THE WORDS THAT MATTER

Kathrada Foundation announces top three winners in Youth Essay Writing Competition

By Daily Maverick 15 October 2019

On Tuesday, 15 October 2019, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation hosted its 10th annual lecture delivered by retired Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs, who was in conversation with Nomboniso Gasa. At the same time, the top three winners in the Foundation’s Youth Essay Writing Competition Against Racism were announced. They were Jaydon Farao, 24, of Eerste River, Cape Town; Charissa Cassels, 23, of King William’s Town; and Mbalenhle Shandu, 17, of Felixton, KwaZulu-Natal. These are their essays:

What I heard

By Jaydon Farao

When I was 10, I got into the habit of eavesdropping on adult conversations. A perilous and thrilling endeavour. It was around this age when I first heard the word I wasn’t supposed to hear. A relative had uttered it with a casualness of a Sunday afternoon stroll. The context of the conversation eludes my memory, but the word’s pronouncement remains indelible.

They said k*ffir.

The way in which the word strolled from their mouth, briefly sitting on their lips, only to rush out and permeate the innocence of my ears, was horrifying. The word had immense weight, leaving me unable to discard it from memory. A dark mould capitalising on my infantile consciousness. I stared into the hateful home the word had just left, into the moving mouth continuing its momentum without stammering. I stood there in silence. There were other mouths there besides mine.

No one said a word.

When South Africa “discarded” its chromatic scheme of classification and embraced one symbolic of a rainbow, the euphoria clouded judgement just long enough for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete its proceedings. All was meant to be well. Instead, the Republic still sat with the foundations of its transgenerational trauma, racism and white supremacy; the destructive factors that led to my encounter with the K-word. Racial hatred often follows demographic patterns. This time, it did not. It came from a so-called coloured person. This is no surprise to many South Africans. Anti-black rhetoric is rife within the coloured community, clearly signalling the success of the Apartheid state’s goal; to divide on the grounds of race. One only needs to sit around the dinner table on holidays, as politics inevitably veers in, to experience the racism infested within the coloured community.

I began grappling with these thoughts as I entered adulthood, while simultaneously entering my racial identity crisis. I fleshed out what it means to live in a city as racially segregated as Cape Town, trying to dismantle the social and spatial obstructions that remain strongly built by Apartheid. Some of those structures affording me opportunities while concurrently obstructing my dignity.

I was privileged enough to visit the UK on an exchange programme when I was in Grade 10. It was my first trip outside the African continent. It would also be my first confrontation to questions of my identity regarding my race. I was sitting alone one day, in the cafeteria at lunch time and had reluctantly welcomed a fellow student, a Connor-type, when he asked to join. The conversation had begun with pleasantries and continued with my rehearsed responses flowing freely. It took a turn just as I had exhausted my script.

What are you exactly? Are you white? Black?” Connor ambushed into the territory he was obviously preparing for. I entertained this as a genuine inquest while he glared at my low-fade haircut, perplexed by my light skin tone. I explained how race had been defined under the Apartheid government and the box I need to tick when filling out any application. Connor sat back and took a moment to finish chewing his food. Eventually, he unleashed his actual reason for sitting directly across from me.

What’s a k*ffir?”

I stopped drinking my water, and slowly set my glass on the table, shocked at the ease with which the word had crossed continents to fall upon my ears. I begged his pardon, attempting to imagine he had said something else.

He repeated his question.

I paused once more. Still naïvely assuming his innocence, I explained the vulgarity of that word. Contextualising the similarities and differences with the N-word. Attempting to bridge the gap in his ignorance. He sat there, I thought, digesting the painful thing he had said. I imagined he would be ready to apologise and that we would fetch our dessert before continuing down another path of conversation. I was a fool though, because he knew the meaning of the word before we had sat down. He wanted me to explain its power and its painful history, so that he could say, “Cheers k*ffir,” as he got up to leave the dining hall. Leaving me to hear it once more, sitting with my empty plate, my embarrassment, and my shame.

In that moment, in which I felt incredibly lonely, I picked up my tray, dropped it off, and walked to my room. Smiling to anyone I recognised, hiding what I had experienced. Exceptional othering of intense indignity. I was left to navigate the reception of that hatred knowing that in South Africa, people who looked and sounded like me were using that exact word to denigrate and direct hatred towards Black people. My dignity was stripped that afternoon, but coloured people back home were still acting as agents of white supremacy, forcing Biko to roll in his grave while Verwoerd rejoiced in his. How was I supposed to position myself on the receiving end of that word, when people who resemble me have used it? This dichotomy poses a challenge to reconcile and exhibit my Blackness with the ever-present racial rift that exists in this country. I am not supposed to hear the K-word, but I do. It has travelled oceans and generations to the delight of white supremacists and it disheartens me.

