I’ve been having a schizophrenic year. This is the best description I have to explain the divided life I live: a life of privilege and wealth as well as sheer poverty and disadvantage. Most of my experiences have been framed within the life of privilege and suburbia through my middle class education at a former model c school in a conservative racialised town, East London. On the other hand when I went home I would go home to a block of flats in a neighbourhood where prostitutes and drugs were the norm; later I called Duncan Village home, an informal settlement on the cusp of East London’s CBD. In between these movements between home and school I have been in the centre of the multicultural world that South Africa is. I’ve been exposed to all kinds of people from various backgrounds, language groups, classes, different countries, all shapes and sizes. Even though this is the case, my world has still been mostly black and white, race has been central to most of my interactions. Because of my urban experience and education I’ve never been black enough to be in the township, but when I’m with my white friends (or English speaking friends as not all have been European descent) I’m aware of my blackness because I have often found that I have to explain myself all the time: my hair, spiritual rituals, beliefs, even my dress code at times.
Being at Rhodes hasn’t made this any better. For all of my undergrad I was ostracised by Xhosa people to be specific because many thought I was not Xhosa at all. Those who did know I was Xhosa soon realised that I was majoring in English and ruled me out as a black person and became the dreaded thing, a coconut. This didn’t really affect me until people would be shocked that I speak isiXhosa. I then became aware that I had to prove my blackness by the amount of isiXhosa I knew which was minimal. My racial identity became inextricably linked with my place and value in the world. The truth is I’m an English-speaking Xhosa person: English is my primary language and isiXhosa is my second language. This is largely due to my education and level of exposure to both languages which has differed throughout my life. The cultural codes that both these languages have has also played out in a strange way in my life: isiXhosa/African rituals have largely been narrated to me, whereas white culture was what I lived everyday (I won’t go into this debate for today as many may argue that no such thing as whiteness exists but for someone who has been in black communities, there are differences I have seen-a conversation for another day). Beneath all these tensions of being black or not is the sense that I am part of the lost generation. We are lost because we do not know our history, we don’t know our languages, we don’t know iziduko zethu, our clan names, we don’t know our place in the world as isiXhosa men and women in a changing world (by “our” I’m referring to isiXhosa/African). My mother mourns and laments at the loss of “culture” in children like me and blames it on my education. Mama often says she sent me to school to be educated and not made into a white child. There seems to be no value in being a bicultural child who has been exposed to more than one way of living and constantly having to traverse two or more worlds. Many people don’t see that people in my position are the people who can be in two worlds at once and understand the value of the tensions in otherwise superficial communities such as black communities and white communities. Many people are quick to be critical of people in my position instead of realising that many of us bring different understandings of what it is that is important about ones identity.
I realise that I am in a fortunate position where I can move easily between communities and groups of people, but for people in isolated communities where all the people in the community are black or white and speak one language (though monolinguals should be an anomaly in South Africa), race is a prominent feature of how they make meaning of their lives. Prof Gerwel (Chancellor of Rhodes University and Director of the Mandela Foundation) once asked a group of friends and I how it was that people in my generation are still so engrossed and obsessed by race. He phrased this question in a way that really made me think, “When I think of myself in the morning, what do I think of?”. Do I immediately think “I/m black/a writer/a woman/my mother’s daughter?” At which point does being black matter so much in my life?
I’m slowly learning that race does not matter though. I’m learning to agree with those who say that South Africa’s challenge is class, but then again, class issues in our country are still racialised (how many times have we seen white people at service delivery protests? Except the reporters maybe). I’m realising more and more that the privilege of having money in my bank account daily as well as the hope of a month end and a 32 day account I save money for holiday spending or luxuary items, is being foregrounded in my identity. I realise more and more that not many people have the option of booking flight tickets and planning their holiday in the big cities in South Africa or even the option of buying a ticket for a trip overseas once a year. Through my finances I am able to shift between worlds and interact with people who see life otherwise. This past week I have been in Joburg. Apart from my excursions in Bree Street and downtown Joburg, I have been in settings with people who are not affected by the racialised world I am mostly exposed to when I am home in the Eastern Cape. People are more concerned about financial security and safety and being in fulfilling relationships and simply having a good time, the good life. This is not to say that this is not central to all people’s existence. The complexities around this question differ for all people, but regardless of race we agree on these fundamentals. But I can’t seem to answer why we argue about race so much when it’s not the real issue: what we look like is not important but somehow it’s always the first stone we throw when tensions arise in South Africa, evidence of a schizophrenia?