Two things jumped out at me on social media this past weekend; Lerato Tshabalala and Mbali Mlotshwa. We’ll catch up with Mlotshwa later in the article. Tshabalala, under the auspices of “telling the truth” and of course promoting her upcoming book, exposed her own brand of mental slavery by taking individual (albeit several) instances of unprofessionalism and expanding it into blanket criticism of Blackness as a whole.
We know it is mental slavery because she excludes herself from the masses she’s supposedly critiquing. And therein lies the problem. Her perspective is one of “us”, the efficient blacks, and “them”, the black service providers she’s taking exception with.
Us and them? That’s a familiar concept, isn’t it? In other words she is now an unrestricted Grand Master who has attained that mythical last level of blue-eyed professionalism and work ethic and strongly urges the majority of her people to follow suit. It echoes the divide and rule device employed by South Africa’s former oppressors whispered into the ears of all the Africans that were within earshot “…you’re not like the others, you’re smart…” or “… you’re Xhosa, don’t you just hate those stupid Zulus…” Is it not painfully ironic then, when Africans themselves are now the drivers of this divide and rule narrative? We also know the criticism isn’t constructive or sincere either because nowhere in the excerpt is any remedial action offered.
In many ways, reading Tshabalala’s excerpt is like reading Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger; there’s nothing groundbreaking to it, no research or due diligence is done on statistics to back up the claims, and the narrative is thrown down at you from up high and through the world view of those self-same blue eyes.
Let’s start with the not-so-obvious details. First of all Tshabalala writes and, on the balance of probabilities, most likely lives her life from the perspective of white South Africa. This is evident from the mere fact that she emphasises the noun black. In a country that’s 79% African, a normal person would just use the term service provider when speaking about Africans and then utilise the noun white to differentiate between Africans and those of a lighter complexion. Reinforcing this point is the fact that she mentions two friends (just two!?) who are African and run their ventures professionally. That sounds suspiciously like “… I’m not racist; some of my best friends are black. In fact just nine years ago I had two black people over at my house…”
Let’s broaden the debate and see how it fits into our national narrative. There are of course varying levels to the South African brand of mental slavery depending on where you went to school, who you associated with in your formative years and the level of Africanism instilled in you by your parents. For example, Africans who went to former Model C schools have a tendency of belittling the indigenous African accents and pronunciations of those that attended township schools.
This is the cutting edge of mental captivity because it’s the exact sort of humour you’ll hear behind the Boerewors Curtain that the majority of white South Africa keeps carefully drawn. It highlights a superiority complex towards your own people which, in turn, points to self-hatred on a subliminal level. Admit to it and unlearn it.
The opposite is also true. Former students of township schools routinely mock the accents of fellow Africans who went to Model C schools and speak “good” English. For example, during the 2009 Tshwane University of Technology salary dispute, then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema stated that Naledi Pandor, the Minister of Education at the time, “…should use her fake accent to address our problems…”
This smacks of not only insecurity but also a narrow and inflexible world view on Malema’s part. I say narrow and inflexible because Malema’s rationale is that all Africans come from the townships and as such should all have the same accents, which in itself is ridiculous and patronising. It also just exposes his own insecurities about the way he himself speaks English in relation to the way she does, because as you noticed, Pandor’s accent had nothing to do with the issue at hand.
It might sound like a petty point to make but try to read deeper into it; it also forms the main part of the reason the influential Malema supported Jacob Zuma over Thabo Mbeki 10 years ago during the ANC succession battle. The EFF leader threw his weight behind Zuma because Msholozi was a supposed “man of the (township) people” singing and dancing as he went along, while Mbeki was much more akin to Pandor; UK-educated man with an apparent stiff upper lip as well. Starting to make sense? The point I’m emphasising here is that mental slavery has far-reaching ramifications.
