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A reply to Sandile Memela’s ‘coconut’, ‘authentic (non-racist) blacks’ blog

“Over the past 25 years, there have been a number of coconuts, non-whites and whites who have, overtly or covertly, accused authentic blacks of being racists,” says Memela in his recent “Dear coconuts, there are no black racists blog”. He does not define what an “authentic” black is. An immediate problem with the word authentic, as used by Memela, is that however you are born, the word authentic does not apply. You are simply born a human being and that cannot be done authentically or inauthentically. The phenomenon simply occurs. So we conclude Memela is talking about some kind of black identity.

Intellectual Memela (he modestly confesses to being one on his profile) then goes on to say these (undefined) blacks are accused of being racists and that this is “uncalled for” and “untrue”. But, unfortunately, there are people of every colour, creed and persuasion who do discriminate. Memela tends to used passive sentences when making accusations or wild claims (authentic blacks are incapable of being racist), that is to say, he shows no agency. Who, I cry, says that so-called “authentic blacks” are racist? For starters readers do not know what he means by authentic blacks as it is not defined. People cannot accuse an unknown entity of people when they dunno who them critters are.

Intellectual Memela then talks about black identity without making clear the specific context and which identity among the many black groups that can be found globally. He refers to Biko. But that great, tragic hero was defining blackness when all blacks (and people of other colour than white) were going through a cruel, crushing oppression second only to Nazism. Hence Biko’s definition of blackness inevitably was contingent on the emancipation of “the people” and a need for them “to rally together”… against “their oppression”. For example, Biko — extremely bravely, given his context, vastly unlike intellectual Memela’s context — wrote:The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves.Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression — the blackness of their skin — and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.

A definition of “blacks” in today’s SA society (never mind the various definitions of blacks in other countries) is extremely different to Biko’s era. It is also obviously complex. Does the poor Zimbabwean refugee in SA who fears for his life every day, and works for sixpence, have the same identity and “prestige” as intellectual Memela? I dislike asking rhetorical questions. But the answer is obviously a loud, thundering no, and thus, we have barely started reading intellectual Memela’s column and he has already done a grave disservice to “blacks” in general (the term blacks by now the literate reader will agree is too vague, hence the inverted commas) to humankind, and to humanitarianism.

Intellectual Memela says “when blacks are self-aware, love and embrace blackness in their own terms, it does not mean that blacks are anti-white” (emphasis mine). The opening phrase is an adverb of time. So when does this self-awareness occur? It also suggests that some (again an unidentified quantity) blacks have not reached this marvellous level. Are those blacks who have not reached this “Maslovian” level inauthentic? Are they perhaps half-authentic, like a half-baked loaf of bread? Surely the (again, literate, non-abecedarian) reader can see this is clearly all, in the figurative sense of the word, half-baked thinking, if not quarter-baked and indigestible. And yet Thought Leader allows this kind of writing to be published, a phenomenon I wish to come to later, including the title, Thought Leader.

Shortly after the “Maslovian” bit, intellectual Memela comes to the following conclusion. The sentence has the most delicious irony: “It [the lie of authentic blacks being incapable of racism] could do great damage to the integrity of blackness”. As I have already shown, the damage has already been done by intellectual Memela.

We then have this muddled bit from our scholar who avows a belief in freedom of expression: “It is always disheartening and painful to witness or observe fellow South Africans who, in their over-zealousness to be non-racist, now want to be colour-blind, too.” Why does Memela find it disheartening and painful, “to be colour-blind”, a quest enshrined by all humanitarians? In other words, to respect and uplift all, especially the oppressed?

Frankly, I cannot think of a better world than one that is entirely non-racist and colour-blind. I live in Shanghai, a city that shows all kinds of painful discrimination, discussed in a number of my posts. Perhaps intellectual Memela means by, “now wants to be colour-blind”, that various racial groups or displaced people (such as the San or those poor, displaced Zimbabweans) in South Africa should have their group identities respected and protected. In other words, society should not be blind to them. But our luminary does not make this clear. Onward we waffle.

As our scholarly intellectual meanders along in his column, let me guide you through some choice passages, with my comments in italics in brackets: “Ironically, it is those who claim to be non-racists (who are “those”?) who play the race card against blacks” (Who exactly? Names, please. Give specific incidents). This they tend to do by making subtle but poor attempts to call and condemn blacks as racist (I would have thought anyone calling someone else a racist is far from subtle. And again, please substantiate your fantastic claims with specific examples). They (Who?) insist that blacks are obsessed with racism, not wanting to move with the times. (This final, irresponsible statement serves only to create further rifts, or tensions between race groups.

