There tends to be more excitement in society when prominent blacks criticise other blacks, writes MBASA “BLACKS” SATYI
One of the phenomena that have bothered me for a while is the giddiness that is palpable in our society, no doubt propelled by media when prominent black people criticise other prominent black people. Over the years I have watched blacks being rewarded with emoluments and parachuted to high levels of fame over their criticism of other prominent blacks, almost like prominent blacks are in a wrestling match that should always ensure that there is only one prominent black voice at a time, and if there is more, they must sing the same tune.
It was until I decided to research this phenomenon that I realised my fascination is shared across the corners of the world and a number of scholars and thinkers have done much work to in trying to decipher this phenomenon.
In an article entitled ‘Black on Black Criticism: An American Obsession’, published in the black magazine Ebony in 2013, Nana Brew Hammond said: “when a black public figure openly disagrees with President Obama, white people listen—often giving that black person a platform to speak”. This was after rock-star neurosurgeon Bern Carson went on a tirade criticising the government of Barack Obama, an act that ultimately propelled Carson to celebrity status, giving him an illusion that he could even crack this politics thing.
Here at home in South Africa, long before there was a Makhosi Khoza or a Sipho Pityana, people who moved from relative obscurity to stardom on the back of presidential criticism, there was a Ben Carson or Travis Smiley in the US, propelling their careers on presidential criticism and given a highly underserved media platform on American news networks to indulge America as hopeful blacks go at each other.
The concerted criticism of President Jacob Zuma, similarly to the one on Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, continues to have this discomforting element of a black and white psych that loves a black vs. black showdown—especially when it involves a black President
A 2006 Sunday Times editorial, two weeks after (former Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe) Madlala-Routledge saga, went into overdrive trying to portray Thabo Mbeki as a psychopathic leader who encouraged sycophantic culture. This editorial was one of no fewer than 30 out of 42 similarly vicious editorials that the Sunday Times had fed us since 2006 of a Mbeki who was destroying the state and its institutions.
Watching Njabulo Ndebele speak at the ANC National Consultative Conference, reminded me of his own showdown with a prominent student leader at UCT where Ndebele Vice-Chancellor, a showdown that catapulted the student to stardom and painted Ndebele as an anti-black, white stooge whose only concern was ensuring a quality and functional university that continued to serve white interests whilst black people remained at the periphery of the historically white institutions.
Nana Brew Hammond, in her own analysis of the phenomenon says, “at the heart of this giddy fascination with black on black criticism is the culture of tokenism that continues to plague America—and the power that comes with being recognised as the singular voice for black people”.
One of the great challenges in South Africa, owing to our colonial and apartheid history, is the implicit bias against black people from both black people and white people. Daily we are bombarded by an insensitive media with negative images about black people and positive images about white people, creating a constant narrative of black criminality, black incompetency, black corruption. It, therefore, comes as no surprise when both blacks and whites share similar anti-black biases.
Navigating these biases whilst standing for principle has been much more difficult under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma. For example, whilst one media said Mbeki’s presidency was a ‘Shakespearean tale of power struggles, paranoia, betrayals, secrets, lies and, above all, hubris’; today the same Media is saying the same things about Jacob Zuma. How do we separate the cases of permanent anti-black and anti-ANC biases from genuine criticism? How do we criticise without falling into a trap legitimising the anti-black agenda?
In fact, Hammond states that “The rapt attention America pays when African-American leaders openly criticise each other, or Black people in general, is bigger than the GOP. The negative associations thrust upon black people and black culture can colour how we black people view each other”. This is something I completely agree with. The vehemence blacks go at each other is almost pathological.
What is more puzzling however is that all black leaders, particularly those who have been Presidents, know of how misguided and ill-informed most criticism levelled at them was when they were in office, but once they are out of office, they suddenly join the army of critics that they so loathed when they were in office.
It is said the best a former leader who has taken the oath can do is to never criticise his/her successors, knowing the full weight of the job is but rather say “I probably would have made a different decision” and that’s about the size of it.
The recent National Consultative conference, where an army of former leaders are gathered to lambast the incumbent poses a lot of questions. One, of course, is, what is driving this urge besides the stated ‘we want to save the republic’ reasoning. If we follow Hammond’s argument of black tokenism, it’s clear that Zuma’s sins are rubbishing the black image that the former leaders thought they had created and they can’t stand the destruction of their view of the black world.
The more troubling questing is who reduced black people to tokenism where they must fight with one another to be a singular voice for black people in this country? Black people are a majority in South Africa and tokenism speaks of a minority mentality that makes us live to impress a certain dominant group of people.
This, therefore, gives credence to Zuma’s argument that it is not him who is a problem but black people’s minority status in critical sectors of the country, making them engaged in black-on-black criticism trying to create a singular white pleasing voice in these spaces.
Black man, wake up
Satyi is a member of the National Working Committee of the ANC Youth League