“That’s his problem, he thinks he’s white”, says the immaculately dressed gentleman to his friend as we shuffle along in the typical month-end slow-moving bank queue. “But all Coloured and Indian people are like that, they think they are white. I dare him to try that sh*t with me and I’ll tell him where to get off,” his friend responds, with a facial expression that leaves no doubt in my mind that he would do more than “tell him where to get off”. The two gentlemen behind me in the queue obviously don’t care who overhears them, in fact they probably think they are entertainment, and who am I to argue with such deep social analysis in the face of bank queue boredom?
I had read the bank’s computer monitors “Safe Banking Tips” over a hundred times and was learning to do it backwards when these two gentlemen joined me in the queue. With the over-zealous bank security personnel having ensured I can’t continue sharpening my “Candy Crush” skills because of the “No Cellphone” rule in banks, I was staring at despair in the face when salvation came in the form of these two gentlemen.
Their conversation reminded me of a blog post I had read about two weeks ago. A Kenyan of Asian origin wrote the piece lamenting her place or lack place in today’s Kenya. A touching and very open look at an Asian in Africa, with harrowing details of the ills that sowed the distrust between Black Kenyans and Kenyans of Asian ancestory. This is not unlike today’s refrain by South Africa’s Coloured (and Indian) folk that “during apartheid we were not white enough and today we are not black enough” to benefit from the ruling class. Unlike Kenya’s Asian minority, Coloured people have no other country or continent that can be referred to as their “original” home. This is it.
Originally the products of the union between Africans(Blacks) and Europeans(whites), they are now constitute a sizeable and thriving community on their own and do not need either of the two original races to continue their existence.
The two gentlemen in the bank queue sum up the views of quite a lot of black people who interact with Coloured and Indian people at a professional level. That the said colleague thinks he’s white is not an indication that whiteness is to be envied but more a measure of the said colleague’s delusion that he places himself on par with “former slave masters”. What those two gentlemen meant is that there are Coloured and Indian people who think that they are superior to black people simply because they are Coloured/Indian.
Now, apartheid as a social system was a failure in many respects. But a casual observation of the interactions between South Africa’s melanin-gifted groups, Coloureds, Blacks and Indians is enough to persuade one that apartheid was not the dismal failure we all wish it had been. Apartheid’s architects “got something right”. See, they devised a system so devious that to refer to it as simply “divide and rule” undermines their twisted brilliance. Apartheid managed to divide by ensuring that even the oppressed were subdivided into further warring subclasses. Categorizing each other on the size of crumbs they received from the master’s table.
Amongst the groups that were to receive crumbs from the master’s table, Coloureds and Indians were hand-picked to receive slightly bigger crumbs than Black people. The success of the system lay in convincing some of the recipients of those crumbs that they got bigger crumbs because they were better people than black Africans. And sure enough, some Coloured and Indian folk bought into that racist lie, leading them to treat their African brothers and sisters with disdain, such as white people would. Leading to the refrain, “some Coloured people think they are white.”
Talk to black people from Durban about Indian South Africans and the story is not much different. In fact some black people would tell you that it’s actually better to have a racist white employer because the attitudes of some Indian South Africans is much worse than that of racist white people”, fighting over crumbs again. One need only think back to the super-rich Gupta wedding guests’ alleged treatment of their black hospitality staff to be reminded of how tenuous the Indo-African relations can be.
“…Through the years, we have tried to become interwoven into the fabric of this society, yet I can’t help but feel that if this country were a jersey, we’d be that irritating strand of cotton that, try as you may, you just can’t cut off. Which is a shame, seeing as how much most of us love this country, and that our ancestors were forced to move here…” , part of a response to a fellow blogger’s take on the ‘place of Indians’ in South African Society today. Not unlike the Kenyan Asian experience.
This is where my assertion that Apartheid had some spectacular successes comes from. If the system could get the recipients of crumbs to not only squabble over the size of the crumbs but to actually internalize an artificial feeling of superiority over a fellow oppressed then the system achieved its objectives.
If the above gives you the sense that South Africa’s ‘people of colour’ don’t get along, that’s far from it. South Africa’s struggle for democracy possesses a rich history of harmony between the oppressed races. The Black Consciousness Movement that filled the void of the banned mass organisations in the 70s did a wonderful job of uniting all the oppressed groupings under one banner, and redirecting the focus of Coloureds, Indians and Black people at the master.
The result of that movement was that all the oppressed people could identify as one. No Indian, No Coloured and no Blacks. Just the oppressed who recognized that they had certain thing in common: more melanin than the rulers and right on their side.
It is the nature of prejudice that it takes a very short time to foster hatred and ill-feelings amongst the races but an inordinate amount of work to rebuild that trust. Just as the system that caused the divisions was the result of a carefully thought out system, building trust between the former oppressed people of this country will require carefully crafted systems to get people working together again.
Whilst a lot of people frown at Professor Johnathan Jansen’s ‘artificial’ methods of bringing racial harmony to a formerly racially divided University Of The Free State Campus, I’m one of those who see his methods as being very practical. Transformation should be more than just about numbers. The cohesion that results from transformation should lead to a more richer, fulfilling, colourful society.
It’s very easy to want to stick to ‘your own kind’, and indeed that’s what democracy seems to suggest, having the right to choose whom you want around you. But with each sticking to their own then we must not be surprised that we are unable overcome “not black enough or white enough” thinking.
Until another ‘great liberator’ like Gandhi, King or Mandela comes along, this work falls to all of us. Do your bit to ensure that nobody assumes an air of superiority amongst the races.
Besides, there must have been something naturally distasteful about being ‘chief’ of the crumb recipients. It must be a lot like being a prison gang boss, you have certain benefits but you are still a prisoner.