Is The Future Colourblind?
Three vignettes on race relations amoung South African's Youth. The struggle for political emancipation is over. Now it is a struggle for personal freedom.
Falling in love for the first time can break your heart in South Africa. Not that it isn't like, tough, anywhere else, with parents and attitudes and everything. They just don't understand you, you know what I mean? Just ask Hamilton Ubisi (18) and Erlese Botha (16). It's probably not helping that they live in a town called Belfast. Almost like a dog, you give a town a name it has to live up or down to, and it's bound to do so. Even more than 10 years into democracy the racial attitudes of many white South Africans, especially in rural parts of the country, remain reactionary. This Belfast, named after its belligerent sister in Northern Ireland, is a nondescript rural town that most of us Johannesburgers just know as one which you pass on the way to picturesque holiday destinations in the east of our country or to exotic Mozambique.
And talking about names, give any South African with her or his fine-tuned race antennae the surname "Ubisi" and they'll tell you immediately the owner is black. You don't need to be a South African to know that the person carrying the second name "Botha" is in all likelihood white (even though it isn't necessarily so, as there are some black Bothas in another part of the country, but that's not part of this story and former President PW Botha wouldn't have liked it to be part of any story, but I'm happy not to oblige). So even though it really tests my liberal sensitivities to be race-specific, it's important in this story (and unfortunately in the following three stories because I'm taking a barometer to race relations and young South Africans) and so yes, to confirm, Hamilton is black and Erlese is white.
The week after Valentine's Day, liberal Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, Rapport, ran a story about Hamilton and Erlese's sweet first love (Willem Pelser , Rapport, 20 February 2005,). So why would a national newspaper pick up on a story of a high school crush? Well, even a decade of the new South Africa, many of its citizens, especially the older ones, still see things in black and white - literally and especially when it comes to love across racial boundaries, which was actually illegal under apartheid. That is why Rapport, as part of a quest to expose racial prejudice, covered a seemingly irrelevant story. But then race is always relevant in South Africa.
Their infatuation started at a school athletics meeting a few months earlier when he went to sit next to her. He flirted with her, she flirted back, and that's where your good old high school romance started. Rapport ran a photograph of Hamilton and I can see why Erlese fell for him. He's handsome, with a young Marvin Gaye look about him. And I am convinced it helped making him even more of a catch for Erlese in that he is one of the star players of their school's first rugby team. There is, of course, a delicious irony there, in that rugby used to be the preserve of mainly the white and reactionary ruling class of apartheid South Africa. I bet she is also an attractive young person, but there was no photograph of her with the article to confirm this. There probably was the first hands-holding, even a first kiss, but the article doesn't say. What Hamilton did say is that Erlese told him that "she loves me and that she wanted to be with me forever". Lovely, isn't it?
But as we all know these young romances seldom last forever, and this one was no exception. On Valentine's Day of all days, the principal of their school called Hamilton into his office and asked him how the resulting child would look like if the two young lovers slept together! He also told a dumbstruck Hamilton that he didn't approve of their relationship. Outsiders might be surprised that Hamilton was surprised by this, but there is a combination of rural naivete on the one hand and on the other, the fact that young South Africans don't see anything unusual in inter-racial relationships, even in rural parts of the country. Later, the principal admitted Rapport that he had called Hamilton in to talk with him, but that there was no malice intended! Mr. Dunderhead said he wasn't aware that he wasn't supposed to intervene in this interracial relationship.
Hamilton was under the impression that Erlese's parents were okay with their relationship. But two days after his meeting with the principal, Hamilton heard from friends that Erlese's parents were taking her out of their school to another one, in another town. He told Rapport that he was "very upset and confused" about what happened, and that it was affecting his schoolwork and his sport. Erlese's parents refused to comment.
A nice teacher at the Hamilton's school (a white person, by the way) stuck his head out and urged Hamilton to report the principal's interference to the educational authorities. But unfortunately they found nothing wrong with his behaviour. Probably a generational conspiracy.
This sad event, of adults proving that you can't erase 300 years of racial madness overnight, should have depressed me no end. But the young Hamilton and Erlese give me hope that there can be normality in places us progressive city folks don't expect it to be. But what perhaps gives me most hope is the second to last line in the Rapport article stating that "several white teachers and white members of the Parents Association" in Belfast supported Hamilton, proving that, against the odds, ordinary South Africans continue to build our wonderful rainbow nation.
