Eusebius McKaiser

'First black' madness

2012-10-04 10:55

Eusebius Mckaiser

I feel sorry for Khaya "first black Idol" Mthethwa.

Instead of waking up to media coverage that affirms his immense musical talent as winner of this year's South African Idol competition, it is his skin colour that is the focus of our race reductionism. While reality television series hardly provide definitive evidence of what we're wholly about as a nation, they can be a useful informal gauge of how we are getting on with ideals like non-racialism.

This week we have reason to withhold any self-congratulatory praise.

Revealing reactions

Reactions to Mthethwa's win are revealing. "Why did it take eight years before the first black person won Idol?" some have asked. And this is quickly followed by whispers of a conspiracy on the part of the organisers to guarantee a black Idol for 2012. And, of course, coloured identity is sandwiched between the black-white dichotomy, "Doesn't that apple-picker from a few years ago - Karin Someone - count as the first black?" This entire conversation shows how embedded racialism is despite protestations from many - including readers of this column - who otherwise convince themselves they "do not see race".

First, some racists convince themselves that Mthethwa won the competition because he is black. Of course not everyone who believes that his blackness helped him is necessarily a racist. But many genuine anti-black racists - those who think that black people are inferior to their differently coloured selves - cannot resist bald assertions about rigged results. This is done despite the show's results being based on millions of votes from the public that are carefully audited by independent professionals. Why let facts disturb beliefs you cherish?

Yet many of these racists pretend to be colour-blind when it suits them. Initiate a public debate about the merits of race based affirmative action and they are the first to insist that they do not notice racial differences nor think that we should have divisive race based policies. Yet, privately, and online anonymously, they show off their own racialised identities and racial prejudices as daringly as corrupt politicians showing off loot. This is not evidence of non-racialism but rather of racial prejudice.

Does it matter?

But racialism is not the exclusive preserve of anti-black racists. Some black South Africans' responses to Mthethwa's win also deserve our critical engagement. There is an obsession with praising him for being "the first black" to win the competition. Does that really matter?

When I posed this question on social media platforms, opinion was divided. Some argued that in a society in which blacks have historically been given little opportunity to excel, role modelling matters. And so when black South Africans achieve, it is good to celebrate these milestones as a defiance of a past in which black talent was trapped by the apartheid system. Those who hold this view see the "first black"-tag as a celebration of overcoming.

I am sympathetic to this view, especially because of the role modelling impact that the celebration of black excellence can have. But it is also important, however, that we do not accidentally put a smile on the ghostly remains of apartheid's architects. If we obsess about the "first black"-tag, then we have not really overcome our racist legacy. Such an obsession is evidence of the fact that we are so desperate to prove that we are as capable as whites that we frame our achievements primarily in racial terms rather than simply narrating them as successful individual talent on display.

If we want Mthethwa's race to be a banal fact about him, then a good starting point is to simply obsess about his aptitude and not to obsess about him being "the first black".


I am not, of course, suggesting we should be colour-blind. Racial identities are not, as I argue for in my new book, inherently divisive or immoral. So my critique of the "first black"-tag should not be hastily appropriated by those who are so uncomfortable with any race talk that they will self-interestedly interpret it as an argument for colour-blindness. These are "progressive" South Africans who do the opposite of what the crude racist does: pretending race plays absolutely no role in any voting decisions, either political ones or reality television related.

The fact that voting choices reflect a complex set of personal interests and preferences does not mean that our identities do not form part of that mix. We are more easily attracted to people who are like us than we are to people who are very different to us. So of course we have racial affinities. But we are right to resist being reduced to our racial identities.

Reaction to Mthethwa's win shows in the end that racism, race reductionism, as well as smug colour-blindness, are prominent motifs in our lives. Simply ask a fly on the wall at privately held braais around the country or observe the anonymous online behaviour of South Africans. In the meantime, many of us have forgotten what "the first black" Idol even sounds like.

* McKaiser’s bestselling book A Bantu in my Bathroom is available from C N A and Exclusive Books. He launches the book at Exclusive Books, Menlyn Park, at 6pm tonight (Thursday, 4th October). RSVP

- Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow @eusebius on Twitter.

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Read more on:    khaya mthethwa  |  idols

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