It was at a girl’s varsity residence room the morning after we had sex that I read, for the first time, Steve Biko’s I write what I like. I was lying next to her, naked, and she had a handful of books on a bedside table. I read the first few essays, which left me terribly nervous. A condition familiar to me, as a black student at Wits of 2001, Johannesburg.
Questions of race and identity amid the whiteness within which we found ourselves as students lost in the corridors of Wits were not far from our minds. I was 16 years old then, on my way to dropping out of a BCom accounting bachelor’s degree. While growing up in the Eastern Cape (former Transkei), we didn’t preoccupy ourselves with whites. We were a homeland or more aptly, a Bantustan, after all, and the handful of whites in our town were neighbourly. They had assimilated to our culture in many ways. Generally, whites in the Transkei knew how to behave and they still do. I suspect it’s the idyll lush of the Wild Coast, the now famous rolling hills of the Mbhashe and the respect the Xhosa culture demands from those who constitute its community. Irrespective of race, we (black & white & coloured) called elderly black women and men “Mama” and “Tata”, respectively. “Sir” and “Ma’am” for our white and coloured neighbours. Whites learned our language (to some commendable degree) and lived among us, in our neighbourhoods, and went with us to school.
In varsity, however, whites were evidently more privileged than we were. Violent incidents took place. A black student would be attacked by a group of white students and yet no punishment would be allotted to the perpetrators. They continued to attend class and did so with a smugness that betrayed that they knew something we didn’t. And I guess, to some extent, they did. These were the dynamics of South Africa, were whites were accustomed to being superior to blacks. Something, I must confess, I wasn’t used to except during trips to East London to see my gran who owned a shebeen in Mdantsane.
Although East London (Ciskei) was in our backyard, when we had to visit her, we went past South Africa, which meant we suffered terror and humiliation at the Nciba border, now called the Kei Bridge in our post-1994 situation. I recall my mother betraying no visible fright at the sight of those white boys in khaki uniforms, carrying impressive automatic rifles and wearing ridiculously thick moustaches and big sun-glasses, like the 1980s film star Charles Bronson. Unlike Charles Bronson, however, they carried real guns and looked more dangerous and more menacing, a stark contrast to uncle Jimmy, the Portuguese man who owned Jimmy’s, our favourite fast-food shop back home.
At the border they would rifle through my mother’s luggage with these automatic rifles and fling her petticoats and bras and my PJs out onto the road while the rest of the taxi passengers waited their turn. These border patrol officers seemed young; well, at least younger than my mother who I feared and respected and loved all at once. I never did understand why those boys behaved the way they did or where they got the balls to carry those automatic rifles in my mother’s presence and more critically, why their faces wore such visible contempt for us. It was at varsity that this inexplicable contempt formulated itself into questions of race, power, and social inequities. These weighty topics found home in our minds as young students, youth who were in search of a political consciousness in the sweeping debris of student life in Braamfontein. A debris that was punctuated by drunkenness and debauchery, during the HIV scourge that threatened to snuff out our young lives with such callous indifference that one was forced to articulate the condition within which we fought to find purpose and identity, to confront, nakedly, our own blackness and the violence that aimed to destroy it. Instead of shrinking in horror against the insurmountable task of survival during this time, we chose to celebrate and explore this so-called blackness of ours.
In Braamfontein we began, in earnest, to play with the articles that we didn’t have access to only a decade ago. Having just missed the kwaito wave of Mdu’s Tsiki-Tsiki, Arthur’s Don’t call me Kaffir, Boom Shaka’s It’s about time, Joe Nina’s Maria Podesta, Thebe’s Tempy Pusha, Brothers of Peace, Crowded Crew, we slipped, quite deliberately, into American hip-hop. In hindsight, it seems a logical progression that we would extend our tastes towards conscious black American hip-hop. Over there they were free just as we were, but still not free, just as we were. So we dipped into Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Public Enemy, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest. These were the early 2000s. We’d watched the country torn asunder by the events of 1993 and the assassination of Chris Hani; we’d lived through the pamphlets that warned us about the ANC before the 1994 national democratic elections; we were too young to vote and yet we celebrated — even if uncomfortably, since racism was still at its behemoth — with all races when the Boks won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and together we survived Y2K. While the kwaito generation, which we were slightly a part of, liberated itself with every street bash, we were seeking ways to re-educate ourselves with every single hip-hop record and every book.
We read Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger as a giant metaphor for our impoverished material condition and moral depravity. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions hinted, for us, the need for feminism and uncomfortably questioned our privilege as black young men. Clashes between black and white students in pubs in Arcadia and Hatfield in Pretoria gave us a sense of solidarity with the students in the then Pretoria Technikon and Tuks by the fact of our shared experience. While we had made it into these sought-after institutions of higher learning, we were still unwelcome. At Pretoria Technikon, The Heights student residence was reserved for blacks only, in almost the same way that the Bantustans were, expect that this was happening in a new South Africa. At Wits, we were suspicious of our white lecturers. We believed they failed us intentionally, an allegation that was never proved but nonetheless believed. Although, now, we were free, hints of those boy soldiers with the Charles Bronson moustaches, loomed at us with every stare from a white person at Cresta Mall in Northcliff or The Waterfront (now, Brightwater Commons) in Randburg. The visible contempt of our white peers seemed lodged in something deeper than a mere politics of colour.
We assumed, quite rightly, that this was a symptom of structural domination in which we were unwilling cogs, a manufactured underclass that, while proclaiming freedom, would perpetually be in service to a callous upper-class that translated its privilege into racial hate. And yet, we dreamed the dreams of our heroes, of a non-racial, non-sexist society where we lived in the promise of equality. And we still dream, but the innocence of the promise of freedom is lost. Our former heroes are our potential adversaries, our former enemies are our likely allies. The racial debate, from this perspective, appears ripe for nuance. While the fissures begin to show between the political class and the marginalised underclass can we attest to common lived experience under the symbolic violence of the structural domination that defines class and race relations in South Africa?
While the physical violence and severe inequality stem from a racial structural domination, further away at the margins, this structural domination seems to find relief in the ways in which power plays out between those with relative privilege and those who possess none, regardless of race. In my student days we devoured Frantz Fanon and Biko just as much as we read Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. We were enamoured with Dumile Feni’s art just as much as we enjoyed Claude Debussy’s work. We lived between the urban, the township, and the rural. We lived multiple realities all at once and some of us still do. And these realities are forever moving, forever shifting, and at times appear to be not all black and white as one would like them to be. Yes, at the centre our woes are pinned to the superstructure, which will take years if not decades to undo. But, at the fringes, where the symbolic violence of this superstructure finds its immediate articulation in violence whether physical, verbal, or circumstantial, our debates seem to demand more urgent solutions to cure the immediate symptoms.