Black Looks, 12 June 2008
by Andile Mngxitama
The sms’s came fast and furious. As furious as the fiery images we were subjected to by our television and our daily newspapers. The front pages are a festival of beastly pictures of the victims of the negrophobic bloodletting which has gripped South Africa in the past weeks. I dreaded opening a newspaper for days – afraid of being confronted by yet another grisly product of the negrophobic xenophobic violence, which by the end of week three had claimed the lives of about one hundred people and displaced about 100 000, according to some estimates. The mind spins out of the axis of the normal.
As the Alexander Township burnt, I was reading text messages from my cappuccino-loving Tito Mboweni-fearing middle class friends. The messages were generally along these lines; “I’m so embarrassed to be South African right now”, or more engaging: “I’m so tired of feeling angry about this and not being able to do something about it…” . Email lists held similar messages of shame; at least Winnie Madikizela-Mandela went to Alexander and told the terrified victims cramped at the police station; “We are sorry, please forgive us. South Africans are not like this”, before hopping back into her nice car and driving back to her life. Desmond Tutu, our beloved archbishop of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) followed with another “sorry, we are not like that”. The leader of the narrow Zulu nationalist movement, Dr Gatsha Buthelezi, went to the police station as well and cried for the cameras, at the same time as his followers from the hostel he had just addressed continued their war cry that they would kill all the “foreigners”, Hambani! Of course our president in waiting, Mr Jacob Zuma, was also told by an angry crowd, “go back to Mozambique with your Mozambiquens”. Apparently his favourite solo “Mshini wam” is sung by the marauding gangs as they go about their murderous deeds. The killings, burning and looting continued. Something has definitely broken, the despised are telling their leaders in their faces that they must all go to hell.
A former fiery revolutionary, now a sadistic tax collector friend, phoned one night, also indignant, saying “we need to do something”. He decried the barbarism of the Alexander attackers. The next days, an sms announced the clarion call; “fight xenophobia! Donate food, clothes and money if possible”. I thought about a nice warm latte as an incentive for risking ones life and limb in the fight against Xenophobia via ones cheque book. Donating your last summer wardrobe is a great revolutionary act, these days. The limited imagination of my fellow cappuccino sipping buddies defies logic. But it’s the hypocrisy I find even more interesting. We are not like them!
I must state that one of my friends has been working non stop even on weekends to try do something to ease the hardships of the refugees now cramped in police stations and other camps. Yes, everyone who has been displaced by the violence is now a refugee according to our media. If you ask any black African who has been trying to get refugee status in South Africa you will soon realise that you have a better chance of success at being a midwife to a lioness than being declared a refugee in this land of Mandela. I ask my exhausted friend, but why don’t you cook a big meal once in a while and send it down to our permanent refugee camps? She burst out laughing. Truth is the many squatter camps which host millions of South Africans are nothing but permanent refugee camps. The multitudes that are trapped in these squatter camps are the excluded of our democracy. Their lives are punctuated by violence 24/7. The multiple violence of hunger, denigration, hopelessness and perpetual terror of what the state is going to do next, what dust bowl would follow are everyday accompaniments. The poetry of the Abahlali baseMjondolo tells the story of legalised state sponsored violence against the squatters better. Their story is indeed the story of the millions of other squatters.
Week two: In slow motion the human rights industry, the government and social movements started to respond to the violence. Frantic meetings were called. The donor world opened its humanitarian wallets. For the first time in a long time I heard that “money was not the problem”. So besides the weekly meetings coordinated by our Chapter 9 institutions (the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality, the Office of the Public Protector etc), the social movements called a march through Hillbrow.
We are watching news on TV again. A man comes onto our screens holding his weapon of death and shouting; “they must go! They take our jobs and houses”. Someone shouts behind him; “they also take our women!” My female companion reacts spontaneously, “Ya right as if any woman would be interested in you”. The mayhem continues to other parts of Gauteng. I call a comrade who lives in a hostel, one of the places from which the most vicious violence came from. He says “this thing is solving some problem”. There is more than twenty seconds silence between the lines. “What does it solve?”, “I can’t talk on the phone”. The middle class is out of touch with the thoughts of the riff raff. I’m angry.
The squatter camps continue to burn, the death toll rises, three demands from both the chapter 9s and civil society become solidified: bring in the army, set up special courts to try the perpetrators and declare a moratorium on arrests and deportations of black Africans. Later a fourth call emerges, where is the president of the country?
