Only a month after Human Rights day, many lives have been lost in the recent xenophobic and afrophobic attacks. These attacks can be linked to what leaders like King Goodwill Zwelithini refer to as Freedom of Expression. Embizweni writer Thandi Bombi has written a personal opinion piece that speaks to how the nature of freedom of expression can lead to the oppression of others.
At the beginning of the #RhodesSoWhite debate, the comments and attitudes of some of the contributors on the Rhodes University Student Representative Council (SRC) Facebook page, all in the name of freedom of expression, led me to writing this opinion piece about the dangerous nature of freedom of expression.
I have just discovered that I am black. I am also afraid. I am afraid because I have an opinion about what is happening at Rhodes University around the #RhodesSoWhite debate.
I am used to being attacked about my accent, my language, my friendships, and my choice to look beyond the colour of people’s skin. I have learned that this is ignorant, that I am a coconut and have been a token black my whole life.
That’s all bad enough, but now that the #RhodesSoWhite debate has turned into a dispute between black and white, I am expected to be black.
I feel overwhelmed by my blackness. It’s no reason to lose sleep or skip lectures or even stop studying, but learning that I don’t even “do black” properly is taking its toll. Now that all guns are blazing, the only way to avoid being caught in the crossfire is to sit in the comfort of my room and follow the struggle on the SRC page.
It all started years ago when I went to a nursery school that was predominantly white. Of course, at the time I didn’t understand why Kyle or Jessica or even Zeno shouldn’t have been my friends; let alone be the family I considered them. Thinking back, I wish someone had told me, because now that I’m black I have a lot of catching up to do.I didn’t see how wrong I was living until I stepped foot on to Rhodes campus.
My accent seemed to spark up a lot of commentary. I was used to being a coconut when I stepped foot outside of my school, but I didn’t know it was a problem, and it didn’t affect my ability to open up around my peers. As a Jo’burg girl, I had done my fair share of language learning and adapting to suit those around me, but here it’s different. I had to change, I had to learn, I had to accommodate, but no one ever asked me why I had such a hard time doing it. The assumption was always that she wants to be white, some even said they would force me to be black.
“Ndzi vulavula Xitsonga, A Ndzi ri dyondzanga, Ndzi exikolweni kambe Ndzi tikarhatela ku ritiva.”(I speak Tsonga, I didn’t learn it at school, but I do my best to speak it.) I was angered by people’s ignorance but I tried my best to show that I respected where I was and to show that I can be a good black person.
I didn’t mind compromising my identity because I thought it would help me be closer to my black brothers and sisters; my isiXhosa speaking brothers and sisters. I was trying to correct 14 years of doing black wrong and finally be on the path to righteousness.
I’m paralyzed at the idea that as hard as I have tried, I will never be truly black enough. I’m not exactly a ‘token black person’ as some may put it, but my twang will always have the power to put down the strong black men and women that I try so hard to relate to. My inability to make the struggles of the past my number one priority will always cloud my judgment and leave me thinking I have bigger issues that I need to deal with.
I will have to hide my face in a room full of black people because there is not enough anger or resentment in me to participate in #RhodesSoWhite. I am ashamed that even after reading hundreds of comments on the SRC page,my argument is not that people are racist, but that we are so consumed by the struggles of the past, that we cannot see the struggle we are supposed to be fighting.
I am black. Although not the one that they want or will accept. I do think about the struggle. I think about the poverty, I think about the sacrifices my father has made to ensure I get here. It may have been (insert any white person here)’s great grandfather that put me in so much debt with NSFAS or ensured that Rhodes parking isn’t my biggest worry, but I choose to think of the bigger picture.
Complaining about things he had no control over won’t pay my debts, it won’t heal the wounds of my forefathers and it won’t heal my broken heart. I can’t change the past, but I can make my future a bright one, one that is not based on anger and resentment.
As a xiTsonga girl, I have been rejected more times than I can remember. Some (in this university) have even told me Tsonga doesn’t exist or they won’t learn it because it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with voicing your opinion, but when did freedom of expression turn into freedom of oppression?
“We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.”
Can you sleep at night knowing that your words, although an act of freedom of expression, are the fuel to the fire that has set alight to all those businesses, those homes and human beings?
Your words have taken away homes and lives but the worst thing is that your words have closed the door to many people who would risk getting turned away, beaten and killed in South Africa all in search of a better life.
Your words are very powerful and although you may argue they are not what has incited the violence, I argue that it is every leader’s responsibility to know the power of their words.
You have enjoyed the right you have as a leader for freedom of oppression and nothing you say after those statements can repair the damage that has already been done.