Opinionista Mlilo Mpondo 25 April 2014

Strange fruit: What is our legacy?

If national identity drives a country’s politics, what is the identity being forged by black South Africans?

“What drives a country’s politics?” my lecturer asked us in class this past week, adding a Barry Roux “I put it to you” postscript for dramatic effect. While the rest of us fumbled in our seats, begging for an insightful answer to make itself known to us, some of my more confident colleagues took stabs in the dark and suggested that political organisations drove the politics of a country, while my more naive or idealistic counterparts suggested that the people of a country were the catalyst.

“Nationalism is the sole driving force of any country’s politics,” my lecturer retorted, putting the anxiety of our ignorance at ease. Nationalism? Hmmm, that was a concept that had clearly escaped all 15 of us.

The first Europeans to settle in South Africa arrived in the 1500s, and at some point or other in the 1800s, the Brits came to occupy the Cape Colony, forcing the Dutch out of it. At first answerable to Greater Britain, in due time British settlers came to form their own government independently of Britain. This was the beginning of politics in South Africa; these settlers were granted their own elected legislature, the Cape Parliament, and were eventually able to create their own government, termed Responsible Government.

Then there is a long-winded story hereafter, detailing the creation of the Union of South Africa (amidst a series of wars) where the Brits annexed the Orange Free State as well as the Transvaal Colony, which had previously been governed by Boers. But an important detail to the narrative is the arrival of Cecil John Rhodes, who, upon the discovery of gold and diamonds, established the first industry in South Africa which attracted foreign interest, subsequently establishing De Beers and Anglo Gold. Yes, yes; the very industry that has South Africa at a deadlock, invoked the mutiny of miners and the subsequent slaughter of 44. What the British managed to create and establish was politics and industry. This was their nationalism, their legacy.

Conversely, the Boers, who had grave animosity toward, and were excluded by the English, were at first largely successful agricultural; sharecroppers who, by the stroke of misfortune, suffered from the effects of the Great Depression coupled with drought, which forced them into town from the loss of farms, subsequently competing with blacks for jobs in mines. This group was also able to establish its own industry; being accountable for both steel and electricity in South Africa. This was their nationalism and legacy.

Both the British and the Afrikaners know poverty. The former knows it all too well as a part of their history; Boers suffered incredibly from the suppression of the Brits and their exclusion from British industry, an industry which had enveloped the a significant portion of the South African economy. A majority of the latter, which came to settle in South Africa, were impoverished and had emigrated from Britain in pursuit of employment and opportunity, an emigration sponsored by their government.

But both, with the impetus of ideology conveyed by nationalism, and the preservation of white superiority, were able to create a context in which their people would thrive. The narrative of the poor white is quite telling, truly a historical marvel, with lessons to be learned.

In the 1920s, the South African government was burdened by the phenomenon of the poor white; a group of people that did not have the means to support themselves. It consumed the attention of the state, the church and scholars. The government was particularly concerned that white poverty, which caused an influx of whites to mines, was fertile ground for racial integration, because dispossessed whites came to coexist in an environment similar to that of native labourers and this “signalled a decline in white power”. The coexistence challenged white supremacy, and evoked panic in colonial politicians who feared racial mixing would ensue as a result of poverty.

In light of this a study into the matter was commissioned to the Carnegie Commission, it was study into the poverty of white South Africans. The report which it produced dealt with the economic, psychological, educational, health and social dimensions of the poor white. According to the president of the Carnegie Corporation, there was “little doubt that if the natives were given full economic opportunity, the more competent among them would soon outstrip the less competent whites”.

There were a number of findings in the Carnegie report, which elucidated social hurdles which worked to sustain white poverty, alongside economic inflexibility education was chief catalyst. According to the report, years of poor education had managed to produce unemployable whites.

In response, the Responsible Government of the Cape increased its public spending on education, pouring funding into poor white schools, and also making education compulsory. More drastic legislation allowed for the removal of children from parents that were unable adequately to provide for them. However, this did little to curb the problem of poor white children who were deemed unfit for adult employment; instead, as a result of wars, the depression and a number of internal conundrums, the number of impoverished whites, mostly Afrikaners, increased by dramatic proportion.

