There is a need to redefine the meaning of 'Black' in South Africa today

2015-10-19 14:59

“We use the word everyday

Now we don't know the capacity of this word

Are we headed for conflict or not?

Because we did not break down the capacity

of the same what (The same word)

Brothers and sisters, this is why we hung up the consciousness

we’ve been taught wrong”

These are lyrics from a Hip-Hop song entitled “ya’ll all my niggas” by one of America’s conscious rapper, Nasir Jones (Nas). Nas released the album entitled “Nigga” during a period in America when the African America affluent were calling for the banning of the word  "nigga". Celebrities, civil rights activists, African American organisations and intellectuals including Cornel West, Oprah Winfrey, the late Maya Angelo who referred to the word (nigga) as dangerous and vulgar. Oprah associates the word with slave brutality particularly, lynching. African American intellectual, Cornel West also raised his concerns regarding the use of the word and according to West, the word connotes self-hatred. In 2007, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is an African-American civil rights organization in the United States, held a mock funeral for the word Nigger.

It enthralls me that Americans would debate and even have a funeral for a word because of the meaning that people have attached to the word. This is because Americans have understood the capacity of the word, as Nas’s opening skit indicates.

Before the album was released, there was a lot of controversial news reporting about the use of the word "Nigga" especially from the Fox News website. Nas went ahead regardless, and his album was released with the title “nigga” on it.

My interest in the debate in America about the word ‘nigga’ is caused by the loosely and confused use of the word ‘black’ in South Africa.

When you watch the video of the song “y’all my Niggas” which is track number 13 on Nas’s album, the video begins with a young African America who explains a story of his street life. He talks about the fact that he got shot at and he had fresh wounds but he sucked all that up, and he continues with his street life (paraphrased). From this, Nas illustrates what I refer to as the experience of  a ‘nigga’, which the celebrities and the African American affluent want the world to forget about, partly because, they don’t go through what this young African American relates in the video.

This made me question also how we restlessly we’ve been using the word “black” in South Africa. Towards the end of the song, the following skit can be heard;

"Every word we use, it has a capacity

And if you don't understand the words you're using

And understand the capacity of it

You are using words that is creating a destiny for you

That you don't even know, or even conscious of".

The assertion above reminds me of the time I invested in reading about the history of Black Consciousness movement in South Africa. The word that is often used to refer to people with a dark-skin in South Africa today was used before 1994, at least in the Black Consciousness movement to refer to those who were subjected to racist, economic deprivation and social exclusion by the apartheid government. The so called ‘whites’ used the term to refer to the skin-color of the people who were dehumanized during the racial segregation era in the South African era.

And, as I have argued elsewhere, the current democratic government has continued with the racial categorization based on the skin color- ill-informed tags of ‘black and white’.

Blackness was an experience. And if you listen to Nas’s song, he talks about the experiences of being a ‘nigga’ which are similar to those of ‘blacks’ during the apartheid days in South Africa, and to some extent, even today.

Here are some of the lyrics of the song that resonate with the South African experience of ‘black’;

“Lawyer left the hood, he never looked back”

This is typical of the black middle/upper class in South Africa, they achieve social status of privilege and barely invest resources and energy to bring up another lawyer in the township because he no longer belong to the township, he is now in the suburbs.

“We only out for our benefits”

This made me think of the ongoing case in South Africa of the former underground mine workers who are silicosis and tuberculosis sick due to exposure in silica dust. The poor former mine workers are represented in the class-action lawsuit by counsel that is dominated by ‘white’ counsels and one of the leading attorney in the case, Mr Richard Spoor was attacked for speaking the truth about ‘black’ attorney who only go for cases that promise to pay them their efforts’ worth, representing poor sick former mine-workers is not a priority.

Nas goes further and alludes to the fact that;

‘Niggers’ in America have too many kinds---yet they are on state welfare.”

Another typical phenomenon affecting ‘blacks’ in South Africa—which leads to these children falling into the community criminal-chain. Sex in the real black community is a recreational activity.

Nas further touches on the subject of money, and how ‘black’ people misuse their earned or inherited money, Nas says;

“My father was not a banker, so when it came to getting paper, who the hell was going to train us”.

So, a ‘black’ man would score a lucrative tender and the first thing he thinks of buying is an expensive vehicle that will not even contribute to the business. And, according to Nas, this could be attributed to the economic deprivation in the real Black community that led to blacks having no point of reference when it came to being financially responsible and invest wisely.

A more critical part of Nas lyrics comes with the line that reads; “some niggas are full-time, some play and pretend” and towards the end of the next verse, he says “the problem is we started thinking like the colonists”.

Both these lines find serious resonance in South Africa today. I will attempt to break these lyrics down on the paragraphs below.