The soldiers come in, the special court has been prepared, but a moratorium on deporting the undesirables is proving tricky. The relevant minister has issued a statement, some people celebrated, but they didn’t read the small print; she said, “Possible suggestions included issuing temporary residence permits,”
I think it is here where champagnes corks were popped, but in the haste to celebrate we didn’t hear her say “so that everyone in the country would at least be recorded and fingerprinted, in the interests of security and stability”.
Tell you what, if I’m black and from the African continent and have seen what the government of South Africa has done to us in the past 14 years I would run away with my finger prints. The post-1994 state regularly sends out the message that black Africans are undesirables. The media portrays “illegals” as criminals, there is everyday public harassment by the police and the home affairs department. These are part of the undeclared war against black Africans. The Lindela repatriation centre is a concentration camp reserved solely for black Africans. There are no white kwerekweres in our country. If you are white you get your papers chop chop, actually you don’t need them because no police are going to be strip searching you in the street. Cynically, some of the politicians denouncing the Alex people are beneficiaries of Lindela blood money.
As it always happens, the psychology of violence operates on the basis of the weakest link. The kwerekweres are already marked out for harassment by state institutions. Now the poor citizenry are finishing off the job in a demented frenzy. Now we are calling on the same government to help quell the violence it has helped structure. We have a crisis on our hands, thinking is outlawed
If one paid attention and looked carefully at the body language of those of us who have expressed the most outrage at this barbarity you would see that our concerns are unified by one main consideration – we are not like them, the mad backward, blood thirsty barbarians who don’t know what we are all Africans. They are stupid idiotic fools, sies bayasinyanyisa! I think about the hidden relief of Ivan’s friends in Tolystoy’s short masterpiece “the death of Ivan Ilych”. At one point Tolstoy reports; “In addition to speculations as to the possible changes and promotions which the news of his death gave rise to, the very fact of the death of one they had known so well made each of the rejoice that it was his friend rather than himself who had died”. In this case, we the enlightened middle classes are in some ways delighted that it was not us who burnt the kwerekweres. We wouldn’t do something like that, would we now? Tolstoy says it better: “Fancy that: he is dead, I’m not”. They are evil barbarians, we are not. They would be condemned, we shall not. We condemn them. Our government also saw the opening and its message has been self righteous, driving Professors Mamdani and Terreblanche to retort;
“We read in the paper that the conflicts in the townships betray the leaders of the struggle in South Africa. But is it not the other way around; that people feel betrayed because they continue to live in apartheid-like conditions?”
The Saturday morning of the march we gather at a park on the base of Hillbrow, the notorious and controversial seedy suburb long abandoned by god and whites. Colourful scuffs, branded clocks shoes, babies strapped on backs or on trendy prams, it’s a happy multiracial march of the enlightened. We snake through Hillbrow, the dangerous suburb we can’t be caught dead in. There are teary moments when a building full of hands waves at our couragous and righteous stand. We wave back, we whistle and clap hands, it’s a cool sixties like moment – “ one love!”- black and white together, it’s a reassuring illusion. We are euphoric; the lapsed left of yesteryear which has given to minting. It has also come out of the woodwork as well, the golf course can wait until later. Together.
It’s better to think of this outbreak of black violence as some atavistic unexplainable black lashing out at the black. Some deep black thing still untamed by our white God and white education. A failed socialisation process. Civilisation has not yet touched the deep recesses of these barbarians. But at least we are not like them. To think of this violence as a consequence of the relatively comfortable lives we lead would be too much, but if we look at the wealth enjoyed by our white counterparts, if you follow the money trail, historically you will see that the creation of Sandton (that super rich suburb) was made possible by the creation of the sprawling Alexandra (favella right at its door step). Alexandra is the direct product of Sandton. This is a troubling formulation: it points an accusatory finger at the rich. And to be rich is to be white. It says “the violence you see is an outcome of the plunder of your forbearers”.
Long ago Steve Biko, echoing Fanon, explained the love of violence for the excluded. He said “Township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood. There we see a situation of absolute want, in which black will kill black to be able to survive. This is the basis of vandalism, murder, rape and plunder that goes on while the real sources of evil—white society—are sun-tanning on exclusive beaches or relaxing in their bourgeois homes.” (IW 75).
This negrophobic violence is not new, anyone who lives in a township or squatter camp knows that it is your brothers who will be slaughtering you for your cell phone when the sun goes down at night. Now, this violence has been externalised to the kwerekweres, they are easy targets, like the woman walking alone at night. Go to any township or squatter camp on a Saturday or Sunday and see how Aids deaths are in stiff competition with those dying by knives from the hand of their drinking buddies. Have we pointed to the real source of this evil? Has that source now been given a little melanin for beautification post-1994? To point to history and show that the current violence is not new and it’s a direct consequence of the wealth a few enjoy is to ask for accounting. No, let’s not go there. So march on.
