The rage of the African middle class

2016-05-17 13:51

As long as whites hold fast to unearned privilege, sociopolitical instability is bound to intensify, writes Christine Qunta

We are a people in search of ourselves, with a fragile sense of self and seemingly unaware of our power. So we rage easily when insulted, but respond to domination mostly with passiveness.

The 350-year physical and psychological trauma inflicted on generation after generation has left a gaping hole at the centre of a nation that has had its cultural heart ripped out.

An alien culture fills that void, but accession to it is not complete, creating an unbearable dysfunctionality. The void within individuals and in groups is replicated in institutions.

The widespread poverty in a country so well endowed with natural resources, the high levels of self-hatred, the endemic and reflexive violence, and its use as the preferred method of engagement, are all expressions of this problem.

The inability to manage conflict, not only in the streets but also in an altered form in business and organisations, the hatred of each other contrasted with the obsequiousness towards whites, the inability to build and sustain institutions that, bar a few exceptions, is so widespread, and the inability to think strategically and long term are all hallmarks of this communal state of distress.

What we are experiencing here in South Africa is thus a type of post-traumatic stress disorder of a nation, one that cannot be treated because it has not yet been diagnosed.

Archbishop Khotso Walter Makhulu, the then Anglican Archbishop of southern Africa, was based in Botswana in the 1970s and 80s at the time I lived there in exile. In his typically quiet way, he did a lot of work to assist South African exiles and liberation movements.

He used to tell me that when South Africa gets its freedom, we will have to find some way of healing our people psychologically, otherwise we will not be able to reconstruct the country. He was far-sighted. We were too busy focusing on getting that freedom and the physical reconstruction that the psychological aspects were overlooked.

The fraught, forced and unequal interaction between black and white results in each group reverting to that which is comfortable, known.

Whites subtly and explicitly express their sense of superiority in a myriad ways. Underpinning this superiority is a sense of entitlement honed by years of easy, exclusive access to unearned benefits. In the face of this, Africans are fearful, subservient, even apologetic, internalising the notion of the outsider.

In a way, Africans have no alternative but to tolerate this because they need to be in those spaces dominated by whites in order to earn a living or receive an education. But their resentment at such treatment festers beneath the surface. Africans rarely treat whites as their equals, nor do they relate to them normally.

They either hate them or defer to them. It’s a toxic standoff that increases the sense of alienation on both sides. Rather than creating a way for the past to be transcended, the sharing of spaces in these circumstances creates more bitterness.

In multiracial schools and at universities, the first generation of young black people who accessed these spaces still bear the scars of such encounters.

On June 16 2015, a young man named Phumlani Pikoli wrote a moving essay. He lauded the 1976 generation but also captured the feeling of being in spaces where young Africans were not wanted.

Born in exile in 1988, referring to the suburbs, he writes: “I was still an unwelcome sight in this site of privilege. It was assumed that our economic position was ill-gotten and school teachers were never remiss to remind us of how the ANC government were ransacking the country’s wealth reserves.”

Later in the essay he says: “I was pissed off at my parents for not being able to help me navigate the hostility that surrounded us. We were under siege, and what was the job of a parent if not to protect their child? We were under siege at home.

“Under siege at school. We were silently being told how to think and how to act. We didn’t have voices outside of indulging vernacular to exclude and cling to this idea of sullen superiority.”

Young Africans who did not live through apartheid and who are in their twenties are as angry as their parents, whose memories of apartheid continue to haunt them.

In 2013, I met a young professional with a bright future, working in a large white company in Johannesburg. Our business meeting ended with a dinner, and his immediate white senior asked him to drop me at my hotel afterwards.

During the course of the drive, I asked him how he was doing at the company and whether he, as a junior, was happy with the training he was receiving. He said he was learning and that his immediate senior treated him well, but there was still racism – although not explicit.

He went on to explain how angry he was that whites had come to this country, stolen African land and left them poor. The poverty in his rural home was all due to this historical problem.

Of course, I knew there was anger among young people, especially when it came to racism, but I was unprepared for the depth of the feelings flowing from this quiet young man.

Clearly, the issue of land theft has not been buried under the clamour for forgetfulness nor by the framing of the problem as racial discrimination instead of what it really was: colonial oppression.

One of the less obvious examples of the docility of Africans is the extent to which they accede to white demands, including the demand for forgiveness in circumstances where it is not reciprocated.

The first issue that needs to be considered is that forgiveness is not something that can be demanded; it can only be asked for. But forgiveness is also not possible in the absence of contrition and while the structural edifice of apartheid continues to exist.

What if forgiveness under these circumstances, at some unconsciousness level, is an expression of the acceptance of a lesser status, like an abused wife who keeps on forgiving her abusive husband because, at some level, her low self-esteem prevents her from seeing herself as worthy of better treatment?

What if, in this context, forgiveness is a learned response, a form of obedience? What if it is a form of acceptance that we are not sufficiently equal to demand justice and restitution for the crimes committed against Africans, unlike Jewish people who rightly demanded reparations for the Nazi genocide?

What if, like reconciliation, forgiveness has no social utility other than to mask the subterranean war of attrition between whites and Africans in post-1994 South Africa? In such circumstances, forgiveness is not a sign of strength but of weakness.

The African middle class is in an interesting and difficult position. By virtue of their skills and education, they have been beneficiaries of corrective policies and democracy, but they also bear the brunt of institutional racism.

This is because they compete directly with whites in the latter’s previously exclusive spaces.

The poor, on the other hand, remain on the margins of the structures and consciousness of whites. The poor have not yet adequately made a connection between their continued poverty and white privilege.

Instead, they vent their frustrations against the ANC, which they see as not delivering fast enough. The African poor and the middle class exhibit the same problem in post-apartheid South Africa, an over-reliance on government to solve the fundamental neocolonial contradictions.

With a few exceptions, the militancy, the self-reliance and the resolve that were so evident among all classes during the struggle against apartheid appear to have evaporated.

This adds to a disturbing sense of helplessness in the face of a resurgent Whiteness.

On the other hand, the suppression of the legitimate feelings of loss, anger and pain of black people has created a massive build-up of frustration among all black people, which is now beginning to find expression in all areas of life: in the workplace, in sport, at schools and at institutions of higher learning.

The increase in service-delivery protests, protests by students initiated by the University of Cape Town’s Rhodes Must Fall movement against structural apartheid at institutions of higher education and agitation elsewhere for free education are examples.

The significance of the students’ protests is that it’s the first time since the 1970s and 80s that students agitated against the architecture of colonialism.

What the students achieved in 2015 was to bring us back to the question of how to challenge this architecture. One of the most revealing comments by a student on a placard circulated on social media was the following: “Our parents were SOLD dreams in 1994 … We are just here for the REFUND.”

As whites use their financial and economic muscle to create hurdles in the way of creating a more equal society, the pressure increases exponentially.

Every victory white people gain in the courts or elsewhere against corrective policies such as employment equity and black economic empowerment moves us a step closer to an eruption.

What they seem oblivious to is that victories so gained in effect secure future losses. Such losses include sociopolitical instability and the possibility of violent retribution because legitimate avenues of redress are being frustrated.

This is an extract from Qunta’s book, Why We Are Not a Nation

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May 19 2019