In trying to transform South Africa, a new generation is emerging and we are at odds with what we have inherited. In pursuing a non-racial society (as well as many of the issues on South Africa’s wish list such as removing the class and gender inequalities) we are also confronted with ourselves. Some of my peers and I recognise that we still need to talk of race while trying to undo the damage of the past that named, shamed and discriminated on the basis of the colour of ones skin: being black. Emerging from this, I am one of the people who reject the label of being black and would rather embrace being human on the basis that I wasn’t born black, history decided this for me, I was born a human being. But because I am part of the new South Africa and part of the generation that has inherited the task of rebuilding South Africa, I have realised that there is a disconnection. In trying to rebuild South Africa, race is still important.
I was offended and infuriated by this realisation while at an internship with a company in Cape Town. While working with the company I realised that one of the their social responsibility initiatives involves the following, “financial scholarships to assist black students with special focus on black women, to access and finish their studies”. My immediate reaction was fury as this had never been communicated to me. I felt as though I was compromised as an individual who saw herself as simply a student coming into a company to experience the world of work. I felt compromised by the nature of the relationship as I was no longer a student but seen as one being granted a favour simply because my racial classification means that I have been disadvantaged. What I didn’t realise was that the “company” feels justified in this policy as this is what is expected of companies in South Africa to some extent.
The tensions in transforming South Africa is that in trying to undo the past some of my peers and I have decided to reject the labels of the past forgetting that it is still early days to do so especially when in the cross-fire of what this means on a practical level. Young, educated, black females are hot property in South Africa. Once upon a time we were at the bottom of the food chain and now the world is slowly beginning to recognise that society cannot change unless we are placed in decision making roles which were designated for everyone except black women. But as young, educated, black females we wish we could get the opportunities on the basis that we are human and our credentials speak for themselves. When these issues are raised the danger is that racism becomes the focal point and managers in companies (who are mostly White people) get defensive rather than encouraging honest dialogue about the real issues. How does South Africa transition into a non-racial society without forgetting that race still matters? Am I to accept that I am black and therefore need a “helping hand” (as affirmative action has been pejoratively referred to as) or should I reject this and any attempt that attempts to use this against me when opportunities abound?
I do not take South Africa’s history lightly, neither do I reject the attempts of making the necessary changes in order recognise that all men and women are equal in South Africa and that South Africa belongs to all of us as the Freedom Charter reminds us. But how do I do this when my individuality and the right to assert my identity in whatever fashion or form is in the danger of being compromised as I have tried to explain? Being a Mandela-Rhodes Scholar has implicated me as someone who has to recognise that my privilege due to the education I have received has to be extended beyond my personal comfort, but my public duty has to recognise that I am part of the transformation that calls on the recognition of race while trying to remove these labels.
I find that I am between a rock and a hard place. In order to remove the scourges in society that still disadvantage many women my age I have to recognise that my “blackness” is going to play a role in this. Because I have accepted the responsibility of being part of the transformation in South Africa I have to endure the good with the bad. The issue is not whether or not I accept being black, but, what to do with the implications of identifying with the social construction as well as what the label can often translate into (often negative given our past). This tension has also unfolded while reading Antjie Krog’s Country of my skull and it has unravelled the gravity of what reconciliation really means more than 10 years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What does reconciliation mean when the gaps between the rich and the poor are getting wider? Does reconciliation really mean a strong emerging black middle class as opposed to striving for the equality of the millions still living in rural areas and informal settlements? Am I reconciled with myself when I assert that being human takes precedence over the biological factor of pigment and my sex? I’ve been caught in the crossfire with no warning.