Prince Mashele

Of the colonised mind

2010-07-19 13:16

Only a fool would not know that race is a thorny subject in South Africa, and that it is thornier in the rest of the world. Not infrequently, discourses on race excite untamed impulses of many fools to display grotesque bigotry. This raises the question: must we avoid broaching important subjects on race because we know that fools are sure to assail us?

Given that it is only a few days after our successful hosting of the FIFA Soccer World Cup, and the fact that this column was posted literally hours after Nelson Mandela Day, it would not be surprising for overzealous rainbowists to holler: “why do you want us to discuss race, when we are still focusing on rainbow miracles?”

It is necessary for a dose of realism to be injected, if our sincere efforts to construct a truly multiracial society are to yield a genuine rainbow nation.  Commentators have already alerted us to the similarity between the 1995 Rugby World Cup and opium. When Mandela lifted that trophy, many of us felt like we had, by some strange political osmosis, been born again into a new South Africa, where race ceased to matter. It should therefore come as no surprise for some among us to entreat our nation never to allow 2010 to have anything in common with opium.

Given that race is a complex question, we should perhaps use this occasion only to discuss one important aspect of it: the tendency on the part of some black people to prove a point to whites.

Have we not seen blacks in our midst who try very hard to speak English as if they are England’s grandchildren? Do we not know of black people who play classic music as if they have no relationship with the African drum? Have we not heard a black person narrate the history of Scotch whisky more articulately than they know who King Sekhukhune is? Or, do we not know of black people who each time they debate with a white person cry “colonialism or apartheid”?

Universe constructed by white people

This is precisely what acclaimed Indian scholar Amartya Sen – in his book, Identity and Violence – calls "the dialectics of a colonised mind" (p. 88). In the absence of whites, a colonised black mind cannot imagine its existence; it derives its self-image from a mirror held up by whites. In other words, such a mind is incapable of grasping the completeness of its being outside the mental universe constructed by white people.

When whites witness the spectacle of a black person who tries to be whiter than them, they may not laugh loudly, but certainly find such comedy comical. Those who do not laugh silently celebrate the success and power of their indoctrination. But those among us who are conscious of these matters can only wish that the colonised mind could read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind.

Whenever the poverty of the colonised mind is exposed, the usual retort is that there is nothing wrong in being educated. This kind of response is in itself a further exposition of mental poverty. It is based on the constructed notion of education as a process of Westernisation. While the colonised mind may not be aware, this conception of education is laden with racial politics.

The political premise of the West-based conception of education is a linear one: from African barbarism to Western enlightenment. The destiny of this kind of education is the death of Africa and the birth the Occident.

When Africa has been killed, and when the West has been born, in the mind of a black person, a clearly dark-skinned African rolls the tong in order to sound like a granddaughter of England. When such terrible death has occurred, and when the uncanny Western birth has taken place, a black person cannot appreciate the scientific knowledge involved in brewing umqombothi (African traditional beer). How else would you explain the alcoholic content contained in umgombothi, if not scientifically?

The Occident has been born

When Africa has died, and when the Occident has been born, in a colonised mind, knowledge of Napoleon appears more important than that of King Shaka. Thus does a colonised mind come to narrate marvellous stories of Scotch whisky, and so does it replace the despised beat of the African drum with the ‘artistic glory’ of classical music.

There are those who might agree with the emancipatory thrust of the critique of the dialectics of the colonised mind, but protest against what might appear like a call to erase the history of colonialism and apartheid. Such protestors might say “Bravo for exposing coconuts, but please let us remind white people of the sins they committed against Africans!”

This is precisely the problem; many black people confuse the necessity to keep the memory of colonialism and apartheid alive with the search for a truly African self-identity. By so doing, they are unable to define themselves without reference to whites, and they ipso facto become guilty of tainting the purity of African identity with Occidental blemishes. As Amartya Sen again reminds us:

It cannot make sense to see oneself primarily as someone who (or whose ancestors) have been misrepresented, or treated badly, by colonialism, no matter how true that identification may be. (op. cit.)

The more black people define themselves on the basis of the wrongs committed by whites against them, the more they prolong befuddlement in respect of their true identity. Meanwhile, white do not allow the historic encounters they have had with diverse races to render the Occident impure.

Mischievous whites

The tails of mischievous whites should not wag yet, for what we have hitherto presented is not a clamour for historical amnesia; it is a call for blacks never to rely on the mirror held up by whites in the search for their identity.

History is an important foundation for nation building, which is why we must never forget the dark days of apartheid. The Jews know this better than most us; Jewish children absorb the horrific story of the holocaust into their hearts long before African children are made aware of the brutality of apartheid.

We say mischievous whites because we know that Herbert Marcuse was correct in his One-Dimensional Man, that:

Memory recalls the terror and the hope that passed. Both come to life again, but whereas in reality, the former recurs in ever new forms, the latter remains hope. And in the personal events which reappear in the individual memory, the fears and aspirations of mankind assert themselves – the universal in the particular. It is history which memory preserves. (p. 102)

As a nation, therefore, we have a collective responsibility never to be duped by mischievous whites, who want us to forget that it is apartheid that has dumped a whole mass of black people into a historic trap (of poverty and underdevelopment), from which only future generations can escape. Nor should we tolerate confused blacks, who want to prevent our full penetration into a truly black identity by their ignorant insistence on reference to the historic sins committed by whites against blacks.

Critical matters

All this might sound ill-timed and misplaced, considering that we have just emerged from a successful World Cup, and given that the images of Mandela Day still loom large in our minds. But those who have witnessed the disappearance of the racial illusions created by the 1995 Rugby World Cup know that it is not impossible for 2010 to leave us like opium, when a drug addict suddenly realises that there is a chimerical world of drugs, and that of reality.

Well, these are critical matters beyond the realm of fools whose untamed impulses might lead them into easy insults, and to a grotesque display of bigotry. Thus do we find ourselves confronted with the very stubborn question: must we avoid broaching important subjects on race because we know that fools are sure to assail us?

- Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (www.politicsresearch.co.za) and a member of the Midrand Group

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