In a timeless collection of African short stories, folk tales and poetry, edited by Barbara Nolen, the poem titled The Moon succinctly captures what this polemic is about. Let me reproduce the said poem:

“The moon lights the earth
It lights the earth but still
The night must remain the night
The night cannot be like the day
The moon cannot dry our washing
Just like a woman cannot be a man
Just like a black can never be a white.”

This short poem talks to many important issues, depending on one’s interpretation of it. It could be argued that one of the key messages from it is that expectations should be managed. It also calls on humanity to be realistic and deal with issues as they are or as they seem. This reminds me of Benjamin — my favourite character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. George Orwell narrates that Benjamin “seldom talked … alone among the animals in the farm he never laughed. If asked why, he would say that he saw nothing to laugh at”. When things got out of hand — many years after the animals, under the leadership of Napoleon, had taken over the farm from human beings — Orwell narrates that “Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse … ”. Benjamin believed that things never change: “life would go on as it had always gone on — that is, badly”.

When it comes to some of the most pressing challenges confronting humanity I have often wondered whether Benjamin was right — though cynical and extreme. WEB Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk pronounced — at the very beginning of the twentieth century — that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line”. Almost a hundred years later, Cornell West in the 2001 preface of his Race Matters argues that “ … the legacy of white supremacy lingers — often in the face of the very denials of its realities”. He concludes that “the problem of the twenty first century remains the problem of the colour line”.

Scholars and activists such as West and Du Bois proposed ways of dealing with the challenge of “colour line”. For West, in particular, the critical issue is “black leadership”. The experience of the last ten years or so, globally, suggests that there are other important factors that need to be addressed. It could be argued that “black leadership” has not been an effective answer to the challenge of “colour line”. I recently wrote about the challenge of white supremacy, and even the possibility of black supremacy, in the case of South Africa ( The problem of white supremacy, in particular, is as rampant all over the world — my limited lived experiences in countries such as Brazil and US suggest that the challenge of white supremacy or even racism is widespread.

“One of the greatest sons of our nation” — as Nelson Mandela called Stephen Bantu Biko during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Biko’s death — proposed, more than 30 years ago, a solution to the problem of “colour line”: Black Consciousness. He argued that “black consciousness defines the situation differently. The thesis is in fact a strong white racism and therefore the antithesis to this must, ipso facto, be a strong solidarity amongst blacks on whom this white racism seeks to prey”. Biko unpacks black consciousness in his most quoted essay written in 1973 as “an attitude of 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 [and woman] of the need to rally together with his brothers [and sisters] 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”. He concludes that “some will charge that we are racist but these people are using exactly the values we reject … we have set out on a quest for true humanity”.

There are varied views on how we could “march forth with courage and determination” — as Biko appealed to us — “to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible — a more human face”. This challenge is not unique to the South African situation, as hinted above. Many thinkers and leaders have presented different perspectives on how humanity should “march forth” for “true humanity”. Frantz Fanon, for instance, talks of “psycho-affective imaginations of violence”. Fanon argued that “violence can thus be understood to be the perfect mediation — man liberates himself in and through violence”. I doubt I should go into details of how Fanon suggested humanity should deal with the “colour line” challenge.

Elliot Aronson in his remarkable book Readings about the Social Animal presents a possible way forward: improved self-compassion. As hinted in my other polemics, among the challenges that our nation faces is of individuals that are prejudiced, bitter and so on. This could be linked to our fragile egos that I have alluded to before. In essence, it seems that we do not have what Aronson terms “high/well-grounded self-esteem”. Aronson argues that “the key to developing high/well-grounded self-esteem lies in the ability to look at one’s shortcomings and mistakes and failures with full attention instead of turning away and trying to ignore them or explain them away”. He contends that developing high/well-grounded self-esteem “requires a good measure of constructive self-compassion”. Self-compassion, as Aronson describes, “implies the ability to examine one’s imperfect behaviour, feel truly bad about any harm one has done or any stupidities one has committed — and not rush to justify the behaviour”.

It could be argued that to deal with our prejudices, bitterness and so on we need to improve our self-esteem and self-compassion. Similarly, to deal a blow to the “colour line” challenge and other challenges confronting our nation, we need to improve on our self-awareness, self-esteem and self-compassion — all this can be learnt and none of it is insurmountable. We should — in time — prove Benjamin extreme. We should, in time, realise the true humanity that Biko and Sobukwe, among others, died for. Well-grounded self-esteem is critical for us to address the challenge of the “colour line” that Du Bois and West aptly analysed. The “Black Leadership” that West craves for would be brought about by you and me. The challenge of the “colour line”, and many other social ills, calls for sharpened activism by all of us — we can each be the change that we want to be, as Mahatma Gandhi pleaded. In addition, we do not only need social capital, of significance is also political capital. Political capital can be defined as political influence that community members have because of their community “organisation”; the ability to shape decisions about their lives.

The inability to address challenges named above could imply that many years later we would still have a challenge of the “colour line”, and this challenge has major repercussions for future generations. Countries, like the US, that have not successfully addressed the challenge of the “colour line” ended up with a so-called “underclass” — the lesson from the American experience is that public policies can only do so much. The “colour line” challenge, coupled with other social ills bedevilling our young democracy, can subtract our hard-earned gains and cost future generations dearly. The notion of the “underclass” is a lot more dangerous for South Africa. Because we are South Africans, and our history attests to that, we will not allow low self-esteem and poor self-compassion to compromise the ideal that many died for. Black consciousness or any form of consciousness or remedy of the challenge of the “colour line” needs people that have sound self-awareness, self-esteem, self-compassion and so on and so forth. The important point made here is that self-esteem can be improved no matter what the reasons for low self-esteem.


  • Vusi Gumede worked for the South African government in various capacities and in different departments for 12 years. He has been an academic since 2010. He has held various professorships, fellowships and editorships in and outside South Africa. He is currently a Dean for the Faculty of Economics, Development and Business Sciences at the University of Mpumalanga in South Africa. He holds various qualifications, including a PhD in Economics that he completed in 2003 at the University of Natal. He has published 15 books and over 50 journal articles and book chapters. He has supervised to completion over 20 Masters and Doctoral students as well as undertaken various research projects for institutions in and outside South Africa. He serves in various committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council in South Africa, the International Advisory Board of the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research, the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies and the Pan-African Federalist Movement.


Vusi Gumede

Vusi Gumede worked for the South African government in various capacities and in different departments for 12 years. He has been an academic since 2010. He has held various professorships, fellowships...

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