Their own worst enemies

2013-08-21 00:00

I ONCE watched a movie about gorillas and a scientist who had an obsession with them. In the movie, a silverback had been caged for a very long time, such that the cage had become his life. One day, his cage was left open for him to get out and be free. Interestingly, the gorilla did not leave his cage because he had become accustomed to a life of oppression and imprisonment.

In South Africa, women, like black people, have one thing in common with this gorilla: an inferiority complex. When people have been oppressed and made to feel inferior for a long time, it is not uncommon for them not only to accept the conditions of their oppression, but also to form a belief that their oppressor is superior to them.

Even when they are free from the shackles of their oppressor, they carry the belief that they are servants and their oppressor is the master. And the master knows best. This belief then manifests itself in many, often subtle, ways.

For black people, who have been made to believe that they are inferior for a very long time, this feeling of inferiority is expressed in the way they behave towards white people, vis-à-vis fellow black people. White people are given better service at restaurants, banks and in other public spaces. Disruptions in services are addressed more efficiently in white suburbs than in black townships. White suburbs are cleaner, there is better policing in white areas and emergency services respond quicker to a call from white areas. The most telling part of the way people are treated differently is that even black people providing the abovementioned services perpetuate this difference. A friend of mine often tells the story about how he was treated unfairly by a black woman who insisted that he produce an identity document instead of a driver’s licence at the bank. She refused to help him without an ID. However, when a white man produced a driver’s licence for the same service, she gladly assisted him.

This demonstrates the inferiority complex: the view that a fellow black person cannot possibly be given the same standard of service as a white person. Many of us have witnessed this when dealing with people on the other side of the counter. An inferiority complex is not just about thinking that, as a black person, you are inferior to a white person. It is about believing that white people are superior to black people.

Unfortunately, women tend to share this trait with black people. Whereas black people have been oppressed in this country for a few hundred years, women have been oppressed worldwide since the beginning of time, made to believe that they are not as good as men. They have been denied rights that men, particularly white men, have enjoyed for centuries. To a large extent, they continue to be treated as second-class citizens, despite being recognised legally as equals. However, much progress has been made to advance the empowerment and emancipation of women. Men are slowly beginning to accept that women are equals. The problem is not just about convincing men to accept this fact, the problem is to convince women to embrace their freedom and equality. Like the gorilla in the cage and many black people, many women hold the view that they are inferior to men. This is because their parents and society have taught them that the man is the head of the family. Culture and religion have played their role in ensuring that women understand their place Consequently, even when the doors are opened, many women still prefer the life they have, to the live they could have, because they do not believe they can succeed on their own. This is despite the fact that it is women who often find themselves the breadwinners and head of fatherless families. It is women who keep informal economies going in rural areas and, in many cases, women outperform men at institutions of higher learning. Even worse is the attitude of women towards other women. Oppressed people have a tendency to turn on each other. Like the black woman behind the counter, many women tend to treat each other negatively. Many do not believe that a woman can be just as good as a man.

For years, I have conducted a quick experiment in my classes to test attitudes towards women in leadership. I ask my students to indicate, by a show of hands, how many would vote for a female president. Every time, without fail, only a minority of women students show their willingness to vote for a woman. The dominant explanation is that women are emotional and therefore would be vulnerable, perhaps even weak, leaders.

It is not just the absence of opportunities that hold the previously disadvantaged back. It is also the persistent feeling of being inferior to the former oppressor that worsens the situation. It is this feeling that prevents people from recognising that their success depends on their ability to work together to break the chains of oppression. Black people and women of this country need to rid themselves of this inferiority complex. We are all equal, even though we are different.

• Sanele Nene is a lecturer in the school of social sciences, UKZN.

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