Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Semantics of Synecdoche

by Camalita Naicker

And more than anything, my body, as well as my soul, do not allow yourself to cross your arms like a sterile spectator, for life is not a spectacle, for a sea of sorrows is not a stage, for a man who cries out is not a dancing bear.”
Aimé Césaire

Being ‘Indian’ in post-apartheid society is a precarious position. Apartheid aimed to create a racial hierarchy in which ‘Indians’ straddled a middle position. Legally, socially and economically they were given privileges not awarded to African people but these were limited and served to keep them inferior to white people but more privileged than races lower down the ladder.

They were able to own businesses, land and were privy to slightly better education in their House of Delegates schools in which learning in English (which was mother tongue to many by that time) was an advantage and allowed them to access jobs and the economy with greater ease, in fact many were groomed for administrative positions. At the same time they too were raced as ‘black’ and were subject to racial inferiority at the hands of the apartheid government. This duality of superiority and inferiority seems to be carried over into the post-apartheid society with dangerous results. 

It should be said at the outset, not all ‘Indian’ people opposed Apartheid, the many that did however, did so in various ways. For some the struggle meant joining the Black Consciousness movement (BC) or the communist party and rejecting all forms of culturalist politics including later, the tricameral system. For others it meant fighting for minority rights through culturalist parties like the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress. For those who rejected culturalist politics altogether they assumed a black political identity and continued to do so after the end of apartheid. 

At the onset of democracy and our negotiated settlement, politicised ‘Indian’ people in culturalist movements like the NIC, immediately collapsed their own political organisations and embraced the idea of a new democratic and free nation. Thus while these movements joined the ANC, at the same time there were many Indians, especially in the poorer townships like Phoenix and Chatsworth who voted for the National Party and who thought, and continue to think, their racial privileges under apartheid would offer them a better life than equality under democracy. For those who joined the mass movement at the end of apartheid it was assumed that it would speak for all voices within it even if it did so in a separatist ‘multi-cultural’ manner. Thus Indian teachers in Natal closed their Natal Indian teachers’ society and joined SADTU, it was assumed the movement would speak for all equally in a way which did not negate the particularly harrowing experience of African educators under apartheid and the need to rectify and fix things collectively and according to different needs. 

Today many feel as if they have been swallowed up by a movement obsessed with Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), crudely practised in which only the wealthy seem to benefit, as well as a return to culturalist charismatic politics. The need for this kind of culturalist politics in the struggle against Apartheid is tenuously debated, especially amongst members of the UDF, SACP and BC movements who never supported multiculturalism as an option at all, thus while its existence is precarious in itself, its persistence after the racially stratified system of Apartheid is possibly even more absurd. This has been evident in and after Jacob Zuma’s particularly ethnically orientated election campaign and his subsequent election as the Zulu leader of the African National Congress. In many ways these practices have lead to a popular sense of marginalisation of ‘Indians’ within the movement but not at a business and political elite level. It is reflective of the disjuncture between the elites and the popular base within the movement, and while the wealthy (both African and Indian) are well represented in the top ranks of the movement and government, it is often done in a way which entrenches culturalist politics rather than moves away from it, while at the bottom and in party rhetoric there is a sense of popular marginalisation.

The particular frowns an ‘Indian’ receives amongst some in these movements for identifying with a ‘black political identity’ has served to distance ‘Indian’ people from mainstream politics as well feed the apathy and unconsciousness of ‘Indian’ youth toward anything political. It has made me speaking about Indians here acceptable, because they have remained inward looking and adopted their lived experience as ‘‘Indian’’ as an Identity in itself, it is reflective of the turn from non-racialism within the black consciousness and UDF movements as well as the trade unions to the multi-culturalist and classist politics we see practiced in mainstream politics today. 

This is most telling within ‘Indian’ townships themselves, in which the Fanonian “collective conscious” is present. They too try to lactify themselves by reproaching each other for speaking like ‘an Indian’ for dressing like ‘An Indian’ or behaving like ‘an Indian’. It functions as a self-check system in which the projected ideals work to create a certain ‘type of Indian’, which is tied into a global elite, seeking to lactify itself. This lactification is inherently tied to wealth especially amongst ‘Indians’ in which remnants of a colour and money based caste system are still strongly felt amongst them. Thus all rituals and traditions that are seen to be backward like black fowl prayers, Khata and Junda and Porridge prayers in which people receive a trance state and channel specific gods etc, must be cast away. Indian traditional wear must start to look more and more western and western clothing must not bear even the slightest hint of “Indianess” one speck of sequins on a pair of jeans is an immediate deal breaker. 

