Kagure Mugo
Kagure Mugo

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”.

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