Why it is impossible for blacks to succeed

FIGHTING POVERTY Explosive Tarianas is a collaborative group of trendsetters known as s’khothanes who originate from Soweto and express themselves through fashion, music and the mosha dance. Picture: Isady / Grant’s
FIGHTING POVERTY Explosive Tarianas is a collaborative group of trendsetters known as s’khothanes who originate from Soweto and express themselves through fashion, music and the mosha dance. Picture: Isady / Grant’s

If you are not white, your economic and social position is always in jeopardy because the shadow of poverty constantly looms

Poverty is a relentless beast that refuses to die.

Since it refuses to die, it makes sense that it should be avoided at all costs.

Perhaps not at all costs – because the cost is often your life.

You sell it to the highest bidder and you are dead, figuratively and sometimes literally, all in the name of trying to avoid poverty.

When you carry the burden of a dark skin, the threat of poverty always looms over you.

You become its fugitive. It’s always chasing and chasing and you are always running and running.

Sometimes you resort to pretence – that you no longer fear its claw. For, God knows, it is shameful to be poor. So you rather pretend than concede.

You pretend you have arrived. Tall glasses of champagne – you hold them high. Art galleries – you attend them proudly. Biggie Smalls said “fake it till you make it”, but the truth is, making it is not guaranteed.

This is not a new conversation. We always talk about poverty. Hell, we have a lived experience of poverty.

Politicians do it daily, especially when its time to go to the ballot. Philanthropists use it to further their motives. People use poverty to try to escape it.

Despite its overtheorisation, poverty remains this elusive thing that is omnipresent – well, at least in the case of black people.

Here I am paraphrasing the millions of black radical scholars who have tried to give an account of the black experience.

Frantz Fanon said it best: “They are rich because they are white and the inverse is true. We are poor because we are black.”

It matters not how far you have climbed the social and the economic ladder. If you are black, your position there is always fraught with danger.

Which is to say you can have the illusion that you are rich, but that can change as quickly as the weather in Cape Town.

The soccer stars we grew up idolising, who seemed to have made it, are today eating from dustbins.

The many artists who were all over our TV screens didn’t have money to bury themselves.

I don’t even want to speak about business moguls and top politicians turned paupers.

Of course, it is easier for one to blame it on their recklessness, but a close reading of their cases shows there is a strong relationship between their fate and their blackness.

The position of a rich black person is a precarious one. Here I am not homogenising black people, but, quite honestly, black people who are able to sustain their wealth are not a norm but an aberration.

A truly wealthy black person is an oxymoron, or, at the very least, a temporary illusion.

Many refuse to accept this reality and in quest of attempting to deny it – even to themselves – they engage in a vulgar display of opulence.

I imagine a s’khothane coming out of a two-roomed dladla (house) in the township wearing Versace and Carvela.

Of course there are elements of culture and resistance to this, but the point being driven home is that we are subconsciously aware of our inferiority because of the threat of poverty.

And, as such, we always feel the need to find creative ways of concealing it or resisting it.

Maybe the s’khothane example is bad, old news really.

Here is another – the black middle class engages in the same debauchery, but theirs is draped in Zara or sometimes fake Louis Vuitton bags. Have you seen Instagram or Twitter these days?

Do not misread this characterisation with that of liberals and racists such as Johann Rupert, who claim we are poor because of our indulgence in opulence.

My characterisation is quite the contrary. We display false opulence precisely because we are poor.

Beneath that veil of fancy clothes and expensive cars is the anxiety and fear of knowing that the shadow of poverty always looms over us.

Perhaps this is why many of us feel the need to show off our “achievements” under the pretext of inspiring others. We all know the popular saying: “It’s possible, black child.”

But what really is possible? Assimilating? Vacations? Graduations? Apartments in the north of Johannesburg? Is it really possible, or are those amenities that can be attained only by a few and which will remain a mirage for the poor black majority of this country?

The answer is simple – it is not possible, black child, until we change the structural make-up of this country.

The black middle class is just used as a buffer to give the illusion that black people can make it.

But the reality is that the structural make-up of this country makes it impossible for blacks to succeed, regardless of how much they hustle or how hard they work.

So, screw these degrees, because throughout the years they have not helped us map out ways to ensure that millions of our brothers and sisters break free from the poverty and oppression that continue to ensnare them.

Hear me: I am in no way suggesting that education is unimportant, but what I am saying is that, because of the race relations in this country, an educated black is still a black.

We will always be reminded of this.

Let me get to the point I have been attempting to drive home. Not so long ago, I got my results from Wits and, in the same week, I was evicted from a shack I was renting.

I went hither and thither trying to find temporary shelter. Alas. It started raining; I was outside in the rain with no place to go. It dawned on me that my blackness was inescapable.

It matters not where you are and what you think you have achieved, your pigment and the burden it carries will always find a way to protrude; ooze out like pus.

This is, of course, shameful and embarrassing.

Something must be done about it, I agree, but the quagmire we are in might just be too deep.

I don’t want to take a pessimistic stance, but if we are to stretch our imaginations and map out better ways of resisting, we ought to speak the uncomfortable truth.

So Riky Rick was probably wrong when he said “usaban’ usema suburb’sini?” (what are you scared of if you live in the suburbs?), for it does not matter where you are, the threat of being poor, violated and dishonoured follows you everywhere when you are black.

Mbhele is a law graduate, a creative writing student at Wits University and author of the anthology of short stories titled Crazy Father and Other Very Short Lies


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