Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

‘Don’t you want to be white?’

By Lorato Palesa Modongo

“Coming to a new country always forces you to confront things about yourself that you never considered before.” — Staceyann Chin, poet.

I am from Botswana. Literally next door. I came to South Africa in 2013 to take up postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University. I had three reasons. Firstly, psychology is not offered at postgraduate level in my country. Secondly, I read on the internet that it is one of the top African universities, so I wanted to experience this “topness”. Thirdly, it was the first university to give me an affirmative response.

With the fickle finger of fate having pointed me to this quaint town of Stellies, I made it, March 2013. I arrived with my luggage and a great enthusiasm and verve in my spirit. I fell deep in love with Stellies at first sight. Stellenbosch is picturesque, the pointy mountains, the wine farms, dainty lined-up coffee shops on Dorp Street, the breathtakingly spotless Victoria Street and the air, the air, so unpolluted. Most notably, the white people in this place. For me, being in this space was an achievement. Being this close to whiteness. I had arrived.

Botswana
Growing up in my home village of Palapye, my people idolised whiteness. My people revered whiteness. My people viewed whites as demi-gods. I still wonder if my people are aware of this fascination they have with whiteness. Maybe it’s because we have a pretty homogeneous population of black people. Maybe it’s because we mostly saw white people on TV and magazines and the few tourists who passed through my village taking snap-shots of us with their cameras (without our consent). We really held whiteness in high regard.

I remember being in standard six and after I got straight As in all my subjects my teacher, with a huge smile on her face, pronounced to my grandmother: “Ngwana o, kelekgoa” (This child is a white person). I beamed with pride. To an 11-year-old girl this teacher was implicitly saying: “You are smart but you are not smart in your blackness. Your smartness is close to whiteness because whiteness is the only thing that can achieve the As you scored.”

“O lekgoa”, I was bursting with pride. I was only 11 years old.

I also remember how many of the adults in my community would say “My child is a white person” whenever children displayed what was/is considered to be a high level of discipline and propriety. “O lekgoa” was thrown around whenever one looked good. This looking good to us young black girls included having soft silky hair. Kinky hair fried with Dark and Lovely relaxer cream. Sometimes Sta-Sof-Fro or Easy Waves relaxer. Our scalp usually burnt during this demonic exercise of acquiring straight hair. The salon lady would say “Bokgarebebo a itshokelwamma wee” (Looking good requires resilience). This resilience meant my scalp burning. It was worth the price they said. Kinky hair was ugly. The teachers told me. My classmates too.

“O lekgoa” was thrown around whenever we smelt good, or “O nkgasekgoa” (You smell white). “O lekgoa” was thrown around whenever one spoke good English. Good English meant eloquence, sometimes an accent too. We call it a twang. “O lekgoa” was thrown around whenever one pronounced words the way they were apparently supposed to be pronounced. Certificate instead of steve-kate, world instead of wereld, question instead of khweshen, social studies instead of shoshalstadis, South Africa instead of SataFrika.

“O lekgoa”. I was 11 years old.

I remember Dineo*. My teachers were fond of her. Dineo spoke good English. She was light-skinned, what my people now call “yellow-bone”. My standard five teacher really liked Dineo. She never beat her up. She sometimes let Dineo carry her books on her behalf. My teacher chose Dineo to be the class monitor. Dineo wrote down names of noisemakers during class. She had power. Dineo won all the primary school beauty pageants. All the boys loved Dineo. But Dineo spoke good English with a twang, so these boys did not bother her much. Dineo was a lekgoa. One day our head teacher called her up during morning assembly and we were told to emulate Dineo in dress, hair and speech. “Ha le bate go nnamakgoanyane?” (Don’t you want to be white people?)

I also remember Kabelo*. She was dark-skinned. A shade or two darker than most of us in class. My teacher said Kabelo was dirty and ugly. Her hair wasn’t straightened. She couldn’t participate in any beauty contest. With those dikgong (logs) for hair? Skiripot. She paused and said ummm many times when reading in English. Kabelo was an easy target for bullying. We nicknamed her “black mamba”. MaBlakwana. Blackie. Legala (coal). Boys didn’t woo Kabelo. They said her blackness would rub off on them. O ta re taka. She used to cry about it while we laughed about it. Whenever Kabelo made a noise or misbehaved in class, my teacher would yell “Wareng ne yo a montsho” (What is this black one saying?), throwing the rest of the class into an uproar of irrepressible laughter, and Kabelo into a shameful silence. Kabelo was a Koko-ya-Setswana (Tswana chicken) unsophisticated, uncouth, low caste. Black mamba with her broken English and Fanakaloo was a representation of the upper echelons of shame that we all wanted to disintegrate and disassociate from.

