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Blacks ‘portraying’ victimhood: Gwen Ngwenya’s tall (reckless) ask of a nation

Unfortunately I am about to do something that I’m not often a fan of doing, namely engage in debate on the internet. One thing I’ve learned about the online space is that it is where people often come to take a mental dump due to its accessibility.

God bless us all if Twitter decides to have a 10 000 character limit, it may be the beginning of the end.

But an article written by Gwen Ngwenya compelled me, at 5 am, to actually rebut something online. Ngwenya recently wrote about how all South Africans suffer the effects of racism and should in turn settle down and think about how to move past it. Now this is a noble notion, commendable to say the least and progressive if we are to give it full accolades.

But it is also complete and utter rubbish.

Her article, consisting mainly of pointing fingers in the other direction while demanding people move past things has two glaring problems that speak a great deal to the anger felt by the majority of people in this country: it ignores the past and thus their pain.

Ngwenya’s kumbaya-esque request has in one fell swoop managed to erase pain and experiences going back years and years that continues today. With her words what she is essentially saying that black people in the country have had it good for about 20 years and that’s enough time to let decades upon decades of abuse, loss of life and being treated inhumanly go because white people have felt uncomfortable for 20 years and this is basically the same.

It is the equivalent to saying you have been hitting me in the face for about three hours, I have shoved you back once, now we are both feeling hurt and upset, let’s settle down.

No, unfortunately while you feel slighted, I am bleeding from the nose, may have a concussion and have a swollen eye and I am pissed about it. Unfortunately for you I shall be pissed for a long time.

Her argument has sought to, in approximately 1000 words shut down the real debate, namely that the racial construct of this country is still largely skewed to one side and yes this affects racism. It seeks to presume that now there is an even playing field despite centuries of racism and violence, that there is a justified level of anger on both sides, that we are all “victims”.

Her demand is an impossible ask for any human, and it speaks to the main problem of transitional justice and reconciliation within the country, where black people are being asked to forgive on a monumental scale while the ills against them are barely acknowledged.

The sad thing is that not only are they being asked to forgive the injustices of the past but to continue to live in them and be happy that there is miniscule change. It is not about being a “victim” but living in a reality heavily coloured by the past.

As someone with the ability to manoeuvre in different spaces, as a person with means, being a black person in this country is not easy. I like nice things. This unfortunately meant I was often the only black person in these spaces. This often leads to a great deal of discomfort, so much so that I have since relocated to Johannesburg from Cape Town, something many have been known to do.

From literary festivals, to boardrooms to NGOs, white people still dominate this country. It is something people often do not want to discuss because black people are speckled in all the right spaces.

This raises a huge conundrum for the “let it go” school of thought.

Racism expressed by black people will get you locked out of tenders, racism with white people will get you locked out of life.

Locked out of everything from restaurant reservations, to job openings or even advocacy. It can even get you peed on outside of Tiger Tiger. In the case of South Africa you can actually quantify the effect of your racism because it is a unique microcosmic view of what happens when race relations function in a small space in real time.

Ngwenya’s blind “optimism” (be it conscious or unconscious) is deeply disconcerting.

It is the same blindness that causes people to believe that we all have the same opportunities despite some people going to Bishops and others going to schools where the teachers do not even turn up. It is the same blindness that ignores the fact that many South African companies are still run by white men despite the fact that everyone harps on about black economic empowerment. It is the same blindness that ignores that children whose mothers were domestic workers during apartheid are likely to grow up to be domestic workers because, systematically, nothing has changed.

It is the same blindness that thinks race relations can be healed in 20 years after years of apartheid brutality. Race relations are still extremely tense in the US after nearly 100 years. It is clear that simply overcoming racial injustice is not an easy feat, no matter how many Martin Luther Kings or Nelson Mandelas we have.

It is the sort of blindness that ignores the pain of the majority and tries to tell them to settle down because the past is the past which is wildly and recklessly unfair to say. It unfortunately is not the sort of vision that can heal this country. The first debate needs to be an acknowledgement that people are still angry and this is why. This anger needs to not go through another unhelpful Truth and Reconciliation Commission moment but must be properly addressed. The second round of the debate is to address the fact that racism in this country is still powered by deep racial imbalances.

