Forgiveness overrated and justice underrated in this traumatised state
THIS readable book, Why we are not a nation, by Christine Qunta, free of any jargon, divides into three extended essays. The first, mostly historic and political, is titled Why we are not a nation? The second essay, sociological and psychological, is called Is hair political? — and should be a hot sell among African-Americans. The third is a 50-page part-autobiography called Law, national duty, and other hazards.
It is sad that half a century after Basil Davidson and Joseph Needham’s books popularised respectively African history and Chinese mechanical inventions, Qunta still finds it necessary to devote pages to an Afrocentric summary of history.
It is sad that half a century after the Oxford History of SA and a steady stream of archaeological publications, Qunta still finds it necessary to debunk the colonial and apartheid the-whites-settled-in-empty-land dogma.
But just read the letters to the editors, and the websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter of 2016, where the racist memes of apartheid persist and reproduce themselves, and we immediately understand why. Qunta writes: "White supremacy constituted part of the ideological arsenal developed and deployed by colonialism and imperialism, developing an autonomous existence that has survived long after its economic rationale ceased to exist."
The core argument of the book is that SA has: "…. A type of post-traumatic stress disorder of a nation, one that cannot be treated because it has not yet been diagnosed. (We are a country) where forgiveness is overrated and justice is underrated".
Qunta advocates a reparations fund; to accelerate corrective policies; that white businesses should learn to think strategically; that schools should be freed from colonial indoctrination; and that African culture should be mainstreamed, especially African languages.
The author’s heroes include Marcus Garvey, Franz Fanon, Malcolm X and Steve Biko. She advocates that colonial symbols, including statues, should be removed from public places and sent to museums; the same with colonial names.
The essay Is Hair political? starts by quoting Ngugi wa Thiong’o that "a multibillion industry in the world is built around the erasure of blackness – and its biggest clients are the affluent black middle classes in Africa and the world".
Qunta recalls her screaming in pain as a child when her granny tried to comb her hair straight and her mother burnt it straight, leaving her with marks on her forehead. She then summarises the fashion and beauty industries’ war against African hair. In a profoundly feminist statement, she writes: "If the fashion and beauty industries were states, they would undoubtedly be fascist."
The phenomenal proportion of black women still using hair-straightening and skin-lightening products decades after white racist laws have been revoked can be explained by a sociological comparison.
From at least the 1930s until the 1960s, many wealthy Jewish women went for "nose jobs" — for plastic surgeons to make their noses look "less Jewish" and more Aryan. During the 1950s and 1960s many Japanese women had surgeons reshape their eyes from almond to round. Even today, many Brazilian and Egyptian women feel pressured to get a gynaecologist to reconstruct their hymens before marriage.
Not those women, but respectively anti-Jewish racism, US hegemony and military occupation of Japan, and contemporary misogyny and double standards, should be blamed for pressuring people until they felt the need for self-mutilation.
The third essay, Law, national duty, and other hazards, needs to be compulsory reading for all black women to motivate them to succeed in business. Her pages on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, after the end of apartheid, vividly remind us of the routine torture, perversion of justice, and perjuring of affidavits under the apartheid machine. She sketches how the apartheid security apparatus tried to turn advocate Dumisa Ntsebenza, one of the commissioners, into a second Dreyfus affair.
This reviewer has quibbles with one or two claims in the text, but none of these affect the main points which the author makes. Ancient Egyptian civilisation is probably best dated as emerging not in 4,000BC, but between 3,400 and 3,100 BC.
The claims about Dogon knowledge of astronomy lack independent substantiation. But this does not affect African contributions to historic astronomy, from the calendar to what is possibly the world’s oldest Stonehenge at Nabta Playa, dating before 4000 BC.
Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Diagne’s magisterial The Meanings of Timbuktu points out that there was no institute such as a University of Sankoré. This was a metaphor that African authors used to interpret for western readers that Timbuktu was a centre of higher education, where students studied under individual leading scholars.
In the Cape, slaves were not randomly given the names of months; they were named after the month in which the slaver ship unloaded them in Cape Town.
Everyone should buy this book – it can be read over a weekend.
• Gottschalk is a political scientist at the University of the Western Cape. This article first appeared in The Conversation