I was 11 years old.

I have a vivid memory of the weddings we gate-crashed in my neighbourhood. The songs fused with ululations. “Ngwana o tshwana le lekhalate” (The child looks like a coloured). The child was the bride. The food we ate at weddings, dijotsaskgoa (white food): rice, chicken, beetroots and some of its relatives, oh the trifle!

South Africa
So here I was in Stellenbosch, about 10 years later, in close proximity to whiteness. There were just three black people in my class. I genuinely thought this was an achievement. Mama, I made it! I learnt how to properly pronounce Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. I had tea at the dainty coffee shops on Dorp Street. My “Rs” tried to flow with a twang. My newly-found friends were white, and they could finally take a picture of me with my consent. My teacher was right, kelekgoa. See? If you work hard enough you will end up escaping everything black and assimilating whiteness. Whiteness and its possessions is a sign of hard work and excellence and superiority. Whiteness is an insignia of sterility and immaculate peace. Just like clean Victoria Street. I had arrived.

Students hold a banner reading "Stellenbosch" during a protest against allegations of racism on campus brought to light by a documentary called Luister ("Listen" in Afrikaans) on September 1, 2015, in Stellenbosch. The protest was organised by the Open Stellenbosch organisation.  (AFP  / Rodger Bosch)

Students protest against allegations of racism on campus brought to light by a documentary called Luister (Listen) on September 1, 2015, in Stellenbosch. The protest was organised by the Open Stellenbosch organisation. (AFP / Rodger Bosch)

Then the coffee dates with my white friends included other white patrons ogle at me with disapproving looks. They only relaxed and let me close after hearing me speak. My vocabulary wasn’t bad. I could nonchalantly use the word dilapidated, or bourgeoisie, or preposterous, or equanimity, or magnanimous. My command of the language became a tool for accessing these places. These coffee dates turned into conversations of how different I am from other blacks, resulting in my friends having an obsession for touching my natural hair.

My friends started conversing about how they wanted Mini Coopers and Audis as their 21st birthday gifts. An Audi, a car I will probably buy after about 15 years of serious toiling. My other friend said she got a house on prime land on her 18th birthday.

My friends got comfortable enough to explicitly tell me that their parents “owned” people. People of colour. My friends said “these” people were hooligans and violent, even when they toyi-toyi, you can see that they are “savages”. “These” people are lazy. I knew something was very wrong with this narrative but I remained silent until I disassociated from these “friends”. Whiteness wasn’t as clean and as nice as my standard six teacher said it was. Whiteness enjoyed shaming people whose skin colour looked like mine. Whiteness wasn’t all about working hard. There were lots of handouts from parents in this space. Excellence by association.

I went to Kayamandi township. I saw people languishing in penury, alongside the whites who were a stone’s throw away in their coffee shops swimming in opulence. People packed in shacks like sardines. No land. No access to good sanitation. These people came in very early in the morning to Stellenbosch to sweep and keep Victoria Street clean, to push trolleys at Ekeistad Mall and guard cars at the university parking lot. These people’s skin colour looked like mine. This is all they did, clean, guard, cashier, push trolleys. They worked all day, sometimes all night and walked a long distance. What was lazy about these women cleaning in Firga at 2am?

I looked at the structure and corridors of the university, there was not a single black, female lecturer in my department. Someone I could identify with and use as a mirror to see potential in myself, particularly in this white, male-dominated space. None. I do not want to believe that black intelligence is non-existent.

I started reflecting. I was a child, fed with subliminal messages about what academic achievement, beauty, ideals and the command of English meant. Here I was, having been taught denigrating, implicit and contorted views about the inherent ugliness and inferiority of blackness and anything that represents it. My language, my food, my hair and my skin colour. I was fed these lies.

I got close to whiteness and it has been the most violent space to my being. It thinks it has inherent superiority and therefore a right to dominance. It is a space that is hostile to black bodies through its jokes and anecdotes and institutional culture and structural white privilege and supremacy. It is arrogant, and has a loathing for anything black.

This space damages one’s psyche and soul. It is a space that excludes and aims to keep on excluding the other through politics of language and deception. This space, informed by white pedagogy, limits access to quality higher learning for “the other”. This space tries to pacify people of colour and police them on how to behave and when to behave — “Your #FeesMustFall is hooliganism”. This space requires that you use your energy to explain why and how it is violent. This space is taxing.

It is a space that can easily invalidate one’s lived experience, because, well, you are just a dramatic, angry, young black woman.

Stellenbosch, what’s good?

* Not their real names.

Lorato Palesa Modongo is a 2014 Mandela Rhodes Scholar pursuing her master’s degree in psychology at Stellenbosch University.

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