Sunday, 09 August 2009 18:33

The great black hope Featured

Written by Mary Corrigall - IOL
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Often, Coloured South Africans are made to feel as if their identity is the only one that is under scrutiny and contestation. This article recently on IOL shows that even Black South Africans have to seriously reconsider their notions of "Blackness" and their context within the broader community.

When Asanda Phewa read the Zulu label on a carton of sour milk with a posh English accent, her cousins mocked her and rounded up other children in the township to come and witness her peculiar behaviour.

Phewa was only nine years old and this was the first time that she had been conscious that she wasn't like other black children. Angry and hurt, Phewa blamed her mother for not teaching her how to speak Zulu.

Her mother was confused; she had sent Phewa to good schools and deliberately reared her as an English speaker so that Phewa could take advantage of opportunities that were once closed to her.

Following this traumatic encounter, Phewa made an effort to learn her parents' mother tongue but this didn't necessarily bridge the divide. Well-educated, affluent and well-ensconced in suburbia, she continued to feel adrift from the majority of black South Africans who resented the privileges she enjoyed while believing that Phewa had rejected her culture in favour of supposed white mores.

Though Phewa has felt alienated most of her life, she is not alone; an emerging generation of young black people who have been the first beneficiaries of South Africa's democracy are finding themselves in a similar bind. This privileged generation are living out their parents' aspirations yet they have found themselves the object of scrutiny and criticism.

So instead of being celebrated they are often ostracised and labelled "Cheesegirls" or "Cheeseboys", new terms coined to describe black graduates from Model C schools, who are presumed to be mimicking white mannerisms.

Many believe that it is the manner in which this new generation are redefining "blackness" that is provoking such negative attitudes.

"Being black is changing, it doesn't mean anything any more. Once upon a time it meant something very specific. But there are people who think that to be black you must speak Zulu and if you don't have those things then you are not," observes Mbali Kgosidintsi, a university-educated twenty-something, who has, like Phewa, struggled to fit in.

Kgosidintsi clearly recalls an occasion a couple of years ago when she was labelled a "Cheesegirl". While visiting The Rock, a bar-cum-restaurant in Soweto, she encountered a young man who was a "Sowetan to his core". Observing her demeanour and English accent, he was quick to peg her as a "Cheesegirl". Kgosidintsi felt deeply embarrassed.

"I then got on the dance floor and danced like my life depended on it to prove that I was down with the black people. He was so proud of me."

Many young people like Kgosidintsi and Phewa have moved between two worlds: the township and suburbia, where they often find themselves inhabiting white enclaves. Kgosidintsi found herself assuming a different persona for each.

"When I was with white friends I would act one way and with my black friends another. But I realised that I was always taking on the stereotype of each," observes Kgosidintsi.

Because she struggled to speak her "home language" she found it difficult to fit into township communities.

"Because I only spoke English I had to struggle to find my identity so I started speaking with this black attitude, but it wasn't really leading me closer to who I was."

Phewa studied Zulu in the hope that she could find some way of aligning her identity closer to her cultural roots.

"It has helped me in terms of my identity. Recently I had a Zulu coming-of-age ceremony, which I valued. It was important for me to know my culture and traditions."

Forging these ties to Zulu culture, however, hasn't brought her 'back into the fold' of black culture. It was while she was at a private school that Phewa became acutely aware that she was challenging traditional notions of "blackness". Of the 600 pupils at the school, only 30 were black, and they kept to themselves.

"I guess that in their loneliness they all bonded together. But they came up with arbitrary rules to define what black girls do and what white girls do," recalls Phewa.

She felt uncomfortable with their prescriptive definitions of white and black. As a result she found herself "ostracised and ridiculed". She coped by involving herself in as many extracurricular activities as possible to avoid confrontations and be saved from "defending the way that I am".

Phewa believes she has been the target of ridicule and slurs because many black South Africans are unwilling to relinquish established ideas regarding "blackness".

"It used to be simpler in apartheid to be able to say this is exactly what a black person's reality is; it was more defined in terms of behavioural norms. People knew then where black people should live and how they should behave. I don't think there is such a thing as 'this is what a black person is' any more; the changes in the country have brought about such diversity that definitions have become wider."

In redefining what "blackness" designates, Phewa's generation are charting new territory that many fear.

"It is very scary because you don't have the support of your generation and you don't have the community backing you up. I think that a lot of people keep thinking: 'who do you think you are to be that?'

"I know people who don't want to exist outside of existing roles; they want to be inside a safe box. Sometimes you hold on to definitions (of yourself) even if they don't make you happy just because they are working for you," observes Phewa.

