Defend Truth


I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break, I wear the mask that grins and lies


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The construct of race neutrality feeds white nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-white SA towards equity is ‘reverse discrimination’.

I have been reading a most fascinating book by Ibram X Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist, which of course conjures up many similarities between racism in the US and here back home in South Africa.

He identifies a number of situations in which racists thrive and how we as anti-racists should respond to these in our everyday lives. It made me realise that amid all the focus on corruption, State Capture, fraud, racketeering and so much more, the ordinary person out there remains subjected to all forms of racism and racists.

The construct of race neutrality feeds white nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-white SA towards equity is “reverse discrimination”. That’s how racist power can call affirmative action policies and BBBEE policies that succeed in reducing racial inequities, problematic. This is partly also linked to why the DA has such problems with the deployment policies of the governing party.

The reason why “race” was created was because it creates new forms of power, the power to categorise and judge, elevate and downgrade, include and exclude. Kindi says race makers use that power to process distinct individuals, ethnicities, and nationalities into monolithic races.

So, how do we as black South Africans cope with such ongoing racism? In steps Maya Angelou, with her spoken-word poem, We Wear The Mask. In her adaptation of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, she, I think, provides the answer as to how we as blacks cope with ongoing racism. It goes something like this:

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.
We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.
When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.
Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So… I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children”.

And so, through the condescension and the patronising guile, we wear the mask. But every now and then the mask is taken off, we get so gatvol, we have to vent our anger and frustration. The past July protests and looting is one such occasion. Continuing to avoid, not engage with this very crucial historical matter and wanting our focus to only be on the failures of us black people, in the form of corruption, State Capture, stealing. All of these are very important matters and yes, we must act decisively against the perpetrators and wrongdoers, but this does not take care of one of our most important issues, the “national question” (race).

Maya Angelou continues:

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.
There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.
My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.
They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

The sense of entitlement among our youth, the cries that we who participated in the anti-apartheid Struggle, including Mandela, have sold them out because they have no economic emancipation to date.

The racist policies around private property rights and section 25 of our Constitution contribute to this disenfranchisement. These are all matters that we must address soonest because the wearing of the masks might not last. To the youth I say, “but sugar, it was our submission that made your world go round”.

There is also racism that plays out with regards to this phenomenon of African foreigners and their employment in the country. I disagree with the EFF, Patriotic front and ActionSA and their misguided approach to this issue. I argue that besides the fact that by employing black South Africans you risk the possibility of them joining a union as permitted by law, there is also a healthy dose of racism involved.

Given our history in this country, I think it’s very difficult for whites to employ South African blacks because you will have to face up to misconceptions such as stupidity and incompetence, you will have to engage your employees as equal citizens with rights.

This is clearly proving too much for many white restaurant owners. So, they mention nonsensical arguments such as “they don’t have a good command of the English language” or they don’t have the necessary qualification and skills etc.

I’m not sure what exact sophisticated skills one needs to carry a plate of food or bring someone a cup of coffee.

I’m not arguing we should not employ foreign nationals but let’s be clear there are racist undertones that also inform this situation, especially in the hospitality industry. The Zondo report, the SIU Report and every other report or investigation are critical to protect our democracy, but we should not be fooled that for many whites this is also taken as reinforcing their racist beliefs and attitudes. After all, what did you expect from these blacks, it was just a matter of time.

Kendi makes the point, and I agree, “the gift of seeing myself as a black instead of colour blind is that it allows me to clearly see myself historically and politically as being an anti-racist, as a member of the interracial body striving to accept and equate and empower racial difference of all kinds”.

We all have a long path to traverse still, black and white in this our beloved country. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    As always, I really enjoy (no, wrong word, perhaps appreciate) your article. And I am nothing but a White Afrikaans Male (the hated specimen by so many), sometimes called a Dutchman, but have a deep sense of things that are right, and things that are wrong. But you know Oscar, what we think, and what we do, is so often shaped by those that make the laws, and those that govern us. SA is still young, still has to find its feet. But politicians makes it so very difficult for us, shaping our minds, our thoughts. Whenever I get into the mood that I am in right now, I always go back to a poem delivered by Amanda Gorman, a young Black girl, “The Hill I Climb”, delivered at Pres. Biden’s inauguration in Jan. 2021. And then I simply free myself as a person. A person that has feelings, beliefs, thoughts, wishes, and regrets. May your article receive the respect it deserves.

