The F-word – Nouveau free don’t need a stamp of approval

2012-02-25 09:56

Two unrelated events got me thinking over the past week.

One was a conversation I had with a friend about whether black professionals choose the easy way out by quitting their jobs every time they are met with work problems they believe are related to their blackness.

Another was an article in Business Day last week about advertising executives who chose to be unemployed rather than work for international agencies that reduced them to rented blacks, essential only for presenting their faces at tender meetings but not good enough to make binding business decisions.

As with other categories of human beings, black professionals are all different. There are some who choose the easy way out by hopping from one job to the next each time they encounter discomfort.

Then there are others who see it as their mission to pioneer the path for generations coming after them.

They stick it out in uncomfortable situations when they could have had it easier had they chosen differently.

Their admirers and detractors cannot understand why it is that these men and women subject themselves to lives of hardship when they have all the credentials to live an easier and materially more profitable life elsewhere.

This is of course not a phenomenon peculiar to blacks.

Liberal white politicians such as Helen Suzman and Frederick van Zyl Slabbert were examples of this mind-set, the same one chosen by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko, whose education, intelligence and family ties could have assured all of them an easier life than the one they chose.

These men and women said what they said about social injustice not because they felt disempowered or because they harboured a victim mentality.

They spoke out against social ills precisely because they were empowered and were not going to let this bind their tongues.

And so it should be. To demand the silence of the empowered is to punish them for being free or daring to unchain themselves.

It is to shamelessly demand the right to control the slaves and the free. It also robs those in bondage of the alliances they can forge to help them out of their dark pit.

The nouveau free do not need to get the approval of their former slave masters to think and to articulate their thoughts.

And the free, because they know how it is to be both free and unfree, are best placed to advocate their virtues of freedom.

What those who are bored or irritated by the sanctimonious noises of the empowered are not saying is who it is that is allowed to speak out against the wrongs they see.

It is as if the unsaid is that the newly empowered were “allowed” to be where they are on condition they shut up or, failing that, sing the praises of the club they have been allowed to be members of.

There can be no denying that some people abuse their previous state of victimhood to feather their nests. Victimhood – as some, including a few political elites, have found – can be a massive career booster.

There will always be chancers and people motivated by less than honest reasons for taking up the causes they take.

But to dismiss the entire project because of the faces that represent is as ridiculous as saying we should disbelieve women who claim to have been victims of sexual assault because we know one or two who knowingly made a false claim.

Punish if you have to those who bring into disrepute the campaign for a better society for all.

To wash your hands of any involvement in the fight against what you know to be a social wrong just because you are way past it, or have never personally felt it, is to choose to be blind and deaf.

Speaking out for the disempowered is a demonstration of our own empowerment and should never be seen as a celebration of victimhood.

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