There is now a Fuhrer, “Mein Kampf” quality to this writing, potentially riling up one group against another.)“But self-aware and self-loving blacks are not necessarily racist. In fact, blacks are not racist.” This statement would have been lovely (though far from original) if it had read: “self-aware and self-loving people… are not racist”. By stating the irresponsible, generalising untruth, “blacks are not racist” our scholar dichotomises and plays “race” against “race”.“If they wanted to make an issue of racism, blacks who are accused of racism would demand an apology” (and yet many groups such as the ANCYL and senior leaders such as Chuene and Winnie Mandela demanded an apology from the IAFF for being racist towards Semenya on the gender issue and they were proven so, so wrong. Chuene was lying all the time, using racism to try and cover his sorry arse. Note, Mr Memela, how I use a specific example, unlike you).

The coconut. The rest of this thoughtful, sensitive column of intellectual Memela’s is mostly about “the coconut”. He defines coconuts as blacks who aspire to be whites (without giving explicit examples to substantiate his scholarly claim). This must surely be infuriating to aspiring young black men such as fellow blogger The Sumo, who sees himself as “the ultimate transitional South African. Born and raised in a KwaZulu-Natal township near Durban, he was part of the first group of black initiates into the ‘multiracial’ education system. He was (and is) always in contrast to the norm, black in ‘white’ schools, a blazer-wearing coconut in the township streets … ”. I strongly doubt The Sumo wishes to be white or to have a “white” identity (whatever that means). If The Sumo wishes to have an identity where people of all colours have the same identity, rather than the dichotomy black/white, so what? I see in The Sumo’s blogs the following. He defines himself (often humorously to keep things in perspective) as a person first in the context of transitional SA, explores his identity in the changing terrain of Joburg second, and looks at himself as a black person as a close third. He does not say he is the ultimate transitional black, but the ultimate transitional South African, thus avoiding dichotomy or othering people of different “races”. This is so unlike Sandile Memela.

The Sumo jokingly refers to himself as a coconut in his profile. I think his definition is far from Memela’s, and is more a spoof on being “black” in so-called, previously “white” schools and probably also refers to his body shape, which he loves referring to in a hilarious manner.

However, to state the obvious, the term coconut is derogatory, at least the way intellectual Memela uses it. “There are many coconuts or non-whites — that is, blacks who aspire to be whites — who confuse skin colour with blackness. These coconuts always complain that they are being made to carry the burden of ‘blackness’.” This is the most interesting conundrum: “who confuse skin colour with blackness”. I realise, in his own studious, thoughtful manner, our intellectual is trying to make a case for a specific black identity which he never defines. But the very attempt to do so subverts the fact he says “authentic blacks” (whatever/whoever the hell they are) cannot be racist. A non-racist is one who does not discriminate. So “authentic blacks” (one readily assumes Memela is one), would not accuse other people of being “different” or “coconuts” as they are non-racist and do not discriminate. Contradiction after contradiction.

Scholar Memela does serious violence to the legacy of Biko with “To paraphrase Biko: ‘Coconut is non-white. And black is black’.” He has not paraphrased. He has distorted what Biko said and also undermined the spirit of the cause Biko rightly fought for: freedom for the oppressed, equality and no discrimination.

And yet this article finds its way onto Thought Leader. Some commentators were understandably so disgusted they do not wish to come back to Thought Leader. Articles like these tarnish the image Thought Leader wants to have — judging by the name of the blog platform’s title. In other words Thought Leader surely wishes to host writers who can think. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as it sounds like a “think tank” of leading thinkers who get together to analyse and provide solutions for a country’s problems or the world’s. I have thought for a long time it should be changed to Opinion Leader.

But in closing, let us look at Memela as he muddles up to the finishing line: “Let us leave the blacks to be true to themselves by creating a new human race.”

What does this mean? A new Aryan ubermensch? Blacks will define the future of humankind and not — arguably — the Chinese? What about the poor, disloyal “coconut” blacks who are not “true to themselves”? In the hegemonic order of the “new human race” will the coconuts et al be among the “prawns”, referring to that movie District 9?

I wait with bated breath for some coherent answers. Not.


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @