Racial superiority: Ungamane uyeke

2015-01-28 14:00

Here’s a joke from my childhood: One day God decided to shuffle the animal kingdom. He started with coloured and Indian people. “From now on, you shall become white,” he declared. Coloured and Indian people were beside themselves with excitement.

Next were the South African indigenous groups. The Nguni now became coloured and they, too, rejoiced at God’s mercy. Next up, the Sotho people, who graduated to being Nguni. And so on. God elevated every group to occupy the space left by the South Africans considered superior to them.

But conviviality came to a stop when God told the monkeys that they could take over the status of Shangaans and Vendas, who made up the last group on the rung occupied by humans. The monkeys balked: Ungamane uyeke (You might as well leave it), they said, in defiance of God’s wishes.

It’s shameful to admit that as children growing up in 1980s Soweto, we doubled over in laughter at this gaffe. In hindsight, I know it also sullied our spirits and that’s probably why I’ve never forgotten it.

Though I was not mature enough to speak up at the time, I sensed how sinister it was. Here was its truth: some black people are better than others, coloured people and Indians are better than black people, and whites – because in that joke as I remember it, God thought them perfect the way they were – always stay on top.

In those days, that racial order was a reality – God ordained – as apartheid’s architects were at pains to convince everyone.

And though we might today be embarrassed to acknowledge it to our newly liberated selves, as kids we ingrained it into our brains, our emotions, our history and our psyche.

We don’t talk about it enough, how black people kept each other down. How being Shangaan or Venda, or darker than your neighbour, automatically meant you were ugly. That many Shangaan and Venda people are fluent in isiZulu and Sesotho, because as kids they had to blend in with the “dominant groups”. That saying your child had kaffir hare (hair) was part of normal conversation.

You might be wondering what made me remember such an ugly, racist joke – enough to want to repeat it. I was reading Business Day columnist Peter Bruce’s January 9 piece titled “Je suis Charlie offers lesson of tolerance”, written in reaction to the Paris murders that have dominated news. He starts his piece with a joke, too.

Close to the end, Bruce makes a point about white people: “I am no historian, but the more I read, the more convinced I become that as a ‘European’, racism is intrinsic to my culture. By that, I mean that over the past 1 000 years or so, since the collapse of the Roman Empire, European or Caucasian, or perhaps even Christian cultures, have grown to regard themselves as superior to others.”

I agree, white people have a superiority problem. But if whites have a superiority complex, does that mean black and coloured people have an inferiority issue?

I want to reference another topic that’s made big news: Racist Cape Town. I acknowledge that many white Capetonians live oblivious to the reality outside their imaginary borders. But I often ask myself, why do local black and coloured inhabitants not infiltrate the city in the way you see it happen in Johannesburg?

How come everyone still hangs out in the same public space determined by the apartheid government? I ask these kind of questions of myself. When I feel undermined by a white colleague, why do I leave instead of standing my ground? If what I feel inside is strength and liberation, then should my reaction not be congruent?

Bruce goes on to say that he does not believe that Africans can be racist: “Africans have never done to Europeans what Europeans did to them. Racism is part of learned, and by now almost unconscious, European culture over many centuries. It is not African.”

I disagree that black South Africans can’t be racist. It places us in that problematic whites bad, blacks good dynamic. Besides, I’m less interested in what colonialism has made Africans do to Europeans than I am in what it made us do to each other, and to ourselves.

Coloured people and Indians can be prejudiced towards black people, but I don’t find it funny when family members use the word coolie or boesman.

Black consciousness, said Steve Biko, is inward looking. We should do more of that, not for self-blame, but self-evaluation. To reckon with history and to face certain truths.

I wonder if we are fully aware of what’s seeped down through the generations, and I worry that we’re not vigilant enough that it does not imprint itself. Think about that the next time you call someone, especially a child, yellow bone as a term of endearment. It’s funny today, but tomorrow it’s a stain on our psyche.

Talk to us: Do you feel superior over any race group?

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