I had always been anxious about returning to South Africa. Besides awkward puberty, an awakening awaited me in South Africa, sparked by a dizzying confrontation with the reality of race.
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Durban, South Africa
‘I just don’t find Black guys attractive. Their features are just like so… aggressive.’ Devoid of shame or hesitation, the words flew out of Luke’s mouth and triggered something within me. Shock arrested my mind and a familiar malaise began to brew. This sensation was not new. I felt it when white suburban eyes glared at me with accusation or glanced with unsettling surprise at my presence in ‘their’ restaurants or bars. In my undergraduate years, I saw this gaze recreated in the vicious faces of policemen surveying a crowd of protesting university students. It caused a burning itch in the mind when white joggers offered nervous, strained smiles as I passed them on an empty street.
No, this sensation was not new but in that particular moment with Luke the sting felt harsher. Through his confession, my close friend, who I had a huge crush on, reminded me of a chasm that existed between us, an asymmetry that turned us into hostile strangers. One that was erected by the past and alive in the present. Like the fearful joggers and trigger-keen police, Luke reminded me of what Frantz Fanon would call ‘the fact of my Blackness’.
In his biographical exploration of the writer, Jean Genet, existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, described an experience that those who are known as Black may find profoundly relatable when underneath the gaze of certain white people. ‘It is as if a page of a book suddenly became conscious and felt itself being read aloud without being able to read itself,’ Sartre said. Being Black during your coming-of-age years perhaps always entails trying to uncover the meaning of blackness. The following pages are a glance into that process.
My grandparents were diplomats who had been stationed in Doha, Qatar since 2008.
We arrived in that luxurious desert when I was 12 and left the year I turned 16. Before this, most of my childhood since the age of three was spent in Jordan. I had always been anxious about returning to South Africa. In the months before we left Qatar, this anxiety reached a climax, infusing itself with my nervous curiosity.
As we packed and boxed our lives up, I tried to ease my worry by reminding myself that South Africa was home. Surely, I had a moral obligation to return, regardless of how vague the details of this obligation were. And surely, I thought, in the land of my ancestors, where most people were Black like me, I would find within myself and be enveloped by a warm, familiar comfort. The fear of not fitting in as a teenager isn’t easy to subdue. I didn’t have any friends back home. I understood Zulu but fluency had long evaded me. I couldn’t even name the South Africa’s nine provinces. My self-assurance quickly grew faint and that distant country, my supposed home, felt increasingly alien.
I had spent holidays on my grandparents’ farm and in my mom’s Durban apartment. Beloved were my memories of our cattle grazing in the colossal valleys of Ulundi. The grass bleeding green in the spring and radiating a golden hue under the summer sun. I could never forget the delicious chewiness of tripe broiled for hours in big black pots on an open fire. After the day-long commotion of a wedding or Umemulo, night would swallow the land and uncles or brothers, drunk and boisterous, would sing songs of times when our people roamed across valleys as conquerors. But vacations only offer a glimpse of a place. They can’t be compared to the permanent immersion of daily life.
Besides awkward puberty, an awakening awaited me in South Africa, sparked by a dizzying confrontation with the reality of race. My naïve notions of who and what I was were overturned and required renewal. In facing the fact of my Blackness, innocent ignorance became impossible.
I know it may seem strange to some: How could a Black 16-year-old not recognize the reality of race?
My knowledge was sparse and my awareness dim because the social terrain of Qatar and Jordan did not compel me towards racial consciousness. For a time, this unawareness was a privilege and eventually it became a crutch. In Jordan, the schools attended by expats usually consisted of a multitude of nationalities. We were German, Vietnamese or Ghanaian before we were white, Asian or Black. It was the early 2000s, multiculturalism still retained an unquestioned moral righteousness, and our principal epitomized the liberal Clintonian, so the school implemented initiatives to celebrate cultural and national diversity. I absorbed these frameworks, even if counter-intuitively. I was South African before I was Zulu. Zulu before I was African. And African before I was… I didn’t yet have the words to describe this layer of myself.
Back then I saw the Self as a neatly layered assortment of one’s identity and not the intermingled web I now know it to be. Before the implosion of my innocence, the connections between the pieces of who and what I was were coincidental at best. Gradually the world made these connections clear.
When I came into my mid-teens, I realized that Africa was not a continent like others. My teachers, friends and the parents of friends did not speak of Africa and Africans in the same way they spoke of Europe or Europeans. They spoke of stoic Germans, temperamental Scotsmen, bitter Irishmen or the snobby French. Africa on the other hand was simply one large place, containing a monolith of people.
‘So, like, do you guys live in huts or houses?’
‘Do you see lions and zebras walking on the street?’
These questions didn’t feel like insults at the time. They were sincere attempts to unravel enigmas of the ‘exotic’ and ‘primitive’. In their eyes, unlike my African American counterparts, I was directly from the motherland, my African-ness undiluted by the diaspora. How could they not ask these questions? I was a window that served to confirm their fantasies of the ‘third world’.