Some whites call in to radio talk shows, some even write a few letters to the newspapers with concern. If they are killing foreigners, soon they are going to say whites are foreigners too. We must fight Xenophobia, it is not good it can lead to civil war. Yes, once they finish the kwerekweres, in three months, there would still be no houses, no jobs or women. What do they do then? What can they do? Who knows?
But our white counterparts should sleep easy; the job of damaging the black mind has been thorough. Biko says “… the type of black man (sic) we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as ‘inevitable position’. Deep inside is anger mounts at the accumulating insult, but he vents it in the wrong direction- on his fellow men in the township, on the property of black people” (30)
Biko goes on to show how the black plays double standards. In the presence of whites he praises the government but on the homebound bus condemns the white man. The post-1994 black poor person is in a conundrum. He not only praises the government when the president occasionally comes to visit his township for an imbizo, he has a party card and votes every election for the same government he roundly condemns every night when he goes to sleep on an empty stomach.
Biko was scathing in his prognosis: “the black man is a shadow of a man; completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity”. Biko says look at yourself truthfully for only then can you design a programme to “change the status quo”.
As we shout “we are all Africans!” and “Africa for Africans”, slogans not taken up by our hippy fellow marchers, someone pulls me to the side. We walk between the march and the spectators. We are in no man’s land. We must talk, he says matter of factly. He is young, handsome, a sad and speaks in whispers almost, it is like he wants to disappear. His isiZulu is unmistakably from the plains of KwaZulu-Natal. Please help me understand what to do? He starts and now we are walking close to each other, a Siamese twin like bonding. He continues with gestures calculated to ensure anonymity.
“You say Africa is one but these people hurt us”. He doesn’t point at anyone. Then he says “if you want I could show you the scar which runs through my chest to my stomach”. I beg him not to.
“My young cousin was shot dead in a robbery in Alexandra” he says.
“How do you know it was foreigners?”, I ask.
“Their accents. You know, I can’t go back home, they say I killed my cousin, its me who had invited him to come and do a drivers license here in Joburg”.
“But if a South African commits a crime we don’t punish everyone from his village or township”, I try.
“I hear you, but how do you expect us to live? These people accept peanuts and we lose our jobs”.
He tells me two more stories of how jobs were lost by black South Africans and how the foreigners accepted the unacceptable. I try look for ready made answers, I have none. He disappears, I go marching on.
Someone tells me, “you know its strange, I have seen about six former fellow students in this march. All of them were vocal anti-Zimbabweans at university”. I smile. But at the back of my mind I can’t help think, we are killing each other for jobs? Biko had a point when he said, “the white strategy so far has been to systematically break down the resistance of the blacks to a point where the latter would accept the crumbs from the white table”. Biko didn’t know that we would be massacring each other for the white man’s crumbs.
The creation of the beastly black is directly linked to the development of the South African social and economic structures. Wealth is white, poverty is black, never the twain shall meet. When the colonialist and the missionaries found us idle and happy in our fat smeared bodies, they gave us the fear of hell, covered our bodies in western clothes, poisoned our minds with their superiority and at gunpoint saved us from our idleness and forced us into the civilising rigours of labour. For those who still refused to work they took their land and forced us to pay all sorts of crazy taxes payable only in their money. We were trapped. Didn’t the rogue murderous bloodthirsty civiliser John Cecil Rhodes, in a moment of arrogant honesty, tell us point blank that;
“Every black man cannot have three acres and a cow or four morgen and a commonage right. We have to face the question and it must be brought home to them [blacks] that in the future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in daily labour.”
Idleness was considered evil and our g-strings and liberated sexual mores declared ungodly. Having turned black misery into wealth, the rich now specialises in idleness, and spends untold fortunes to keep unclad women on the front of their glossy magazines. We were lied to. Karl Marx was behind the times to think that one has to go through the barbarity of capitalism to reach the end of the cruel and stultifying division of labour. The bearded one is articulate about his communist nirvana; “ to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening …, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic”. We were there before all of this white madness, forcing men to abandon their families to dig for gold. Can you eat gold? But you must hear the kinds of things that were said about us when they found us in a state of total happy abandon in the Cape around the mid 1500s. Our deeply contemplative lives, exemplified by the Khoisan, were condemned. Read some of the “Cape discourses” in J.M Coetzee’s White Writing to be shocked;
“they are lazier than the tortoise they hunt and eat”
“They are very lazy, liking better to go hungry than work”
“If they are not hungry they will not work”
“Their native inclination to idleness and a careless life, will scarce admit of their force or reward for reclaiming them from that innate lethargic humour”
“…their whole earthly happiness seems to lie in indolence and supinity”
But actually they were all jealous of our state of advanced existence. The best of their thinkers were depicting such great liberation from nature and want as signifying progress of historical proportion. Epoch making stuff. But things have changed, we now want to work.
