By Sol Maria Fernandez Knight
Growing up, my mother always told me that I was a special child. But then again many parents want their children to feel unique and valuable, to instill a sense of pride in their identity, and to remind them of their heritage. As a child I did not think how being ‘special’ would mean so many complex experiences as I grew up in South Africa.
South Africa is often hailed for being a diverse country, with many different languages, religions, and cultures all co-existing. But this diversity does not necessarily result in tolerance and unity as we have seen from recent racist incidents, like the Catzavelos racist beach rant, or Kessie Nair’s use of the K-word towards President Cyril Ramaphosa.
I have lived here for the past 18 years, and when I mention this to people, their initial response is: “Well, you’re practically a South African”. Many people assume that after living in a country that is not your birthplace for so many years, you are well adapted to the language, life and cultural traditions, and you are no longer classified as a ‘foreigner’.
Despite being adjusted to life in South Africa, I still feel like an ‘outsider’. I have always felt out of place because of the different identities that I carry with me. Soy ‘Negra’ (black female), I am Cuban, and I come from a middle class background. Whenever I sit down with fellow black South Africans and they share some of their experiences of growing up in the informal settlements I cannot relate to their everyday struggles and I am reminded how I’ve been handed many privileges. For example, I went to good schools, which is a far cry from the reality for many young Black children who walk several kilometres daily, on an empty stomach, to an under-resourced school, and are still expected to excel and get good grades. My mother was able to afford to pay for my undergraduate studies, while many university students resort to a student loan or face the pressures that come with paying outstanding fees. The #FeesMustFall movement was a wake-up call for me because I realised how education is equally valuable and highly contested.
As an outsider I also get to see how having access to these privileges made me a ‘token’ ‘Negra’. Being a ‘token’ ‘Negra’ meant that I was the exception to the stereotypes that many of my friends had of a black person. Through my mother’s professional career and middle class status we were respected and considered ‘good enough’ around other families yet, sadly, without these privileges we would have been sidelined as well.
One of the key aspects that marks me as an outsider is the language barrier. ‘You are Black but you can’t speak our language’. This statement is quite common when I travel in KwaZulu-Natal, where isiZulu is spoken, or in the Western Cape, where isiXhosa and Afrikaans are common languages. My home language is Spanish, I learnt Afrikaans in high school, then French at university. It’s difficult to navigate between different languages when moving from one province to another, and in the process rarely do I get asked about my heritage or my roots, and my identity is taken for granted in social spaces. It is rare to meet a black person in this country who speaks Spanish! My family members do speak Spanish and they are whom I can genuinely relate to.
However, I’m also an insider because no matter where I go, I am reminded of my skin colour, and I also experience the same explicit and subtle discrimination that Black South Africans have to deal with on a daily basis. I feel inadequate and compelled to put on a mask when entering the plush, ‘white’, ‘civilised’ spaces of Cape Town, or being ‘eyed’ whenever I walk into a store. Adding to this burden is my gender. If you identify as a woman in this country, freedom takes on a whole new meaning, 20 years after apartheid. There is no freedom to walk comfortably on the streets (even during the day) without getting cat called and visually undressed by perverted men. There is no safety or security in spousal relationships because women are being violated or die at the hands of their partner. The alarming statistics of violence against women has made me more cautious of who I encounter in a relationship.
According to StatsSA, Black women still remain the most vulnerable because of the high unemployment rate (34.2%) they face and the violence they endure in a patriarchal society. Under these challenges, black women are still expected to carry the motto of strength and to suffer in silence whilst raising their families without support from their partner or ex-spouse. What remains apparent is that life in post-apartheid South Africa comes with unique challenges and complexities for any person who lives in this country. In sharing my experiences as an ‘outsider’, I hope that others can reflect and acknowledge how their identities have been shaped in different spaces that they’ve encountered in post-apartheid South Africa.
Sol Maria Fernandez Knight is a research psychology intern at UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Her research interests include gender, social justice, identity, and racial inequality, with a particular interest in the related processes of transformation and inclusivity at higher education institutions.