In 1929, the South African government dedicated its efforts to eliminating the impoverished condition of poor white children in South Africa, devoting its attention to education, social welfare and housing, also reserving skilled work for whites by disenfranchising black workers.

But what is important to note is the way in which these social schemes were engineered: education was not the sole emphasis, the nutrition of these poor children was also interrogated. The Carnegie report had revealed that these children were largely malnourished. The emphasis was not simply that these children were underfed, but it was their poor diet which raised concern. Malnutrition as identified by the National Development Plan, amongst a host of other scientific research, has been proven to have a contributing effect to the intellectual and physical deterioration or stagnation of children, rendering them unemployable and economically ineffective.

What the colonial government understood was that eradicating poverty was not the only objective, what was necessary was that its children have access to nourishment adequate for optimum cognitive and physical development. This was not a case of human charity, but one of a nation concerned with its ideological preservation.

In response to the poverty of its people, the state, along with welfare societies which were established in every town and village, committed to eradicating the condition of feeble and fragile children, thereby creating feeding schemes which provided each child with a full meal containing essential vitamins from meat, vegetables and fruit on a daily basis. Well-off parents contributed to these feeding schemes in support of those parents that did not have the wherewithal. Each household was expected to contribute as much as they had in their capacity, local businesses were also involved, contributing meat, milk, vegetables and fruit to the scheme. The result of which were well-nourished children that were able to perform optimally.

Of course various factors contributed to the eradication of poverty amongst whites, expanded industry and accelerated employment assisted insurmountably. But should one systematically interrogate each of these contributors to white development in South Africa, it is evident that each is an amalgamation engineered toward nationalism. A preservation of white ideology and its thoughts about itself.

There is a clear legacy of white ancestry in South Africa, in politics, social development and industry. It is a legacy which embedded in its people ingenuity, adaptability and self-preservation. White leaders, or colonialists, thoroughly and scientifically studied and observed the produce and capacity of land, agriculture and economic potential of human capital development. They were systematic in their leadership, observing the culture, psychology and physical aptitude of the people within its government. It is a legacy manifest in the pride of white South Africans to this very day. A pride which they have a right to.

However, looking at South Africa today – what some may refer to as black South Africa – there seems to be a pervasive absence of nationalism or legacy amongst its black population or government. Our state continues to function and to be driven by the very same industry which it found oppressive, exploitative and exclusive. In his observation of the Bantu people, Cecil John Rhodes was able to identify those natives with a stronger physique, natives who would be an asset to the mining industry; men from the Pondoland and Mozambique, a status quo that the present government has made no efforts to modifying.

Unfortunately for my fellow black, poverty is not solely a black reality, even though it does seem to favour us kindly. However, I ask that you understand that it continues to be our legacy because our politics is merely for the sake of black political domination, it is without imagination, without nationalism, without legacy.

Political appointees absorbed public positions of trained academics, political parties absorbed dreams, unions absorbed the voices of workers and education absorbed the potential of present and future generations. Where white domination is a thing of the past, black nationalism and legacy is yet to be comprehended beyond identifications with an affluent black middle class, which – mind you – is another example of white ingenuity.

Where both poor and rich white people were available to contribute to the impoverished condition of all white children, we are more concerned with bragging about how affluent the homes we live in are, and how first-world the schools our children attend are. The Responsible Government of the British was not only concerned with poor white children, but with all children, and thus their constituency followed suit.

White government, Responsible Government, achieved So Dayi, sight with understanding; while we are still fumbling in our classroom seats, trying to answer the question: ‘What drives a country’s politics?’ When we were once a nation of kingdoms and science we have become the southern trees bearing strange fruits, with blood at the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ we are strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree/fruits for the crows to pluck/ for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck/ for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop/ we are a strange and very bitter crop.

We need a form of nationalism, if we care to do more than just survive. And so, in the fashion of Mr ‘Bulldog’ Barry Roux, I put it to you: What is our legacy? DM


In other news...

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