Growing up on the Cape Flats as a teenager in the ‘90s, and I’m sure pretty much across the whole country, there was a term used to describe young Africans who thought, acted and spoke like whites in post-1994 South Africa: Ama Model C. Across the African diaspora you’ll find variations of it such as coconut, Oreo etc. This was a novel concept at the time because pre-1994 Africans who spoke English with a non-African accent were extremely rare. Before the advent of democracy, most Africans, and by most I mean a good 90-95%, attended township schools and therefore generally spoke English in the same way with the same cadences and nuances.
However, with the gradual opening up of (white) society, Africans started attending former Model C schools, and invariably over time started reflecting, through their accents, the environments they were now part of. By and large, African parents loved it and who can blame them? Their children were coming home speaking “good” English and this was taken as a sign that they were receiving a good education. This point is supported by the disturbing fact that South Africans, regardless of race, always confuse proficiency in English with actual intelligence.
But it had another unforeseen effect. That generation of kids also underwent a mind-set transformation, at impressionable ages mind you, due to their change in environment. Even though there were those who resisted and still spoke their indigenous mother tongues to each other; all of a sudden English was now the medium of transaction for most young Africans. Even after school, at home and in general township life. It’s easy to explain this cultural transformation; the logic behind sending your kids to white schools was that you wanted them to get a better education. White, better.
From this we can infer that mental slavery is indeed handed down from generation to generation even without a parent’s implicit knowledge. This interpretation of white being better wasn’t lost on their kids either, who wholly embraced being the first generation of Africans to be bestowed this privilege en masse. This was mirrored by African kids wearing their colonial memento straw hats and khaki shorts in the townships long after coming home from school, in an effort to show others their misplaced pride in now being part of the elite.
As you can see, speaking English incessantly was a noticeable yet nonetheless small part of a broader change in mentality and perspective in the young upwardly mobile African. This then created animosity between these new Models C’s and their township peers who felt that they were losing sight of their language, culture and therefore themselves. At that exact same time in history Hip Hop was fast becoming the mainstream music genre and this further entrenched the blanket use of English in the everyday lives of young Africans.
Attached to this was the rise in the ridiculous trend of Africans speaking to one other in mock American accents. Africans, people with their own languages, cultures, and customs were now worshipping African-Americans, a people who had long been dispossessed of their own identity by white privilege. The irony.
The reason for this long-winded anecdote is that it was against this backdrop of losing ourselves as teenagers to these different forms of mental bondage that the current divided situation was allowed to develop. And from this predicament you get instances where Africans go out of their way to defend white racism and prejudice.
Yes, Tumisho Masha, Lorna Maseko and Lloyd Cele, we see you. Those three chose to defend Pastor Andre Olivier blindly after he was caught delivering an ignorant sermon that on the racism scale ranged from overt to symbolic. Masha and company came out on Twitter with big guns blazing, shooting from both hips. What they actually should have said about Olivier is that they’ve never seen him beat an African to death with his bare hands while also admitting that they don’t yet completely understand the full spectrum of racism.
The problem regarding Masha et al is that for a lot of South Africans the face or symbol of racism is a white policeman physically manhandling an African. In truth there are other degrees of racism over and above the overt version. And although white South Africa will always be capable of robust, overt, physical racism, the most prevalent and dangerous version is the laissez-faire kind.
Throughout mankind’s history, racism has always been able to evolve and reinvent itself according to its needs and the prevailing model of social thought of the time. So, for example, in 1994 when apartheid’s legal version of racism was somewhat marginalised, symbolic racism then took over as the de facto lead component. This was expressed through outrage at the then newly formed BEE policy framework and sporting quotas that looked to redress historical imbalances in South African society.
This was basically a mirror image of what happened in the US in the lead-up to and during the Civil Rights era; robust, legalised racism then gave way the covert laissez-faire form of discrimination. Laissez-faire or symbolic racism actually supports equality, rights and freedoms for all etc. but shows a sharp disconnect between that support and the actual application of policies to attain said equality i.e. BBBEE.
