Rich and Blackby Remy Ngamije / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 13.12.2011
I fear success. Let me qualify that: I fear being successful, and black. It just does not work. The two together only seem to create suspicion and infamy in this country. Feature stories on the largesse of my birthday parties, backbiting, no respect, whispers that my connections did all the work for me. My own talent, skills, drive and ambition had nothing to do it. My success would be just another affirmation of affirmative action to many people here. Black millionaires generate the kind of social responses bank robbers, scam artists and sex fiends do. Success as a black man, in this country, would be the death of me.
That is how it feels to be black and on the rise – you will never really make it to a stage where you can be dark skinned and legitimately successful on your own terms. Like Jay-Z or Oprah. Here you will always be vilified for your gumption, always be the subject of controversy and criticism.
Sooner or later, someone will bring it to your attention that you are a) black and b) newly rich. You will never truly belong to the blue-eyed Boys Club of South Africa’s rich and wealthy. There is always some kind of hoop you need to jump through at every level of economic success – the equivalent of administrative forms they neglected to tell you about the first time round. The goalposts shift. Your accent is too rural, too fancy, your qualifications seem fake, your posture seems lazy or hostile, your Mercedes Benz is too big, your contribution too small, your university too obscure, and you don’t spend your money wisely on property and lasting things. You’re just not one of us. You cannot win.
Success in South Africa is always weighed on a black-white scale. The closer it is to white (good school, good university degree, writhing off the beat to dub-step) the more comprehensible and likely. The more familiar and palatable. On the black end of the scale (lavish noisy house parties, multiple rides, bling, the lifelong pursuit of a better weave) books you space in one of South Africa’s dailies. Ask Kenny Kunene. He got hit on the head by this sliding scale. His behaviour is examined and judged with a furious curiosity big shots like Checkers CEO, billionaire Whitey Basson, wouldn’t begin to tolerate. How do we know Whitey doesn’t have a sushi-a-la-naked-girls skeleton in his closet? The media certainly doesn’t go there.
The message seems clear – if you are black and successful, you are guilty until proven a little bit less so. The last thing you are granted is the benefit of the doubt. Suspicion, enmity and ill-will await you.
You will be lumped together with the BEE Fat Cats, government corrupters and tenderpreneurs before you’ve even sat your black ass down. BEE is a convenient racial slur for any darkie that ever banked more than a million Rand. It is shorthand for crook. Your qualifications, your self-sacrifice, your dedication and hard work, your self-belief, your dreams, your rights, your honour, really doesn’t matter when the BEE paintballs start flying. They’ll splatter your suit no matter your integrity.
It is a label that liquidates the time you’ve put in in your industry. It decides your political affiliations for you. It questions your moral fibre before you’ve even opened your mouth. It insists that the opportunities you’ve taken advantage of and earned the right to master weren’t legitimate. That your position in life is a trick. Even your children suffer for it. “BEE babies” are already shunned and envied wherever they go.
Do I even need to say it? Apparently so. Not every black person in a pinstripe suit is cheating and lying and despicable. Not all of us have been handed a free ticket to success thanks to the arbitrary fact of our skins or who our parents once dodged live ammo with in the struggle.
I’m going to go a step further. Get stuffed. Even if every successful black person was a free rider enjoying ill gotten gains and government tenders, which they are not, remember that little thing called apartheid, when white people got privileged, socially engineered pathways to economic stability, through job reservations and land restrictions and the cream of educational resources? Two wrongs don’t make a right but black people wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to learn a cliché like that 30 years ago. They were mentally bred for mines, hedge-trimming and loading cargo. They were reduced to the value of their own uneducated labour. For centuries.
Black success is all too often Kunene-ised in this country. Black innovation and entrepreneurship. Black leadership and drive. These are little understood, esteemed or encouraged. We are just seen as parasitic. You can’t buy a Breitling watch, as a successful black person, for fear of starring in a Zapiro cartoon.
If I fly too high, I’ll be brought crashing down, Icarus-like, by entrenched stereotypes demonizing black achievement. Fly too low and you are just another loser who can’t escape the limits imposed by the past. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.