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Is the Rainbow Nation a myth?

- By Schalk Mouton

Ruth First Fellow Panashe Chigumadzi is done with white people. She doesn’t trust them, and won’t make friends with them.

 “I am not interested in having white friends. I have nothing more to say to white people,” she said to loud applause at the 14th Ruth Memorial lecture, held in the Great Hall, Braamfontein Campus East, on Monday, 17 August.

 “I won’t consider non-racialism right now. Not until we are all equal. It is just not worth it for me right now.”

Twenty-three-year-old Panashe Chigumadzi and her fellow Ruth First Fellow, Sisonke Msimang, delivered impassioned lectures on race, interracial friendships and what the Rainbow Nation means to “coconuts” today.

 “I choose to appropriate the term ‘Coconut’ and self-identify as one because I believe it offers an opportunity for refusal and this very refusal allows for a radical anti-racist politics to emerge,” she said. 

 Chigumadzi’s lecture was based on her research, in which she had interviewed 10 young black South Africans on their feelings about being black in an “anti-black” world.

One of the strongest views on living as a black person in the post-apartheid world came from Enhle Khumalo, a former student of Roedean School SA  one of South Africa’s most elite all girl private schools.

“I don’t have the agency to denounce race, I have to identify as black. When I walk into a room I am treated as a nigger,” said Khumalo.

Like others, Khumalo has a deep disdain for the Rainbow Nation. 

“It is a very violent term. I think it can only be violent to a black person, in terms of the nuance it produces. To say a ‘Rainbow Nation’ forces a black body into a certain position, saying ‘it is celebrated, allow it’.”

Vuyani Pambo described the term ‘Rainbow Nation as “a gloss … a palimpsest, painting over racism as opposed to eradicating it”.

In her lecture, Msimang asked the question whether blacks and whites can be friends. She answered the question herself: “Yes, sure. And No! Absolutely not! It is that simple, yet that complex,” she said.

In Gauteng’s older established townships, a survey showed that 77% of black people say that they will never be able to trust whites, and almost half of whites polled feel the same about blacks, said Msimang.

Msimang and social activist and actor, Lebo Mashile, used documentary theatre to dramatise words spoken by Sindiwe Magona, Njabulo Ndebele, Dennis Brutus, Zama Ndlovu, Sekoatlane Phamodi to illustrate the reasons of distrust between blacks and whites.

“Many of us are sceptical of white friends,” said Sisonke.  “Their feelings matter more than ours. Our gains are seen as their losses.”

Chigumadzi said coconuts began to awaken to an “invisible veil” between black and white.

The veil describes the economic, social, cultural or otherwise, divide between the dominant ‘white’ world and the dominated ‘black’.

The awareness of the veil came through persistent experiences of racism at Chigumadzi’s predominantly white private school.

“In the social sense, I saw how invites to ‘the farm’ from white childhood friends started to disappear once we were in high school, and how we tacitly accepted that we didn’t date each other,” she said.

“In the economic sense, it was seeing that white varsity mates with similar academic performance found jobs faster than black students did. Through this, the myth of meritocracy, that if we worked hard enough, spoke well enough, we would have the same opportunities, was revealed.”

Chigumadzi said it is those experiences of whiteness as a system and as a physical embodiment in their teachers and classmates that causes their pain.

“That is what forces us to realise that no matter how hard we work or how well we speak, we remain black. That is what forces us to realise that we are still niggers. That is what forces Coconuts to become conscious. And in the end, that is what forces us Coconuts to join the call for Rhodes to Fall.”