I’ve always been amazed at how shortsighted people can be; never looking at the big picture and thinking that through your own lack of requisite knowledge you might end up on the wrong side of history. Because the fact remains, no matter what the trio of Masha, Maseko and Cele do for the rest of their lives, we’ll always remember them as defenders of white privilege and racism. In much the same way as the descendants of Nazi collaborators in Europe still carry the stigma of their forebears’ misdeeds.
Despite the country’s history being steeped in nothing but politics for the last 350-plus years, South Africa’s celebrities and pseudo-intellectuals alike remain shockingly apolitical and for the most part nonplussed on the current affairs of their country and the world at large. As a matter of course, you’ll hear people issue nonsensical views like “…politics and sport don’t mix…” or “….I hate politics…” or if they do happen to be politically inclined they’ll lack the background knowledge to properly discuss the issues of the day. Hence you’ll find a group discussing the on-going difficulties north of the border, yet none of them will have ever heard of the Lancaster House Agreement, for example.
So the narrative here isn’t only in relation to Tshabalala, Masha and company but to all of us as Africans, whether we are yuppies, revolutionaries or intelligentsia. There are differing layers to this argument over our collective mental slavery. For example, how do Africans, moreover upwardly mobile Africans, in Jozi, particularly the Northern Suburbs, communicate with one another? Is it not in English? Why is this so? Does this then not replace, at least subconsciously, our own indigenous world outlook with that of the colonialist? While also causing us to laugh at Mandoza and whoever else’s English we deem to be sub-par?
Further to the point, on my continent no one loves Jesus Christ more than Africans. I wonder how many of my fellow African brethren and sisters who fear God know about the hidden history of the Christian Church regarding slavery and the kidnapping of their ancestors. Do they know about the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex issued in January 1455 by Pope Nicholas V that gave Portugal the go-ahead to purchase slaves from the West African coast? Or that it took the Vatican until 1965 to declare slavery an infamy? More important, do they even care?
The obvious answer is no. The subject of mental slavery is a touchy one for Africans, especially those educated at formerly white institutions. In fact, educated Africans, generally speaking of course, are usually the ones who feel, due to their well-schooled backgrounds, that they’re least at risk from suffering from such deficiencies. When tackled on the topic they’ll give you generic answers such as “…I grew up with white people, I’m used to them…” or “… I don’t see black or white, I just see people…”
If this at all sounds customary, it’s because these are the building blocks of laissez-faire racism; the contention that by denying the fact that racial injustice and race itself actually exist, such discrimination and inequality can then be halted. Africans have through their subconscious, and in other cases blatantly conscious, devotion to the narrative and outlook of whiteness now themselves adopted this stance.
You might be wondering how we moved from discussing African psychological bondage to criticising Christianity. These aren’t mutually exclusive issues. The late African-American psychologist, scholar and social theorist Dr Amos Wilson broke it down into five very simple questions; 1) What language/s do you speak? 2) What name do you answer to? 3) What food do you eat? 4) What God do you pray to? 5) What kind of clothes do you wear?
If you’re African and answer those questions honestly, there’s a very real chance that you do suffer from the affliction of mental slavery. To the politically naïve such questions might sound superficial but in reality they cut to the actual core of why the African intellect continues to be enslaved and in some instances enslaves itself.
Why do we in Africa give our children English names? Do you ever see your white counterparts, some of whom have been immersed in Africa for 12-15 generations, giving their children African names? You might ask but what’s in a name? Giving a child a name is indicative of your world view, who you are as a parent and where you come from and where you’re going. It also encompasses your hopes and dreams for the child you’re naming.
Why do we, especially in urban South Africa, speak English to our children and actively encourage it as the first language of the household? The usual answer to this question is “…but I want the best for my child; I want him/her to be enlightened and worldly…” You see? English (read whiteness) equals best, enlightened and worldly. The overwhelming majority of Americans are English-speakers but how worldly and forward-thinking is their outlook as a people? Why do we worship a God that isn’t ours and was forced upon us to actually entrench and strengthen white privilege? The stock answer here is God loves us all and that the only route to heaven is through Jesus Christ. All of which is debatable, nonetheless the point remains; Christianity, Islam and Judaism are not African constructs yet are the most widely practised religions across the continent.
