Learning from African-Americans

2009-08-27 00:00

“AND today opportunities have at last found someone to share, the things I wouldn’t have dared, cause I never felt they were meant for me.” These lines from a song by the late American R&B legend Curtis Mayfield came to mind during Barack Obama’s victory as the first black president of the United States.

I thought about this song as I watched people like Jesse Jackson, and countless other prominent African-Americans, weep as they saw one of their own ascending the throne, an event they never thought would be possible in their lifetime. Some of them would not even dare imagine it because they were taught and they believed that for a descendant of Africa to be the president of the U.S. was too far-fetched.

At face value, one would not have thought that African-Americans would harbour such a strong feeling of worthlessness. They have for years put on a façade and had the whole world believe that they were on top of things, in control of their lives and proud U.S. citizens. But Obama’s victory showed that, over the years, they had the rest of the world fooled and they themselves believed in the lie they were living.

For decades, African-Americans have walked the streets of New York, New Orleans, New Jersey and elsewhere with strong, but carefully concealed, feelings of being second-class citi­zens. This act they performed with the confidence and panache that has always been the trademark of African-Americans.

This brings me to a question. Fifteen years after the end of insti­tutionalised racism, are black people really­ convinced of their worth as South African citizens? Are they honestly liberated from the mind-set of worthlessness?

I thought about this as I pondered on Julius Malema’s utterances regarding black Africans in the economic cluster. Whether or not one agrees with Malema is not the point of discussion. Malema’s utterances, however, brought to the fore the need for frank debate around issues of identity and the ever-present need to still affirm black people and discard everything that even suggests that they are not fit to occupy certain positions.

I remember, soon after Obama had won the U.S. elections, overhearing a very respected and influential member of our society saying: “U Obama wasenza abantu.” Meaning, Obama has made us humans again. This statement from someone so high in our social echelons, so respec­ted, so influential and so educated, means that as black South Africans we still silently yearn for vindication and the validation that we are as good as anyone else.

Black people in this country should not repeat the mistakes of African-Americans — of pretending to have recovered from many years of degradation and dehumanisation, when in actual fact, they have not. I humbly submit the view that black people in South Africa (me being one of them) have not psychologically recovered from many decades of oppression and racism. We need to face up to this and do something about it.

So, Malema might have a point, that through the political and business decisions we make as a nation, we must guard against unwittingly conveying a message that there are still responsibilities that black people cannot successfully carry out. This must have nothing to do with the policies of the ruling party, which are unambiguous when it comes to the ruling party’s commitment to the values of non-racism, as well as non-sexism.

• Sihle Mlotshwa is an independent social commentator.

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