Testing resilience of racial cultural ID

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si racism INLSA DURBAN 280208: RACIAL integration remains a cherished ideal at many KwaZulu-Natal schools. Teachers unions say racism is more widespread than is perceived PICTURE: Shelley Kjonstad

My Mozambican friends are huge fans of matapa. Matapa is a Mozambican variation of morogo. Here’s why this phenomenon struck me as noteworthy: my Mozambican friends are a racially diverse group of people, comprising blacks, whites and mulatos.

Upon reflection, it became apparent that what I actually found endearing was that my white Mozambican friends enjoy a traditionally black dish. What can I say? Hi, my name is Fumani, a product of a racially divided South Africa.

Predictably, though unfortunately so, most white South Africans reading this article right now have no idea what morogo is and an even slimmer minority enjoy it to the point of inclusion in their regular diets.

It therefore stands to reason that I’d do a happy dance in some shame-worthy crevice of my heart were I to discover a white person with a real taste for morogo. Or maybe not. The point is that despite our conscious attempts to outgrow our conditioning, it remains very rare to see white people indulging in black culture.

True to our conditioning, however, a Venda friend’s appreciation of umqushu is not likely to elicit a mention, unless we find ourselves really strapped for small-talk. The reason is that despite the vast differences between these cultures, there’s an assumed one-ness around blackness that seems to dissolve ethnic distance.

Thus, while I expect a white child born in Tzaneen to speak only their mother tongue, I would find it shocking if a black child of Zulu descent born in Tzaneen didn’t also speak one of the local “black” languages.

Ironically then, one of the effects of apartheid was to create an opportunity for the forcefully united to form cultural ties based on knowledge, appreciation and trust. It is thus worth arguing that we limit our prospects for understanding our society if our conception of the Rainbow Nation limits race to a political category and remains blind to race as culture.

In South Africa, race has been constructed to subsume all other identities so that South Africa’s Indians in fact comprise anyone from South Asia to the Middle East.

It therefore follows that those groups with a long history of social integration as imposed on them through political classification, have gone beyond politics and have developed cultural identities within their races.

In other words, there are shared patterns of belief and behaviour that have been transmitted to successive generations.

Therefore, while it is true that no dark-skinned child is born with the innate ability to do the hlokoloza, it has somehow become a norm that all blacks, from Cape to Makhado, enjoy kwaito, watch Generations and wear Kick & Bobozas to funerals. And trust that if a MuSwati gogo from Mpumalanga discovers a new variation of the three-bean salad at a wedding in KZN, she will take it upon herself to introduce it to her community when she returns.

Black culture is thus reproduced through the expectation that all blacks are or can be the same. These rich and far-reaching cultural ties, born out of an imposed political construct, are true for all South African races and have specific implications for our economy of social and political trust.

It is indeed necessary to acknowledge that the resilience of race as a cultural identity is being tested by the class diversity that is emerging within each racial grouping. Nevertheless, in today’s South Africa, it is ignorant to the point of insulting to reduce the race-culture-trust nexus to the realm of the irrational.

Despite this, it might be worth assuming that what many of us remain unable to understand is that trust is born out of different types of experiences. It is true that someone who delivers what they say they will is worthy of my trust. However, there is a level of trust that goes beyond the literal.

We also trust people who demonstrate a genuine understanding of who we are, who recognise the validity of our experiences and are capable of seeing our humanity even when we falter. The latter dimension of the “trust-economy”, although subtler, tends to embed itself in the memory and is often responsible for demonstrating the hypocrisy of dominant cultures masquerading as “open societies”.

Let me share my own microcosm experience by way of an example that I believe is generalisable across different contexts.

I was born in 1984, raised in a township but did all my schooling in a previously all-white school, like many of my peers. Despite being situated in a small, conservative town on the East Rand, our school demonstrated an aggressive attitude towards the question of integration.

As a result, we were recording leadership firsts in the form of black prefects and sports captains long before Mandela became president. My best friend for the majority of my school years was a white girl. We were academic, cultural and sporting replicas of each other, evidence of the non-essential nature of race.

Thus, in the diversity bubble that was our school, I honestly believed myself to be equal to everyone, differentiated only by the merits of my results and attitude.

This was my perception, back then. While I continue to celebrate my school for its leadership and progressiveness, I have become more critical of the version of “open society” politics that was actually at play.

Therefore, I retrospectively see it as also having been a petri dish of how a refined regime of discipline and reward can conceal a dominant culture in the language of diversity and openness.

Because this is the other side of our reality: our school, as with many multi-racial schools, only tolerated “disciplined” expressions of otherness, be that blackness, colouredness or whatever. The “others” earned the legitimacy of their identities through possessing some kind of combination of “good” English, grades, respectfulness, submissiveness or at the very least, wealthy parents.

On the contrary, the norms and values of our school were a natural progression for the white pupils. Therefore, when a white boy with grades low enough to warrant standard-grade English challenged a teacher, it was seen as annoying and at worst, worthy of suspension. When black boys of equally limited value to the project displayed similar disregard for the rules, they were expelled.

At the heart of this tolerance/ intolerance, were cultural values relating to behaviour and thus the possibilities for discipline and ultimately, transformation.

Something about a white boy with the nerve to scream out “I don’t care, go ahead and tell my parents Mrs So-and-so!” was perceived as less threatening than a black boy loudly proclaiming (in a black accent) “Aaaaaaaah Mam! You see Mam!”

And thus while we all, at least as pupils, instinctively felt the injustice, we also suffered a conceptual inability to fully articulate the ways in which these varied responses by the authorities were expressions of racially embedded cultural intolerance.

Furthermore, because there were many black kids like myself, who had been so well-conditioned in the dominant culture of our school, there existed no reason for the authorities to be deeply reflective about the implications of white culture as a determinant of legitimacy in our context.

The question of delinquency is no doubt a preoccupation of the school system. However, it is quite instructive as a lens into societal contexts and the cultural values that underpin what is deemed as right or wrong, punishable or forgivable, threatening or capable of rehabilitating.

In the case of South African race relations then, there still exist fundamental differences in how we interpret norms and behaviour based on the racial-cultural filter through which we see the world. Thus, we continue to find safety if people who we assume to share our cultural backgrounds are party to decisions about our inclusion or exclusion.

This safety is not born out of a blinding irrationality that fails to make the connection between my black local councillor who failed to build RDP houses and his future likelihood to disappoint. It also interacts with other trust factors such as the accommodation of my reality and experiences in determining how resources should be allocated, whether I deserve that promotion in spite of my rickety English and so on.

It’s complicated. However, to ask people to negate these very real and sometimes scarring experiences of the continued and unjustified supremacy of the dominant culture is to completely misunderstand how trust is constituted in society. Indeed, the truly irrational agent is the one who uses their X to expand the power of groups they have yet to see take a trip to their side of the rainbow.

n Mthembi is an entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector. She writes in her personal capacity as a commentator.


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