The Soft Punch

The pitfalls of assimilation

Transformation in South Africa has taken on vague and even negative connotations. Two decades of democracy and we seem to have reached a cul de sac. It’s a raw nerve… when you touch it expressions of pain and anger escape. After four years at the University of the Free State (UFS), one young honours student says the youth are being required to be less African, to suffer the abuse of losing their identities, to blend successfully into formerly white environments.

For many years I have convinced myself that I am proud of who I am, where I come from. Proudly black in a white Afrikaner environment. From the very beginning – be it pre-school, high school or University – I have always been among the privileged few given the opportunity to attend good “model-C” (white) institutions.

I love the fact that I am able to engage with people from different racial and ethnic groups, being able to take advantage of the opportunities. It’s tough when you do not have the confidence to interact in these diverse spaces.

But these spaces have presented me with unexpected demands. It has been an opportunity to gaze back at the self. Looking past the images that I would like to see, gazing deeper into what needs scrutiny inside me. And at that depth, a few tough realisations have confronted me. At first I did not even know how to bring it up to the surface where all the confident self-examination started.

Through rigorous and critical conversations with peers, fellow student leaders and academics I discovered deep inside me a monstrous reality. I don’t even know when it came to live in my being.

There is a part of me that is uncomfortable with who I am and where I come from. Of course as Africans we all acknowledge that we still have a long way to go before we can overcome the scars of our history. But we don’t often talk about the depth of the woundedness. Few of us have the tools to tackle the problem.

Recently we saw Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr tweeting that “Blacks are the architects of apartheid”. Well I couldn’t care less about what he has to say because I choose to ignore such blatant racism.

Yet at the same time such events remind me that we are a young and fragile democracy, engaged in a precarious balancing act while accepting that Hofmeyr is one of many, many South Africans with the same views.

I have grown to resent anything that places me in a racially uncomfortable situation. To avoid the discomfort, I have taken to leaving important aspects of myself at the door when I step out into the world. My culture, my language, where I come from and everything that will allow white South Africans to perceive me as being “too Black”… all left outside as I step into a world where I have reduced agency.

It is a deliberate and consistent reduction of myself so that I minimise the risk of making ‘the other’ feel uncomfortable or threatened around me. I start by speaking their language, assuring them that I am not a ‘radical black person’ who is going to disrupt their space. I have been convinced that maintaining the status quo by submitting to their culture, language and identity is the right thing to do. I am helping ‘the other’ understand that they have a lot in common with us Africans. We share so many things. There is no need to fear.

The logic in the back of my mind has been like that of a typical abused woman in a bad relationship. I have been hoping that my fellow South Africans would make the same effort, that they would be willing to learn more about me, my background, my language and my people.

But then came the cold hard look at myself and the shock that I am merely reinforcing the past. Engraving the idea of entitlement, deeper and deeper into their understanding of things. Reinforcing the notion that they need not learn about me nor understand me. While I am bending over backwards no effort is required from them. The parallels between this one sided transformation and abusive behaviour grows stronger and stronger.

This is assimilation not transformation (for lack of a better word). I am beginning to find a way to describe this transformational abuse. Prof Keet and I call this “The Soft Punch”: The pain penetrates slowly and the bruises appear only after long after the event has taken place. It does not have an immediate effect. It takes a lot time for one to feel what is really happening within. Prof Andre Keet, Director of the Institute for Social Justice at UFS, describes The Soft Punch as the subtle act of racism that we overlook. An act that has an embedded intention to belittle the other without being too obvious or explicit. He has put his finger right on the painful spot.

But this is not merely an academic notion in my life. The highlight of my SRC term was being the guardian of a male residence, a historically Afrikaans male residence that is known for its Kantoesh (traditional Afrikaans attire). I prefer not to identify the House. It was an amazing experience, filled with challenges and a lot of great memories. The experience has grown into something that I will carry with me for a long time.

Once again I went in there, giving it my best shot. Leaving me and my precious personal belongings on the door step. I focused on maintaining the status quo, hoping someone would meet me half way. I was excited to be a part of their 40 years’ reunion. We would show ‘die Ou Manne’ how far the house had come. Half of the residents were now non-Afrikaners, with a revised house song that represented the new demographic and the new inclusive values.

But then came the shock. The Prime announced that the event would be hosted in Afrikaans only.

“We don’t want to offend die Ou Manne, they would walk out if they were to hear us speaking English,” said the Prime.

We managed to debate the language issue and eventually agreed on English. But there were more surprises in store and this time there was nothing I could do. Once die Ou Manne arrived they sang the old house song and spoke Afrikaans only. And the cherry on this racist confection? Everything was printed in Afrikaans. Excluding a large part of the house was not even up for discussion now. My heart sank with a feeling of real pain. The spear point of a rude awakening plunged into my fragile, youthful enthusiasm. Steve Hofmeyr is not alone, he tweets for all those who make these choices to inflict pain. Who stab at this delicate democracy every day.

Earlier this year I was part of a panel discussion to celebrate 20 years of democracy. It caught me unawares. Out there in public I began to cry. I cried as I recalled the reunion. I had to own the pain, acknowledge the bruises and become aware of the beatings. And, through the tears I saw clearly the pitfalls of assimilation: The Soft Punch.

What do I take away with me in addition to bruises, at the end of four years at UFS? I cannot run away from the conversations and situations that make me uncomfortable. Confronting these demons will help me deal with reality in a way that is healthy. Anything else and I run the risk of being bitter and abused. There is still a lot of work to be done before we can hold memorials for racism or open even wider the doors of democracy. Above all I’ve learnt that assimilation just perpetuates a dark period in our history.