Never forget

2013-11-24 10:00

Black people in SA are crippled and powerless because of feckless leadership.

I just had one of my articles published in Transition, the pre-eminent review of African and African-American culture published out of Harvard University.

The article is titled Retracing Nelson Mandela in the History of Black Political Thought.

It is an attempt to get us beyond the view that Mandela just came out of the blue, without any antecedents in history.

I did the same for Steve Biko and would do the same for Robert Sobukwe, or any leader calling for study.

We cannot even begin to resolve our contemporary leadership problems without understanding the traditions bequeathed us by history.

Just the other day I picked up Peter Watson’s magisterial book, The German Genius, which explains why Germans have had a disproportionate influence on European history.

In classical music think Bach, Handel and Mozart.

In philosophy think Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche, Schiller, Humboldt and good old fellow traveller, Karl Marx.

So why have we not published Black Genius 20 years into our democracy. But why does it matter, you may ask.

SEK Mqhayi gave the answer in 1927: “How can anyone be grounded knowing nothing of his own people. Whatever his efforts in support of a national issue, he cannot be well grounded, he can expect to be struck down senseless by a puny little word so that he falls flat on his face, because he was hopping on one leg all along.”

That is exactly how I felt about Cyril Ramaphosa as he twisted his tongue trying to apologise for a statement he apparently made that if blackpeople don’t vote, the boers would come back to rule this country.

“Among most black South Africans,” Ramaphosa grovelled, “the boers” is a term commonly understood to refer to the former apartheid oppressors.

“In this context, it does not refer to Afrikaners, farmers or whites. For most black South Africans, and for others who are familiar with the traditions of the liberation struggle, this distinction is clearly understood.”

Well, speak for yourself, Mr Ramaphosa.

And while you’re at it, please fill me in on who the oppressors really were if they were not “Afrikaners, farmers, or whites”.

Have you perhaps ever heard of the commando system – made up of white civilians who raided cattle, and burnt down fields and entire villages?

Who exactly decided that South Africa would be a union that excluded blackpeople?

And who exactly voted for the National Party year in and year out for 50 years?

Systems do not vote, Mr Ramaphosa; people do. Systems do not beat up blackpeople for walking on the pavement; people do.

Systems do not yell at adult blackpeople, calling them “boy” or “girl” like little children for the rest of their lives.

Those atrocities were committed by people – “Afrikaners, farmers and whites”, if I may jog your memory, sir.

But then again it would be wrong to put this on Ramaphosa’s shoulders.

We are dealing here with a generalised sense of powerlessness among blackpeople, caused by a ruling party that has reduced freedom to services and grants for the poor, and looting of the state for those with the key to the safe.

The ANC’s leadership is so out of joint with history that its leaders cannot even tell the story of their past openly and candidly.

And that is why, as Mqhayi said, its president could speak about African people so disparagingly a few weeks ago.

And if Ramaphosa thinks he is helping white people, then he better think again.

You do not free young people by distorting the past – if only because they will see through the act.

Yes, you may satisfy the adults, but they will not be here for too long.

It is the young people we always have to keep in mind.

I am blessed enough to teach both black and white children, and the yearning they have for truly candid conversations is mind-blowing, which brings me back to the Transition magazine edition I mentioned earlier.

This particular edition is devoted to Quentin Tarantino’s movie about slavery, Django Unchained.

Slavery is America’s original sin, and historians, social scientists and economists have shown how it has shaped American society to this day.

Tarantino was heavily criticised for the use of the word ‘nigger’ in every second sentence in the film.

And here I would like to quote the exchange in the magazine between Tarantino and the distinguished Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates says to Tarantino: “Spike Lee is on your ass all the time about using the word ‘nigger’. What would you say to black film makers who are offended by the use of the word ‘nigger’ and/or are offended by the depictions of the horrors of slavery in the film?”

Tarantino responds in a manner I hope would have lessons not only for Ramaphosa but for all South Africans:

“Well, you know, if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going to see some things that are going to be ugly. That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land. Personally, I find the criticism ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, ‘You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi’. Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should make it easier to digest. No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.”

One thing I admire about the Jewish people and African-Americans is that they will never let go of their history.

They know that if they did, like Mqhayi warned, they would be hopping on one leg.

And that is the state of black people in this country today – crippled and powerless because of feckless leadership that knows not when to apologise and when to be true to history.

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