Tuesday, January 15, 2008

black or coloured ?

Since the appointment of the new coloured Bok coach a debate has been raging: is he black of coloured ? He, of course considered himself proudly black, but also felt that this 'black' thing has to stop. He is simply the next Bok coach. Some would hope that we should get beyond the black and coloured thing and also the white thing. It has been said many times that since 1994, there are suddently no racists anymore and now also no whites or blacks anymore. How are these complexities be understood in the light of the notion of non-racialism?

Of course, it is impossible to answer this question in the space of a few lines on a blog. But lets at least start to problematise matters as another contribution to this difficult debate. The notion of 'black consciousness', relates to the work of the Black Consciousness movement (BCM) in the late 60's and early 70's, under the inspirational leadership of Steve Bantu Biko ( I write what I like). He argued that the white colonial masters were dividing the oppressed, under the terms 'Africans', 'coloureds' and 'Indians', giving different levels of priviledge to them, thus dividing them. These racial groups were called the non-whites, or non-Europeans. It is in this racist context, of being a non-entity, where whiteness was equated to purity and blackness to evil, that Biko advocated an affirmation of the inherent beauty and power of a collective consciousness, black consciousness. Some of us, who remember the 1976 riots, would recall the emotional energy behind the slogan, 'Black Power'. Being in primary school in Paarl, during this time, this rallying call, united Africans, Coloured and Indians alike, in the revolt against all the machinery and instruments of white power, with the ultimate aim a more human face to us all, not black and white. In the 80's we then see a revival of the notion of non-racialism, broadly under the inspiration of the Freedom Charter, organized under the United Democratic Front (UDF). The new rallying call was simply Amandla (power) with the response Ahwetu (loosely to mean 'to the people'). During this period, activists and politically conscious people, amongst the African, Indian and coloured groups, would continue to call themselves 'black' or simply 'comrades'. This remained until today, especially amongst the older generation of our communities, who were not only active the struggle, but also others who were simply politically conscious. it remained a positive affirmation of collective political consciousness.

In the new South Africa, things however changed. The leaders and activists of the UDF and later, the mass democratic movement of the late 80s, early nineties had to make way for the 'exiles', who took over the leadership, because so it was understood, they 'suffered and struggled more'. Former black comrades, now discovered that they did not suffer enough and back came the notions of African, coloured and Indian in the nomenclature of officialdom, still under the broad rubric of 'black', but now facing new challenges, elites and political configurations. Also, newer generations, born after official apartheid, re-invented new meanings of the notion of colouredness, but also blackness and so forth, a process that is evolving and affirming the identity in seemingly positive and not mutually exclusive ways. Being Indian, Coloured or whatever is not an affirmation of being against whoever or not affirming the historical place of black consciousness challenging whiteness. This is the postcolonial fluidity of hybrid identities, that are emerging in the face of new challenges in late modernity, as it also unfolds in Southern Africa. It seems that over against the prevalence (still) of whiteness (irrespective of the demise of the National Party) in media and economy as well as the arts, blackness still has to be affirmed, keeping in mind the complexity of identityformation in the postcolony, so that we all (irrespective of the identities we hold dear) can attain a new consciousness. This might sound like semantic confusion, and maybe it is, given the rapid transformations we face and the need, maybe for new language and meaning. But we cannot escape the difficult task of grappling with what ever we inherited, in order to overcome the contradictions in it. It is only through this struggle, that we can come to a place where we bestow upon the whole South Africa and the world this gift of a human face (Biko).

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