Again, the reason for this is that our enslaved psyche wants to conform to what was passed down to us from whiteness; from colonialist to native, from master to slave. That’s because in our subliminal minds whiteness equals power, good and everything worth aspiring to. Why do we dress up in Western garb, where are our own garments? They were long considered primitive, backwards, outdated and even barbaric by our overlords, along with our beliefs in traditional African religions. So, like the good servants that we were and still are, we obliged our white rulers and adopted their customs, religion, beliefs, cultures and value systems. This is the crux of intellectual captivity. Until we start exercising pride in our own cultures, languages, dress sense and collective identity we will always be slaves.
Mental slavery is all around us; all we have to do is know what to look for. And once we do we find Rick Ross proclaiming to be “….the only fat nigga in a sauna with Jews…” and that wise old socio-political expert and former NBA player Charles Barkley stating “…slavery wasn’t one of the worst things ever…” as well as Jacob Zuma proudly declaring that “We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally. This is Johannesburg, not some national road in Malawi”.
To further illustrate the point of Africans viewing the world through the eyes of white South Africa let’s also look at the curious case of Mbali Mlotshwa. In the fiery caldera that the #BlackLivesMatter struggle finds itself, Mlotshwa had the socio-political nous to don blackface in an apparent act of solidarity with the movement. This is about as glaring an indictment on an altered, broken psyche as one will ever encounter.
Let us try to read between the lines of such behaviour and see what it tells us. By mere default, donning blackface would inform you that the culprits don’t consider themselves to be black; therefore they darken their faces to imitate blackness. Essentially, what Mlotshwa is telling us by slathering on a darker shade is that subconsciously she doesn’t consider herself to be black; in the same way South Africans of a certain generation when asked if they were African would respond “….no, I’m South African”. Hopefully Jacob Zuma saying “we can’t think like Africans in Africa, generally…” is starting to make more sense to you? To be fair to Mlotshwa, this was just an instance of a celebrity doing too much and in the process exposing her utter lack of comprehension about what her actions actually entail. Enough about her.
More crucially and in relation to the same topic, we also have to confront the tendency we have as Africans worshipping and blindly following everything that’s African-American. There were even cadres on Twitter organising #BlackLivesMatter solidarity meetings and staging marches in Cape Town. This is naïve and reeks of double standards. In this instance, that sounds overly harsh given the level of pain and loss of life we’re trying to sympathise with.
Yet the question has to be asked; are there ever any meetings taking place Stateside that discuss our continental problems? Why is it only when life is lost in the US that we have such hashtags? And furthermore to the heart of the issue, how is it that we as Africans can decide to hold meetings and stage marches over #BlackLivesMatter and not our own widespread continental issues? Such as the ongoing upheaval just north of our border in Zimbabwe. Or the 50,000 kids on the brink of starvation in Borno, Nigeria as well as the 20,000 people killed there, not to mention the 2.6-million others left homeless in the north-eastern part of that country due the turbulence caused by Boko Haram. Do those situations also not warrant our attention?
After discussing at length the cases of Masha and Mlotshwa, how then does one place Tshabalala’s excerpt into the national discourse? By simply saying it just seems to be a grovelling attempt to ingratiate herself with white South Africa in much the same way as Stephen from Django Unchained interacts with his young master Calvin Candie. It’s 2016, Google is just a fingertip away.
My parents always taught me never to try to separate fellow Africans into subcategories like house niggers and field niggers, which by the way are constructs that serve oppression by perpetuating the same cycle of divisiveness we’re at war with. So as such, I feel compelled to give Tshabalala’s upcoming effort a chance. But then again let me take her own advice and invest in a blue-eyed book rather than hers. Or does that then feed into the divide and rule technique that has been used so successfully against us? You’re a grown-up, you decide. DM
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