Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 24 August 2015

I am Black and I am beautiful

In the 1960s Dr Marin Luther King Jnr said: “Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black.” This is still rings today even with blacks in the White House and the Union Buildings. It is blacks themselves who are first to denigrate their own abilities and beings. Often, this leads to a regression and unwarranted bondage to our former masters, black or white. Freedom gives us the chance to be the master of our own destinies and this freedom does just that. Let us not squander it.

In one of his most memorable sermons, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr eloquently said: “Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black. A Negro got to rise up and say from the bottom of his soul: ‘I am somebody. I have a rich, noble, and proud heritage. However exploited and however painful my history has been, I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.’ This is what we’ve got to say. We’ve got to accept ourselves. And we must pray, ‘Lord, help me to accept myself every day; help me to accept my tools.”

Many decades before that sermon, in the 1800s, lived Mrs Araminta Harriet Tubman, the ‘Moses of her people’. I add her lesser known name ‘Araminta’ to also tell of the richness of an African being, the depth and beauty of a black body. The names our families bestow on us become more than just tools of identity but instruction, a prophesy for a life too. (Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, did he not ‘cause disturbance’ and ‘pulled down those hardened tree branches’ used to hang his people?)

History shows yes, Mandela lived to be ‘Rolihlahla’. Araminta, one of Tubman’s given names, meaning ‘defender’, worked tirelessly, and in grave danger to operate an underground railroad system at night to help black slaves escape bondage in the American South.

I freed a thousand slaves,” Tubman famously said. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

With a black majority having occupied the Union Buildings since 1994, and the nation grappling with economic recession headwinds that are troubling our trade partners, it is an opportune moment to reconsider King’s sermon and indeed Tubman’s lament.

In order to consider King, recall Tubman’s lament and honour Mandela, we must continue to periodically return to the dark places and days whose stench still lingers. These unwavering heroes used their black bodies as a sacrifice so that others can see the value in freeing others and fighting for the worthiness of a black body. These names represent thousands more of their peers to whom we owe this gift we have today.

One of the things that truly shocked me the most at the start of political transition negotiations in South Africa in 1991 was to see the negotiating team of the Nationalist Party government. The negotiating forum comprised of four negotiators and two advisors from each party at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Then president FW de Klerk headed the Nationalist Party team, but the thing that gave me pause was to see two black people seated at De Klerk’s table.

Huh? How was it possible?

Chris Hani, representing the South African Communist Party, requested a stay and the release of Mkhonto WeSizwe guerrilla Robert McBride. For that to happen, a bargain had to be struck involving the release from prison of ‘Die Wit Wolf’ (White Wolf), Barend Strydom. Strydom had been convicted of a racial massacre of seven black civilians including women and children, injuring 14 others in 1988. I was aghast!

In 1992, to secure McBride’s release, the White Wolf was released to the wilds of Pretoria, aged 25. A freedom fighter’s life was exchanged for the life of a thug who ran amok, shooting women and children based on race then lied about it in court. The price of a black body was set.

We are only beginning to see the signs of just how difficult the road ahead for South Africa will be.

Colombia University academic Thaddeus Russell, in a talk about elaborate research on slavery – Quantitative Analyses of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives compiled in Paul D Escott Slavery Remembered, and transcripts of the interviews in George Rawick’s The American Slavesays: “The blackface minstrels’ positive interpretation of slavery was contradicted by hundreds of ex-slaves interviewed for the WPA narrative project who told of whippings, sadistic overseers, loved ones being sold away, and of wishing to be free. But it was affirmed by the fact that a majority of the WPA interviewees who offered an evaluation of slavery – both field hands and house slaves, men and women – held a positive view of the institution, and many unabashedly wished to return to their slave days, which they commonly referred to as ‘the good old days’.”

