Black middle-class South Africans suffer from a wide spectrum of self-inflicted psychological ailments, which you need to be black and middle class to truly understand. Each generation suffers from its own variations of these — only black syndrome, first black syndrome, (my favourite) bad black syndrome, black guilt — often discussed with close confidants, far from the prying eyes of the interweb trolls.
Lately, I have noticed black guilt specifically within the black middle class (never to be referred to as black diamonds) which has truly boggled my liberal model C mind. Although amusing, this strain of black guilt could prove detrimental to the political progress of the black middle class (BMC).
Today’s BMC comes from a spectrum of humble beginnings. Although raised poor, this was a privileged bunch. Offspring of economic and education freedom fighters, many of them grew up surrounded by books when many children weren’t, went to bed full when many children didn’t. Children of nurses, teachers, a few doctors and even fewer accountants, they were always best-placed to be the first lot to fully reap the benefits of freedom.
Despite a relatively protected upbringing, they also bore witness to the poverty that was often only a neighbour away. Although many would never know the feeling of going to bed hungry, they would play and share their toys (and often their food) with a friend who did. Once the gates to good education were opened, they would end up spending less and less time in this place, and more time in classrooms exposed to new cultures, ideas, languages (more English and Afrikaans).
One would have expected that this generation of educated young people with such a unique experience would be leading South Africa towards meaningful change, but alas, here they are in 2011 suffering from a serious case of black middle-class, middle-child guilt! This generation is stuck somewhere in mental middle-earth, between “I don’t want to seem ungrateful for being part of a small group that has gained both political and economic emancipation” and “I don’t want it to seem like the only reason I have this is because I’m black”.
I suppose you’d also have middle-child syndrome if you had the same siblings BMC has. On the one hand, we have white child. White child was the only child for a long time, and as such, she frequently displays those only-child symptoms. She’s still coming to grips with the idea of sharing, often expecting the parent (government) to leave her toys alone and go buy more. Having grown up alone, she’s come to define everything as a necessity — food, clothing, education, roads, profits, a house in a golf estate, 25% salary increase yearly, electricity, free-flowing traffic — she wants it all.
On the other hand we have the other black child. This is the child that lived as an orphan for a long time before genetic testing proved he was part of the family. Every year the parents talk of how this child is a priority, yet every year this child remains stuck in the same situation, opportunities becoming fewer and fewer. Growing more and more despondent. This is the child that will need support from the parents, long after the other children have left home.
The BMC, stuck between these two sides, is slowly losing its voice. It looks at the suffering experienced by the one side and doubts its ability to understand and offer solutions. It forgets its own humble beginnings, forgets that poverty may not have been in its immediate families, but it was always in the family. It lets the other black child call it names and accuse it of being in cahoots with the white child. It never highlights the fact that finding the opportunities may have been easier, but it also had to put in the work. No exam ever pre-populated the correct answers just because you were black; BMC had to work just as hard, often harder than the white child, to be where it is today.
When hanging out with the white child, BMC remains ever so amiable, declaring in its Lindiwe Mazibuko-esque accent “I would never apply for an affirmative action post, I want to succeed because I’m good, not because I’m black”. Maybe this is a good time to remind the BMC that every time a black person turns down an AA position, a struggle veteran falls off their wheelchair, and a white woman gets the job. BMC has yet to learn how to strike a balance between empathising with the white child who may be struggling to adjust with no longer being a priority in this country; and standing by his belief that government intervention is the only feasible way to mend the injustices of the past, to ensure that the other black child can become an active participant in this country. When are you going to call your sibling to order when she’s suddenly moved by the “we whites are the only real taxpayers in this country” spirit!
Always cordial, always being a proper good black.
Black middle-class, middle-child guilt is a serious ailment which, if it goes untreated, will be the mental block preventing the BMC from active participation in matters of real importance in South Africa. In a country were some believe that the only way to get your point across is to depict the president of the country raping Justice, congeniality will get your message as far as your Facebook status update and no further.
If the BMC continues to keep silent regarding political issues because it doesn’t want to upset anyone, it will continue to be a political pawn, used in the political games played in South Africa. Newspapers will continue to speculate on the BMC’s vote. “Did they or did they not vote for the DA, traitors”. 702 Talk Radio will continue to assume that it’s also more bothered by potholes than it is by the state of service delivery in the townships where it was raised. Political leaders will continue to dismiss it just because of its accent, whether through derogatory terms like “coconut” or by stating condescendingly that it “speaks so well”.
No one is going to kindly wait for you, black middle-class, to have on opinion. It’s time to muscle your way into the conversation, the invite to the discussion table is never going to arrive, grab your chair, and don’t just demand to be heard. Speak.