Being the majority demographic, as black people, does not guarantee that we set the agenda culturally, and institutionally.
CONVERSATION 1: On self-doubt: Dear black South Africans. It’s the morning after we celebrated 20 years of freedom. And, as you’re slowly getting out of bed, rubbing the sleep out your eyes, I wonder how you feel about black life in post-apartheid South Africa.
The boring “on balance” truth of is that there is much to be proud of, much to bemoan, much more to do. But can we talk about our continued inferiority complexes? I had that fantastic South African, Pallo Jordan, on my radio show the other day and we sparred on this point.
He agreed many black South Africans suffered post-traumatic stress fighting apartheid and that the state could have done more over the past 20 years to provide services to attend to their – to our – mental well-being.
But his overall view is an optimistic one, that the average black Joe is a more confident being, that even domestic workers are thriving psychologically, knowing and asserting their rights.
I think Pallo is wrong, bantu. The brutal truth is that we need black consciousness more than ever before. Yes, we need economic freedom, and to deal inequality a death blow.
But I am deeply saddened by how many black South Africans are still not authors of their own lives, still not sure about their inherent dignity, still not confident that they can set and achieve goals they value deeply.
This is not just the absence of opportunity. This speaks to a broken psychology, the imprint of Verwoerd’s assault on our self-belief. Why do we talk economics – and politics – but not psychology, and yet we remain the black South Africans Biko wrote about at the time of his death?
Even university-educated black professionals and economically empowered black South Africans often battle self-doubt once you scratch beneath their material comfort. This is a conversation starter, a plea to put this topic on the agenda. How will we become confident citizens who do not feel inferior to anyone?
This brings me to a related thought. If you think I might be unkind to us black people with this analysis, why are we still, after 20 years of freedom, having conversations about how to transform the corporate sector, the media environment, our schools and other spaces?
Simple: being the majority demographic does not guarantee that you set the agenda culturally and institutionally.
It is time we wrote the script, rearranged the furniture, and build institutions reflecting our black identities authentically. Let’s stop mimicking identities that a minority have shaped. Until we stop mimicking, and start asserting our authentic selves, freedom will remain a mere reference to the right to vote. But we dare not embrace such a thin idea conception of freedom.
Let’s talk about the mental freedom eluding us still.
Yours in fighting self-doubt,
CONVERSATION 2: On unearned privileges. Dear white South Africans who were born after apartheid and white South Africans born before democracy who did not directly construct a racist state. You do not inherit the sins of your fathers and mothers and friends. Certainly I think you should not. You are not them. You were not them. And why should you be directly responsible for their moral, legal and political sins?
I’m especially sympathetic to you, 16-year-old Kobus Verwoerd, who never met evil Oupa Hendrik, who trampled on the dignity of most people in our country based only on their skin colour being different to his.
You cannot be responsible for what Hendrik did. You were but a future foetus then.
But guys – and ladies – I’m afraid moral and social obligations don’t arise only when we did things wrong ourselves.
We also have duties when we benefit wrongly. Kobus, the pizza you ate yesterday, bought with the trust fund from Oupa, which Xolani, 6 years old in Langa, will never eat, is a benefit you did not choose but which wrongly came your way because of Oupa Hendrik’s sins.
And yes I know, 23-year-old unemployed Charlize Vermeulen, you don’t have a trust fund.
But you don't get assumed to be dumb when you walk into an interview, unlike Siphokazi.
Why? Because white skin signals talent till proved otherwise. Black skin, laziness till proved otherwise. Cool huh?
You must see this stuff. Or choose not to.
And you must see that you have a moral conscience and an ability to reflect on this injustice of benefiting wrongly from someone else’s moral sins.
So in conclusion: you did not sin. I grant you that. Unreservedly.
But you benefit from sin. And you have a duty to make amends. Please acknowledge this.
Unless and until you do, we can’t get on with the next question: How can I make amends as a white person, young or old, for benefiting arbitrarily and so unjustly from the past, still?
Yours, in post-apartheid honesty.