Much of my anger and shame concerning the K-word is rooted in my acknowledgement of the power of words and language. A power which has been capitalised by many malevolent individuals in history. It has presented itself on all spectrums of hate. “Those people”, “them”, “illegal aliens”. A masterstroke of othering. This kind of language does not develop spontaneously, so in trying to understand the power of a word, one can often look towards its roots. The K-word has Arabic origins but was stolen by Europeans to describe indigenous people of South Africa. A descriptive word, with existing derogatory undertones. Its path towards violence in this country was carefully constructed. During Apartheid it put on its cloak and strutted on the racist landscape it was free to inhabit, with the campaign slogan of the National Party in 1948 being, “Die k*ffir op sy plek.” In 1976 the word became unlawful in South Africa, but still very much in mainstream racism nationally. It would take 24 years before it was classified as hate speech, with the first conviction of a person using racist language, Vicki Momberg, occurring only in 2018. The incident was recorded. She had said the K-word 48 times (that we know of).

It took convicted racist Vicki Momberg saying that dehumanising word 48 times, on camera, to allow the extent of her actions to be reprimanded by law. This was not her first day at the K-word rodeo. She was fully aware of her power, despite her lawyers arguing her state of mind being out of the ordinary in that way that racists are usually presented. People who are under “stress” in vulnerable situations and just cannot help but blurt it out. The people making excuses for these racists have usually encountered such behaviour before and encouraged or ignored it. It may not have begun with extreme vulgarity, but it began somewhere. The way in which we criticise cultures. The way in which we other different people. This is how power develops. This is how white supremacy operates. So, when I hear that “word” being spoken around me or at me, I freeze. I am angry with myself because I haven’t done enough to combat it. This is part of why I despise that “word”. It reveals my complicity in its continuing legacy.

Part of the word’s power is silence. Silence from those who would never dream to say it, but upon hearing it, join it in its invisibility. This invisibility includes reactions to all expressions of hate, with or without vile words. We contribute to the everlasting breath of racism if we are to disengage and detract. It’s a culture of silence that has grown from an irrational loyalty and fear of confrontation, and it aggregates our complicity. We need to categorically call out racism, to the extent of embarrassing its agents, in order to limit its relevance. It begins around the dinner table as you’re dishing up the main course, and that one uncle says something you’re not supposed to hear.

Orange. Coloured. Erased.

By Charissa Cassels

Could all the Coloured girls please raise their hands.” “Could all the Coloured girls please stand. Okay, one, two, three. Three of you. Okay, you can sit down. Could all the Black girls…”

This occurred every year without fail throughout my schooling. How could I not know I was Coloured? How could I not recognise that the amount of Coloured people in my class year in and year out, were significantly lower than the other races? I didn’t quite yet know what impact my race would have on the succession of events in my life. But I stood or raised my hand whenever I needed to. I did what needed to be done. I am still doing what needs to be done. There are uneasy, wrapped-up-in-turmoil, difficult words that I constantly need to usher out of my mouth, into a universe that is becoming unfamiliar to me but into a universe that needs to hear it anyway.

I have had to tick boxes. I have filled in several forms. I have made crosses where they needed to be. I have attempted to take ownership of my history and my stories. I have been my own voice, lost that voice and slowly regained it. It is a constant fight, a battle. It has never been calm but always rippled, always reminding me that it is not over, that it might never be over.

Who were we before we had to tick boxes to specify our roots? Who were we before our languages started dividing us, before the clicks of our tongues became the clicks of their tongues and gradually we became left with echoes of clicks that raised and defined us? How did we get to this point?

How did we interact with each other before being given labels for our differences? I am certain that our predecessors were intellectual enough to recognise their differences but how did that recognition impact their relations with each other? At what point did the colour of my skin validate my place in South Africa?

As we unpack our history and discover hidden truths about our past, a past that has systematically been positioned in the footnote of our history, I ponder on how exactly we came to this point.

Race is complex, as it should be because we are complex beings. But racism is systemic and systematic. Racism is exclusionary. Racism has done exactly what it was intended to: divide us.

Our race is rooted in our oppression yet we cannot deny that it constitutes a great part of our identity. There are many people that choose to identify themselves by their race before their gender and nationality. This in and of itself is evident of how our race is ingrained in our existence. You can attempt to ignore it for as long as possible, but there will be boxes that you will have to tick. There will be job applications that require you to state your nationality. There will be forms that want you to state your location because your sense of location is seemingly linked to your positionality but also to your worth.

Our roots are in African and South African soils although our routes have a different journey. But despite the different journeys, it would be remiss of us to dictate where people belong when all they know is where they were born.

