Time to rethink myths we South Africans tell ourselves
OUR national dialogue suffers from two ailments.
The first is the perpetual loop of shouting at each other from our unassailable moral high ground.
The second is fighting about the easy stuff – in looking for quick wins we remain entertained by sensationalism and blind ourselves to anything of substance. Why the blind loop? Fear? Better the distraction of fighting with your fellow passengers as the bus goes off the edge of the cliff, than staring with clenched teeth out of the front windscreen at the inevitable?
A picture recently appeared on social media: two young black matriculants showing off their “we’re-out-of-here” trophy shirts.
Nothing untoward in that – thousands of school shirts have suffered the same fate. But this was a photo with a difference. Scrawled on one shirt were the words, “EFF our last hope of getting the land back”.
Then it went viral when an old boy of the same school, now a prominent cricket personality living in the UK, responded with (sic), “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? Total disrespect for a once GREAT school! Are you joking?!?! ?????? ”
And so, what should have been a moment of celebration became instead a black and white roulette wheel of outrage and indignity that lit up social media for a brief moment. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone was right. But often the fight in the stands is more vicious than the one on the field.
From the (post ’94 – the new South Africa) old-boy section of the stands came this pearl: “When white people got to South Africa, the only thing blacks had were the mud hut and the spear . . . if white people hadn’t come here, you people would still be hunter gatherers, running around naked, killing each other...”
Grab some popcorn, switch off the soap opera, things are getting mean and nasty in a very hot kitchen.
But before we bring the house down, let’s do a quick detour that may provide a different way to view this persistent big whopper.
According to Dean McCleland’s blog, Port Elizabeth of Yore: Early Black Settlements, Nelson Mandela Bay’s first in-town black settlement came about when – on June 27 1855 – Governor Sir George Grey formally granted land at the top of Hyman’s Kloof (Russell Road) abutting the cemetery for the establishment of a “Stranger’s Location where Hottentots (Khoi), Fingos (Mfengus) and other strangers visiting Port Elizabeth may temporarily reside”.
In time, a further three black “locations” were established – Cooper’s Kloof at the top of Albany Road, Gubb’s Location on Gubb’s property in Mill Park and the Reservoir Location at the top of Mount Road. Today nothing remains of those settlements. The reason for this is that some 50 years later, when the Boers and the Brits were at war, the bubonic plague came to town.
The plague arrived via rats that had stowed away in the British troops’ horse feed.
And so in 1901, Port Elizabeth recorded 105 cases of bubonic plague – 84 black and 21 white people.
The plague (also known as “the Black Death” that swept the world in the 14th century killing an estimated 50 million people) originates from an infection caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis and is transmitted to humans by means of the bite of an infected rat flea.
Before the outbreak the local authority of Port Elizabeth had been trying to solve the dual problem of an expanding city needing prime land and faction fighting between the four black settlements. The preferred solution: relocate all black people to a new combined location – to be known as the Race Course Location.
The plague, however, provided an opportunity and so, in part response to white fears about threats to “public” health, black people were served with notices of eviction by the police and moved to New Brighton instead.
The nature of the relocation allowed access to government finance for that purpose, thus saving the growing city the expense of establishing the proposed Race Course Location.
As of 1903, black people were left with two choices of residence: the official location at New Brighton, or the unofficial area of Korsten which fell outside the bylaws of Port Elizabeth.
The relocation to New Brighton was conducted with great “efficiency”.
As per the Public Works Department’s report to parliament in 1903, the new location included a total of 87 buildings for single “natives”, each hut being 34m by 5.5m and divided into nine rooms capable of housing 45 people.
The report emphasised the savings made by purchasing some of the units from the military authorities.
Note the emphasis on the savings, not the fact that each person only had 4m² in which to live.
In 1904 the report commented that “the whole of the location has been fenced in with a strong ten-strand barbed wire fence for the better control of the inhabitants. Gates have been provided and fixed at suitable places.”
That doesn’t sound like a residential suburb, it sounds like a concentration camp!
Steve Biko (in 1977) had the insight that black people suffered from “a psychological feeling of inferiority which was deliberately cultivated by the system” and that white people needed to defeat the converse, “the one problem which they had, which was one of ‘superiority’ ”.
Inferiority and superiority share the same root – the fear that we are not good enough.
As the plague bacteria is hosted by the flea that piggybacks on the rat that kills the human, so too is our primal fear hosted by partial truths and rides in on the back of racial and cultural difference.
If allowed to grow in the shadows it will kill our humanity.
The white superiority myth of “we brought the gifts of civilisation to Africa”, as told in this social media tale, is an example of how we’re trapped in the loop of banging-our-heads-against-a-wall. It goes nowhere. The myth fails on a number of fronts: besides its historical and socio-economic inaccuracy, it’s not the full picture.
Whites brought other “gifts” – disease being one and inhumane administration the other.
If we wish to be recognised for the good, we can’t ignore the bad or hide away from the ugly.
But the myth’s greatest failure is how we don’t understand the impact of its telling.
How does any black parent (having lived through apartheid) explain this to his or her social media-savvy child?
How is it possible that, in 2017, a young white person still holds up as fact that black people were saved from savagery by white people?
If we want a different future we have to rethink the myths we tell ourselves, the greatest one being that if we keep repeating the same “truths”, somehow we’ll end up with a different outcome.
‘ Better the distraction of fighting with your fellow passengers as the bus goes off the edge of the cliff, than staring out of the windscreen at the inevitable
Gary Koekemoer is a facilitator and has a doctorate on race currently under construction.