Fear and bling

2013-02-21 00:00

Legacy of our slave past touches

more of our lives than we think

THIS year marks 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves of the southern United States. Judging by the latest Hollywood fare, this event is bound to be a hot topic among Americans in both popular and academic circles.

In contrast, very few South Africans are likely to commemorate the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in South Africa, on December 1, 1834. Many citizens are not even aware that slavery was a feature of South African society for almost two centuries. Of those who are, many will likely point out that the majority of the descendants of slaves in South Africa are classified as coloureds, a group that is, nowadays at least, not commonly thought of as previously oppressed, while others will opine that there are more pressing national priorities that need attention.

Yet according slavery a prominent place in our national memory and reflecting upon the effects it may have had on our national character is likely to improve our understanding of past and present circumstances, and, by extension, our assessments of future developmental prospects. By way of support for this statement, consider that, more than any other institution, slavery exemplified the belief that members of a particular race were superior to all others. In doing so, it impressed an indelible mark on our national psyche and established the pattern of inter-personal and inter-group relations. This belief provided the basis for later ideologies which sought to order South African society into a racial hierarchy. Further, observe that many vestiges of later systematic attempts at social engineering, such as the single-sex hostels which blight South Africa’s urban landscape or the patriarchal nature of relations between domestic workers and their employers can be traced back to practices that were established during the slavery period.

Reflecting upon our slave past may also enhance our understanding of current socioeconomic phenomena. Take the prevailing, vastly unequal national distribution of income for example. Barring relatively few exceptions, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small fearful minority who appear largely indifferent to the miseries endured by those who occupy the lower echelons of society, many of whom perceive limited opportunities for advancement beyond their present station. Aren’t indifference, fear and despair cornerstones of a slave-owning society? Subsequently, racial disharmony and questions relating to the notion of economic justice are still the two most urgent issues facing South Africa.

Alternatively, consider the bling culture embraced by some of the emerging black elite which many commentators lament. It is put to the reader that this culture evolved from beliefs fostered during the slavery era, wherein a slave’s life held no intrinsic or inherent value. Like any other productive asset, the worth of slaves was measured in the output which their masters could extract from them. It follows that slaves who produced more were considered to be more valuable. Upon emancipation, the belief that a slave’s life was worthless was not overturned. Arguably, it was reinforced through the condition that freed slaves had to compensate their masters for the loss of capital wrought by their attaining freedom by working in a four-year unpaid apprenticeship.

Given this history, it is relatively straightforward to infer that this belief manifests itself in bling culture, whereby a black person’s sense of self-worth is intricately linked to the garish display of his or her possessions, the most obvious measure of his or her productive capacity. Undoubtedly, however, the most compelling reason to pay greater attention to our slave history is because this terrible scourge has not been consigned to the historical dustbin. Coming to grips with our slave past might well assist us in informing our national response to the plight of those who are still trapped in lives of servitude and bondage.

For these reasons, one is hopeful that Americans’ reflections on their slave past will spur South Africans to make a greater collective effort to do likewise this year. From individual acts such as reading up on the history of slavery at the Cape, to communal acts such as engaging in cyber debate upon how slavery has affected the character of South African society, to public acts such as the observance of an Emancipation Day holiday. Each can assist us in confronting the legacy of the most ignominious chapter in our dark history. Greater awareness of the impacts of this legacy which this exercise may evoke may free us from the narrow mind-sets which we all seem to be guilty of adopting. Freedom from these chains may be just what’s needed to reinvigorate our search for answers to the sensitive questions of justice, restitution and reconciliation which are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.

• Gerard Boyce is a PhD student in the School of Economics and Finance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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