Claire L Bell
Claire L Bell

Silence is golden, nobody likes an angry black

Six years ago I was awarded an Open Society Foundation media fellowship. My assignment was to spend three months in the old Transkei, interviewing the rural South Africans of Pondoland and Thembuland about what democracy had – and had not – brought to their lives.

I set myself up as an objective reporter on an objective mission. It was 2010, and I was tired of how, back then, the newspapers were dominated by stories of crime, corruption and the voices of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, the political elite. I wanted to know what my fellow citizens thought, how we, the people, were really getting on with our democracy.

I set off alone on the road, a lone female journalist roaming the Transkei in a bakkie, and soon realised that my so-called objective mission was a flawed project. I had grown up in Benoni during the last days of apartheid, and despite my media credentials (this was a freelance assignment for Time magazine) within days I found myself drowning in my own subjectivity, face to face with my fears, ignorance and prejudice, the shadows of an apartheid childhood.

Over the next five years, with more return visits to the Transkei, that journey became a book, titled Lost Where I Belong. It is a book of two halves. Partly, it documents the stories of rural South Africans and their sense of “being lost in transformation”, and partly it tells my story, my own feelings of loss, longing and not belonging.

Since then the book has courted many publishers, and is now represented by an excellent literary agent in London, and yet – in 2016 – it has yet to find a publisher. Why? Over and over I have been told that there is simply not a big-enough market for a book that probes and pushes at racism and white prejudice.

Here is an extract from the latest rejection:

“I’m ever so sorry not to have written back sooner about Claire’s book, which I admired enormously. It’s a book that really took a hold of me at times and nagged at me even when I wasn’t reading it. This is of course because what she addresses is so potent and distressing but mainly because of the forensic honesty of her quest and her writing, her willingness to confront the apartheid within, to work through the fact that she is inextricable from the history. The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting. You will appreciate, then, I hope, that it is only with a great deal of personal regret that I’m writing to say that I can’t see a place for Claire’s book here. The very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful. This is partly because it’s such a difficult and upsetting subject and partly because it is for a UK readership a subject that might appear to be at some distance from their daily lives.”

Bearing in mind, that the book received a similar rejection from a South African publisher. The bottom line: there is no market for a book that confronts racism from a white perspective. We can’t make any money from that.

While Lost Where I Belong has been struggling to find a platform, Keke Motseke, Anisha Panchia and I have created a platform of another kind: the Consciousness Café. In inspiring spaces around the country, we bring South Africans together to engage in honest, bear-all conversations about the shadows of racism and prejudice that exist in all of our hearts.

This past Saturday, Consciousness Café popped up at the Spaza Gallery in Troyeville. During the dialogue what shocked me – and most of the white people present – was to hear how every black South African in the room, including the glamorous girls with MBAs and BMWs who most white South Africans would describe as “sorted” and “privileged”, continue to experience racism on a daily basis. Being told there is no place for them to sit in an empty restaurant. Being overlooked for promotions and pay rises. Being given a lower grade than their white classmates, despite the fact that they were working in a group, and everybody else in the group got the same grade.

Really? In 2016? With a black majority government? This is happening? But perhaps what was more shocking was the way they said they reacted when this happened to them. They kept silent. They said nothing. It was better that way. After all, nobody likes an angry black.

It reminded me again how much the system values our silence. It is comfortable that way. It does not want the voices out.

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