As a Coloured woman born in South Africa, being told in my Political and International Studies lecture that, “Coloured people do not belong in Africa,” was difficult to grapple with. How could I not belong when this is where my roots have been planted? But why have Coloured people been othered in a country they fought for? Why is it that Coloured people are being denied the very freedoms their grandparents fought for?

Being Coloured, being a proud Coloured, being a proud outspoken Coloured has made me understand several nuances about race, identity, social spaces, activism and politics. It has also made me understand how the above are interlinked. I must admit that I never truly believed in the notion of racism not existing or in being colour blind. I never truly believed that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did what was best for all South Africans. I never truly believed that the end of Apartheid would lead to the end of racism because that is not how we are wired. We are not wired to forget oppression, or hurt or pain. We are not wired to give the other cheek, because we actually have nothing left to give. We cannot be wired to forget about a history that has significantly contributed to our present. These are not things I expect any South African to do. But what I do expect, at the very least, is not to have my belonging denied. I did not foresee myself having to fight for my place in a country that I was born in.

But this became my reality during protests in university, where I soon realised that my struggle was not the same as other people’s struggle but also that my struggle had less gravity to it than theirs. I soon realised that meetings did not require my voice to be heard, that my silence was all I had. I became more aware of my positionality in the spaces that I occupied and I wrestled with what certain spaces needed from me.

University taught me that not only were people obsessed with my race, but they were obsessed with telling me who I was. I needed to be Black in some spaces, South African in others, African in most but hardly what I was… what I am; Coloured. I was constantly being told who I was and where I belonged without being consulted first. It is not just about belonging, it is about Coloured people having to fight to belong, post-Apartheid South Africa. It is about the fact that Coloured people need to have struggle receipts in order to have a seat at the table they helped build.

There is this constant need to build or break but essentially to actively do something about our situations, in any capacity.

Many, but not enough, people have changed their social media profiles to orange in order to show their solidarity with the turmoil our people are faced with – 43 deaths were recorded in Philippi, Steenberg and Delft on the weekend of the 13th of July 2019. These are dominantly Coloured areas and so is the Cape Flats. Yet the murder rates in these areas are increasing without serious measures being implemented by the government. Measures beyond just deploying the South African National Defence Force to these areas to combat the violence. The measures that are needed should be imperative in finding the root of the problem and addressing that. But it is also telling that the location of these crimes contribute to the government’s response to said crimes. These are areas where the marginalised people live but if these crimes were committed in Camps Bay, the headlines would be different and so would the national outcry.

This is the reality of being othered. Your sense of being dictates the response, or lack thereof, to the infringement of your rights. It is evident that Coloured people have been othered based on where they live and how little social capital their roots have.

I am left with more questions than answers which is somewhat evident of my existence. There has always been the need to debunk, to question and to understand. There has been an intrinsic need to know the “why”. It is the importance of not dismissing what people say, irrespective of how offensive it might be, but the need to understand what informed their thoughts. That is where we should begin.

There are difficult questions that need to be asked. There are offensive answers that will be heard. There is a history that needs to be written. Today, I choose to be the author of mine.

Racism in South African schools, a thing of the past?

By Mbalenhle Shandu

You speak so well for a black girl, Mbali!” “You take isiZulu? I would have expected an academic like yourself to rather choose Afrikaans!” “Don’t forget your true people Mbali, you are giving me serious coconut vibes chommie.” “Swimming? Come on Mbalz, why don’t you try netball? It’s more in your forte.”

It has been a staggering 15,749 days since students marched for an education that strived to elevate them in all aspects of being; irrespective of their race. Thinking back to the many revolutionists who fought to enable me the opportunities which I eagerly snatch today, it appears that their efforts may have been for nothing as racism continues to pollute classrooms all over our country. Visionaries imagined that classes where people of all races could be educated together would eliminate prejudice towards each other, but the present day South African education system has truly proven otherwise. A system which is extremely boastful about its diversity but is still a slave at the mercy of those with racial intolerance; a true paradoxical state where racism in schools is slowly becoming as prominent as a teacher’s red pen on a marked test. Bullets were fired. Students were killed. New laws were established. History was written. A country transformed – or so we thought.

Growing up, I believed that the idiom “birds of the same feather flock together” was limited to the phylum which soar the skies, but the harsh actuality is that the latter is applicable to students as people of the same race tend to gravitate towards each other at school. Considering how as human beings, we choose to surround ourselves with those who share the same language and culture as us, this truth appears justifiable. Though appearing justifiable, the fact of the matter is that the results of this one component of our break-time buddies continue to hold us back as a community. Racism in schools can be compared to a steadily growing cancer tumour; ignorable in the beginning yet destructive in the most internal ways. Association by skin colour creates exclusivity in our schools and limits us to mainly interacting with only our racial groups – causing students to miss so many opportunities to engage with those who differ from them and robbing them of the chances to perceive their classmates beyond the stereotypes.

