Does blackness have a heart?

JOE SLOVO, David Webster, Neil Aggett, Harold Wolpe, Michael Lapsley, Ruth First, Helen Joseph, Lionel Bernstein, Beyers Naude, Bram Fischer, Trevor Huddleston, Peter Hain, just some of the many activists classified as white by the apartheid government, and yet also instrumental in its downfall.

In today’s revisionist climate, the contributions of such persons, many of whom lost their lives, were imprisoned or tortured by the racist regime, have been brushed aside, conveniently forgotten, all but removed from history, or relegated to marginalia by a new wave of critics. If they are remembered at all, then their contributions are cast as meaningless and trivial to a new black agenda.

Bongani Madonda’s jaundiced communiqué written following the intervention of author Lauren Beukes in a spat at the Franschhoek literary festival over recently released apartheid war criminal (and erstwhile autobiographer), Eugene De Kock   is but one example. “Whiteness,” he opines “with its reasonable blacks, will remain whiteness to the majority of black folks who cannot even afford a book, let alone be invited to a book event teeming with whiteness,”he says.

Madonda’s communiqué  upon further investigation, appears as much a critique directed at the festival, as to its participants, than the particularities of the episode in question, but in grappling with all three themes, the result is something a lot less desirable.

“Chasing De Kock from the event, and by implication the festival, is a dishonest act aimed at expunging whiteness of its guilt. If De Kock is a beast, he is a white beast, a product of beastly whiteness that protected and maintained the racial, economic and cultural privilege of all white folks including liberals and white cosmopolites who would rather we swallow the Kool-Aid lie that they were all down with the black folks during the now sexed up “Struggle”.”

The same nauseating theme is repeated by Kwanele Sosibo writing in the Mail and Guardian, but in a more solicitous vein, who instead poses the question of building and creating alternative narratives: “White people civilising each other are irrelevant to a black agenda” he argues. “Paying this act any attention is to service it. It stops short of the necessary work of rolling up sleeves and getting dirty in the name of building something new.”

“A failure to do this means, with each successive festival in the mould of Franschhoek, the post-mortems lead to blacker-than-thou posturing, which does not advance a progressive cause.The fact that some black writers and lovers of literature have moved on to creating their own alternatives (such as the recently held Rutanang Book Fair and initiatives such as Long Story Short) and grapple with how to make their work more available to black audiences means there is no time like now for black readers and writers to take a stand.”

What is worrying about these often badly articulated counter-narratives and the supposed critique of Beukes’ intervention, and notwithstanding the problems posed by the Franschhoek festival itself, (a location that leaves much to the imagination), is that such criticism tends to negate the formation legend of our own nation. The Mandelarist great history of an epic struggle between good and bad, a tale of competing isms, of racism and non-racism, which turn under the hand of these latter day critics, into a mere competition between trends — a simplistic binary opposition of blackness and whiteness.

In, “The rise of a new black racism in South Africa“, Ebrahim Harvey criticises this reductionism as ahistorical and also bound up with structuralism. In his elegantly argued piece, he notes:

“We are all very familiar with the reality of white racism for so long – centuries in fact – that [a number of] false beliefs appeared to have taken root. One was that all white people are racists. The argument for this was that they all benefitted to a greater or lesser extent from apartheid policies. But there were many whites under apartheid who were totally opposed to that racist system and were in fact imprisoned for their beliefs. Others refused to be conscripted into a white racist army in defense of apartheid and as a result either went to jail or into exile for their beliefs. Surely they could not have been regarded as racists.”

“In the final analysis” he says, “not all racism is structurally related, for example, about the economy. It also exists at the level of ideas, attitudes, conduct and behavior, even if there were no structural causes for racism or it was outlawed. For example, if a black man said that he dislikes or hates all whites – despite the eradication of racism from the statute books and the political, legal and constitutional changes since 1994 – it would be correct to call him a racist. On the other hand many whites who fought against apartheid consistently would not deserve to be called racist.”

The views articulated by Madonda and Sosibo are dangerous, the least of which is the underlying racism involved in defining everyone according to apartheid-era race classification and the quasi-science of blood quantum. The latest trend of issuing forth on a tired theme also punted by the apartheid government, by adding the suffix “ness”, apparently to give the project academic credibility, is nothing but a shop-soiled retread. Not even mag wheels will get the taxi to the station.

Published in Cape Times and Natal Mercury 4 May 2016