Yolisa Qunta has explained in depth, how and why this anthology, Writing What We Like, came to be in the introduction and in interviews about the book. I agree with her that this type of literature is crucial right now and I also hope that it will spark conversations between all South Africans about who we are and how we treat each other.
I just hope we are a nation that reads??? Judging by the number of reviews I have found online, I worry that this critical analysis of South Africa’s status quo is going unread. So, being a white South African, I will cautiously offer some thoughts.
Throughout this book, I felt as though I was reading someone else’s diary or listening in on a private conversation that I had not been invited to partake in. It was disconcerting at best. I also had a sense that scales were being torn from my eyes with each passing essay. Facts that I have known all my life became truths that cut.
The title is an obvious reference to Steve Biko’s I write what I like, a collection of essays published after his death. It seemed prudent to read Biko’s collection before trying to understand the more recent anthology. I am embarrassed to say I had never made the time to read Biko’s essays before.
His writings are direct and unapologetic. For example, he says; “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” He places precise labels and blame, calling Africans to own their identities; “Black man, you are your own.” His main subject matter is the propagating of Black Consciousness.
Steve’s words seem to echo through this new compilation… “Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”
I am passionate about the power of words and language in affecting change. Much of what this blog is about is using language to understand ourselves and to empathise with others. Many of the essays in Quanta’s collection speak of reclaiming language and longing for a sense of pride in an African identity.
Simphiwe Dana is ‘Re-dreaming Africa’ through linguistic relativity. Africans must be allowed to learn and express their world view through their indigenous languages. She quotes the philosopher MSC Okolo saying “Of all human inventions, language alone affects, structure, defines, interprets all other aspects of human life. Beliefs, ideas, ideologies, culture, knowledge, experience, values, prejudices are acquired and conveyed through language.”
‘Defining ourselves’ is very reminiscent of Biko’s words. Diakanyo affirms “Africans must reclaim and defend their identity, lest we revert to colonial days when defining ourselves was the task of others.” Then, ‘Mind your language’ shows how Africans are judged and pigeon-holed through their proficiency with a colonial language. Numerous essays call for Africans to embrace their indigenous languages once again.
‘Not just an ID’ grapples with individual identity and cultural belonging. Nama Xam concludes his coming of age tale saying “I believe in the power of self-love. After all, how can you love another, if you cannot love yourself.” ‘An Untold History Lesson’ questions the truth of African history as told in our schools. A re-adjustment of priorities is needed in our curricula.
In ‘White Supremacy vs Transformation’, my guilt as a white South African was served up in a way that I could no longer deny it. Siphokuhle Mathe holds no punches while exposing the privilege that simply being white has afforded me in my lifetime. Yes, I had to repay my university education for a number of years after graduating, but the truth is that I was accepted into the establishment far more easily than many of my African peers. We cannot continue to deny that there is a dichotomy at work. If Whites begin to feel uncomfortable at this undeserved privilege, maybe, just maybe, we can be part of the solution.
Yolisa’s essay, ‘Spider’s web’ is the perfect synopsis of this simmering and festering disease. It is not overt racism that says I am better than you. As she says, “it was more subtle than that.” She offers a striking image of what it feels like to encounter this kind of invisible discrimination and the look I imagine on her face is one I have seen before. Next time, it won’t pass me by.
She offers a possible solution, one that certainly would make a difference, if it could be implemented. Somehow, though, I think it might be a way off yet. Perhaps if we all (not only black South Africans), employed Sivuyile Ngesi’s philosophy in ‘That’s how we Toyi-toyi’, and deliberately boycott any establishment that condones even the most subtle racism, we can, at the very least, make a statement.
A few of the pieces mention how Whites have usurped Mandela’s words of peace and unity and turned them into silencers for those who feel the burn of systemic racism in our country. I have never thought about it that way and, honestly, I have used this argument myself. Yolisa’s piece about Mandela Day was also a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room that is self-congratulatory standard.
Also, as Lwandile Fikeni says in ‘Times are changing’; “Our former heroes have become potential adversaries, our former enemies likely allies”. This particular article echoes Biko’s ‘Black Souls in White Skins’ with a slight twist on “liberals”. Loyisa Gola points a comical finger at Jacob Zuma and the post apartheid government. I agree with him, though, that the president should really consider doing any speeches in Zulu from now on.
In a letter to the SRC presidents in 1970, Biko explains why the creation of SASO was necessary. He says “It was felt that a time had come when Blacks had to formulate their own thinking, unpolluted by ideas emanating from a group with lots at stake in the status quo.” I feel that Qunta’s anthology has the same core function. As a white person, I am humbled and disgusted by the systemic racism that has slid so easily passed my consciousness without even raising a flag.
As philosopher Karl Jasper said about metaphysical guilt; “solidarity is violated by my presence at a wrong or a crime. It is not enough that I cautiously risk my life to prevent it; if it happens, and I was there, and if I survive where the other is killed, I know from a voice within myself: I am guilty of being still alive.”
I will continue to call myself South African and to be proud of this country. But now, I will stop denying endemic racism and allow Africans to make their voices heard.
As Mathe says later, “Black is rising. Azania is rising.”