Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

What is ‘post’ in post-apartheid? Reflecting on my experiences

By Iris Nxumalo

In a very engaging, robust class discussion about post-colonial societies, my lecturer challenged us by asking, “What is so post about post-colonial societies?”

I paused.

Upon reflection, I started to unpack our categorisations of people’s lived experiences into neat, temporal frameworks that organise our histories. I started to interrogate the places and spaces in my life that challenged the post-apartheid label assigned to this epoch. I started to ask myself why I anchor the “apartheid moment” at the centre of my peoples’ history and what impact that has on the way I engage and interact with my past, present and future.

I started to reflect upon the calls to “forget about apartheid because it’s all in the past”. I couldn’t ignore the feelings of rage that built up inside of me when people said this. “How insensitive of you,” I immediately thought. Not because you are trying to “move on” or absolve yourself from the morally draining task of reflecting on your life and privileges, rather I feel like this particular call silences my ability to express the polyvalent ways in which my being, my tongue, my intellect, my body, my heart, my collective memory, my politics, my upbringing and my socialisation interacts with the legacy of apartheid every day.

I feel that a caveat is necessary. This article neither seeks to negate the formal ending of the apartheid system nor does it seek to argue that things have not changed post-1994. Furthermore, I do not seek to negate the upward mobility of a significant portion of “previously disadvantaged people”, nor do I seek to underplay the increased access that we, as people of colour, have to educational institutions and sites of wealth, power and privilege.

What this article does seek to do is to engage with many of my traumas that are often relegated to the periphery in discussions about race and apartheid because “I am a (relative) born-free”.

My back story
I live in a township called Pimville in Soweto. Like my peers, I navigated various spaces: township schools, former Model C schools, a former Afrikaans university and various experiences of the workplace. In this time, I was particularly perplexed by my social engagements with home and “where my life happened”. I have been troubled by my frequent (and often long) travels to sites of promise, wealth creation and abundant opportunities (read as suburbs) and my return to Soweto — a place of many contradictions often associated with rest, down-time, hopelessness, poverty, social ills, substance abuse and poorly resourced schools. This, to an extent, alludes to the many failed and “never really got-off-the-ground” talks about the “regeneration” of the townships. However, it also speaks to a larger phenomenon and one of my first interactions with the legacy of apartheid: the creation of native labour reserves and the spatial planning regimes of the apartheid government.

My friends and I colloquially discuss townships in this way in order to make a poignant observation: “Townships were never created for the empowerment of black people.” Although framed as sites of development for black people, where they can “develop separately” based on “their way of life”, in practice the townships were created to stabilise the labour force which worked in the factories and businesses in town. These townships were intentionally built on the periphery of towns to ensure that natives had relatively easy access to their work spaces regulated by the dompass, but not easy enough to reside in a suburb with better facilities and opportunities.

See, even though apartheid formally ended in 1994, the township still represents many of the things that it did prior to 1994. It still represents stifled ambitions, lack of opportunities, lack of progress and diminished agency. (I can already foresee debates about the new opulence of the townships based on the prevalence of extended four-room houses, the emergence of “big houses” and mansions. This article does not seek to negate that reality. That is, however, not representative of many people’s experiences in a township. What it does represent is the severe inequality in South Africa — the kind of inequality that enables someone in a shack to live next-door to/ across the road from a family that has a “big house”.)

My second and perhaps one of my most intimate engagements with the legacy of apartheid is through the oral histories of my parents. I carry their pain with me. I carry the glass ceilings the apartheid government imposed on their lives, I carry the indignities they faced in this country, I carry their painful nostalgia of the dreams they had but could never pursue “because of the way things were”, and I carry their hopes and dreams for me in a new South Africa. I carry their resilience, their diligence and their unwavering sacrifices for the ones they love.

I carry ALL OF THAT into the spaces I navigate, much of which I cannot articulate because we need to put the past behind us and “reconcile”. I carry that into violent spaces that tell me my natural hair is unprofessional, that discourage me from speaking like that (read as “with a black accent” — whatever that is!) because I sound less educated than I am. Places where people giggle when they pronounce my name and surname and places where people quickly ask you for a nickname or assign you one instead.

I carry all of that into spaces where I am told that “I am not like them”, in spaces that seem to be surprised that I “speak well” and most horrifically, in spaces where I am reminded that I am “technically black”. These experiences are not unique but they speak to the experiences of upward mobility and/or of people who have been labelled as coconuts for various reasons.

Although limited in exploration, these examples are just snapshots of the many ways in which many people (including those who have never lived under the apartheid system) experience the legacy of apartheid. I have intentionally excluded the outwardly violent, crude instances of racism to make a point: that it is often these “covert”, unseen micro-aggressions, those “I don’t mean to be racist, BUT … ” type of social experiences that are the most violent to us.

It is these personal, enduring ideas about race, human dignity and comments that start with “these people” that challenge our temporal categorisation of post-apartheid South Africa.

Iris Nxumalo is a master of science candidate in African studies at the University of Oxford. She is a former Mandela-Rhodes Scholar (2014) and an alumnus of the University of Pretoria.

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