Post Colonial Blacks

This is the edited version of the paper presented at the “Native Club: Where are the Natives? The Black Intelligentsia Today.”

There is a tendency by those who write books and essays for leading journals to downplay the seriousness of today’s racial oppression in South Africa. This is achieved through silence around issues of race (or by portraying whites as being the new victims of racism meted out by blacks in the new South Africa) or by choosing to explain reality in terms of economics only. This attitude informs and shapes South African political discourse, whether it be through fictional writing or academic writing. This essay aims to interrogate this inclination to downplay white supremacist domination of blacks in post-apartheid South Africa through two forms of writing, i.e. fiction and academic writing. For fiction I investigate the racism that informs storytelling in South Africa, and I go further to show how whites are now portrayed as the new victims of racism meted out by supposedly vindictive postcolonial blacks. I interrogate the academic style of writing in search of the reason behind the silence around issues of race and the economism standpoint that tends to inform this style of writing. What this essay is about really, is the representation of my political struggle “…to push against the boundaries…., to find words that express what I see, especially when I am looking in ways that move against the grain, when I am seeing things that most folks want to believe simply are not there.” (hooks, 1992:4)

The apartheid state might have been defeated, but the project to dehumanise and colonise blacks is carried out through other means, for example, literature.Apartheid infected every apsect of society, from the laws to the economy to mass and literary culture. Even though some elements of apartheid were defeated, literary culture is still an arena for the dehumanisation and colonisation of blacks. And so if one looks at South African literature, one finds that there has been very little change in the representation of black people in fictional work that sells, and which the public at large has access to. To prove my hypothesis I interrogate and criticise “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee.

I chose to use Coetzee’s work as my case study simply because he is the 2003 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. His novel “Disgrace” is regarded by mainstream society as a true reflection of post-apartheid South Africa. In some corners of our society, those who do not quite agree that it is the precise reflection of the state of affairs, agree that it is a sound prophecy of things to come.

South Africa might be a democratic country, but institutionalised racism is still alive and kicking. Much of the academic writing in South Africa either superficially touches on this point, or blatantly downplays institutionalised racism in this country. I review an academic essay which has either influenced or articulately echoed the sentiments of the political discourse in South Africa.

The essay in question is entitled “From Race to Class Apartheid: South Africa’s Frustrating Decade of Freedom” by Patrick Bond. I chose Bond’s essay mainly because it articulately echos views of many whites and some blacks in South Africa. Also, I chose Bond’s work because he seems to be the authority, in international circles especially, on South African affairs. Further, he is the most prolific political writer in South Africa, and is regarded as a dissident and radical academic by some – especially the mainstream media.

One of the ways in which white supremacist thinking manifests itself is through the acceptability of a dominant ideological perspective and “credible” voices, which invariably tend to be white voices with the dominant ideological perspective being that articulated by white academics. This, after all, is how the subject of race can be downplayed in a country where the majority of the population is black. My point is this: “The ability of whites to deny nonwhite reality, and indeed to not even comprehend that there is a nonwhite reality (or several different ones), is as strong as any other evidence of just how pervasive white privilege is in this society.” (Wise, 2005:59)

To echo Steve Biko, I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them think that they are more informed and better educated, and therefore, better equipped to decide what should constitute a sound political analysis. “I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that).” (Biko, 2004:26) What sustains this destructive relationship is the white supremacist intellectual milieu which happily grants access to white intellectuals above black intellectuals. One has only to visit a bookshop to see who has access to publishing houses in South Africa, and who has access to reputable journals, newspapers and magazines. In a paper for the International Conference on Book, held in Oxford Brookes University in September 2005, Monica Seeber argued that out of the 123 publisher members of the Publishers Association of South Africa, only 21 are headed by a black person at managing director or chief executive officer level. Mind you, this is in a country where you have less than five percent of the population, and that five percent is mostly white, who buy books for purposes other than to pass a school or university exam. Add all the above together, plus the cultural chauvinism premised on the assumption that African narratives are not worth investing in, and what you get as a result is the situation where a white person is a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual student. 

Fiction Writing: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

As I have stated, my main objective in reviewing Disgrace is to investigate the racism that informs storytelling in South Africa, and, further to show how whites are now portrayed as the new victims of racism meted out by supposedly vindictive postcolonial blacks.

Disgrace is a multilayered story, told from the point of view of a white man (David Lurie) who is trying to come to terms with being a white male in a postcolonial state. Witness David Lurie, the main character of the story, talking about one of the black male characters (Petrus).
           “In the old days one could have had it out with Petrus. In the old days one could have had it out to the extent of losing one’s temper and sending him packing and hiring someone in his place. But though Petrus is paid a wage, Petrus is no longer, strictly speaking, hired help. …It is a new world they live in, he and …Petrus. Petrus knows it, and he knows it, and Petrus knows that he knows it.”

This nostalgia for good old days – the colonial era, is what makes the book remarkable and relevant to the topic at hand. It is not only nostalgia for colonialism that makes the book relevant to the topic. Even the language used to talk about the formerly colonized and the African way of life is no different to the language once used by writers like Rudyard Kipling.

              “He [David Lurie] has been away less than three months, yet in that time the shanty settlements have crossed the highway and spread east of the airport. The stream of cars has to slow down while a child with a stick herds a stray cow off the road. Inexorably, he thinks, the country is coming to the city. Soon there will be cattle again on Rondebosch Common; soon history will have come full circle.”

It is impossible to divorce Disgrace from a global social climate – a climate that is informed and shaped by the notion that postcolonial states fail as soon as whites relinquish power to the natives. Only a former colonizer can write something that reads as follows “…the country is coming to the city. … soon history will have come full circle.” Coetzee stops just short of saying that now that the civilizing whites are no longer in power, what one should expect is violence and chaos. That is the standard representation of postcolonial Africa in the mainstream media. The global perception of Africa is a place where darkness, as it were, never turns into light.

Disgrace fails to chart new frontiers of ideoscapes, which would challenge and subvert the present representation of postcolonial blacks and Africa in the media, the novel must be described as being trapped in history, and history as being trapped in the book.

Depending on from which standpoint you view it, the novel reaches its highest peak or descends into its darkest abyss in its cultural production of postcolonial blacks and Africa, when a white woman is raped by three blackmen. If there is one thing the colonizers always feared losing it is their sexual possession of white women’s bodies. Corpus of literature exist that depict black males as castrated, without phallic power; and as a result of this, black men, in general, are portrayed as having a constant need to overly assert a phallic misogynist masculinity, one that is rooted in contempt for the female, to paraphrase bell hooks. Needless to point out, the rationale that underpins this pathology is the obsession with an idealized, fetishized vision of femininity that is white. 

This is how Coetzee psychoanalyzes the sexual stereotype of a black man as a rapist, in a postcolonial context:

               “Halfway home, Lucy [David Lurie’s daughter], to his surprise, speaks. ‘It was so personal,’ she says. ‘It was done with such personal hatred. That was what stunned me more than anything. The rest was…expected. But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them.’ He waits for more, but there is no more, for the moment. ‘It was history speaking through them,’ he offers at last. ‘A history of wrong. Think of it that way…. It may seem personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.’”
Further on, David Lurie says to his daughter, “Take a break for six months or a year, until things have improved in this country. Go overseas. Go to Holland. Holland may not be the most exciting of places to live, but at least it doesn’t breed nightmares.” What Coetzee is at pains to paint in this novel is that there is no place for whites in the postcolony. The postcolony breeds nightmares for whites (i.e. violence, chaos and raping of white women). Hence, whites should rather pack up and go back to Europe from whence they came.

The characters that represent the natives in the book are inarticulate, cannot voice their emotions, and fail to explain their present circumstances through history. Petrus, the black male character in the book, is portrayed as being shiftless, cunning, and untrustworthy. Black women are portrayed as dull, obedient and sexless. Women of Asian descent are shown as mere sex objects. When David Lurie telephones a brothel, he is told that there are “…lots of exotics to choose from – Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, you name it.”

After forcing himself sexually onto one of these “exotics” at a university where he teaches, Lurie explains his misconduct in taking advantage of an innocent student as follows:

             “It could have turned out differently, I believe, between the two of us, despite our ages. But there was something I failed to supply, something’ – he hunts for the word – ‘lyrical. I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don’t sing, if you understand me. For which I am sorry. I am sorry for what I took your daughter through. You have a wonderful family. I apologize for the grief I have caused you…. I ask for your pardon.’”  
Contrast this to what David Lurie says to his daughter after being raped. He says leave this country, this land breeds nightmares, go to Holland. Notice the racist logic that when it is black men who are doing wrong, the whole country is charged. But when a white man transgresses, the white population is not charged, the land does not breed nightmares for people of colour. It is simply a failure to “supply the lyrical”. Furthermore, the white man has only to apologise to the family of the young woman, and all is forgotten. Or if there is punishment, the white man is punished on his own terms. Let me allow David Lurie to speak for himself.

           “In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.”

The reason that Coetzee can be so bold as to portray David Lurie in a positive light — as being sensitive and ready to repent for his transgression, while the men who raped his daughters are portrayed as vindictive and insensitive natives who go around raping women — is because he knows he is subscribing to white supremacist notions of how black and white subjectivities are constructed in this white supremacist world. For its credibility, the novel depends on racist thinking “which perpetuates the fantasy that the Other who is subjugated, who is subhuman, lacks the ability to comprehend, to understand, to see the working of the powerful.”(hooks, 1992:168)

Academic Writing: “From Racial to Class Apartheid: South Africa’s Frustrating Decade of Freedom” by Patrick Bond. This article appeared in the Monthly Review, volume 55, Number 10, March 2004

To begin with, the title: “From Racial to Class Apartheid”, echo sentiments of most white activists on the left in South Africa. It is not always malicious intent that drives this thinking, sometimes it is the case of ideological dogmatism, and sometimes this kind of thinking hides a deeper psychological problem – white guilt, or the immobilising fear of being implicated in the structural oppression of black people. Sometimes it is simply a matter of white activists refusing to account for white privilege. bell hooks has a profound way of explaining how some white activists come to overlook issues of race.

                     “….White critics who passively absorb white supremacist thinking, and therefore never notice or look at black people on the streets, at their jobs, who render us invisible with their gaze in all areas of daily life, are not likely to produce liberatory theory that will challenge racist domination, or to promote a breakdown in traditional ways of seeing and thinking about reality.” (hooks, 1990: www.africa.upenn.edu )

Bond opens his essay by saying: “…Nelson Mandela as the new president—did not alter the enormous structural gap in wealth between the majority black and minority white populations. Indeed, it set in motion neoliberal policies that exacerbated class, race, and gender inequality.” This is a good start and from here the essay promises a broad intellectual framework that touches on class, gender and race. However, as one reads further and looks at the essay closely and critically, one finds that the essay is really about class and some gender issues. The race factor that the author promised to explore is ignored and the reader is instead met with a deafening silence around this issue.

What underpins the logic of the essay is the following:

              “The reality is that South Africa has witnessed the replacement of racial apartheid with what is increasingly referred to as class apartheid—systemic underdevelopment and segregation of the oppressed majority through structured economic, political, legal, and cultural practices.

“…The deal represented simply this: black nationalists got the state, while white people and corporations could remove their capital from the country, although continuing to reside in South Africa to enjoy even greater privileges through economic liberalization.”
 At best this argument is the reduction of reality into economics, and at worst, this argument does not provide enough evidence to persuade reasonable readers that, as things stand, South Africa can be described as moving away from race to class. The term “Class Apartheid” is obscure and utterly useless, but the author, make no mistake, used that term to signify to the reader where to put emphasis when looking at South African politics.  

First of all, the logic that went into the ideology of apartheid South Africa was based on class, as well as, race oppression. These two factors were always present. Interestingly enough, we find that these two factors still exist in post-apartheid South Africa, although it must be pointed out that the race factor is not the determining factor in the equation as it used to be in the past. However, that on its own does not mean South Africa is moving away from race to class oppression. If that was the case, there would not be the need to for affirmative action programmes, which are designed to counter institutionalized racism. Research has shown that 12 years after liberation white males still dominate management and other empowering positions in the work place.

“What is reflected here is the concentration of whites at skilled level in skill-intensive sectors. Highly skilled Africans are mostly in the community service sector, which is mainly government and parastatals in transport, storage and communication and electricity, gas and water supply. It is only in the community service sector and the electricity, gas and water supply sectors that the proportion of Africans in skilled categories exceeds that of whites. The electricity, gas and water supply sector also shows a relatively high proportion of Africans in skilled-level categories, although that of whites is still higher. On the other hand, the proportion of Africans is higher within the semi-skilled and low-skilled categories. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the government has made better progress as an employer in terms of advancing Africans into high-level occupations, while the private sector seems to be lagging behind.” (Buhlungu, Daniel, Southhall & Lutchman, 2006:205)

But of course, Bond does not even come close to talking about institutionalized racism like this. The following quote is an epitome of how far Bond is prepared to go when talking about matters relating to race.

             “As a result, according to even the government’s statistics, average black African household income fell 19 percent from 1995–2000 (to $3,714 per year), while white household income rose 15 percent (to $22,600 per year). Not just relative but absolute poverty intensified, as the proportion of households earning less than $90 of real income increased from 20 percent of the population in 1995, to 28 percent in 2000. Across the racial divide, the poorest half of all South Africans earned just 9.7 percent of national income in 2000, down from 11.4 percent in 1995. The richest 20 percent earned 65 percent of all income. It is fair to assume that inequality continued to worsen after 2000.”
The above describes what Bond calls “Class Apartheid”. His description of this “Class Apartheid” is revealing because of where he chooses to place emphasis in his historical account of the status quo in South Africa. His whole analysis is about how the economy functions without really connecting that understanding to social relations, racial hierarchy and institutionalized racism. 

Also, the essay talks about gender issues (without making any distinction between rich and educated white women and impoverished women of colour), as well as environmental issues. Bond writes: “Gender relations show some improvements, especially in reproductive rights, albeit with extremely uneven access. But contemporary South Africa retains apartheid’s patriarchal modes of surplus extraction….” From the above, we are to assume that the “extremely uneven access” to reproductive rights actually refers to the unequal bargaining position occupied by white and black women in this society. However, for Bond this part of the argument is not important and so he does not explore it in depth, but rather drops it and moves on.

“Moving to the environment, it is fair to assess South African ecology today as in worse condition, in many crucial respects—water and soil resources mismanagement, South Africa’s contribution to global warming, fisheries, industrial toxics, and genetic modification—than during apartheid.”

Needless to say, this is supposed to be further evidence to prove that South Africa is moving from “Race to Class Apartheid”. What seems to clinch the argument for Bond, however, is the study done by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. Bond quotes the study as follows: “As a result of this consistent failure to deliver, alienation and discontent are obviously increasing. According to a late-2002 survey conducted by the liberal Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the number of black people who believe life was better under the apartheid regime is growing. Tragically, more than 60 percent of all South Africans polled said the country was better run during white minority rule….”

Conclusions like these leave so much to be desired. Of course Bond does not disappoint- he neither explains how the research questions were phrased, nor does he seem to question the goal achieved by this research study – meaning a case of reliability achieved at the expense of validity. So, how are reasonable readers expected to accept this as serious evidence to prove the validity of Bond’s argument?


What I have attempted to do in this essay is to explore new ways of introducing the subject of race in the new South Africa. What I am demanding in this essay is a new vocabulary to describe reality and the kind of oppression we are up against. I have looked at two different styles of writing, fictional and academic writing, to delineate what the problem is and to explain how the race discourse is systematically ignored and illegitimised in intellectual circles. By looking at these two different kinds of writing, my aim was to investigate ways in which black intellectuals and black activists could effectively intervene and demand a new vocabulary and new voices to tell our stories of social struggle.

• Mandisi Majavu is a cultural critic, he is based in Cape Town, South Africa. [email protected]



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