Defend Truth


I am still my brother’s keeper when dealing with my history

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

 “‘Colonial’-Themed Wedding Included Authentic All-Black Servant Staff”, shrieked the headline. The blog post is about a couple who, in 2010, had a colonial-themed wedding, complete with black staff in red fezzes. The obvious question is, was it racist? The less obvious, though just as important question is, are other views important when dealing with our clearly problematic shared history?

At first, it appeared to be an American wedding. It had to be. First off, Jezebel broke the story, and second, no South African would be this tone deaf? Surely?

But then you read a bit further down. “Before you rush to defend a bride’s right to celebrate her nuptials and the very concept of love in any way she chooses, consider this: The ceremony took place in Mpumalanga, South Africa. You know, South Africa, where there’s a history of Dutch and British infiltration. Where colonists imposed forced migration. Where segregation and apartheid tore people from their homelands. Isn’t history fun? Let’s pose with guns!”

Well. Is it racism, then?

Strangely, I don’t believe so. South Africa’s popular definition of racism goes beyond the justification of the treatment of certain people based on arbitrary traits like culture and skin colour. But even if we consider the motive of this couple for this wedding theme, it is probably inspired by an incredible lack of historic perspective.

These people probably wouldn’t have knowingly gone out to offend those who were on the receiving end of colonialism (at this wedding, we’re clearly celebrating the “givers” of colonialism) if they had stopped for one moment to think what the black servants in the ridiculous costumes thought of the wedding theme.

What does cause me consternation about this is the complete lack of perspective, again, coming from a South African couple. Surely they have a far better understanding of what colonialism and apartheid did to non-whites than most other people on Earth? This is why I thought it was some American couple having their wedding in Vermont, or some place. It’s easy to see how they would confuse “Out of Africa” with “colonialism” – their lack of nuance would be completely understandable. But coming from South Africans, this idea stops being silly and tone deaf, and becomes insensitive. On that basis, one can take offense.

To the couple and their guests, the servants were invisible. They could just as well have been part of the furniture (the question of whether or not they chose black staff to enhance the theme is moot – chances are the staff would have been black anyway). Why would they have to mull over the viewpoints of invisible people?

Should the couple have considered the staff when picking a wedding theme? In fact, should we consider other people’s views when living our lives? I think I’ve made it explicitly clear that I believe we should be sensitive to other people’s views, even when doing our own thing. Even when we’re planning a private wedding.

As we continue on this experimental path we call “the new South Africa”, cognisance of our history is important. And one of apartheid’s great sins was its complete lack of empathy for non-whites. The damage it wrought was doubly painful because apartheid was completely deaf to the black plight.

Reversing the damage of apartheid must, therefore, also include an element of empathy for those less fortunate than us. If we say we share a country, a government and a future, then that must also mean that my neighbour’s problems are mine too. We cannot continue to have the attitude that only my particular version of history matters, or the notion that a lifestyle built in great part on the way colonialism and apartheid unequally divided resources and opportunities must remain unquestioned and unchallenged.

So yes, for the new South Africa to work, we must indeed become our brothers’ keepers. Even with something as small as considering what my “colonial”-themed wedding might mean to him. DM

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