There was no rainbow and no pot of gold. The fight begun by young people in 1976 is not over, writes Malaika wa Azania.
Dear sons and daughters of the soil:
Let me begin by introducing myself briefly. My name is Malaika Lesego Samora Mahlatsi, a 22-year-old woman born and raised in Soweto. I am doing my second year of studies at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape.
I am a member of no political organisation and a leader of no structure. I hold no influence anywhere.
I am just an ordinary young person like you, growing up in a “post-apartheid” dispensation and trying to navigate through the harsh realities of being black in a racist country, and being a woman in a patriarchal society.
I speak about the harsh realities of blackness without any ambiguity. Most of us would want to believe that “post-apartheid” South Africa is a harmonious society where everyone gets along and loves each other so very much.
That is what we have been fed since the minute we slid out of our mothers’ uteruses. There’s even a cute poetic term for it: “rainbow nation”.
Some of you studied physical science in high school, so I am sure you are familiar with the acronym ROY G BIV.
For those of you who are not, ROY G BIV is a memory aid that is used to recall the order of the colours of a rainbow or the rainbow spectrum that is created when a prism breaks up white light by refracting different wavelengths (colours) of light by different amounts.
It stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
It is important, for the purpose of comprehending the crux of this letter that you remember what ROY G BIV stands for.
Equally important is that you realise that nowhere in the rainbow spectrum is there a colour called black.
It is rather interesting, then, that the term “rainbow nation” would be used to describe “post-apartheid” South Africa, a country whose demographic composition is such that blacks are in the majority.
But let me not get too philosophical, lest I be accused of drowning in apartheid nostalgia.
I want to posit that even those of us who did not witness the brutality of the apartheid regime are not unaware of the difficulties of being black in South Africa today.
Many of us who had the privilege of attending multiracial schools know only too well the institutionalised racism of the education system, at the level of epistemology and even the unwritten curriculum.
The mere fact that we are subjected to learning in English and Afrikaans – languages that are not our own (and only get to choose in Grade 10, too late, which native language to study as a first additional language) – in a South Africa where the white population is a minority, is itself telling about just how far we are from genuine equality.
I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself: “But with so much diversity in our country, surely it makes sense that a language like English be used as our lingua franca.”
There are more than 120 languages spoken in Tanzania, but the lingua franca is not English, or even a foreign language. It is kiSwahili.
This is also true for other countries within the East African regional bloc, such as Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya.
But years of indoctrination by white-produced knowledge has us convinced that not only is English the natural lingua franca in our country, but that South Africa’s ribal diversity makes it impossible to develop a lingua franca that is indigenous to us.
This cultural minoritisation of black people in our own countryis evidence of the depths of the living legacy of apartheid and, in fact, colonialism as a system.
But this is a debate for another day.
We know only too well the difficulties we face in our day-to-day lives, born from nothing but our class location that is a product of years of systematic economic and political subjugation.
Violence visits us in our daily lives. Those of us who grew up in the townships have seen the sheer brutality of black-on-black violence; from young boys stabbing each other over ama-dice money to women being sexually assaulted by young men who smoke nyaope to escape the cold cruelty of their aimless existence.
Black youth in rural areas know only too well the harsh conditions under which their parents work.
They witness daily the abuse meted out to their defeated and defenceless parents by farm owners who in some instances, still refer to us as “k****rs”.
Some of you are still perplexed by the issues I am raising. You cannot relate, because you are being raised in leafy suburbs under the most comfortable conditions.
The fact that there are so few blacks in your affluent neighbourhoods should in itself beg for critical analysis from you.
The fact that black people are a majority in this country and yet a minority in these luxurious suburbs should make you want to scratch beneath the surface to interrogate issues you may be taking for granted.
But it would be false to claim that all is doom and gloom.
Things are not entirely hopeless, and anyone who claims they are is economising with the truth.
There have been some improvements in this country which must be acknowledged and celebrated, albeit briefly.
I say briefly because there is a tendency in South Africa to be so caught up in celebrations that we forget to return our focus on the target of a genuinely united nation.
This tendency has led to us taking detours from the long road to freedom that we are travelling on. We have been so drunk with euphoria since 1994 that it is only now dawning on us that our reconciliation was a farce and our “rainbow nation” a myth.
I do not want you to read this letter and think I am encouraging you to drown in self-pity for having been born black and disadvantaged, or to direct resentment at your white friends for the privileges they continue to enjoy in an epoch in which blacks continue to be on the periphery of economic freedom.
That is not my intention. I love black people far too much to want to lock them in a prison of hatred and defeatism.
I am writing this letter in an attempt to draw you into a discussion around our role as the generation born into a democratic dispensation that is characterised by colonial constructs.
I am writing this letter in an attempt to awaken you to the reality that this popular narrative which seeks to suggest we are a “born free” generation is a false thesis designed to trap us into accepting the conditions of black people as a natural phenomenon rather than a systematic and structural imposition.
I am asking you not to be too comfortable about where we are as a country, lest that comfort induces forgetfulness. The thought that our generation is slowly forgetting a history that we should carry on our backs leaves me paralysed with fear.
I am afraid not only because forgetting where we come from is a diabolical injustice to our forefathers, who served, suffered and sacrificed their lives for even the little freedoms that we enjoy today, but because if we forget where we come from, we run the risk of not being adequately armed with tools needed to build the place we are going to.
Tomorrow is an important day in our country. It is a day that must be commemorated through reflection and not celebrated through partying up a storm, as has been the norm over the past few years.
It is a day that must remind us as young people how far this country has come.
It must remind us that on June 16, 1976, young people our age brought the apartheid regime to its knees.
Contrary to what your history teachers might have taught you (and I make this statement because I, too, am an unfortunate product of an education that teaches convenient falsehoods), those young people were not merely fighting against Afrikaans being used as medium of instruction.
They were not merely fighting against police presence in their schools, either.
The class of 1976 was fighting against a system that was designed to dehumanise black people and to render them inferior in every sense of the word.
They were fighting against an illegitimate government that was maintaining such a system that disenfranchised black people solely on the basis of their pigmentation.
They were fighting against a system that sought to foster disunity among black people through legislation that gave legitimacy to tribalism.
They were fighting against the unbearable violence of white racism. But above all, the class of ’76 was fighting so that we – me and you – would never have to experience such an inhuman reality, which sadly we still face to significant degrees.
We have a moral obligation to ensure these young warriors did not die in vain. And part of this is to continuously and honestly reflect on the trajectory of our democratic dispensation, with the intention of contributing, in whatever way we can, to ensuring that we fashion a higher civilisation for the generations to come.
There are many sites of struggle. Some of you might want to be active in party politics as a way of making your contribution.
Some of you might want to be active in academia and help produce progressive knowledge that is geared towards an African developmental agenda.
Some of you might want to contribute within the arts and find creative ways of conscientising our society. Some of you might want to use sports as a nation-building weapon.
It matters not where you locate yourselves (as long as it is not within the reactionary right-wing bloc). It only matters that you contribute to the continuous struggle of giving the black nation back its dispossessed dignity.
It matters only that in your own way, you contribute not just to the struggle for economic freedom, but to the even more pertinent struggle: the struggle of memory against forgetting.
We must dare to imagine a new South Africa in which reconciliation is not without justice, and unity is not without equality.
And I know, without a shadow of doubt, that with us young people resetting our priorities and dedicating ourselves to continuing the legacy of our warrior forefathers, another Africa is possible.