Defensive about my culture and identity? Damn right.
- Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar
- 16 Feb 2017 (South Africa)
The South African identity is nuanced, complex, layered and contested ground. Yet people like Paula Marais publish books like the Rainbow Nation Navigation: A Practical Guide to South African Cultures without acknowledging or understanding the complexity of our identity. There is no appreciation for this complexity or even an attempt to understand it. Instead, the “practical guide”, the publisher and the authors that contributed to this book continue to peddle in stereotypes, prejudice and the slant and agenda of a normative culture that treats the majority of South Africans, their heritage and lived experiences, as less.
The chapter about coloured people is not simply offensive but so is the reduction that takes place across the entire publication. For instance, Zulu people are referred to simply as a “tribe”, reducing 11-million South Africans into this one-word descriptor. Of course, there is the automatic inclination to talk about how this “tribe” shows affection and it is demonstrated in the book only as “Thambo lami le Kentucky”.
However, the politics and narrative of stereotypes and reducing people (whether it is based on their ethnicity, religion, class or gender) to bite-size reduced entities is nothing new. We should not be surprised. Of course, we should be angry. This type of reduction is still meted out against women, black people, the LGBTI community and the disabled. This type of behaviour and narrative cannot go unchallenged.
However, there is the danger of allowing our contested identity to be told by those who peddle stories riddled with offensive vile instead of acknowledging our nuanced and complex stories. Reductive thinking plays a dangerous role in perpetuating racist and prejudiced behaviour and this book has done a great disservice to our own lived experiences. The book, and its authors and publisher, have promoted the very behaviour that is counterintuitive to honouring our complex history and collective future. Of course, the confrontation of this conduct must be uncomfortable. We must understand the impact of having others tell our stories, the importance of our own voice and how we shift the telling of our story from those that do so with such disregard and disrespect.
Racial and offensive stereotyping opens the “Coloured” chapter with the phrase “’n Boer maak ‘n plan, maar ‘n Gam het ‘n plan” emphasising that South Africans of “mixed-race ancestry” are essentially caricatures that are reduced to being “colourful, vivacious and eclectic”. At no point did the publisher and authors think that it would be offensive to reduce 4-million South Africans to simply being “mixed race”. The publisher, and whatever bizarre string of authors, make their view quite clear on this point in that they believe coloured people are “quite defensive about their culture and their identity”.
Over 4-million South Africans are reduced in this way and the book then highlights “famous coloureds” so that the unfortunate reader can appreciate how this “colourful, vivacious and eclectic” people can succeed. This is all simply extracted from the first page of the opening chapter and yet co-publisher Paula Marais, in a recent radio interview, is shocked that the reception to the book has been met with the appropriate amount of criticism and disdain.
Somehow the publisher and authors failed to understand that the coloured identity in South Africa is a deeply contested space and that there are no simple answers. Yet the very framing of this chapter seems to reduce millions of South Africans into a different category of person akin to the apartheid classification, noting with some surprise that “coloured people also have baby showers” and that it would be appropriate to attend one with “hand me-downs”. It is unthinkable that this type of rubbish could be published, printed and distributed but it is reflective of how troubled the South African psyche must be.
The narrative that we are a Rainbow Nation at peace with itself has been debunked in recent years. We need to confront this issue if we are ever going to move forward. The story of our own country is far more fractured then the idea that we can speak in this way about each other. We cannot continue reducing our humanity, our agency, our dignity and our respect.
Sadly, this book has illustrated how easy it is to do this. In fact, how easy it is to treat South Africans with disregard and disrespect and then to be shocked when you are called out for it. The only way to confront this type of reduction is for us to tell our own stories, proudly and with the necessary respect. We must do so if we are ever going to tell our own story and begin to take ownership and start paying respect to our nuanced and complex identities.
Of course, there is some difficulty with wading into contested spaces as our lived experiences are unique and different, especially when there are millions of perspectives that truly reflect that South African identity. However, this is the only way for us to change the damaging narrative that has been allowed to prevail. For instance, the only way for us to stop reducing coloured women to only being concerned with the “mincing” of their hair is for us to tell our own story. Only then can we truly appreciate the full spectrum of our society.
The role of storytelling and being proud of our own narrative already has a place in our country. There is a critical need now for us to start claiming the spaces, whether it is difficult to do so or not, and to start reflecting our own truth, albeit varied and nuanced, in a way that honours our truth and furthers the idea that we are indeed building a South African society that is not weighed down by bigotry, stereotypes, racism and prejudice. What is clear though is that we have much work to do. DM
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