We are killing each other for the crumbs Rhodes spat out of his rotten mouth. We want jobs! We want to be in daily labour. To eat one must work. We are trapped in the animal level of existence, we want food and we are going to slaughter each other for it. To live we must kill each other. We are cannibals. We fail to ask a simple question: ”How come we are so hungry when food is not the problem?” as the feared Tito has told everyone without a sense of irony. He says the problem is money to buy food. Well, the people have no money so they must starve as we export our best produce to those who have money in Europe.
Tito should have just said ‘let them eat cake”. Instead he employs high sounding bongo-bongo economics discourse to sell us poison. How come no one is seeing that the rapid rise of food prices has removed all bonds of human co-existence from the famished bodies of the excluded? How come no one sees lack of food as the trigger to the massive slaughter we have witnessed in the past few weeks? In isiXhosa we say indlala inamnyala. A rough translation of this is “If we misbehave, don’t blame us, blame our stomachs”.
When our president eventually decided to address the nation, he appeared in the middle of our TV screens and kept quiet. He was a little black dot. He just sat there motionless making strange noises at best but saying nothing to help us either understand the causes of violence or the measures our beloved democratic country was taking to fight the root causes. For fifteen minutes, our intellectual president simply stared at us. We stared back. Mutual misrecognition.
Now our government is building “safety camps”. They don’t want to call them refugee camps because then they would need to meet UN standards. These standards revolve around key minimums which must be observed to secure a basic right to life with dignity. These are access to water, sanitation, food, shelter and health care. Well, actually over 50% of black South Africans should be declared refugees just to get the chance to enjoy half the rights declared for victims of disaster by the UN. Is it always going to take a tragedy, if not death, for blacks to be seen? Most of the refugees and those who attacked them would never lead a dignified life on any ordinary day, if we applied the standards seriously. Our people live below these standards as they mark time in squalor.
The erection of camps created a commotion. A Joburg paper reported thus: “Tensions continued to build yesterday as residents of various suburbs in Johannesburg protested at the erection of refugee camps in their areas.” The paper went on to report that how some residents feel: “Already we have a high crime rate in this area, we hope this is just temporary,” said Country View resident Aaron Tolman. A black brother also raised his voice of sympathy and understanding: “These are our brothers and sisters and we feel for them. But there should have been proper consultation before the camps were brought in our area,” said another resident Caswell Molokone.
Two weeks before the furore around camps, middle class school children were given almost five minutes in our prime time news. They donated clothes, they even wrote personal letters like “please don’t go, we love you”. Now they are terrified of the same people they loved from a distance. What our TV refused to show was how some black working class areas such as Khutsong in Carletonville had organised a massive rally and declared “no one will be touched in our community, these are our brothers and sisters”. The reason is that Khutsong is a renegade community, a people who have been fighting against the arrogance of our democratic government for more than three years. The Khutsong stance says something about political organisation and capacity to direct anger at the right target.
In the same vein, absent in the media and popular imagination is the first hero of the anti-negrophobia move, one Sipho Madondo, who was killed in Alexandra after he told the angry mob, “I don’t go kill my own”. You would have thought Madondo would have been held up as our hero. No chance! He was no cappuccino guzzling professional human rights activist.
The shame which has moved the middle classes to feign concern has little to do with concern for the victims or for the wellbeing of fellow human beings. If we did care we would long ago had seen the everyday structural violence the majority of poor blacks are trapped in. We would long have asked the question, why so much poverty in the midst of so much plenty? Instead we focused on stuffing our pockets and mouths. In fact we hate the poor, we hate them because they remind us so powerfully where we could end up and where we come from. That’s why most of the black Diamonds are so terrified of Tito. We hate the poor more because they remind us that black is bad. We march and declare their barbarity because we want to assure our white counterparts and ourselves that we are human just like the whites, we are not like the barbarians killing each other mercilessly. We plead, “There is nothing to fear from us”. We hate more because this violence heightens our sense of the “nervous condition”. We are afraid to be found out and maybe also to find out that our blackness has not been erased totally. The smug smile in the face of our enlightened white liberal friends and colleagues terrifies us because it says, “you are cannibals!”. So we march with our white friends, hand in hand, as guarantors of our common humanity. But we fall short. This bloody black skin. Go away, my black skin!