I subsequently spoke to the journalist who wrote the story and he has more good news. Hamilton told him that he's gotten over his broken heart very quickly and won several medals at a recent inter-school athletics meeting. His schoolwork has improved, too. I would have loved to hear what Erlese made of all of this, how she feels and if she fits into her new school. I wonder, does she still have a crush on her beau?
"I'm too sexy for my shirt," Christoff Becker was humming the old "Right Said Fred" novelty song to himself apparently unironically in the passage of the Pretoria court during a break in proceedings last month, according to the newspaper, Rapport (Adri Kotze, 13 March 2005). Becker is one of four young white men from the wealthy Pretoria suburb of Waterkloof who stand accused of murdering an old black man and assault with the intent of grievous bodily harm on another old black man, in the early hours of one night in December 2001.
The State says the Waterkloof 4, as they've been dubbed by the media, attacked the two men, apparently harmless and fragile vagrants, in different parks in the upmarket suburb. These attacks remind one of the lynch mobs of the American South. The four, aged 16 at the time, dressed and gelled up like a boy band with bad intent at their court appearances, had spent the night in a popular bar before the alleged killing and attacks. Their lawyer, Jaap Cilliers, is one of the most expensive in the country, and has in his day represented some of the most notorious members of the previous regime's security machine, defending them against charges of murdering activists during the dying days of apartheid.
The Waterkloof 4 deny the charges, saying they were trying to arrest "burglars". One of their school friends, who turned state witness, alleges he saw the quartet attacking the men with knives and a hammer, and repeatedly kicking them, before driving off in Becker's father's BMW. It makes it difficult to make a judgement because the case is still continuing (explaining my usage of the word "alleged") and I don't want to find them guilty prematurely, even though the temptation exists . . . very, very strongly.
Johannesburg and Cape Town
When freedom came to South Africa in 1994, Tumelo (black, lives in Johannesburg) and Dominique (white, lives in Cape Town) were not in yet their teens. A decade later the young women's choice to express themselves in a free South Africa baffled their parents. For these two female, hip-hop DJs from rather conservative backgrounds, 1994 signalled the beginning of a journey to personal freedom. Tumelo's father sees this as the point at which the youth became aware of their rights, thereby causing society's values to crumble.
In Mix, a full-length documentary, which was part of a series last year looking at 10 years of democracy in South Africa, highly-talented young film-maker Rudzani Dzuguda uses Tumelo and Dominique's life stories as a mirror held up to show how he and his other young compatriots see and deal with this new and continually changing society. Dzuguda bravely didn't make a predictable and overtly political film praising the new powers that be, which is the unsaid but often expected thing to do by the black political elite of a black person in his position. Instead, he made a personal yet universal film about the tension between attaining individual freedom and satisfying family obligations, which has echoes of his own life.
He was given amazing access by all involved including Tumelo's father and shows an almost total communication breakdown between parents and daughters, between young and old, and between siblings. It is both achingly sad and tense, showing the huge generational gap between the parents' expectations and the worlds the young women are creating with new relationships between black and white, male and female.
While not escaping it, they manage to go beyond the old South Africa, with its issues of race, gender, and class. "When I first showed the film at the Berlin film festival", Dzuguda told me, "several young people came up to me and said 'that's me in that film'. This happened everywhere in the rest of the world where I showed it . . . I wanted to look at freedom not just from the point of view of young people who have fought for liberation, but at issues of young people's personal freedom."
"Tokyo Star", Johannesburg
A few years ago, at the tender age of 40, I started DJ-ing at a bar in one of Johannesburg's trendy suburbs. Tokyo Star, as it's called, is a place so cool, I sometimes wonder why they bother with fridges to keep their beers cold! I love it because as a music fanatic I can play absolutely anything from old soul to geriatric reggae to wrinkly rock to the very latest hip-hop and electronica. My last five-hour set for example, included (!!!) Etta James, Airborn Audio, The Bug, James Brown, Mylo, DJ/Rupture, the Jackson 5, De La Soul, Soft Cell, Roots Manuva, Sharon Jones, The Fall and John Lee Hooker.
The people who frequent Tokyo Star are mostly students from the local universities and media types, who have all perfected the dishevelled, studied, fucked-up look. The fact that they care about music makes me feel I succeed in my role as musical missionary.
"Can you play more Def Jux please?" a dreadlocked young sister asks halfway into The Perceptionists.
"Is that Dawn Penn?!" this time a grinning, drunken young white guy looking like a Devendra Banhart on a better diet. "Yes, yes, yes."
