the demand for faster progress rather than merely reproducing racial capitalism is growing louder by the day. The clamour for a second phase of transition to a democratic society, for economic freedom, for transformation of higher education - these reflect the sixth sense of a society searching for sustainable social equilibrium.

But sixth senses do not a deliberate strategy and programme make. Blackness's "attitude of mind and way of life", to paraphrase the proponents of Black Consciousness, should turn grievance into strategy and action.

Four years ago, there seemed to be emerging within South Africa a broad consensus around not just a diagnosis of current problems, but also the vision and plan to build an equitable society. Whatever its weaknesses, the National Development Plan had started to lay the basis for an all-embracing hegemony of the positive. The challenge was to translate it into practical and visible action. The jury is still out on whether we have not in fact missed that opportunity.

There are many reasons behind today's sense of unguided drift, among them objective realities such as the global economic downturn, poor responses from domestic capital and weak state capacity. But, from the purview of the discourse on Blackness, we pose the question whether that capacity, so pronounced during the anti-colonial struggle - to resist, to persuade, to teach, to cajole and indeed to lead - has not dissipated.

The b lack man's burden in today's South Africa should find expression in deliberate self-definition and self-assertion, in pursuit of excellence and acting as a force of example on what it means to be human and humane.

Core to such an approach should be an ideal higher than pursuit of equality with whites. It should be about a new civilisation, "thoroughly spiritual and humanistic", which takes "its place ... with other great human syntheses", "giving the world a more human face", to quote Seme, Luthuli and Biko, respectively.

Blackness should position itself as an integral and equal part of humanity, in dogged pursuit of excellence on a global scale.

In that way, we'll transform the black man's burden into South African society's burden.

The Sparrows of this world will be shamed by a society progressing in spite of them, and they will either stick out like social freaks or, tail between their legs, fall in line.

That is South Africa's collective burden, enlightening and invincible.

Netshitenzhe is executive director of Mistra. This is an edited extract from his keynote address at the dialogue "Blackness and its entanglement with essentialisms, intersections and faultlines in post-apartheid South Africa" in Johannesburg this week. Hosted by the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, this dialogue forms part of the Foundation for Human Rights' s Public Policy Dialogue programme in partnership with the Department of Justice. The speech is available on www.mistra.org.za