“Show a people as one thing and as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become” Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
Reading Nadia Davids’s latest novel “An Imperfect Blessing”, a book which opened the door to the interior lives of the so-called coloured community in Cape Town circa 1993, helped me get to the core of the indescribable alienation I have often felt on my trips to the fairest Cape. The city has always held this air-about itself, as if it exists in a world apart from my own. Her stories about family were familiar, relatable, warm and fuzzy. The book made me think about a lot of things, it unearthed certain unresolved feelings, memories and experiences which felt a little rough against my skin.
Call me Sensitive
I know that you may be stuck on my use of the words “so-called’ in reference to coloured people. Let me re-assure you, my use of the word is very deliberate. It’s deliberate because not all of the so the called “coloured” people consider themselves to be “coloured” meaning a political class created by the Apartheid government when it sought to classify people according to the colour of their skins. But still there are some coloured people who embrace the word coloured and also define themselves by it. Their argument being that they are neither white, nor black, nor Indian. And so by forced necessity they had developed their own specific cultural identity which permeates every area of their lives which includes but is not limited to the consumption of:
I never quite got the story of how this food came about, but learning to pronounce the word Frikkadels correctly was my first entry into the “coloured” world many years ago, at the invitation of a close friend of mine. I didn’t understand why I was so nervous, but on that day when my friend invited me to visit her hometown in Bosmont, on Johannesburg’s West Rand I was afraid. More afraid of going into a local pub to play foosball and pool none of which I was any good at, than I ever was of walking into my white, Afrikaner neighbour’s house who was a soldier with the South African Defence Force (SANDF) at the time. I had heard so many stories about coloured people. They were ill-tempered. Could lose their temper at the slightest provocation. They were always in fights or fighting with each other, drunk most of the time and when that got out of hand a knife or a broken bottle was not far behind. Like my so many of my relatives. My friend was incredulous “but why are you afraid, no one is going to do anything to you”. Because I could not tell her the real source of my fear, I made some or other excuse, trying to suppress the urge to say, I want to go home. Then one Sunday she invited me to lunch with her sister and parents, and we had Frikkadels. I felt much like a voyeur in my own country, exploring new and different cultures from my own back yard. Of course they laughed at me and my surprising inability to pronounce the word Frikkadels as if I didn’t live in South Africa. I calmed down after that visit, shamefully realizing that the so-called coloured people whom I had learnt to fear or even envy were just normal people like myself. I met my friends’ parents whom I found to be much like my own, investigative of strangers and protective of their daughter. I understood my friend better and saw that even though she grew up in a flat in Bosmont, and I in a house with a small yard, an apple tree and green grass in Soweto, our stories were close to identical. There was a common thread in our lives.
Who Is Coloured Anyway?
I later learnt that my friend belonged to a concerned group of coloured people who felt poorly represented in South Africa’s mainstream media, particularly, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). She invited me to a meeting where the group discussed ways in which they could ensure that the “coloured” voice and experience was properly represented in the country. Some of the suggestions at the meeting included the possibility of acquiring a license for a coloured radio station or Television program that could give voice to their lived experiences as coloured people. I was quite frankly perplexed at the notion that “coloured” people sought to exclude themselves from the black majority as a special group of people who had specific needs which were directly related to their ‘ethnicity” or race which was in this case, “coloured”. I was shocked that they felt separate from me, from us. I asked my friend with raised eyebrows that “So you don’t consider yourself black??. I was genuinely flabbergasted. “No” she answered emphatically. I am not black, I’m coloured. She said as if I was asking the very obvious. Of course she was not black! She’s mixed. Some of her great-grand parents were white. Maybe some Indian. It’s not so easy to tell now. I think I was more shocked by what she said than discovering after years of sitting with a certain woman in the smoking room at work that she was Pik Botha’s wife, the former Foreign Affairs Minister under F W de Klerk’s government. She said she’d understand if I stopped talking to her after she told me. “You didn’t know” someone asked. I never thought to ask who her husband was. Here was this lovely friendly woman, with whom I always had the loveliest conversations about random things. It never occurred to me that she was so close to the seat of power, which for a long time ensured that my life was hell and hers wasn’t. At least from the outside. So we silently agreed never to mention her husband again in conversation until I ended up at their house in Pretoria, having lunch in the garden one day. But of course, that’s another story. And of course there’s not much to tell because I didn’t want to pry. It was obvious that behind the luxury of power and money, lay a deep and cancerous sadness which no amount of Sudoku could heal. There were so many layers. But I got over Pik Bothas’ wife quicker than my friends’ statement. I’m not black. I’m coloured.
Coloured Defined: Not Black.
See, I grew up with the understanding that as long as you had one drop of black blood in your veins, no matter how it came to be, you were black. Watching countless American movies taught me that. I identified with the “coloured” black people in America (and by extension South Africans) who looked like my friend. I thought our struggles were the same, even if some of them had longer hair and lighter skins, they were still black, because (some) had black blood running through their veins. More significantly they were not considered to be white by the powers that be. So to side with “whiteness” in that context, even if one was legitimately half white, i.e. mixed/biracial, meant that they were supporting the oppression, exploitation, marginalization and subjugation of “black” or non-white people as a unit. So the word, coloured, in that context made sense for me because it included everyone who was not white (minded). Because of this I did not understand how one could be coloured and not black or make such a distinction, that specific point of difference. We were, after all oppressed by the same system, the same people. My friend politely explained to me that it’s because they are not black enough or white enough that it’s necessary for them to have their own “coloured” identity. Especially since some of them were of a different mix, which did not always include white, black or Indian ancestry. The Khoi and the San for example, are not considered black. I realized my mistake: I took it for granted, I thought because I identified with the coloured experience they would identify with my black experience too, but that was not the case.