This is compounded in situations where one is in a multiracial environment, then the ‘Indian’, even the well trained, well lactified ones must work even harder to prove they have left all their ‘backward’ ways behind them. Having never encountered the white people they try their best to imitate through mediated experience, upon meeting them, one realises all efforts were in vain. 

One cannot shake the accent, one cannot shake the colour, your skin betrays you long before your trained fake accent has the chance. It is too late. They have identified you: The Indian. 

So you try harder, you become more confident, you show them how liberal you are, you show them how intelligent you are, assert yourself so that they might register your humanity before your race. You avoid the sun as much as possible to stay on the right side of the Indian colour spectrum, since the lighter you are, the more beautiful according to this standard and it is not uncommon for ‘Indian’ women to use copious amounts of skin lightening products, but alas it is all in vain. The project has failed, a few might, over a prolonged period of contact with you, become convinced of your individuality, then they throw off their cultural categories, no longer consider you an ‘Indian’ and you might become one of them. 

But as soon as it is done you develop a sick feeling in your stomach. Your neurosis becomes even more heightened, you realise they have bestowed on you something you hadn’t asked for, but probably all you’re going to get. They accept you into their privilege and whiteness. Do you accept then? Do you become one of them, and forsake your “own people”? This is the chance to become one of them. Secretly you know full well you will never be one of them, you enjoy talking about them in private, fully aware of the inferiority they relentlessly confer on you. You ignore the constant references to culture and tradition and ‘close-knit communities’, ‘chilli’ and ‘eastern spirituality’. You ignore it, so that you do not offend them, so that they do not change their minds and revoke the membership. You try as hard as possible not to be too ‘Indian’, just enough so that they can claim to have an ‘Indian’ friend not so much that they can’t understand your difference. 

Thus for people who have examined their circumstances, for those who see beyond the rainbow nation, to the true humanity that could come with a full decolonisation project, the lived experience as a person of colour is enough to make one want full, absolute, totalising equality free of all complexes superior and inferior. 

So one faces a battle on three fronts, one must challenge white hegemony first and foremost therefore one must struggle to throw off the inferiority complex conferred on us through Apartheid but also one in which we constantly confer on ourselves, in some sense the ‘type of Indian’ that is strived for is one that sees itself as part of a global elite still very much governed and policed by whiteness.Secondly one must also prove oneself in black political circles today. So entrenched are apartheid colour systems that even some African ‘black’ people ignore the shared political history and experience, they ignore the lived reality and they sometimes themselves buy into ‘Indian’ constructed identity. The media constructs the ‘Indian’ identity as inherently cultural, traditional and static but also mystifying, exotic and other, in a way which makes ‘Indian’ people ‘unknown’ to others, steeped in their traditions and closed off to the rest of society. And for good reason, many ‘Indian’ people buy into ‘Indian’ constructed identity as middle class semi-privileged and almost white, or even better than white in some instances, they would rather be identified as one step up the ladder from blackness and two down from whiteness, rather than having no ladder at all. Lastly, one must defend one’s ability also to identify with the ‘Indian’ lived cultural and political experience. Time and time again I have seen ‘Indian’ activists having to defend themselves and their black political identity to other ‘Indians’ who feel as if they are betraying some kind of cultural boundary as if fighting for equality and humanity of all collectively means somehow rejecting one’s culture which no doubt has value in and of itself but does not and should not translate into monolithic identity. 