Just how many ‘Groaning Israelites’ are there in the black community? Those who genuinely believe ‘Egypt’ was better than toiling for 40 days and 40 nights? Indeed we have read of and heard blacks in the streets of black townships saying the apartheid days were better, echoing what the aforementioned study found after 2,300 interviews of freed slaves who just could not bear the thought of thinking and doing for themselves.

Although political freedom reigns, the party never happened for some yet the hangover is brutal. The Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) growth under Helen Zille was a function of the aggressive acquisitions of black bodies so new black sales people could go to the other blacks to sell the white-controlled DA as their answer, perhaps to the ones who feel nostalgic about being called a ‘k****’ and a lesser being. Joe Seremane with his family bitterness over the African National Congress was the first DA marketing recruit. The creation of new black heroes modelled in the image of whites who are still seen as humanly superior by millions of the freed black and coloured South Africans and in particular a majority in the Western Cape province, a typical Stockholm Syndrome phenomenon.

The American South has become the South African South.

Typical governance hardships and ups and downs are blown out of proportion to work on the psyche of this vulnerable black body so as to bolster the stereotype that blacks are not capable of anything left to their own devices. They need a superior minder.

While all this has race as its immediate aim, the truest thrust is that of class, not race. Race is a secondary issue. Slave owners, dictators and oppressors are often the elite of the society; in most cases the military itself live lives of luxury and elitism. Often the military co-opts the judiciary into its plans and these two then form the government, as is in Thailand today or Myanmar.

Recently, Egyptians have elected to return to military dictatorship disguised as a democracy, another African state to follow in Egyptian footsteps is Africa’s most populous and richest country, Nigeria, whose people elected as their democratic president a man who once ruled the country as a military dictator.

Like judges, military generals never stop being military men no matter the new wardrobe.

Muhammadu Buhari has been in office since May 29 2015, three months in at the time of writing this – he has yet to name a cabinet, electing instead to run the country by himself for a bit, as dictators would. Nigerians are happy being led by a man who once jailed their hero musician and activist Fela Kuti Snr.

Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote a piece called “The Crimes of Buhari”, describing and alleging serious crimes against humanity on the part of Buhari and his military regime.

If these examples represented the changing political landscapes of nations undergoing  transformation, the implications are that a good number of South Africans will be persuaded by political parties that represent one of the two things; a dictator-like, fascist approach, with military gear and military ranks titles promoting anarchy; and one that primarily promotes the protection of former oppressors, and a return of the master-servant classes.

What the mass democratic movement and former anti-apartheid activists ought to realise is that 20 years is a too short a time to completely dismantle what apartheid managed to do to the poor and oppressed majority. It is not time to be less vigilant about fascism and racism. It was not only freedom but the identity of a black body that was stripped off and consigned to a ‘superior race’. There are still blacks who cannot fly on an aeroplane operated by black pilots and this is a serious disease. Likewise, the idea of a black man being president is still a shock .

Black employers are referred to by their black employees as “umlungu wami” (my white man). Money is associated with the white race. For a black man to have the ability to hire and fire, surely he is a white man. Likewise, black helpers who work for black housewives or business women refer to their bosses as ‘madam’, wait; before you think this is just a gender connotation, no, the term ‘madam’ in black body anthropology refers to a white woman whether they employ you or are a stranger on the streets, that is a madam.

King said: “Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black.” This was said in the 1960s. It rings true today with blacks in the White House or Union Buildings. It is blacks themselves who are first to denigrate their own abilities and beings. Often, this leads to a regression and unwarranted bondage to our former masters, black or white. Freedom gives us the chance to be the master of our own destinies and this freedom does just that. Let us not squander it.

First, blacks must know who enslaved them and acknowledge that they remain slaves to the monied classes. Blacks must be their own Moses and stay the course with a focus on  welcoming all the challenges that come with the new station of being the master of one’s own destiny. Altogether, we must repeat: “I am somebody. I have a rich, noble, and proud heritage. However exploited and however painful my history has been, I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.”

Make your name count as elders Rolihlahla and Araminta did. DM

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