"Thanks for that mate," a young black guy who's a dead ringer for Bloc Party's lead singer shouts as I play Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "I play in a band that's influenced by them and Interpol."
His mate, an Indian youngster comes to ask when I drop "Supersition". "That's Stevie Wonder - you should check out your dad's vinyls."
But it is not only that part of my fortnightly Friday evening on the town that thrills me. There is a good mix of young people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds at Tokyo Star, and they mix most comfortably and sometimes romantically. So I have to wonder, is the future colourblind?
I often wish that those crazy baldheads, as Bob Marley called them the politicians of different hues and political convictions who love throwing the race card at one another and in the process, at all us would pop in to the Tokyo Star. Of course this would have to happen after an extreme physical makeover, because they'll stand out. But their mental makeover could begin, starting with learning from these young South Africans about tolerance and just getting on with it. But my eternal optimism sometimes get tempered by my journalistic skepticism, making me worry that this is just middle-class Johannesburg, which is, after all, our country's most progressive and non-racial city.
What about the rest of the country? There has been little redistribution of wealth, with the ANC government having bought wholesale into the free market, prompting some of their leftwing opponents to dub them as being "Thatcherite". According to them, for many black people in the rural poorer areas, little has changed and they remain poor even though we've got a black government. But in fairness to the government, many people now are getting the basics like water, electricity, and their children are finally getting a better education.
These rural areas are also where the race relations are less than exemplary. But as David McFarlane, a respected education writer on the progressive Mail & Guardian newspaper told me, "Anecdotal evidence tells us that there are very few racial incidents at schools around the country, both rural and urban. This is almost the second generation where schools are integrated and these young people just get on with things. On the ground there are normal, healthy relationships."
Post-liberation struggle South Africa is slowly becoming a more normal society where politics matter less, especially to young people. In the book, Shifting Selves: Post-Apartheid Essays on Mass Media, Culture and Identity (eds. Herman Wasserman and Sean Jacobs, 2003; Cape Town: Kwela Books), in discussing the South African music style, kwaito, Gibson Boloka says this urban dance genre shows a "disengagement with sociopolitical discourse". It breaks from the local musical tradition (it's house-based) and is a "reflection of post-apartheid society". All of this can apply to young South Africans, who are also the main consumers of kwaito music.
An extensive survey done by marketing researchers, YouthTrax® 2004, has concluded that today's youth have all become one converged youth culture that is uniquely South African. Louis Janse van Rensburg, Research Study Manager of the survey, told me there are five chief role-players assisting in the development of this colourblind youth culture: money, music, national pride, brand sub-cultures and a "don't care" attitude towards politics.
"The acquisition of money is a primary driver for the youth market," says Janse van Rensburg, "Young adults have the belief that money can make all dreams come true . . . The more they have, the happier they are. As a result, the focus has shifted from a 'fighting for freedom' attitude, to a 'fighting for riches' attitude."
Music, especially hip-hop, has a strong convergence across cultures and races, because it talks to the heart and works on an emotional platform. Music has the ability to tap into all emotions and can be married with any occasion, both social and emotional. One of the youngsters surveyed told van Rensburg, "Music is becoming a whole multi-racial thing. At clubs you don't get racial splits. It's like, 'I like your music, you like my music. Let's enjoy it together'. . ." Another one said: "In the past when a guy liked black music, people would say he's trying to be black, but now everyone's mixing everything."
Young South Africans are both globalised and localised. "Today's youth are very proudly South African - they love music, fashion items, and clothing brands that are South African; and look up to South African icons and role models," says van Rensburg, "And with that comes the embracing of diversity."
Image is everything for these young South Africans, and in this they express, like youths globally, with the labels on their clothes and their shoes. "Being part of a brand sub-culture means accepting all who are members - regardless of colour," says van Rensburg. He tells me their survey found extremely low levels of interest in politics and a strong sense of apathy. This is exacerbated by South African political parties which are still largely based on ethnicity, e.g., predominantly Afrikaner, or Zulu or coloured parties. And with this comes the obvious: "There is a strong sense of disillusionment with current SA politicians." They are also bored with conventional politics, which was such an all-consuming topic for previous generations.
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These three vignettes may be disparate, yet I believe they are interconnected in that they illustrate where young South Africans are at. Some, probably a minority, still carry the madness of their country's racist past in their hearts. Others are in the sometimes tough process of discovering one another as normal, warm-blooded human beings. The majority though, especially in the cities, already live in another liberated, exciting country, one free of racial prejudices. For them, the struggle for political emancipation is over. Now it is a struggle for personal freedom.