As mentioned, when the Black Consciousness proponents defined 'black' they looked at the 'experiences' of those who were referred to as ‘non-white’ and the main characteristics that they shared were racial oppression--economic deprivation. These groups included Africans (dark-skinned), Indians and Colored people (all victims of racial oppressed--economic deprivation).

After 1994 with the wealth redistribution in South Africa, we've seen a skewed redistribution of wealth which has benefited a politically connected few and those who had some businesses during the apartheid days (e.g. Maponya, Mashaba, Motsepe etc.).

The wealthy political ruling elite and politically connected continue to use the 'race' card to score political points and popularity under the name of 'black'. They have reduced 'black' to skin color therefore, a conceptualization that helps them to amass more wealth e.g. some have been given affirmative action positions, BBEE (Executive and non-Executive members) status on basis that they have a skin color that is referred to as 'black'.

These ‘blacks’ identify only with the purported skin colour of the dark-skinned people “black”. So as Nas puts it, they “play and pretend” to be ‘black’ even though their experiences deny them membership in the real ‘black community’ as depicted by the young African American on Nas video.

These ‘blacks’ have assumed the former colonisers’ position, often looking at the black experience as a creation of the concerned ‘black’ person who is stuck in the system that pushes him further to the black experience of poverty, of having your children indulging in the hoodlum life, experiencing the poor public schooling system, less exposure to recreational activities, life of pregnancy, life of constant anger and annoyance, glue fixation, alcoholism, sex all serving as recreational activities, as mentioned above.

Majority of the offspring of these elite dark-skinned people are enrolled in institutions of higher learning, institutions that were only open to ‘white’ group in our society (IV league institutions).

In higher education today, especially in the previously whites only upper class universities like Wits, Stellenbosch, UCT, Rhodes--there are students unrest caused by students who call themselves 'black' and they use this 'card' to agitate for 'transformation'. This transformation is understood (amongst other things) in terms of making the 'space' i.e. University space accommodate also the culture of 'black' people.

Now, the students who are 'calling' for this 'transformation' are different from the majority of University of Fort Hare students/Turfoop/WSU (for an example). They have dark-skins but they are acculturated into whiteness (whiteness as an experience--privilege economically). All they know is white culture, from home, their parents are counted as members of the black upper and middle classes. They went to private, very private schools (they were the only dark-skinned or they were only 4 or five in her class). They experienced serious segregation because number 1, the space was not theirs and secondly, they have a dark-skin.

So, even though they tried to assimilate to whiteness--by adopting everything there is about whiteness, they still find that their skin is just not Caucasian enough, so whiteness (based on skin color) rejects them.

Their argument therefore is, these spaces alienate 'us' as 'black' students. Yet, they cannot identify with the real 'black' experience that a Fort Hare student (an example) grew up in--is still confronted by when they go home.

Now that student and her parents still experience what BC proponents spoke about "BLACK". Which is based on experience of economic deprivation only these days and less on skin pigmentation discourses (racial oppression). These students though, like the oligarchs who are preying on the concept of "black' still use 'black' to rally support of the oppressed (solidarity) but still go back to a house that is similar to that of a Caucasian person (class).

Important also to mention is the fact that, these students from affluent backgrounds have helped open the spaces of these IV league institutions to be considerate of real black children who are looking for ‘good’ education, which for some reason in South Africa is associated with the private schooling system and previously whites only universities. I applaud these students for fighting a battle that their parents would rather have it remain as it is because they get to benefit from such a system since these inequality guarantee their children an opportunity to find employment in this unequal society that favours private schooling backgrounds and IV league university graduates.

So, the point is, class has replaced 'race' today, however, for convenience and an intentioned and unconscious affront to the real blacks (-if you understand black as an experience), the affluent 'dark-skinned' continues to use 'black' unabated.

Even 'whiteness' should be redefined and stop being about skin color but be about experiences (skin color limits the discourse) and cushions the super wealthy dark-skinned people from taking a responsibility and build South Africa and eradicate poverty (affecting real 'blacks').

Therefore, redefining black would mean, understanding that 'black' is a label that refers to experiences, it is not a skin color because 'we' are not 'black' but the categorization was convenient in the first place to justify the economic onslaught that affected the dark-skinned people (from slaver to colonialism to apartheid) 'black' has always been associated with skin color (and failure, one would even argue further) yet there is no 'black' skin color except 'dark' if you really want to attach color to my skin color--or pink to a Caucasian person.

Nas’s song illustrates the need to deconstruct the meaning of the words we use every day, and understand the capacity of these words. Failure to do that, as we have seen, leads to society’s inequalities expanding instead of closing down and legitimizing skin color instead of class as the major societal enemy.

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