Opinionista Trudi Makhaya 26 May 2014

Behind every clever black…

I am relieved that we are making progress towards a point where intellect will be determined by the content of one’s speech, and not the accent in which it is delivered – but the traces of a mentality that views distance from ‘blackness’ as a marker of accomplishment, remain. Still, the end-point of black empowerment should be self-actualisation, not mimicry.

One reading of the election results is the defeat of the ‘clever blacks’, who have been reminded that they are an irrelevant minority battling the rat race in metropolitan areas.

In primary school, as the 1986 academic year was kicking off, our class learned that one of our peers had left our village school to attend a multi-racial school in town. This trend was to take off in the late 1980s and we grew accustomed to tales, imparted in admiring tones, of peers who became monolingual and spoke English through their noses.

I cringe when I think of those fantasies of advancement that were openly indulged in the early days of racial integration. I am relieved that we are making progress towards a point where intellect will be determined by the content of one’s speech, and not the accent in which it is delivered. But the traces of a mentality that views distance from ‘blackness’ as a marker of accomplishment, remain.

Hence the need, sometimes, to call out black people who equate success with self-negation.

Writers often talk about the importance of finding one’s voice as a precondition to producing a compelling body of work. This is the only way to make a unique contribution, beyond a mere reconfiguration of established perspectives. This is just as important in the boardroom, the political backroom and in the marketplace. The end-point of black empowerment should be self-actualisation, not mimicry.

Criticisms of black people whose notions of the good life are infused with an inferiority complex are valid. But more often than not, critics of non-conformist or outspoken black individuals pretend to be driven by a desire to encourage authenticity, whereas they simply seek to silence those they disagree with or feel threatened by.

Which brings me to the estimated 750,000 new black voters that the DA gained in this past election. These are puppets, or forward-thinking rebels, depending on who you ask. With the cracks within the DA made visible so soon after these converts made their mark, there is a veiled ‘I told you so’ from many quarters of society, including the ruling party. The Mazibuko-Zille tussle, or its post-mortem, is presented as Exhibit A in chastising the prodigal blacks. Mazibuko, admired by many black voters, has been spoken of and scrutinised in the patronising terms that are the stuff of nightmare for the black middle class. This saga brings to mind the horrors of the back-handed compliments, hovering bosses and biased performance assessments that few will escape. There is a sense that the new DA voters were duped by an untransformed DA and that they will have to re-evaluate their political choices come 2016.

Seems as if behind every successful black person lurks a sulking patron who can’t believe how feisty and ungrateful their charge has become. The government ‘made them’ (to borrow a contested phrase from the DA saga), so how dare they vote otherwise? ‘Clever blacks’ stand accused of criticising a government which has brought programmes that they benefit from. But intellectual courage requires just that – to look beyond one’s advantages and comfort to discern what is in the public interest from what is costly, unsustainable or badly implemented. Think of the troubles that South Africa would have been saved from if there had been more whites willing to carry out this fundamental task that must be undertaken in any enlightened society.

Be that as it may, it might be easy to think that those ‘clever blacks’ who voted for the DA have twanged themselves into a corner. Perhaps they should resign themselves to shopping, accountancy and Twitter. Yet to withdraw from political engagement, chastised and disillusioned, would be unconstructive and a betrayal of our maturing democracy.

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Of course, those who have the need to declare certain acts of ‘black’ cleverness haram are also sometimes desperate to prove that blacks are clever. So the very same voices that demonise black wonkishness have also lamented the scarcity of ‘black African’ ministers in the economics cluster.? The EFF, whose leader scolded Naledi Pandor for her accent, is thrilled to see the first black African leading the National Treasury. This chorus has been joined by many economists and journalists. But in the rush to congratulate the ‘first’ black person, did we get the ‘right’ black person? It seems to have been quickly forgotten that before he started making cryptic statements (mostly on social media, the cleverness of it all!), and withdrawing from the ANC’s list, Mboweni was considered to be in the running for the post. Nonetheless, Nene’s time in Parliament and at Treasury has spanned GEAR all the way to the National Development Plan and the Asgisa’s and Jipsa’s in between. This level of experience suggests competence and hopefully wisdom that will translate into results.

Nene forms part of a fascinating trinity to watch, whose other members are established ministers Davies and Patel at trade and industry, and economic development respectively. He will need to balance the expansionist orientation within government that is implied by ‘radical economic transformation’ with fiscal prudence. Five years is a long time in a Zuma cabinet. For now, Nene is considered clever enough to be Finance Minister. But does he run the risk of being as seen too clever as the ambitions of this term unfold? DM

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