By Mandisi Majavu · 7 Jan 2013
For a man who spent ten years on Robben Island fighting against a white supremacist apartheid regime, President Jacob Zuma comes across as seriously ill equipped when talking about issues related to race and culture. Generally speaking, his views on race and culture are primitive.
Recently he’s been quoted in the media as having said, “Spending money on buying a dog, taking it to the vet and for walks belonged to white culture and was not the African way.”
Granted he is old school; he grew up in an era in which black people didn’t have access to university-trained vets. However, to care about the wellbeing of one’s pet is as much an African way of doing things as any other culture.
Although it is unclear what history Zuma was claiming when he made this comment, it is crystal clear that the point is to socially control people’s behaviour and to shape the way they look at reality.
This also reveals the fact that the president does not know how to relate to the new generation of Africans that he governs. As far as he is concerned, the new generation of Africans are adopting cultural lifestyles that contradict being African. It is apparent that the president fundamentally views culture, as something akin to the force of gravity -- it is something that cannot be changed. In fact, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Those who challenge this mantra are portrayed as being ‘un-African’- an alien status in effect.
History teaches us that societies develop and make cultural advances when members of society are encouraged to question and challenge their own cultures. It is against this backdrop that I argue South Africa needs a cultural revolution.
Needless to say, such a revolution would be based on encouraging critical thinking and championing the best that African heritage has to offer and incorporating into that tradition whatever people find useful from other cultures. Zuma is not exactly an embodiment of such a revolutionary spirit. By popularising the struggle song ‘Umshini wami’, Zuma participated in the construction of his own mainstream image as a machinegun-toting guerrilla fighter, rather than a revolutionary critical thinker.
Although Zuma’s views on culture cannot be categorised as being liberating, he is quite capable of utilising those views to drum up political support when the need arises. After all, Zuma is the president of the ANC today partly because he campaigned for the ANC presidency by appealing to backward tribal and cultural sentiments. Naturally Zuma is very confident to opine about cultural issues partly because he feels that his views resonate with many of his supporters.
He does not show the same level of confidence when he engages in race analysis however. In fact, in 2009, a few months after becoming the president of South Africa, Zuma made it clear that the race debate was not going to characterise his presidency. He talked glibly about ‘non-racialism’, arguing that the ANC is a “non-racial organisation”, and therefore "the fact of the matter is the ANC does not look at things from a race point of view."
Four years later he has developed bizarre views on ‘white culture’ and white supremacist aesthetic values.
In the same speech in which he talked about cultural practices that are ‘un-African’, Zuma criticised a new generation of Africans for using skin-lightening lotions and for straightening their hair. In his own words, Zuma is reported to have said, “Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white.”
Generally speaking, the problem with the school of non-racialism, which Zuma is a graduate of, is that the proponents of this tradition argue as if there are members of society who are immune to mainstream society’s white supremacist values and social pressures.
Thus the concept of non-racialism becomes synonymous to the word “abracadabra” in that people simply have to call out that concept and in an instant we all become colour-blind and white supremacy goes away simultaneously. Presumably we are supposed to perform complicated mind tricks by repetitively chanting non-racialism every time mainstream societal institutions exhibit white supremacist thinking about blackness.
This is not to say that people have no agency and that we are incapable of resisting destructive social pressures. Obviously many people do resist oppressive societal institutions. However, to argue as if the source of the problem is people who succumb to oppressive societal institutions rather than the institutions themselves is to distort reality.
Mac Maharaj, the presidential spokesperson, argues that this is not what President Jacob Zuma was doing in his speech. According to Maharaj, the objective behind Zuma’s speech was to "decolonise the African mind". I am of the view that a ‘talking cure’ approach to the decolonisation process is ineffective at best, and becomes a tool to control people’s behaviour at worst.
The decolonisation of the mind ought to begin with the elimination of societal institutions that overvalue whiteness. A decolonisation of the mind project could start by challenging the fact that business institutions continue to be ‘white men’s clubs’ in post-apartheid South Africa. According to the Commission for Employment Equity, white men are still over-represented in top and senior management in most workplaces and are still benefiting from promotions, skills training and recruitment practices. These are institutional practices that ought to be changed if we are serious about the decolonisation of the mind.
In other words, a decolonisation of the mind project ought to be informed by post-apartheid material conditions. Post-apartheid material conditions tell us that white supremacy is the social system that has made South Africa what it is today.
To change such a system necessarily means that institutions, which maintain the system have to be overhauled. That is the task facing us in post-apartheid South Africa. Failure to change this system will prevent people from breaking out of their distinct cultural silos that have become safe havens for those alienated by the dominant white culture, while also presenting opportunities for crafty politicians and traditionalists to exploit.
South Africa needs a cultural revolution that produces a tangible alternative - a nation that at once embraces and can be embraced by all.