The white liberal has also derived great pleasure and satisfaction from assisting the refugees. Help is the most potent form of exercising power. Marianne Gronemeyer is articulate on this point. She shows that help is the “elegant exercise of power”. The white liberal and other “helpers” are not racist, their actions speak for themselves. Even the Zionist student body donated some clothes, the same group which supports the legalised dispossession, murder and starvation of Palestinian children. A white militant in the social movements tells a story with the sort of liberal self effacing trained uncertainty. He says, the majority of displaced people he spoke to at the Methodist Church (central Joburg) told him that white people have been real good to them all the time they have been in South Africa. They say it’s the blacks who are racist. They also told him that South African blacks are lazy. They even gave him some hugs to assure him of their love and brotherhood with whites.
I think “We want to work for you baas, and those others are preventing us because they are jealous. We are your servants, command us, for without you we are not alive”.
Apparently, a popular white columnist, fired recently for “racism” in his columns by the same black boss who a year ago praised him as the doyen of freedom of speech, has now gloatingly said, what did I tell you? Are these people not animals? So we march together motivated on the one hand by the assurance of humanness of the white and the satisfaction which comes with it. This thing has been beneficial to all sorts of interests.
What has occurred in the last three weeks has been incorrectly named Xenophobia, actually its Negro “Negrophobia”. Chinweizu describes Negrophobia as “The fear and dislike of blacks is a great disease. It has killed more blacks in the last five hundred years than all other diseases combined: more than malaria, more than epidemics and plagues of all sorts, In the coming years, it could kill far more than AIDS. It is a psychological disease, a disease of the mind, which harvests dead black bodies every day.”
Xenophobia is the hatred of foreigners, but in South Africa, there are no white foreigners, in fact we think of these as benefactors, as tourists, investors and business people who must be protected. We debase and commercialise our art forms for their pleasure. White settlers make up to 10% of our population and own more than 80% of the stolen wealth, but we don’t think of them as foreigners. It’s the black we hate and attack. But it is good if we call it xenophobia because then it becomes a crime without context or history. In this way we absolve the real architects and creators of this barbarism.
Some film makers have even sprung to action as part of taking advantage of the rapidly growing anti-xenophobia industry generously funded by donors who wouldn’t want to be left out of the new trend. Apparently, funds earmarked for other “developmental challenges” have now been committed to fighting xenophobia. The film makers call their thing “Film Makers against Racism” – finally, whiteness has been absolved, the victim is the perpetrator. To call negrophobia (which was created by white racism) racism is to create a massive delete button which wipes the slate of history clean.The new industry is in the business of cleansing history of all traces of white responsibility. Now we are even – we enslaved you, but you kill your own. It’s a draw. We can now wait for the images of mutual savagery through the Whiteman’s eyes planted in the retina of the black eye. There are names to be made, prizes to be won and money to be had. Didn’t the same Fanon say; “what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact”?
Those who have tried to explain the violence have only shown parts of the whole. In the most history has been forgotten, and the key source, ill begotten wealth, shielded from view. The fact that ours is a neo-apartheid state managed now by yesterday’s anti-apartheid revolutionaries is also concealed. Some have called for the decolonisation of the mind, others have called for a focus on the economics of neo-liberalism. Fanon warned against this atomization of the mind and socio economic and political realities. Let it be said again, it is true the problem is both psychological and a matter of livelihoods. Fanon advised;
… It is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of the social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the out come of a double process:
* Primarily, economic;
* Subsequently, the internalization –or, better, the epidermnization of this inferiority” (p.11).
Fanon later on advises that the battle against alienation of the black must be fought on both levels (economic and psychological), because “any unilateral liberation is incomplete, and the gravest mistake would be to believe in their automatic interdependence” (ibid). He also says; “There will be an authentic disalienation only to the degree to which things, in the most materialistic meaning of the world, will have been restored to their proper places” (p.12). Here we see that without liberation there can be no salvation. The question remains, what does it mean to be free for blacks? At the same time we must ask, what would it take to restore things to their proper places? Is the current black-on-black cannibalism a spiral to the bottom of existence where we blacks rightfully belong or is it a dress rehearsal for the end of the world? Biko says; “Ground for a revolution is always fertile in the presence of absolute destitution. At some stage one can foresee a situation where black people will feel they have nothing to live for and will shout at their God ‘thy will be done’.(33). Are we hearing a disfigured moan which could find its range and turn into a shout?