In many instances the rainbow nation has not meant even the blunt and problematic multiculturalism it proposes, it has been the replacing of one kind of species with another, the black and the white. And that black has come to mean African only even in some mainstream left circles. My own experience with SASCO was always one which exceptionalised my colour rather than included it in blackness., There are exceptions, of course there always are, but the point I am trying to make is that the absurdity of race, this “black on black” violence which Fanon warns about is prevalent even within the left. The idea of having to be responsible for one’s whole history and culture and ancestry is a shared burden of ‘Indian’ people, more so because every reference to ‘Indians’ in South Africa, is reference to the nationality of Indian, a lived experience that we neither share nor identify with. This mythologizing of Indian culturalism in the media about and by ‘Indian’ people, works to maintain a peripheral, marginalised role for ‘Indian’ South Africans more so because they are happy to adopt it. Many ‘Indian’ women are happy to be seen as the ‘exotic other’: chaste and virtuous cultural beauties. The sub-culture is a profoundly uniquely South African one, and while they bear some similarities in culture to India (for obvious reasons) South African Indians know little about Indian politics or popular culture or socio-economic lived reality. Yet the colour of their skins hems them into their circle of Indian so that any individuality is seen as whiteness and any attempt to positively identify with black is seen as a betrayal of one’s roots, even though 150 years of history would tell us that our roots are firmly here. 

They, like others have suffered sever disillusionment at the hands of the ANC and trade unions like SADTU and by extension COSATU who has kept a strong class consciousness but has failed to discipline its affiliate. The worrying element here is not the disillusionment but the forms of praxis this disillusionment has birthed. In many instances this has created a return to culturalist politics, a protection of their minority status and a guarding of the ‘Indian’ identity. The result of this process has been an entrenchment of Indianess, and a move to create closer and greater ties to what is commonly referred to as the ‘motherland’ of India. This is a peculiarity in itself because of the large difference in lived reality of South African Indians and Indians. The greatest concern is that they have not problematised this racial category but willingly taken it on, not as a lived experience but as an Identity, not as evolving culture but as static traditions, morals and values that remain stagnant and unable to evolve not to a standard of whiteness but towards the veritable creation of a new humanity. 

So much so, that today, this dualism of identity, the neither here nor there-ness of ‘Indian’ identity has become particularly difficult to negotiate. Having bought into the colour bar system of Apartheid in an attempt to lactify themselves, ‘Indian’s have waived their inferiority complex to assume a middle-class identity that allows them to exercise authority and superiority over ‘African’ people. They have chosen to accept striving for whiteness and align themselves with a ‘white’ political identity rather than taking up and working toward deconstructing the inferiority complex which they often feel but accept for ‘small’ privileges, which are by no measure small in economic currency but miniscule when compared to the currency of self.
It has meant the almost complete de-politicisation of ‘Indian’ identity, acquiescence to middle-class cultural cookie cutter version of ‘Indian’ identity. This is overwhelming evident in middle –class; elite ‘Indian’ Youth culture, in which driving BMW’s with tinted windows, gelled hair and Levis Jeans while mixing with other versions of oneself at ‘Indian’ clubs and restaurants is a way of checking out of reality and by extension the political. It is a negation of history, of shared political experience of oppression and it is at the very root the negation of thinking. The consumer-culture frenzied ‘Indian’ youth is completely unwilling to engage in any political dialogue let alone to take up the struggle and become conscientised. 

Every once in a while, from the margins, an older ‘former ANC loyalist’, will speak about their political experiences, will try to reinvigorate some political life amongst ‘Indian’s but mostly it falls on deaf ears. The class consciousness of many ‘privileged’ ‘Indian’ people has become decidedly middle-class so that freedom is equated with economic power and by extension with whiteness. So convinced are they of their superior business skills that they believe success in their predetermined careers will buy them access to the white political identity in which they might be able to finally overcome their inferiority complex, as if money could buy them out of it. This de-politicisation process works to create a class of accountants, doctors and pharmacists, and business people who never have to confront their race because they have created a middle-class haven for themselves, in which they can buy the lifestyles of white people and they are still better than African people. It is the creation of an uncritical class of unthinkers who are happy to be a synecdoche: to be constantly objectified in the media; in society and amongst themselves than to become true selves, subjects among subjects. 

