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Born-free a problematic term in SA

18 June 2013, 10:58

In the novel Coconut, by Kopano Matlwa, the so called ‘born-free’ black characters believe that the language and accent they adopt are associated with intelligence and refinement. The characters further believe that the adoption of the English language and ‘white’ accent will allow them to inhabit certain social spaces also inhabited by white people.

This is where the body features as a site of struggle. Though these black characters are able to speak English fluently and eloquently, their bodies do not, however, allow them to fully inhabit the same social space as the white bodies they encounter. Furthermore, we witness just how problematic the term ‘born-free’ is in describing individuals born into post-apartheid South Africa. The term ‘born-free’ is clearly associated with space. People who lived under the rule of the apartheid government were, by law, told which spaces they could and could not inhabit. Labeling post-apartheid generations as ‘born-free’ suggests that these individuals were born with the freedom to inhabit any social space of their choice. However, in Coconut we are faced with black individuals who Constitutionally are allowed to inhabit any space but struggle to do so socially because of the appearance of their physical bodies.

Spencer (2009:67) states that Coconut grapples with the various ways in which ‘born-frees’ attempt to negotiate space for themselves in post-apartheid South Africa. I argue that the black characters in Coconut use the combination of language and accent as a medium through which to negotiate space but in so doing the appearance of their bodies situates them in an ‘in-between’ space where they neither inhabit ‘blackness’ nor ‘whiteness’ fully.

McKinney (2007:10) brings light to the fact that “varieties of English spoken by white people have come define the standard of how English should be spoken…” Therefore, both language and accent are used as a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion (Spencer 2009:70). At a very young age the characters, Tshepo and Ofilwe, discover the importance of English and the manner in which they speak English. They are ‘taught’ by the white people they encounter that their language and accent will serve to include or exclude them from certain social domains. It does, however, become apparent that though these black characters may enter into these social spaces, they will never fully inhabit them. The black body fails to be fully ‘at-home’.

Tshepo is first to be ‘taught’ the importance of the use of English. In the first part of the novel Ofilwe tells the reader of her family’s move to the city: “I was to begin nursery school that year and Tshepo grade two but was held back a year, because he did not speak English as well as his new, elite, all-boys’ school would have liked.” (Matlwa 2007:6)

The school serves as an institution which enforces the importance of the ‘correct’ use of English. Because Tshepo is held back for an entire academic year, he begins to associate his accent with his intelligence. The school thus implies that they are only able to accommodate those who adhere to the English requirements. In so doing, Tshepo’s ‘elite, all-boys’ school’ uses English as a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion.

Tshepo does eventually learn to speak English eloquently but even this is not enough to completely include him in a white social sphere. As Tshepo gets older his body moves further away from being ‘at-home’ in a black social space and because he cannot be completely included in a white one, he is left in an ‘in-between’ space. How then, can Tshepo be called ‘born-free’ when he does not have the freedom to inhabit any terrain he desires? O’Brien and Szeman (2010:189) explain that “[…] women’s self-perception as the ‘other’ to male desire [cannot] be undone by a simple political assertion of equality.” In the same way, social equality cannot come to pass solely through an assertion of democratic inclusivity. Welschen (2012:15) questions how appropriate it is to describe a post-apartheid generation as ‘born-free’ when the legacy of the past as well as the weight of expectation weigh so strongly upon that generation.

Ofilwe shares with the reader what she reads in her brother’s diary. Tshepo records his feelings regarding his interaction with white customers at Instant Fried Chicken as follows:

I want them to hear my voice. I want them to listen to the manner in which I speak. I want to slap their stuffed faces with my private school articulation and hurl their empty skulls into a dizzy spin with the diction I use. I will quote our democratic Constitution. I will remind them that it is now and not then. I will demand respect. (Matlwa 2007:29)

Still Tshepo believes that his adopted English language combined with his ‘refined’ accent, is a mechanism of inclusion. His black body, however, serves as a site of struggle and Tshepo is left feeling frustrated by this ‘in-between’ space allocated to him. Not only are his use of English and the democratic Constitution not enough to include him in a white social space, but he is also expelled by the bodies of black strangers he encounters at his new job. Tshepo explains that they ridicule him saying: “‘[t]hese model C children know nothing of the real world. They are shocked by the ways of Umlungu. It is good you have come to work, boy. There is much you must learn.’” (Matlwa 2007:29). Despite Tshepo’s unpleasant experience at Instant Fried Chicken, he continues to work there in hope of being accepted by the black men with whom he works.

Ofilwe also comes to believe, like Tshepo, that her accent and use of the English language render her intelligent. Fifi’s perception of language and privilege is seen when she remarks “[i]t is because I am smart and speak perfect English. That is why people treat me differently. I knew from a very young age that Sepedi would not take me far. Not a chance!” (Matlwa 2007:54).

Furthermore, Ofilwe’s experience at school, when three men from the school governing board come to assess how many pupils speak the various South African languages, also depicts how Ofilwe’s body does not allow her to inhabit what is considered to be a white social domain. Ofilwe, by raising her hand, confirms that English is her home-language and in so doing she attempts to inhabit the same terrain as other English-speaking pupils. The three white men as well as Ofilwe’s teacher, Mrs Khumalo, confirm that Ofilwe is, in fact, not ‘born-free’. Through not allowing Ofilwe to be part of a group of people who are English-speaking and forcing her into the category ‘Zulu’, it becomes clear that she does not have the freedom to be ‘at-home’ in any space she desires. Her inability to be considered English-speaking – as well as being categorised as part of a group with which she has no association – puts Ofilwe in an ‘in-between’ space.

English does not only serve as a language, but as a white social space. Distiller and Steyn (2004:107) explain that “[b]ecause English can be learned, it cannot be attacked as inequitable in the same way that ‘whiteness’ can, but those who choose to learn it ultimately reinforce its domination of those who are unable to. In this way the ideology of ‘whiteness’ is easily communicated through the English language.”

This white social space is one that neither Ofilwe nor Tshepo, are able to inhabit fully. Because their use of the English language communicates the ideology of ‘whiteness’, they are also excluded from the black social space because they are unable to communicate with their family in Sepedi (which in contrast would communicate the ideology of ‘blackness’). Both these characters find themselves in the space which society allocates to them: emphasising the conflict between their physical bodies and the language they choose to speak.

It is clear that the term ‘born-free’ cannot be used to label individuals born into post-apartheid South-Africa. Furthermore, though so-called ‘born-frees’ live in a democratic country, the social spaces they are able to inhabit are not solely dependent on the Constitution and though language may provide access into these spaces, their bodies do not allow them to be completely ‘at-home’. Thus, many of these individuals are left in an ‘in-between’ space where both ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ become uninhabitable.

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