Time to re­think myths we South Africans tell our­selves

The Herald (South Africa) - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Gary Koeke­moer

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.