In December 2016, Tshepo Makobela went to visit his paternal homestead in Bochum, Limpopo, during the small town’s hottest period - but found young black women dressed warmly and covered up.
As someone who was from Katlehong in Ekurhuleni, the sight of young women dressed in winter clothing during summer shocked him to a point where he eventually asked them why this was the case.
“The young women told me they covered up in summer in order to gain a lighter complexion for them to be able to attract guys from Gauteng like me, who come to Limpopo during the December holidays,” Makobela told The Star.
“I immediately became shocked at the lengths women would go to attract men, especially because I had heard about bleaching and all these skin-lightening creams that were used to gain lighter complexions.”
And, just like that, a light bulb went on in Tshepo Makobela’s mind, which led to his distinction-awarded Master’s thesis from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Perceptions of Black Men in Katlehong about Female Yellow Bones: A Case Study.
It is an interesting 133-page academic study, which lucidly traces the origins of inferiority complexes among black people as a direct result of colonialism and its repressive spawn apartheid, while also delving into intricate concepts such as colourism and patriarchy.
Makobela interviewed 18 young males from his hometown of Katlehong, aged between 18 and 26, for what he called his qualitative study in order to “describe, understand and explain human behaviour”.
He said he selected participants who either are or were in romantic relationships with light-skinned women.
The responses from the participants were varied and interesting, including one from a 23-year-old street vendor, who said he regularly recited mini poems whenever he encountered a “yellow bone” in the street.
“You know, saying: ‘Ey bathi veties and lemonies (hello light one like lemon cream) yellow bone, mntana ugeza ngo bisi ugcobisa nge botoro (the one who baths with milk and moisturises with butter),’” is the poem the street vendor is said to recite.
Others readily admit that societal norms influence their views on women’s skin colour, with a 20-year-old footballer saying: “Whenever I see a light-skinned woman, I think she is pretty without looking at other features. But that’s what has been customised in my mind.
“That’s what has been drilled according to society, according to what I see in the media.”
There are large sections within the study which focuse on the negative representations of dark-skinned women in the entertainment industry, which Makobela says causes inferiority complexes among women of a darker hue.
Asked why he chose the term “yellow bone”, which is largely seen to be derogatory, Makobela said it was to appeal to people whom he wanted to engage with his study.
“If I had used colourism, the study would have been elitist and remained within academic circles. That’s not what I want.”
He admitted that this was far from being a complete analysis as the sample and geographical size was too small, but hoped to expand on it in the future.
The link to the full thesis is publicly available at Makobela’s LinkedIn profile, as well as on UJ’s website.