Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

How we stopped thinking like Africans

Not so very long ago, as recent as 1977, the exponents of Black Consciousness (BC) taught us that there were two nations in South Africa: one European, oppressive and privileged; the other African, oppressed and dispossessed.

The minority Europeans were aware that they were outnumbered by the natives. So, they went out of their way to re-create an African middle class that would serve as a “buffer zone” between the European haves and the African have-nots.

The BC exponents told us that the African middle class was fake with neither land ownership nor control of the means of production. They were recreated in the European image to serve as puppets in Bantustans and in top government and corporate positions to do as their masters told them.
Growing up in the townships — with the liberation movement in exile and Nelson Mandela in prison — we thought we knew the truth. The battle lines had been drawn: the European have-everything stood on one side and the African have-nothing on the other. In the middle was the small but growing new middle class that turned its back on community to seek love, acceptance and comfort in the enemy camp.

To create the middle class, the European haves got into schools where they were helped by African principals, teachers and priests to identify and select those who had potential, mostly prefects and other servile types who would serve the interests of the system. Many of these were given scholarships and bursaries to top universities to become the “first black” this or that.

These were role models and examples of how Africans had no business to blame colonialism or apartheid for their failures but themselves. Many of them went on to become celebrities and super-achievers who were featured in special glossy magazines like Bona, Pace and Tribute.

By the time the liberation movements were unbanned, exiles returned and political prisoners released in 1990, the African middle class was well-cemented and had distanced itself from the struggle. Participation and leadership of the struggle was left to “com-tsotsis” — angry, bitter young males who had nothing to lose — and a few other individuals in the churches and trade unions.

Instead, the African middle class stealthily creeped into a bourgeois lifestyle where it enjoyed the same privileges as the European have-everything. They spoke of the winds of change that were taking place following the scrapping of the social apartheid laws in the mid-1980s that allowed blacks and whites to sleep in the same hotels, have sex, live in the same neighbourhoods and speak the same language.

We listened to a lot of BC adherents who pointed out how the African middle class was solidified to be a “buffer zone”. It was condemned as having become part of the problem. But then some of the exiles returned, too, with PhDs and master’s degrees from Europe and the US to enlarge the middle class. The African middle class was strengthened and consolidated.

Some of the lucky ones went on to become cabinet ministers, director-generals and other top ranking officials in the post-1994 government. They were also rising to managing director and CEO positions in the corporate world. Indeed, they were very fluent and articulate in English and gave birth to children that did not speak indigenous African languages.

Over the last 20 years, the African middle class is a fact of life and has radically changed the notion of African identity, lifestyle and achievement. The values it holds — selfishness, materialism, hard work and determination, for instance — are human and universal and cannot be classified as belonging to any particular race or class. But they have not hesitated to distance themselves from the African have-nothing and see themselves as the leadership that knows what is best for the majority. They have taken to what is misperceived to be European culture and way of life that is part of globalisation.

Everybody is striving to have a house in the suburbs, two cars in the garage, children in private schools and, above all, English as the medium of communication.

The BC adherents from the 1960s and 1970s have vanished from the cultural and political scene to become part of the chattering classes themselves. In fact, the lines that divided the European haves from the African have-nots have blurred so that everyone is now an African. There are no blacks or whites but simply South African citizens that are equal, even though some may be more equal.

We listened to BC exponents when we were young and thought they were men and women who knew what they were talking about, especially when it came to envisaging the future African majority ruling society. Some of our consciences lie uneasy at night for we do not know what truth is. There are far too many contradictions in what was taught and what we see practised and lived. So we find ourselves swinging like a pendulum.

It will not get you anywhere to talk about black and white or the European haves and the African have-nothing. It is all integration, now, in one big African melting pot of non-racial brotherhood and equality.

If any man or woman were to tell us to stop thinking like African have-nots in Africa, asking us to become part of globalisation, it would be in line with what was started after 1976 or even before. There is no question that we now live in the 21st century where the unjust economic system depends on over-exploitation of the African have-nots, skin colour does not matter, anymore, as it is the same difference. Exploiters come in all shades.

This is the new world where every man lives for himself and Africa is for us all. As for those who continue to point out the world of the European haves and African have-nots, perhaps we need not worry ourselves too much about them for they, too, use those politics to create economic opportunities for themselves.

In short, it is a bad idea to look at the world in terms of black and white or European and African. We are now all in this together. It is either we live as globalised brothers and sisters or just destroy the Africa that threatens to take us back to the primitive ages.

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