Coming to Terms with Blackness in Post-Apartheid South Africa

by Khanya Mtshali

I spent a great deal of my childhood in limbo. I was born two years shy of the demise of Apartheid in South Africa. Never in it but not too far to have felt the repercussions of it. I spent my mornings attending predominantly white schools in white places only to have spent my evenings with my black family in our black neighborhood. Despite being underage, I found myself dealing with the hangover of my country’s white supremacist binge. I could never quite escape racism. It would always find me. It would always corner me, imposing and threatening as I helplessly tried to dodge its constant tugging at my young sense of self.

I quickly learned that my youthfulness could not insulate me from discrimination. I started to think that something was fundamentally wrong with me. Why weren’t my white peers subjected to the same treatment? Why me? What was it about me that made my teacher believe I was less capable of enrolling in ballet classes? Why did my reports consistently mark me down on my ability to speak English when I was just as capable of expressing myself as other white children? Why couldn’t the girls on the playground ignore my skin tone every time they refused to play with me? I simply wanted to be ‘normal’. I wanted my hair to be long and smooth. I wanted my nose to be straight and my lips hyphen straight. I did not want to be ugly. I wanted to be beautiful, loved and appreciated by the world. I wanted to be anything but black.

I was a child back then. I had already been socialized to believe that my race made me inherently abnormal. I had already begun to despise myself because I had failed to live up to the standards of the status quo. I barely knew anything about myself butt I was already convinced that I was less than. As I grew up, my self-awareness around these issues increased. While I was far from un-internalizing these social codes and messages, I knew that they existed and that they were somewhat wrong. I cannot pinpoint the moment at which I became angry, but I often found myself deeply resentful of the system into which I was born. I had been inducted into the angry black woman club and I was its proudest member. I still am. I now know that anger is an emotion as valid as happiness. It can be powerful in galvanizing real change. It is needed to move towards dismantling an unfair system. It is necessary in fighting against injustice. Now more than ever, anger has become a part of who I am despite how tired it often makes me.

Nonetheless, whenever I feel that my consciousness has been nothing but a burden. When I see no point in fighting because of how unjust this world is. Whenever I lose faith, I remind myself of the suffering which my family and many others experienced during Apartheid. I remember my grandmother’s tearful accounts of being harassed by police officers. I imagine what it must have been like to be born into system where the color of your skin relegated you to slave labor. I wonder what it must have been like to be considered a foreigner in the land of your forefathers and foremothers. I think of the scores of people who were battered, bruised, jailed and killed for wanting the freedom that I often take for granted. Unlike them, I have the privilege of being a citizen in my own country. I have had access to the best education and facilities which would otherwise not have been available to me. I have been fortunate enough to travel to parts of the world which were previously deemed off-limits to black people.

When I feel myself succumbing to the coziness of willful ignorance, I resist. I remind myself that achieving liberation formed a small part of the struggle which continues to undermine and oppress the majority of black South Africans. There is still a long way to go. While personal freedom has gone a long way in empowering black South Africans, without economic emancipation from Apartheid-like capitalist structures, we will continue to see the subordination of black South Africa. It is up to people like me to fight for the economic freedom of my fellow black South Africans. It is up to people like me to work towards dismantling the institutions solely built for the benefit of white South Africans.

Through my writing, I am able to offer my voice to a growing movement which is demanding that we go beyond reconciliation and nation-building. Young black South Africans of today want a more democratic democracy. We want to feel like equals in our own country. We want to be able to attend schools and universities where we will be taught by people who look like us. We want to be able to have access to our country in the same ways our white counterparts do. We want to be norm as opposed to the exception in the spaces that we navigate. Some may say we’re asking for a lot. Some may tell us to be more patient. But as the offspring of the generation who weren’t satisfied with half a loaf, we cannot imagine asking for anything less.

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