Having changed learning centres several times during my schooling career, I have come to the sorrowful conclusion that nothing makes trying to settle into a new school environment harder than being discriminated against. As a new student, the teacher had assigned me a buddy named Kelly who I was meant to shadow for my first week, due to our similar subjects. As one would expect, this resulted in me socialising with her clique more often than the other students. Bundled with my unconventional accent, I quickly developed the image of being a “stuck-up coconut”, which is a derogatory term used to describe black students who do not conform to stereotypical behaviour and whose cliques consist mainly of white people. The basis of this belief of being “brown on the outside and white on the inside”, is that people who seek to break out of the usual race-based friendship circles see themselves as having more societal value than those of the same ethnic group. It stems from the stigma that people of colour discard parts of who they are to fit into the desirable margins within our schools, predominantly a more “white-washed” approach to who they really are.

No words could ever accurately depict the pain I experienced during every Zulu lesson that term where I was ostracised and ridiculed, despite never once claiming to be superior to my peers or trying to resign my true identity for a more Westernised one. NginumZulu phaqa, ungangisoli. Such a belief continues to terrorise students all over the country, as evident with the death of UCT student turned professor, Bongani Mayosi, who committed suicide as a result of being labelled the above and outcast for having opinions which differed from the general consensus of black people; as if we are unable to formulate individual perceptions.

One would expect that being educated in amazing institutions which have developed facilities and opportunities for all students would lead to breakthroughs in various fields but that is simply not the case.

My parents had always taught me to be ambitious and perhaps that is what caused me to enter the inter-house swimming gala when I was in the ninth grade. Instead of the excitement which I had anticipated to receive from my classmates, no one could have ever prepared me for the series of hurtful and embarrassing comments which were spewed at me. Jokes about how black people can’t swim and how I would inevitably drown filled the corridors for days leading up to the event and for the first time, being the subject of attention felt absolutely horrible.

The long-anticipated day finally graced us with its presence and my classmates came out in their multitudes to witness my 100m freestyle. To make a long story short, I did end up losing the race and needed help getting out of the pool, but what many did not realise is that it was not because of my skin colour, but rather my unfitness as a swimmer.

Students all over the country continue to be victims of marginalisation and restricted by what is believed that we can and cannot do, all thanks to stereotypes and untruthful prejudices. This is not only applicable to people of colour as I have also witnessed my lighter peers being turned down for specific opportunities such as athletics and cultural activities all because it was believed that it would not be fitting of people of their calibre to participate in those events. Imagine how many more Einsteins, Semenyas, Chad Le Clos’ and Hamilton Nakis would be developed from our education system if students’ abilities and capacities for success were no longer limited and diminished by the stigmas which state otherwise?

As previously mentioned, a big debate that I have found myself within every single year is the question of why as a top-notch academic, I chose isiZulu instead of Afrikaans as my First Additional Language. Lazy. Inactive. Indolent. These are all the words which I have been called as a result of this. Racism in South African schools is yet again evident in the prioritisation of specific activities, subjects and cultures and the negligence of others. Having done isiZulu for the past five years at different schools, the common factor is how it is simply not prioritised or taken seriously in comparison to Afrikaans or English. Subjects such as Physical Sciences and Mathematics are glorified over subjects such as Agriculture or Tourism due to how they exhibit more of a Westernised approach to education as opposed to the organic African studies which remind us of home.

By encouraging a specific line of thinking and discarding another, we are shown as students that superiority still exists and that perhaps what makes us proud citizens of this country is not worthy of recognition or valid. It is disheartening to see students lose their passion and parts of who they are all thanks to the education system subconsciously showing them that what may be cherished by one ethnicity of people will never be seen as important or applause worthy as that which is cherished by another. It’s not just cutting the costs but also cutting the dreams and making students doubt the value of their futures.

Ahmed Kathrada wisely stated that “The hardest thing to open is a closed mind.” Ignorance will never become diminished by acting as if the above problems do not exist but will come from the intermingling of students from all different walks of life, because we are people first before we are our races. In spite of all of the biases and discrimination which torment our schools, I remain optimistic for the unprejudiced treatment that students in our country will receive and lavish on each other; irrespective of skin colour.

Sticks and stones may break our bones but it is the words and kindness which we as South African students need to exhibit which will heal them and finally bring about the change that those who came before died to make a reality. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.

Op-Ed

The public protector’s quest for Zuma tax records is a farce — here’s why

By Jacques Pauw