The absurdity of the Rainbow nation

1994. I was in Grade 1. New grade in a new school in the new South Africa. I was one of the throngs of black children whose parents had decided to enroll into former white schools which started integrating in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “Model C schools”. I was the only black child in the Sub A classroom .There were four  Sub A classes in the school and the other three classes had an equally dubious representation of black learners in each classroom. Thus, in 1994 when the promise of the rainbow nation was being bandied about, my angst about integration began to take root in my psyche (and reasons for being the only black person in the class will be a conversation for another day).

I realise that across the country there are many black people who can share their experience of being the only black person in a sea of white faces, the proverbial or literal “black at the dinner table”. Whenever I find myself in a situation where I am the “only black at the dinner table” (proverbial or literal) I am often led back to Steve Bantu Biko’s work, I write what I like.  I’m a late bloomer when it comes to Black Consciousness (BC) and my level of consciousness ebbs and flows. Because BC has also been monopolised by Mngxitama’s anger and vitriol rather than critical engagement with the relevance of BC in the new South Africa, the recent furore related to Andile Mngxitama’s response to Jared Sacks’ article (Biko would not vote for Ramphele) was an opportunity where my BC began to flow again.

As a product of a Eurocentric, former white educational institutions, I was once upon a time very quick to embrace non-racialism (that race should no longer be used as a marker to understand our experiences). I’ve been living in Cape Town for over a year and I have come face to face with the politics of being black in the new South Africa the same way I did when I was in Sub A in 1994. As someone who teaches young people who have been labelled as the “born-free” generation I am skeptical of non-racialism. At some point there needs to be an acceptance that the rainbow nation does not exist. The nexus between race and class highlights the complexity of simply wanting to be “over race”. The income disparity— which highlights which race is doing well and which isn’t creates a further cleavage between people rather than the wonderful and awe-inspiring image of a rainbow where all the colours come together  to form a unified image that leaves people with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary about Orania. The story was focusing on self-governing state that still exists in South Africa. The audience comprised largely of white people (I think I counted less than five black in the audience). While watching the documentary I considered how most of the people in the audience would probably be appalled by the idea of Orania. There were moments of mirth in the documentary with awkward laughter from the audience and I wondered, “why are we laughing at this ludicrous idea?”. There are people in this country who are convinced that black and white people cannot and should not live alongside each other. I was also left with a thought I couldn’t fully articulate (nor can I do so now) that there are many Oranias in South Africa. There are many people who have been raised, educated and socialized with people who think, look and sound exactly as they do. They experience diversity through the warped version of popular media and the stereotypes they are fed about other people who do not come from their communities. This is dangerous for everyone and most of the focus has been on the dangers of spaces that protect “white privilege” where many White South Africans grow up in a world of privilege cocooned from other realities throughout their lives unless they are forced to confront the world around them. When we think of spaces that have protected white privilege we seldom think of what the alternative has been for Black, Coloured or Indian who have not made it up the middle class ladder of success.

We know that the idea of integration, reconciliation and the rainbow nation are a blemish in South Africa’s democracy. So what now?  We should begin by discouraging people who say “we need to get over race” as a way of moving away from the need to speak about race. It seems only comedians are willing to engage with the race issue (which has limitations of its own). Slavery happened many decades ago but Americans have not forgotten about it. The Holocaust happened and we dare not forget that. Apartheid supposedly ended almost two decades but in South Africa we lambaste anyone who wants to raise the “race issue”. Error! We should know better especially because we dare not forget the injustices that happened in other countries, but when it’s too close to home, we invoke amnesia or ignorance, especially for those born post-1994.

Biko’s words ring still ring true to me: “Does this mean I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and behavior set up and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. 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)… I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people”.

The idea about integration needs to be revisited. Who are we integrating and for what purpose? The public and political failure of integration brings into question what happens in people’s personal and private lives. What happens when we are not in public without the judgement of any gaze? Do we seriously consider our own consciousness and what it means to have certain privileges or no privileges at all? I’m not one to re-imagine a South African consciousness as Dr Mamphela Ramphele would have us vote for. It seems to me that it might be another of form of glazing over the complexities in South Africa. Like Koketso Moeti, I am of the opinion that the illusion of the “Rainbow Nation”  must come to an end if we are to see the reality of this country for what it is. Harsh, complex and uncomfortable.




Molly said…
We certainly shouldn't just 'get over it' and forget it. Race certainly is a factor still in South Africa. Not because people are simply racist, but because race has been structured in this country to string along ethnicity, power, freedom, respect, opportunity, poverty, wealth etc. Race issues are more complex than they seem. Those afraid to go there usually do not understand the full picture. I do not make sense of my world in black and white. Our South Africa has many a colour to appreciate while there are grey areas and blues that we need to attend to. We have a long way to go but there is hope.

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