Words by Lebo Motswatswa

The dreams of the lionhearted women and men who fought with vehemence for our liberty have been shattered by unreformed structures that keep us in chains. The shards of inequality, poverty, violence, and injustice have nestled in our backs. We lie on them every night and wake up every morning to toil for a system that has taken from us and continues to demand more.


The Colour of Struggle is Black

Notwithstanding the fact that black people remain in circumstances that are misrepresentative of their worth as children of the God, our lives are not expendable. Black people the world over know this and are working hard to dismantle oppressive systems that strip us of our dignity and deny us equal rights to life. Our fight for a just society is met with unrelenting brutality and resistance. Take for instance the state and general public’s response to the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, and the call for decolonisation in our institutions; students were labelled hooligans and criminalised for the manner in which they expressed their pain and rage.

In addition to being criticised by unsympathetic white people who are too blinded by their privilege to see the tears of the black child, students were also rebuked by the likes of Professor Njabulo Ndebele who, in a jarring speech he delivered at the 10th Annual Helen Joseph Lecture, trivialised post-apartheid black pain, stating that “black pain in its current manifestations comes across…as an attribute of victimhood.” Here we see black pain being invisibilised by someone who, ironically, was supposed to have worked hard to transform the institutions that maintain whiteness at the expense of blackness. To quote Professor Itumeleng Mosala – the president of the Azanian People’s Organisation – Prof. Ndebele now comfortably occupies “the position of ‘failed at transformation’ armchair philosopher.” Black pain is even more excruciating when other black people are blind to it because of the privilege to which they now have access.




Systemic violence exhibits itself in many other ways besides limited access to education. Black people also have little access to quality health services, and have to deal with below par sanitation services. Informal settlements are a travesty of the post-apartheid dispensation. While apartheid is over, its legacy lingers in the fibre of our society. The city of Cape Town is a prime example of the reality of structural oppression. As noted by Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, “the social engineering of apartheid came down to a very successful model of spatial engineering.” In the Cape of not so good hope, black and white people remain dichotomised by the space. This appalling spatial engineering is so stark and heartbreaking, reminding us that black lives are still of little consequence, even in this ostensible Rainbow Nation.

The Mother City does not treat her children equally. It is very difficult for a black person to find property to rent in Cape Town, unless you get a white friend to speak to the estate agent on your behalf, even then it is hard because you eventually have to meet them. Our blackness is a barrier to decent livelihood. In addition to structural and systemic injustice, we also have to deal with anti-blackness that is found in colorism and afrophobia. Every day we are faced with the challenge of embracing our black skin in a world that tells us that the fairer, the better; if it’s too black, it’s wack.

We have internalised this hatred of blackness. We have learnt to see blackness as a menacing threat to order. Afrophobia is a manifestation of this internalised anti-blackness. As Unisa professor Rodney Tshaka puts it, “Afrophobia is fear of a specific other: the black other from north of the Limpopo river. If foreigners generally were the main target, those who are anti-foreigner would no doubt have sought out all foreigners and made it known that they are not welcome in this country.” The sad reality is that we often perpetuate anti-blackness because it has become ingrained in our psyches. Black pain runs deeper than the jazz and poetry we have gifted to the world; its heaviness is akin to the intensity of Billie Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit.








“Not all whites were or are perpetrators of anti-black racism. However, all whites benefited, and still benefit, from the history of anti-black oppression. Two profoundly vicious consequences flow from this: many whites are blind to racism’s continued presence; and, related to this blindness, many whites rationalise their ignorance by thinking that black people are ‘race-obsessed’” – Eusebius McKaiser in Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart of Racism.

Existing in a black body is an incredibly lonely experience that is exacerbated by dismissive voices that tell us to move on, and berate us for talking about race because we are “free”. But, as Verashni Pillay says, “just because we’re sort of equal now, this in no way erases the after effects of centuries of economic structural inequality that are largely racial.” The fact of the matter is this: we can’t get over the race issue because the race issue has not been resolved in our institutions, in our workplaces, and in public spaces. White supremacy and black inferiority are emblazoned in restaurants, taxi ranks, suburbs, and townships. And we know that not even one white person would agree to live even a minute in the life of a black person because they are aware of the privilege afforded by their whiteness.





Black pain is pain like any other. Our souls have been bleeding for centuries and the blood has coagulated into rage that has sedimented into the deepest part of our collective consciousness. To quote the eminent James Baldwin, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” This rage is but pain trying to protect itself. We wear masks with which we try to cover this pain. This pain manifests itself as abusive and absent fathers, violent husbands and sons, unfeeling mothers, and broken children walking around in adult bodies trying their best to portray sanity and aplomb. Our attempts to keep it together are rendered futile by the demands of black existence; the ends are belligerent in their stubborn reluctance to meet. We’re reaching the end of our tether, and indeed the centre cannot hold.

Black is regal, but it can and does crack. In her ruminations on black pain, which she chronicles in her book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, celebrity publicist and mental health advocate Terrie Williams notes that “for many of us, the pain has become normalised…we don’t know what our pain looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like…Every one on the planet has holes in them.” Pain demands to be expressed, and it will bring you to your knees until you give it due presence, acknowledge and nurture it. And this is what we need to do as a people if we are to effectively leave behind a fair world for posterity.

Depression is often dismissed as a white condition, yet if you go to public hospitals such as Baragwanath Hospital, Helen Joseph and Tara, black fragility and melancholy echo through the corridors of psychiatric wards. Our pain is making us ill – heart disease, anxiety and hypertension are having a field day in our families. Besides affecting our minds and our bodies, our pain lures us to shebeens and sends us running to the arms of nyoape and flakka. We are dying. Our pain is killing us. We have so internalised our dehumanisation that we do not allow ourselves a moment to be soft. As actor and activist Jesse Williams profoundly stated, “just because we’re magic, does not mean we’re not real.” Black lives matter because they are real. We don’t have to wait for society to recognise our humanhood for us to realise that we are real.




So how do we, as black people, deal with our pain in a world that repudiates it? We love ourselves with a ferocity that will break the manacles of injustice and inequality. Since self-love is the most revolutionary act, we continue to be ourselves unapologetically. We continue to protest and hashtag until the earth itself shakes and freedom reigns.

Thina, abantu abaNtsundu, we are a miraculous people. Even as we fight for survival, and it is exhausting and unfair, it’s always done in song; indomitable and jubilant are our spirits because deep down we know that we shall indeed overcome.



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