Thus while one can critique the nationalist movements like the ANC and SADTU as an aid to this culturalist/classist turn, it is also a choice: a choice not to choose the political, not to choose freedom and not to be actional. It is also an acceptance of hegemony. ‘Indian’ people (and it is must be said here that this applies only to people who choose this identity, it is not a blanketing generalisation of all South African ‘Indians’ many of whom have chosen not to engage in this kind of culturalism) have chosen to remain in the roles that were, have been and continue to be ascribed to them through society, through the media and through their own non-critical interactions with each other and they are in danger of becoming the largest contributors to the useless bourgeoisie. The creation of their own sects of privilege in public spaces leads only to further mystification of them as the exotic other when quite frankly there is nothing exotic about sharing a common skin colour and perhaps a few cultural similarities with a billion other people in the world. The curiousness of this situation is that in creating this very brown space, they are not exempting themselves from the racism that is present is our society, by not engaging with it not only are they complicit in their abuse but the safe space for ‘Indians’ from townships to upper class ‘Indian’ suburbs allows their othering and makes it harder for ‘Indians’ themselves to express their individuality. Any expression of individuality is frowned upon equally by ‘Indians’ and people of other races. I have seen an inward turn in many ‘Indian’ youth in which having expressed a desire to be artists or musicians or weed smoking socialist humanists exempts them from their race and exceptionalises them as ‘alternative’ or ‘other’ or worse, as coconuts.
It becomes easier not to think, not to engage in debate, and ultimately it becomes easy to live the unexamined life. To abandon striving toward humanism and accept ready made identity. It also becomes easier to categorise and racialise others, in fact the adherence to an archaic chaste system among ‘Indians’ makes race essentialising easier. Everyone is aware of their place in the hierarchy: the fairer one is the more beautiful one is, it is not untrue that ‘bread ous’ Hindi and Guajarati people are usually richer and fairer than the ‘porridge ous’, people who are Tamil and Telegu and darker and poorer, who find themselves at the bottom of this hierarchy. It is not uncommon for people to be told to marry within their caste. This endless and quite absurd stratification is practised openly despite the discovery of more and more shockingly fair Tamil people and darker Hindi people. Thus the complaint against racism from white people, as important and legitimate as it is, must be self reflective. While I hear almost every time I am in the company of ‘Indian’ people, complaints of racism by white people, none of them make the necessary link to the political, none of these conversations end in a call to action. None of these conversations end in problematising white as the standard, the anger and the bitterness is turned inward like the attitudes. It is the filtering down of state made multicultural and non-racial politics signified by our negotiated settlement. 

The cementing over of thousands of years of oppression, exploitation and racism in the form of our rainbow nation is the ultimate white chauvinism. It is not forgiveness that comes first, something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to have ingrained in the collective South African conscious. It is anger, debate, dialogue, conversation, understanding and then, finally, forgiveness: a wiping clean, a new and fresh beginning. We have been robbed, all of us, of the chance for real reconciliation, for real new beginnings. We have skipped ahead, forgot the steps in between and have landed on shaky ground, trying to build a foundation on sand. Thus charging ‘Indian’ people and white people and coloured people and ‘black’ African people and any person with living the unexamined life is not a negation of agency it is in fact an invitation to them, to take their rightful place in the decolonisation process. We have all undergone the colonisation process collectively but differently and this has manifested in many different forms. For white people, theirs has been the role of the superior in all things. Having also undergone the process of colonisation themselves and having been duped into thinking they are superior, they too must learn to become equals, they too must start over and rethink their position. For ‘Indian’ people the process must equally be interrogated, for it requires a decolonisation on both levels of superiority and inferiority.
If there is something that we might take from Fanon in this regard it is that there is no going back, that the dialectic must move forward, that every moment and every event must propel it forward. We cannot return to some imaginary society in which we reverse the evils created in this one, we can however begin anew, rethink anything and everything. Ato Sekyi Otu believes, this project of decolonisation required only one thing: reinvention. Everything in our colonial and Apartheid histories have been constructed through domination and alienation. Thus what we need and what Fanon calls for is “to wipe the slate clean”. Reinvention requires something further however, it is requires sovereign and conscious beings, who utilise their capacity for thought. It requires a reinsertion of politics into our society, in all and every area of society; a conscious examining of our lives so that we might be able to live amongst each other as equals and more than that that we might finally and absolutely throw off ridiculous categories like ‘Indian’. So that when I say I am an “African” or I am a “black” South African, or I am an “Indian” or I am “gay” it is merely a reference to a political identity, it does not constrain me to my colour, or my race or my sexual orientation, it is a choice to adopt a particular stance in society to be actional so that we might be human. It is an understanding that these identities are not ends in themselves but merely points on an open dialectic so that in working towards the prospect for a new humanity we know that it is always itself open to reinvention by any of us and by all of us.