Defend Truth


Go ahead, colour me bad

Rhodes University had its second Truth and Reconciliation Commission last month, where students were encouraged to speak out about their experiences of discrimination on the campus and in South Africa. The university had its first TRC in 2008, and this year Jacob Phamodi testified about his experiences of racism not only for being black, but an 'articulate' black.

I’m not sorry I’m black. Even though I have to explain it or defend myself for it, I’m not sorry I’m black. Every day I walk onto this campus – step into the world, I am forced to walk through a minefield of racist bigotry. When last I sat here at Rhodes University’s first TRC in 2008, I recounted my experiences of insult and humiliation from both students and staff.

I told of how I watched as black professors, esteemed people in their own right, be reduced to naught by upstarts up to a third their age whose sole accomplishments was the fact of their birth. I endured sarcastic ridicule based on unspoken assumptions about blacks and their poor financial practices which were well-articulated through a mere tone of voice.

I experienced it here; lived it here. I’m sorry that it happened, but I’m not sorry that I’m black.

I am seen as a black. I am silenced because of it. I am made to feel concerned about it and, often, ashamed for it. It’s in little things like “those township people who really don’t know any better” and how you “can’t understand why those government workers keep filling the streets with garbage coz they’re the ones who have to pick it up in the end, anyway”. We are never people with dignity. We’re “those” people. Over there. In the townships. With our Aids. “But of course, Jacob, you’re different. You’re like us.”

I am not seen. My being is not acknowledged. That I “speak so well” is weighted by an unspoken “for a black person” or “he must be from overseas” and not because I am simply articulate in a language. After all, it can’t be expected for these blacks to hold so high a command of the Queen’s own. They always butcher it which is why they shouldn’t be allowed to read the English news.

I experience it here. I live it here.  I’m sorry that it happens, but I’m not sorry that I’m black.

I am not allowed to have an opinion unless it’s the right opinion. The white opinion. I’m regarded with scepticism and scorn because I sometimes sympathise with the ANC. Blinded by racial fealty and not critical thought. I’m unreasonable about Affirmative Action and BEE because 17 years is long enough. I have nothing to complain about because the colour of my skin guarantees me a job while everyone else has to do honest work to get one.

I am even denied my opinion as a black man. When it is asked for, it is not even as a person in their own right whose existence and experience have been mediated and determined through how they are perceived by others on the basis of their pigmentation, but as the universal representative of those pigmented like me. Of course I should know how all the blacks feel about the current government – I’ve met and asked every one of them, haven’t I?

I experience it here. I live it here. I’m sorry that it happens but I’m not sorry that I’m black.

You don’t see us. You can barely see yourselves. Recognising your privilege would only mean losing it, that’s why you refuse to feel ashamed. It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your shame. Facing up to the horror of what was done in your name, on your watch and whose benefits you reaped for generation after successive generation is unimaginable lest it mean acknowledging your complicity in perpetuating it.

Don’t you think it’s you who should be sorry for calling the 60-year-old woman who cleans up your alcohol-induced vomit in the residence lavatories “the maid”? Or having your ‘Mavis’ in your family for two generations as though she were an heirloom which was maintained at less than a living wage since the day she started changing your father’s nappies? Don’t you think it’s you who should feel ashamed for shouting impetuously at that “bitch” in the kitchen for giving you the wrong meal which you had mistakenly ordered? Shouldn’t you be the one sorry for beating a child of the streets to within an inch of his life not just because he had stolen from you, but because he was so small, because he was vulnerable and because he was black?

Perhaps it’s you who should be sorry for being so preoccupied with my blackness through which you made me your enemy when I could have been your friend. I think it’s you who should be sorry for being so unconcerned about your whiteness in the world and what it has done not just to my people, but what it has done to yours. DM


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