  • virginia crawford says:

    I really don’t believe that the looting and violence in July can be seen as an “anti-racist” protest. Frustration yes, anger yes. And while I agree that racism exists and is a problem, speaking as a woman, my biggest problem is not sexism or the threat of unprovoked violence from men, but a corrupt elite in this country, poor services and the gross inequality in our society. My advice: drop the mask, make it personal and call people out! Change happens from the bottom up. Women changed ( not destroyed) the patriarchy by daily opposition, argument and not smiling: erudite articles are not enough.

  • Hans Wendt says:

    Oscar is just another disgusting racist, who now that his political party of thieves, gangsters and racists gets exposed more each day, has to turn to the fall back on what racists love to do. Attack the white folks.
    People are now mentioning the figure of trillions, which got plundered, stolen, wasted by the ANC and their sycophants like Oscar.
    I’ve just returned home from touring the country, doing a tourist video series for a overseas company. What keeps impressing me is the goodwill the different people have. How most try and work towards harmony, peace and just getting on with their lives and each other.
    On Netflix there is a SA braai series. Black, white, Coloured, Indian, Chinese get along so well without any political fakeness. A reflection on how most South African get along.
    Then you get people like Oscar, the EFF nazis and most ANC politicians who keep stirring the race cauldron, wanting to generate hatred, anger, division.
    And the DM keeps printing this rubbish.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Oscar, with respect, I think you miss the point on deployment. Deployment a la ANC is too often an excuse to appoint the most lethargic, under-qualified, ‘loyal’ has-beens of the ruling party with a penchant for suitcases filled with cash that doesn’t belong to them. And then shifting them along when things get hot. That’s not a strategy for integration, transformation and development. It’s plain old patronage – pernicious in whatever colour it comes, and regardless of political affiliation.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    I am afraid that academic ideals of equality are divorced from the real world where people are born with different capabilities -even in the same family.
    To continue with the victim narrative that racism is the reason for the lack of the ability for some black people to improve the quality of their lives is patently untrue.
    Focus on getting education right, on freeing up the private sector to grow this economy regardless of who does it, as this is the only way we will have the resources to offer opportunity to those who wish to take it.
    Examine the cultures of peoples who have successfully improved the quality of their lives and you will begin to understand that a victim mentality was not present anywhere.
    There are many shining examples of black South Africans who are doing outstandingly well, precisely because they have chosen to simply get on with their lives and succeed despite any obstacles they may come across.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    A reading of the above article prompts further exploration of two,(among others)important topics- one, the question of the July unrest which left the country devastated.While there were elements of racial discord in its progression, there is overwhelming evidence that its primary cause was political,as it was essentially a war between two opposing factions (both predominantly black) of the ANC , having as its aim the destabilization of the country, spurred by anger at the incarceration ofJacob Zuma.How else explain the blocking of strategic economic arteries of the country, the extraordinary inactivity of the security forces , and the virtual silence from the Ramphosa leaning grouping?This was no foreign or race based war- this was raw internecine factionalism. 2)The question of cadre deployment- it is certainly not only the DA that is concerned about it- it is not popular with many people, both black and white , because it is unfairly exercised by the ANC which offers governmental positions , at municipal, provincial and national levels only to members of its own party. And because party membership is small in comparison to the size of the populace, the ABC is limited in its choices, resulting in the appointment of often totally unsuitable candidates without the requisite skills or professionalism for the position.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    Maya Angelou’s poetry cuts straight to my heart and I weep for the pain. This article carries much of the same pain and as a white woman, again I feel the need to apologize for what was done in the name of ‘whiteness’. The one weakness, or lack of acknowledgement perhaps, is that it tends to be a sweeping generalisation. Not all whites, blacks, greens or blues think the same way or believe in the same things. Not that this advances the debate – just saying. All I can do is my best…….

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