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We need to raise our defiant voices

Families against the closure of Life Esidimeni Hospital march to the Gauteng Department of Health to hand over their memorandum to the health MEC. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Families against the closure of Life Esidimeni Hospital march to the Gauteng Department of Health to hand over their memorandum to the health MEC. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Published Feb 12, 2017

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Xolela Mangcu asks: How many massacres will it take for black people to wake up to the danger this government poses to our very existence?

I am at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) at the invitation of vice-chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Dean of Social Sciences, and the departments of History, African American and African Studies. My talk is on "Cultural Racism in South Africa and the US in the Age of Donald Trump". Being here gives me the same kind of wistfulness that I expressed about my visit to the British Museum about two weeks ago.

I walked away from both visits with the feeling that academic institutions elsewhere in the world are more curious about black intellectual history than our own universities, especially on the relationship between history and race.

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As I pointed out in my talk, and in my book, The Colour of Our Future, the beginnings of race and racism did not start with skin colour. Modern racism began in the 15th century with the persecution of Jews and Muslims by the Christian church during the Spanish Inquisition.

If Europeans had used religion and ethnicity to persecute Jews, skin colour became the marker of such persecution after maritime traders came into contact with west Africans. The German philosopher, Alexander Humboldt, drew a connection between religious and skin-based racism as follows: “In Spain it is a kind of title of nobility not to descend from Jews or Moors. In America, the skin, more or less white, is what dictates the class an individual occupies in society. A white, even if he rides barefoot on horseback, considers himself to be a member of the nobility of the country."

Robert Sobukwe made the point just as eloquently: “Thus, it is that an ex-engine driver can think of himself as fully qualified to be the head of the government of an African state, but refuse to believe that a highly educated black doctor, more familiar with Western culture than the white premier is, cannot even run a council."

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When the biblical justifications of racism proved untenable, Europeans began to look to science to justify continued subjugation of black people. The effort to assert European supremacy was so desperate that in 1912, British scientists forged the Piltdown Man as fossil evidence of the European origins of humanity.

It took what Saul Dubow called the “traumatic experience of the Holocaust” for a shift in racist thinking towards a more cultural approach. Also, IQ tests in which black kids were doing better than Afrikaner children were an embarra-ssment to theorists of white supremacy. This was followed by a shift towards a cultural argument for separate development or apartheid, but this too was based on shaky foundations. The idea of separate homelands with different tribes living in them was both intellectual and historically incoherent.

In his latest book, Secure the Base, Ngugi wa Thiong’o points to the absurdity of using the term “tribe” to refer to millions of Ibos, while 300 000 Icelanders are referred to as a nation.

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When racism as cultural separatism did not work, it took on a more sociological character. The argument was no longer that black and white should be apart. It was that bringing blacks into white institutions would amount to a lowering of standards. As the saying goes, “a rose by any other name would remain as sweet”.

In his amazing book, Stamped from the Beginning, Ibrahim X Kendi helps us understand this latest turn in racism’s long intellectual journey. Kendi argues that many proponents of sociological racism are not necessarily hateful of black people. They do what anyone in a position of privilege would do to protect their interests. Professors are thus fearful of changes in the curriculum because that might just put a spotlight their own incompetence.

While they are too happy to say black scholars are not qualified or ready to become professors, questions can be asked also about their own competence: how competent can you really be when you do not understand the languages spoken by 90% of the population? Is it really competent for sociology students to be taught the same material that I was taught 30 ago - Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons - as if Africans have had nothing to say or write about society all these past 200 years of their encounter with colonialism and apartheid? Gimme a break.

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If we are to produce students who can stand their own among their peers around the world, then we must dig deep into the black intellectual archive - as Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates jr argues in this edition of this newspaper.

Civil societies must take the lead in turning the nation into a classroom, and not to be afraid to claim SEK Mqhayi or Sol Plaatje or Phyllis Ntantala or Steve Biko as our canon. It is in that spirit that I will be inviting students to join me in discussions with Ngugi wa Thiong’o between March 1 and 6. Martin Luther King jr once said, “Our lives come to an end when we become silent about things that matter.”

My heart aches at the tragedy of Esidimeni, and I ask myself, as Gibson Kente once did: “How long?” How long will black people continue to turn a blind eye to the tragedy inflicted on defenceless and innocent people by the very same government that was meant to be their liberators?

Thousands of people perished while Thabo Mbeki was trying to be clever about HIV/Aids. Now, Jacob Zuma has presided over two mass deaths - Marikana and Esidimeni. How many massacres will it take for black people to wake up to the danger this government poses to our very existence? A question Biko once asked about the apartheid government.

It is the question we must ask ourselves about Zuma’s government - if our cries for the people who perished in Esidimeni are not just crocodile tears.

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