Stunned as I was by these inquisitions, I couldn’t summon the energy to be angry at my classmates, until such remarks were coated by venomous intent.
‘Oh please. While you people were swinging from trees, we invented democracy and civilization.’ I can’t recall why we’d fallen into this argument or what point I was trying to make. Yet there I was, being lectured by the son of a Greek diplomat (someone I thought of as a friend) on the irrefutable inferiority of Africa and all its people. Confusion mingled with my anger. Why did people burden me with these assumptions or casually fling their patronizing expectations onto me? I was continuously expected to account for, be a testimony of or an exception to the supposed barbarity and dysfunction of Africa.
I could not yet see the impressions of history and the countless movements of power which encoded these expectations into people’s minds. Returning to South Africa, attending a former Model C school (formerly all-white public schools) while living with my mom in Durban, the impressions of history became vivid and the flow of power visceral.
My high school in South Africa stood in the centre of a pristine suburb.
Westville is defined by well-groomed lawns, pretty properties, unblemished streets, a private hospital alongside a diverse range of high-end restaurants, professional services and shopping centres. As the sun set at the end of the working day, I would bear witness to a mass exodus. Soon pavements were crowded with the Black faces who maintained the modest opulence of Westville. Young waitresses and bank tellers who were as fatigued as their elders; middle aged security guards and domestic workers who, after a day of labouring for a surrogate family, returned home to labour once more for their own. Minibus taxis bolted around bus stops and shopping centres, their drivers keen to fill up their cars as quickly as possible. Others glided carefree on the neighbourhood’s roads, knowing that there was no need to hustle, it was the easiest time to pick up passengers.
It was a strange routine. The injection of the Black workforce at the break of dawn, the rejuvenation of suburbia during the day and the discharging of Black bodies with the coming of night. I had faintly seen the same process in Doha. Back then, I wasn’t a part of that exodus. My grandparents’ wealth rendered working class life barely visible, even if its impact was abundantly pervasive. The bodies and minds that made Qatar’s splendour possible hailed from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and other Asian countries.
Would a white kid from South Africa or the young child of a sheikh, seeing their maid wave goodbye once again or looking at masses of black and brown people filling out of his street, not wonder where they all went and why they left? Such curiosity is rare amongst both white South Africans and Qatar’s elite. Initially, I blamed this indifference on the intellectual laziness required by any kind of bigotry. However, I’d be disappointed to realize that even my smartest white friends failed to question the racial features of the world around them.
The bigoted ignorance and indifference are birthed by the needs of power and the legacies of history which have yet to be fully unveiled. There is a quote by Karl Marx which I had first encountered during a course in political science: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’
Years ago, this statement seemed abstract to the point of being convoluted. In the process of observing and absorbing all that my new life in South Africa had to offer, the words of a German radical who had died nearly 200 years ago, began to pour light onto the genesis and function of race.
In dissonant harmony with Marx, Luke’s words distilled my vision: I belonged to another, for some, alien category of human. I was no longer just Andile. My being had been pierced into and an essence imposed upon it, one that tried to precede my existence, shackling me to a series of assumptions about what I was. Natives, kaffirs, darkies, people of colour, blacks—those both apart of and separate from Luke’s world. We blend into the background like furniture or set pieces on a grand stage. And what is a house without furniture or a play without props? Undoubtedly these objects are vital components but to those who occupy the space, sofas and props remain soulless things used to sustain comfort and project illusions.
Like pieces of furniture, millions of Black South Africans are objectified by the needs of capital, in the consciousness of white people and within our own minds as the wretched of the earth.
No longer segregated by curfews, pass laws or the brutality of a police state, within a few months I realized that the dystopian hopes of white nationalists had found a new avatar in capitalism’s inequities.
Luke’s confession was just one manifestation of Apartheid’s numerous legacies. Is it surprising that those who often only see us as their servants, savage criminals, as angry mobs or clowns for their entertainment, would fail to see Black as beautiful? Desire is not free from the grip of power. It is forged in its crucible. Beauty may rest in the eye of the beholder, but now I can’t help but ask what curates the imagination of the beholder?
In a culture that venerates individualism, acknowledging the limitations of our agency can be distressing. Conversely, understanding these limitations opens up new possibilities for freedom. The currents of power, and the social world it creates, are not immutable. There was a time before colonial conquest transformed us into ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’. There can be a future where these categories become obsolete.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s words remain scorched across the terrains of my mind: ‘Existence precedes essence.’
I now see that these words have revolutionary implications. What were the struggles against Apartheid in the ghettos of Soweto or presently in the streets of Palestine if not a battle to resist the reduction of human beings into a despised essence, into things to be used or defiled in the service of power?
The collective struggle for self-determination is also a battle for self-definition, one that occurs within the individual. Weakening the white gaze of its power and defining who I am on my own terms, means that I must see race for what it is: fiction. Powerful fiction, but fiction nonetheless. Fictions like race will continue to hold our imaginations hostage until the material order which requires racist justification is destroyed.⎈
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