That glib social media rants, messy articles and flippant comments by Cabinet ministers attract epidemic calls for the return of good (and poor) black women is outrageous and disappointing. It encourages sexist expectations of both men and women while failing to provide a nuanced understanding of factors which influence black exchanges with money.
A few days ago journalist Madala Thepa wrote a phenomenally bad piece holding black women accountable for shipping off their children to former model C and private schools. This was supposedly being done against the wishes of their frugal and impressionable black fathers. Nonsensically titled, “Middle-class black moms speak with forked tongue”, Thepa argues that black women have made the decision to flaunt the “sweet science of black middle-class accomplishments”, comparing this choice to watching “a porn flick on public-screening”.
Now never mind that porn films were initially shown in public theatres or the general chaos of those two phrases. If you’re brave enough to read on from there, you’ll discover that they are some of the pettier crimes of this piece. Getting to grips with Thepa’s embarrassing prose, substandard logic and penchant for terrible metaphors like “mom, through their feminist dad, has put them in a 21st century language-and hair-policy concentration camp” means you’re saddled with questions more basic than those in a Life Orientation exam:
Educational jibes aside, it’s important for us to locate Thepa’s piece within a broader trend of black men attributing the failures of middle-class life to black women. From politics to literature, black South African men have been going out of their way to prove that we are at fault for the racial stigmatisation felt by black children at former white schools, that we are to blame for the neglect of black South African languages, and that expensive government-sponsored policies against “blesser culture” have nothing to do with regulating the shrewd manipulation of male sexual desire, but our refusal to abide by traditional female behaviour.
In 2013, “Diary of Zulu Girl”, a blog written by a black male student from the University of Cape Town, professed to tell the story of a young, rural black woman thrust into the scandalous and hedonistic lifestyle of black elites in northern Johannesburg.
The following year, its successor arrived in a blog post titled, “Bae-ism: The Culture of Love among the Rich Kids of Northern Johannesburg”, which also saw a black male student from Rhodes University write about a young black woman struggling to survive (let alone breathe, dear God!) in the big, bad city.
Like narcissistic male writers of pages past, this character’s complexity is generated through the exploration of “women’s issues” such as domestic abuse, insecurity and sex, we’re told, is more forceful than consensual. This quasi-short story, quasi-social science journal offers one-dimensional impressions of black women, having the slight feel of an academic hot take on black versions of films like Cruel Intentions or Spring Breakers.
Despite their progressive education, these two male authors used black women as a vessel through which the conflicts and frustrations of black middle-class life were piously meted out for public scorn. Both benefited from increased readership and attention as South Africans voiced concerns about whether black women were indeed destroying the moral fibre of the country.
Mike Maphoto, author of “Diary”, turned his blog into an e-Book (available on Amazon) and now enjoys the status of being a TEDx Talks speaker. Lelo Macheke of “Bae-ism” has gone on to write for publications like Vanguard Magazine, Africa is a Country and City Press.
Even celebrities have decided to join the ranks of Thepa, Maphoto and Macheke in condemning the exploits of Eve’s darker descendants. In an Instagram post last October, choreographer and Idols SA judge Somizi Mhlongo lambasted “educated BLACK[s]” who make fun of his “hard accent” and “Bantu education”. He then took his ire to a podcast on PowerFM, where he specified that his post was directed at “Model C Girls” who “twang and open their legs for Louis Vuitton bags”.
Of course, no mention was made of “Model C Boys” who also have twangs, don flashy suits, fuck as they please, have suspect jobs and buy expensive sneakers all while purchasing bottles of Cognac at the club. Doing so might have hit a little close to home for Mhlongo, who seems to enjoy his French handbags, stiff cocktails and good quality takkies.
And yet, it goes to show the relative ease with which certain black men locate their grievances at the tip of our labias. That glib social media rants, messy articles and flippant comments by Cabinet ministers attract epidemic calls for the return of good (and poor) black women is outrageous and disappointing. It encourages sexist expectations of both men and women while failing to provide a nuanced understanding of factors which influence black exchanges with money.
In the last century, several writers, thinkers and artists expressed their frustration with the conformity and repressiveness that middle-class life encouraged. It was one of the reasons behind the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. It gave way to second-wave feminism in which upper middle-class white women spoke against the patriarchal bourgeois lifestyles into which they’d been lulled. It inspired Beatniks like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to seek refuge in black American enclaves because they sought to live, however misguidedly, more dangerous and authentic lives.
Different to Marxist responses that had more to do with ideological sparring than ennui, these were an acknowledgement of that restlessness, that malaise, that angst lurking beneath this way of life.
In his seminal collection of essays, The Omni-Americans, writer Albert Murray challenges the idea of white middle-class life being held as the norm to which black Americans, with their cosmopolitan heritage and sophisticated sensibilities, should aspire. In fact, Murray emphasised that seeing black American resistance to white middle-class life as a personal and economic failure ignored the adeptness, ingenuity and single-mindedness of an interesting and varied people.
It is a pity that some black South African men cannot, like Murray and others, see the occasional banality of middle-class life as the problem, not the women who live it. It goes without saying that those who acquire wealth shouldn’t rub it in the faces of the poor and working class. But being a middle-class black woman shouldn’t induce resentment and anger from men who are more than capable of thinking and acting for themselves. DM
Khanya Mtshali is a writer and journalist completing her MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at New York University. She has a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) (Hons) from the University of Edinburgh. In addition to cultural criticism, she writes short fiction and poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @UncleKhanya