South Africa

Op-Ed: Lekgowa, ngamla, mlungu – the new black elite

By Princess Magopane & Lindokuhle Mdabe 15 October 2015

It has become common for middle-class black people to be addressed or referred to as lekgowa or makgowa (a term used in Setswana and Sesotho to denote a white person/people). The question is why the appropriation of certain words or labels, which were in the past a source of scorn and pain, has become something we as black people no longer think twice about. By PRINCESS MAGOPANE and LINDOKUHLE MDABE.

Stephen Bantu Biko wrote in his book I Write What I Like: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Years after the advent of democracy, we as Black South Africans must confront the following question: Do Biko’s words still bear some semblance of truth in modern day South Africa?

It has become common for middle-class black people to be addressed or referred to as lekgowa or makgowa (a term used in Setswana and Sesotho to denote a white person/people). This labelling is often done by people who are not middle class, so for example, while at a petrol station, an attendant will address you as lekgowa (white person); at an intersection, someone will come humbly to your window to ask you for some food or a donation – if you give him the time of day, he will thank you as lekgowa laka; your domestic worker, will refer to you as madam or lekgowa laka to those she confides in.

The word lekgowa is not the only one, madam, mlungu, ngamla and other words that were used, historically, to denote white people are now applied to the black middle class. For us the question is why it is that the appropriation of certain words or labels, which in the past were a source of scorn and pain, has become something that we as black people no longer think twice about. We readily utter these words or affirm their applicability to us. The fact that these titles roll so readily off the tongues of those who utter them indicates that there has been little to no resistance from those on the receiving end. So we wonder how it has become acceptable to be addressed as lekgowa without it feeling uncomfortable.

Perhaps it is because from a young age we were taught that all that is white is good. When our hair looked ‘good’ – meaning anything other than what it looks like in its natural state – or our outfits were well put together, we would be told, “o tshwana le lekgowa” (you look like a white person). When a black person lives in a seemingly good neighbourhood, it would be said “o dula makgoweng” (she lives with white people). These examples are endless, when a black person is educated and has done well in her career she is told “o lekgowa” (you are a white person). The likening or use of titles generally and historically used to denote white people abound in almost every circumstance of a black person’s life.

Could it be that we harbour secret ambitions of being anything other than BLACK? Could it be that in our aspirations to rise above the circumstances we were dealt by colonialism, apartheid and even the current dispensation, the only role models we have before us are white? Is it because those we look up to and seek to emulate bear that pigmentation which has historically been associated with success and superiority? Is this why we unconsciously assume those titles of address which were previously only limited to whites? Or is there something far more sinister at play, like the manifestation of the fruit of oppression?

In our experiences, and those of many others, the apartheid project is not over, it is still alive and well and has merely become more surreptitious in its operations. It has become so refined that black people have now assumed the oppressive roles we once detested. Apartheid now manifests itself stealthily in our society, so much so that today black people disassociate themselves from other black people purely because of their socio-economic status. We find this quite disturbing. It is disturbing because it points towards what Frantz Fanon called the crack in the edifice of national consciousness in his book the Wretched of the Earth, first published in English in 1963. Although Fanon could not have foreseen his words ringing true in post-apartheid South Africa, this ‘crack’ in South Africa’s edifice became more visible at the point when the black middle class assumed, in shape and form, their role as the new makgowa.

The disassociation of black middle class people from the majority of the black population lends itself to the unfortunate consequence of the new makgowa not being able to empathise with those who struggle for access to basic services. To such an extent that when black people seek to exercise their basic human rights including the right to equality and dignity, those who have since been elevated to the level of makgowa brand their efforts irrational, simple, or dare we say it, ‘dastardly criminal’.

This is not an attempt to unfairly critique and diminish the hard work done by the black middle class – to say or to do so, would be missing the point completely. However, at the very least, it is a call for us to rethink the extent of political and social consciousness that belies our constitutional democracy based on dignity, equality and freedom for all, including those black people who are less privileged. These principles, coupled with a commitment to fulfil them – are the only terms and conditions applicable to gaining the buy-in of those previously and currently oppressed, into the constitutional project we are striving to build. This would be the starting point to unsettling the complacency of the role assumed by the new lekgowa.

This transition beyond nationalism – to political and social consciousness – would reawaken our nation’s potential to take seriously the nexus between poverty and race. To put it bluntly, as Thomas Piketty did a few days ago, the link envisages, on the one hand the fact that 60% of South Africa’s wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population, which includes the new makgowa and on the other hand the idea of nationalism keeping blacks forever excluded from the economy. Beyond recommending a tax regime that addresses inequalities of income and wealth as a cure for racially reflected inequalities, the purpose here is to reinforce – in the words of Fanon – “that the battle line against hunger, ignorance, poverty and unawareness ought to be ever present in the muscles and the intelligences of men and women” in a young democracy like ours. This is no easy task, given the fact that we inherited a society with uneven playing fields. However, the new black elite, due to their position in society, bears the responsibility of redressing these injustices or at the very least, championing the cause of those who struggle to access justice.

Perhaps we are wrong in thinking that this acceptance of these labels is an indication of a reluctance to be associated with those black people who still struggle for basic necessities on a daily basis. Or it could be that we are reading too much into a spontaneous state of play. Still, more needs to be said and done to extricate our minds from the hands of those who were once our oppressors. As Biko said, “merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being”. DM

Princess Magopane is an attorney employed as a law clerk at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. This article is written in her personal capacity and the opinions expressed herein are her personal views.

Lindokuhle Mdabe is reading for his LLM in constitutional and human rights litigation at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (Howard College).

Photo: African immigrants, displaced by anti-foreigner violence in Johannesburg, warm their hands around a small fire outside the Jeppe police station in the city, May 27, 2008. REUTERS/ Mike Hutchings.

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