Franz Fanon, in his book Black skin, White Masks, coined the phrase: “For the black man, there is only one destiny and it is white.” His words have meant a lot for my story. They speak with clarity into the condition that I was born into as a black person, that is: I dreamt of being umlungu (“umlungu” meaning a “white person”). His words also speak with clarity into the condition of hatred that is the response to this initial condition, and that is: amabhunu ayizinja (“boers/whites are dogs”). Now let me tell my story.
I was born a twin in 1987 in an area called Sweetwaters in KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg. It was a hostile time to grown up as black on black violence, between Amaqabane (ANC) and Otheleweni (IFP), was prevalent throughout KZN (as a sidenote: I was actually later told that as a kid my brother and I were separated for survival during those times just in case one of us was killed, then at least there would be we one survivor left in the family). My mother had us at the very young age of 24, and as a young black woman living in the township, she was fearful of the bleak future ahead of us. My mother also worked as a domestic worker in the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg for a white man known to us then as “Mr Baas” (Afrikaans for “Mr Boss”).
Sweetwaters itself was a rural area just outside Pietermaritzburg and the closest suburb to it was the posh and exclusive suburb of Hilton. This clear seperation between Sweetwaters and Hilton was a massive reality to me growing up and the only time we ever saw white people anywhere near our township was if they were biking or hiking through the area. As kids, this was like seeing a celebrity. We would chase after them just to catch a rare glimpse of what our parents called “umlungu”. It was a big moment in our young lives to actually encounter these “beings” who lived on the other side of – what seemed like – the world for us. Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu! Every young black township kid knows what it means to shout out that word when the sighting is made, and yet it’s only now that I realise the deep psychological damage incurred by such occurences. Yet this way of thinking was even reinforced by my mother and her friends when they would say things like: “ngisaya kwamlungu”. Taken literally this means: “I’m going to a white persons place”, but actually it was a figure of speech used by them to mean: “I’m going to work”. They used this term because for them white people represented work, livelihood, success and ultimately economic power. The symbolic meaning behind “ngisaya kwamlungu” was a reinforcement within my young black mind that the owners of business and the gatekeepers of our destinies were white people. From this point, the damage had been done.
Let me explain what I mean. We literally grew up using the word umlungu as a term used to address someone successful in our area or someone in a position of powerful influence. The word, and the white existence that it symbolised, became our reference point for success and goodness in the world. Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu! It represented “the dream” for a black kid. Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu! It became a reality for me then: I dreamt of being “umlungu”.
When I started school in 1993, we were even encouraged by our black teachers to study hard so that we could become like “umlungu” – because after all: success, education and civilisation was symbolised by whiteness; so obviously we had to study hard if we wanted to be truly successful. We even had a subject called “biblical studies”. In this lesson we were given books with pictures of a white Moses, a white Joseph and a white Jesus – and when I say a white Jesus, I mean the whole “blonde hair, blue eyes” Jesus. The inferiority deepened. Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu! It became clear to us that even the Ultimate Source of goodness and perfection was white: even God was white.
One day my mother eventually took me with her to work. This was a big moment for me. Kwamlungu. When I arrived, all my expectations were met: kids running around in good clothes, kids riding bikes and playing with nice toys, and the swimming pool! Don’t get me started on the swimming pool that these kids played in! For the first time in my life I was experiencing the white life. I felt like I’d arrived. This is what I wanted. This is what I wanted to be. Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu!
But all white things – sorry, I mean good things – come to an end. After this, we headed back home to the township, back to our old muddy house made of rusted corrugated iron. The black world. A place I wanted to escape.
My dream of being umlungu went on until I went into high school. It was here where we first started learning proper history and we were exposed to a different narrative than the “Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu!” narrative we had grown up with. Funnily enough, it all started when we watched Sarafina one day at school. Through the film, we were woken up to the reality of the burden we had been carrying since the day we were born: black pain. In the movie, there is a scene where a bunch of black kids start boycotting an Afrikaans class just at the onset of the Soweto uprising in 1976. Police are then called in and in the commotion that ensues a young black boy is shot. That was the first time I ever cried watching a movie. Something struck a chord within me. Black pain.
I couldn’t escape the facts: it was a white soldier who shot the boy in the movie, it was a white soldier who shot Hector Pieterson in real life, and as I started learning in history, it was white people who had stolen our land and oppressed us in poverty and humiliation for so long. Black pain. Everything changed. The umlungu went from being the dream to being the enemy. During that time, we started singing struggle songs at our township school. “Senzeni na” (“what have done?”), “dubula ibhunu” (“kill the boer”), and “amabhunu ayizinja” (“boers/whites are dogs”).
“Amabhunu ayizinja” became a song that I sang throughout high school that encapsulated the deep hatred and anger I had growing in me towards umlungu. This song said to me: “We’ve been wronged! We’ve been taken advantage of by the whites! That’s why they live in privilege, that’s why they live in Hilton with their nice clothes, and nice toys and bloody nice swimming pools! Yet we black people suffer.” In our school, in our township, in our black lives: there was no rainbow nation. I began to ask questions and I began to despise the narrative I had grown up with: a narrative of deep-seated inferiority towards the suburb on the other side of the road, towards Mr Baas who payed my mother next to nothing, towards the privilege enjoyed by a minority at the expense of the majority. Black pain.
The struggle is real. The lines get drawn in the sand way before we even have a chance to realise that they are there. But they are there, whether we like it or not. I tell the story of my childhood in light of these two narratives because they represent the context of South Africa for the mind of the black child. It is one in which our inferiority is our daily bread and one in which the only defence against such inferiority is to turn to hatred and anger. This is the narrative of black pain fighting against the societal enforcement of black inferiority upon the black child.
Today, I honestly can say that I don’t hate white people and also that my narrative has yet again changed (I somehow made it out the township and into the university). But what I do know is that today I fight against a system of oppression that is in every way psychological, historical, political, social and economic. It is a system that perpetuates a culture of domination of white subjects over black subjects (through white superiority and black inferiority), and it is a system that still causes the black child to cry out Umlungu! Umlungu! Umlungu! I fight against a system that still keeps white subjects enslaved to the ignorance of their privilege. I fight for the sake of our children – white and black. I fight because I want to build a nation.
Madala Ngubane – Izwe Lethu