Thus, although speaking about coming together is commendable, it is wildly impractical because the real conversation has not even begun. Our racial identities are far too imbalanced and far too entrenched to simply “ignore” and disregard as an “obsession”.


  • Kagure Mugo is the co-founder and full-time curator of HOLAAfrica! She is a part-time pseudo-academic and part-time wine-bar philosopher. A nomad (who has been everywhere and belongs nowhere) with a firm belief that no-one will love Africa till she loves herself.


  1. OpenDebate OpenDebate 11 January 2016

    Kagure Mugo, have you even read Gwen’s piece? Nowhere did she ask that we abandon the past and pretend it never happened. If you are sore about the state of affairs, feel free to write your article, but keep the low blows and “utter rubbish” comments to yourself. Gwen’s article merely addressed the bias regarding racism which is prevalent in this country. The people she quoted were often making remarks against other black people – suggesting that black people often degrade their own race. You yourself have shown to be blind – blind to the fact that, despite BEE, black people have failed to create their own wealth, which is a direct indication of our lacking education system; blind to the fact that there is no need for public schools to have teachers that do not even turn up – whose fault is that??; blind to the fact that black nurses in public hospitals do not give a rats ass about their patients (I have witnessed this first hand when I was admitted to a public hospital which USED to be fully functioning during the economically stressed Apartheid years); blind to the fact that funding that is supposed to go towards helping upcoming black farmers simply disappear into the pockets of government officials. Please, continue to fixate on the few white people that still manages to cling to the businesses that they started from scratch, and be blind about all the missed opportunities because our corrupt government simply stuff their own pockets and ignore the people that are voting for them. To conclude, Gwen was merely illustrating that, in order to fight racism, EVERYBODY has to be held accountable, and that one’s “oppressed status” does not grant you a free pass to be racist, and in the same context call others out for the crime.

  2. Devine Hadebe Devine Hadebe 11 January 2016

    Good article, thank you.

  3. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 11 January 2016

    Let’s just leave all of this and reduce it to 2 questions:
    1.) Do you believe racism to be a human trait or something only white people do?
    2.) Do you believe incitement to violence and calling others cockroaches or similar, should be condoned if the person who says it has a certain skin colour?

    That’s all the article was about. So rant away, but do actually answer those two questions if you do.

  4. Peter Leyland Peter Leyland 11 January 2016

    I see lots of hand wringing, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but nothing in the way of solutions.

    Personally, I was orphaned at an early age and suffered abuse as a child, later on becoming a bully to other children until I made conscious decisions and changes – with some help from others.

    The biggest and best changes that I made were to stop feeling sorry for myself and to start to create my own better future instead of agonising over the not so great past.

    Whilst despite some deprivation, I probably lived a life of relative luxury compared to others who suffered much worse deprivation (not that boarding school can be considered in any way luxurious). At the end of the day, no-one cares other than your immediate family (in my case, sister, uncles and aunts etc).

    We cannot change the cards that life has dealt us, but we can do the best we can with those cards, through hard work, sacrifice and dedication.

  5. Suntosh Pillay Suntosh Pillay 14 January 2016

    I completely agree that “the real conversation has not even begun”.
    This is where our greatest opportunities for change can happen.

    Also, different sectors must take responsibility for different types of change.
    (1) the material changes needed to eradicate racism (landlessness, poverty etc.) is mandated to government to address. This is why we elect them, and this is why we have Ministers of Finance, Economic Development, Housing etc.
    (2) the emotional changes needed to eradicate racism must come from the bottom-up, with awkward and honest conversations for change (This is probably harder than the material changes, because it requires people sitting with uncomfortable feelings and bursting bubbles of privilege and bubbles of ignorance).

  6. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 22 January 2016

    I think it is hard to forgive when you define yourself on your painful experiences.

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