A Perfect Blessing.
So reading Davids novel was a perfect blessing, because it opened my eyes to something else. In her novel Davids skirts around the colour bar like a ballerina trying to avoid a lovers pleading eyes. She polarised these identities and posits them in the safer but never the less equally controversial spectrum of religious faith, Muslims vs Christians. The Muslims in this case are of Cape Malay or of Indian origin so they are in essence according to one of the younger character’s Nick, sure of their origins. “At least you know who you are” says Nick to her Muslim girlfriend while visiting the museum of natural science in Cape Town. The rest of the mostly Christian fraternity is of Khoi, San, African or more prominently Irish, British or French origin. Even though I make these references none of the characters or families in the book ever alluded to their possible “black-African” origins. Blacks in this case are referred to by some of the older characters in the book as “kaffirs”, the “Africans” the “other”. As if they themselves were not African. For me the novel was like being invited to dinner with people who speak of you in your presence in euphemisms and code words, using your presence as a reference to something else more sinister and evil but still vaguely undefined, but which also simultaneously has absolutely nothing to do with you or your race. It was like being invited to dinner by someone who wishes you didn’t exist but unfortunately has to tolerate the fact that you do. But I’m glad I walked in, sat there and watched, because now I know why being coloured today matters. I understood why it often felt so much easier for me to relate to white – or – Afrikaner people. My relationship to them was clear. But the coloured experience, the Cape Town coloured space for many years left me feeling rather strange. A student recently told me that most coloured people nowadays don’t use the word coloured anymore. For them the word has become as dirty and evil as the word kaffir is to a black man. They prefer to be called mixed. Bi-racial. Not black.
Here was something I had never considered before, to enter this world, the colored-mixed world, you need one drop of white or other blood, hopefully not black or African and if it is there, ignore it. This is what makes you better than a regular black. This is what makes you coloured. This is what makes me inferior.
This chilling reality brought to mind Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who in his most famous book on critical pedagogy: The Pedagogy of the oppressed, said this
“Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed not the situation that oppresses them. For the more the oppressed are able to adapt to the situation the more easily they can be dominated”
So what, if you’re coloured?
I suppose it would be too disorienting for many people if all racial classifications were dissolved into this one huge generic box of “coloured” people as we all have even within our own specified “races” different skin colours, i.e. some people in my family look coloured (mixed) even though there’s no traceable white (other) heritage in my family. Which is what I suppose Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu sought to inspire with his metaphoric reference of South Africa as a “rainbow-nation”: white reflecting light or an “inclusive of all colours” – black nation.
The thing about race though is its historical association with white supremacy, power, money, privilege, influence, discrimination, intelligence and let’s not forget beauty. So that even if you want to disassociate yourself from these debates about race and racism, the world as it is currently constructed judges you based on those, so that in time you will have to engage with it directly whether you consider yourself “blind” to the colour bar or if you think yourself free from the weight of racial classification or Orientalism. Perhaps in time we will all be truly “mixed” – but even then I’m sure we’ll find ways of separating ourselves from each other by creating distinctions between us and them. Religious Faith. Class. Education. Sexual orientation. Gender. Language. Geographical orientation. Blind. Hearing etc. You know, just to make life little more interesting. I mean who wants to live in a world where everybody gets along just fine, harmoniously. A place with ritual, pathological friendliness coupled with unquestioned pacifism that would be boring wouldn’t it?
In a strange but understandable way reading an “An imperfect blessing” made me feel invisible as a black person. It made me as visible as a servant is to its master. Perhaps the story would have been more interesting had the author chose a domestic worker as its narrator. But of course that would require her to get under her skin in more ways than one and this book is not about that.
Life is not always about what exists on paper: as it is and constitutionally speaking we are all free, all equal, we all belong to this one human race and all have the same rights and responsibilities. But the reality is different. It’s a whole other universe!
Ultimately, life is about how you are made to feel. It is what you feel that matters. Like that one time I went to visit someone I considered to be a good friend of mine in New York, a man who thankfully introduced me to James Baldwin and The Fire Next Time. He was handsome man of Irish and African-American ancestry, he could easily pass as a white man or the reincarnation of the revolutionary Che Guavara. Fortunately for us, ours was a platonic relationship, we had dinner and chatted till midnight reminiscing about the memories we shared in South Africa together. So I stayed over at his place, I slept on his couch in the living room and he on his bed in his bedroom. In the morning he left me a note asking me to disappear for a while because he didn’t want the landlord ( who was coming over to paint) to think he was sleeping with prostitute(s).
I’m grateful to Nadia Davids for writing this book, for archiving the Cape Coloured experience in all its different shades and intricate contradictions. In reading her book I have come to understand myself and my pain. To forgive. Myself. I can now put this chapter in my life to bed and step fully into my black shoes with poise.
After all being invisible is an amazing super power to have. You just have to know how to use it. It’s like magic. Now you see me, now you don’t!
Picture credit: Estascio Voloi