I’m writing this post- a post so far removed from what I’d ordinarily write- because I have a rare perspective on Nelson Mandela. No, it’s not anything interesting or unique. It’s certainly not something I’m proud of. My perspective is that I believed that apartheid ended in the 70s and I only realised the truth when the news of Mandela’s death was breaking. A day later I realised that black South Africans only got the vote in 1994. When I found out that apartheid happened in my lifetime, it reminded me of Rallo in The Cleveland Show when he finds out that black people didn’t have the vote and then finds out they were slaves. (No, I didn’t do the face.)
So I finally understand why this wasn’t covered in history class at school- it’s not history. Every time I heard Mandela mentioned or apartheid came up in conversation, only a few years had passed since he became President.
Race was never an issue I was interested in. This might seem very strange since I’m coloured (mixed African and Asian) and I received racist bullying in all six schools I went to. When I was a kid our car windows were smashed and racist names painted on the bonnet; I’ve also had my hair set on fire (though that was not a problem as my hair was short back then). Some of the schools turned a blind eye to the bullying and accused my mother of lying when she reported it, even though my class teachers and friends reported the bullying for me when I refused to (I knew the admin staff wouldn’t like it and sometimes I didn’t see the bullying as a big deal as I was so used to it). So you’d think race would be something I’d be interested in. But for me racist abuse was the norm; even now I still occasionally get kids aged 6 to 14 or 15 shouting names at me in the street. It doesn’t bother me because it’s been happening since I was three. I know I’m not supposed to say this. I’m supposed to feel angry. I’m supposed to say “this is unacceptable!” But even though I know it is wrong and ignorant and hateful, it usually doesn’t bother me and it never surprises me.
The main effect racism had on me was to make the teenage me want to use skin bleach and have a nose job so my nose would be more pointy (I was teased as often for having ethnic facial features- nose and lips- as for my skin colour). Thankfully Googling “skin bleach” did not bring up results for skin lighteners, so I never knew that the product I was after already existed. A documentary that showed people damaging their skin with lighteners put me off using them. I thought it was unbearably sad; I was mixed with a paler colour so at least it made more sense for me to want to look more like one parent- but the idea of pure Indian girls making themselves look so unnatural and mixed appalled me. Adverts for skin lighteners which promise an end to job discrimination and the finding of a man also disgusted me when I accidentally found them; why would anyone destroy their own colour for white people? Just so racists stop discriminating you?! Why would anyone destroy their colour for a self-hating coloured man or a racist white man? But yeah, race was never anything I was interested in. For whatever reason, feminism and subsequently the DWP and austerity were the issues I blogged about.
David Cameron has been fawning over Mandela and after the news broke he tweeted that he’d asked for the flag at 10 Downing Street to be flown at half mast. I was confused by the angry reactions to what I perceived as a kind and appropriate gesture. Then I found out by the internet that Cameron had been part of a group that made the infamous Hang Mandela posters. He was against the sanctions (just like his hero Thatcher who called Mandela a “terrorist”) and went on an anti sanctions mission to South Africa. In 1989 he was a guest of the white supremacist South African government and drank with them. At first I thought that maybe hardly anyone had heard of the ANC in those days and Cameron was a misguided teenage student. I disapproved but I also tried to see the whole situation. But now I realise that in the 60s and 70s, before Cameron was at Oxford, Brits were already campaigning for sanctions. Nelson Mandela came to Britain and whites and blacks alike supported him. So there’s no excuse for Cameron’s actions. And in 1989 he was a grown man, not a teen. Yes, there are reasons why sanctions don’t always work and yes they do sometimes harm the poorest and most vulnerable people; being against sanctions is perfectly reasonable. Sure there might have been a reason for him being a guest of the South African government; politicians do have to meet unpleasant foreign governments as part of their job. But when you look at all his actions together, it becomes very difficult to defend Cameron. The Tory party itself has had a long reputation for racism, as we all know. And as for those Hang Mandela posters, I really can’t see an excuse for that. Here’s a shareable Facebook photo that sums it all up. So it disgusts me that he now chooses the winning side by lying that Mandela is his hero. He should stay silent or, if he really has changed his mind, he should be honest and admit that he was wrong. Cameron had months to prepare for Mandela’s death and work out how to react.
The media coverage of Mandela’s life has few black South Africans in it and skims over the fact that white people were killed because of the ANC. I am not against the fact that people had to die, as the non violent and democratic avenues had all been tried and found to be closed off. But I think we should acknowledge what freedom fighting means. We can admit that people died without criticising Mandela. It would also be interesting to see a non-black coloured person’s perspective, as all coloureds were treated as second class citizens. Yes, it was an issue than mainly affected black people, but if they’ve got enough space to let westerners comment, why not? The experience of half white and half black people would be intriuging- the fact that they were discriminated by people who were their own race. In South Africa people were marked “coloured” or “white” on official records, meaning that discrimination was based not only on phenotype or skin colour but also on genotype/inheritance. So it may be possible that white people who had black ancestry were also discriminated. However it’s early days yet and maybe the media portrayal will get more in-depth in days to come.
It really shocked me that long after human evolution was understood and just a few years before the human genome was sequenced, separation was still enforced. It seems odd to me that white people look on Hitler and Nazism as legendary evil; a lot of the Nazi’s race superiority beliefs stemmed from eugenics, a pseudoscience which Brits and Americans eagerly participated in. Those beliefs were held by the South African government until 1994. Nazism was far from unique. Churchill made racist comments; WW2 was one racist against another; it was Churchill setting a limit to racism and saying that Hitler had crossed the line (which seems kind of arrogant to decide how much racism is appropriate). The last Mandela documentary I saw used stock footage of a white South African saying “[blacks] just swung down from the trees”, which is a reference to the eugenics/pseudoscientific basis of white supremacy. At school I was sometimes called a monkey and jungle bunny, and though I understood I was being teased, I never actually knew they were racist names until about two years ago when I read a work of fiction. So even racial slurs are remnants of eugenics. We shouldn’t minimise what the Nazis did, but I don’t think we should see Nazism as being that unique, either. How many coloured people died and were stripped of their rights because of colonialism, slavery, forced ‘scientific’ experiments and apartheid? Probably not as many as the numbers of Jews, gays, disabled people, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses who died during the Holocaust. But the number must be quite large.
Columbus mass-murdered the indigenous Americans and mothers killed their children to spare them from him. But we still teach our kids that he discovered America and is a hero (actually, the Viking Erik the Red discovered the Americas. And before him, the Japanese. And many others). The victims of the holocaust vowed never to forgive, never to forget. Should people of colour forgive white people for the centuries of murder, trafficking, and colonialism? A powerful question, that. And all the more difficult because most white people alive now are completely innocent; they can’t be held responsible for their ancestors’ crimes. Crime can’t be ‘carried’ by race like Original Sin; that’s a racist view because it focuses on race and not the individual. So I think this question can never be solved.
One last thing, though: arresting teens for racist tweets is pointless and is often a classist act. Blowing a powerless young individual’s act out of proportion by latching onto the one unlucky guy who happens to get caught is unfair and it just pays lip service to the problem of racism in institutions and government. Like the Daily Mail reporting that Edinburgh University students wore blackface. The Mail feeds millions of people anti-immigration lies. It does way more insidious, unchallegeable harm than the very overt, very call-out-able actions of the four young friends. I wrote about this issue here.