Because so many youngsters have chosen the path of least resistance, much silence has surrounded the plight of this new generation. Nevertheless, as theatre practitioners Phewa and Kgosidintsi have employed their craft to bring their personal struggles into the open. Phewa's A Face Like Mine, which premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, saw her challenging notions of blackness. At the conclusion of her play she slipped into a domestic worker's uniform to drive home her frustrations.

Many were puzzled by her antics: why would an affluent young black girl want to become a domestic worker? "It was my way of showing people what the dangers are of refusing to embrace people like me. In so doing you are not leaving us room for growth or movement. So we have to fall back on what we know - the domestic worker."

Kgosidintsi is part of Right 2 Speak, a theatre company consisting of Ndoni Khanyile, Ameera Patel and Naima McLean, all young women who share her plight. Like Phewa's, their latest production, Hot Seat Confessions, aired their generation's angst.

"We became friends before we even started working together because we are all misfits. We found refuge and safety and acceptance with each other which we couldn't find with other people," says Khanyile.

She has struggled to find acceptance in her traditional Zulu family. "They have very clear ideas of how a young woman should be and I don't fit into that. I am the only girl in my family who wears pants and lives on my own. They have found that unacceptable."

Educated at an exclusive school and travelling abroad both contributed to Khanyile's independence. "I don't see the world as they do. I do feel their disappointment."

Because it is assumed that this privileged new generation are in possession of all the appropriate tools for success - education and eloquence in English - there is a lot of pressure on them to achieve great heights.

"We are like the Great Black Hope. You can't just be, you have the responsibility of what you have inherited, your grandparents' experience, your parents' experience. And you have to live up to this idea that you are their hope and that is a burden that young white people don't experience at all," asserts Khanyile.

This privileged generation also come under scrutiny from their peers.

"The way you speak, dress, what your ideas are, where you hang out, all that stuff is all used to label and define you clearly. It is difficult to say that I am myself and that I move between different cultures and beliefs. And yes, I have a lot of white friends but I am still also this. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of freedom to claim an identity (under these conditions)," says Khanyile.

"There is a pressure to rise above your circumstances and be an example and it's pressure from everyone. Not just my parents and my black community it's from white people too," concurs Phewa.

Added to all the pressures on this generation, they have also been made to feel guilty for the privileges they have enjoyed. McLean, who is of Xhosa and American extraction but uses English as her first language, felt this most acutely when she attended university, where she had expected diversity to be tolerated.

"I often felt that I had to justify or apologise (for who I am). I felt like I was under constant scrutiny: why you have certain things and why you are not able to have certain opinions because of your context. People would say because I am a black middle-class girl I have no sense of the struggle," she says.

Racial integration has been the goal of the country's new democracy but Khanyile and others feel caught between two worlds as they move between black and white societies.

"There is a loneliness that comes with it. I can see the resentment from the other side; they are thinking: 'now that you have made it to the top you can look down on us' - that subtext is always there. And when you are with white affluent community I also feel different: as much as we can talk I will never know what it is like to be a 24-year-old white 'lady'. I have a concept in my head what that is but it is not my history, it is not who I am supposed to be," observers Phewa.

Township folk believe that Phewa and others are masquerading as whites because they live in suburbia and have adopted cosmopolitan mores, but in so doing they imply that living a middle-class existence is an essentially white trait.

"This lies at the heart of this problem," notes Phewa, "just as this notion of blackness is not true, it is the same about whiteness."

The country's dramatic social and political shifts have caused such anxiety that some people are holding on to fixed ideas about race to combat unease, suggests Phewa.

Despite the fact that such entrenched views about race continue to pervade our society, Khanyile doesn't have a bleak outlook for the future: within her own family, where she has often felt like the odd one out, she has noted subtle shifts in attitudes towards her.

McLean believes that as the social environment is constantly shifting, her pursuit of self-acceptance will be never-ending.

"It is not as if you arrive at a place of self-acceptance and this is where I will be for the rest of my life. You are constantly having to redefine, readjust and reconstruct your perceptions of self and others," says McLean, who hopes that airing her personal struggles in public realms will enable her and others finally to transcend issues of race.

Kgosidintsi has made peace with her status. "I know where I am going but I am not sure what or who I am leaving behind and that is where the search for identity comes in. There is this trend for those of us living in Sandton to still go back to the township every Sunday to reconnect. But when you know who you are you don't have to hold on to anything."

Kgosidintsi no longer visits the township to get in touch with her blackness, nor does she find the need to dance "to prove that I am black or that I am not a Cheesegirl. Maybe I am a Cheesegirl: I don't care any more."