Of Coconuts, Consciousness and Cecil John Rhodes

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)
Coconuts, South Africa’s ‘bornfree’ generation of black youth hailed as part of the torchbearers for a ‘Rain- bow Nation’, have been increasingly disillusioned by and pushing back against this notion, culminating in the fall of of the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s statue of the colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. 

Read the full text and audio here

For much of the short post-apartheid period where the country has struggled to cling onto the promises of the reconciliation legacy, mainstream public discourses have continued to project ‘colour- blind’/‘post-race’ narratives onto Coconuts, creating a disconnect from our lived experiences which in turn has helped to create a delusion that has helped to maintain untransformed race relations. Thus, my generation, which has been a conduit for the country’s absolution from the real work of reconciliation is now ‘behaving badly’ and ‘militantly’ demanding more from South Africa.

As a twenty-three year old black woman, who is a self-identifying Coconut, it is very often that people older than myself are very surprised when they hear my ‘conscious politics’. I find that both black and white South Africans are unable to reconcile this and are quick to ask, “But why are you soracial/racist?”, as if there is not any conceivable reason for anyone with my middle class background not to be.

A poignant example of how we Coconuts were forced to confront our blackness was the ways in which school policies policed our hair. hair is of course a big focus of control at all schools – regardless of race. It is a marker of the power of schools to regulate and discipline. However, there is a particular racialised dimension at play here. The hair regulations, like many other school policies, are created with the assumption of the pupil as a white child. The assumption of pupil with ‘hair that falls’ and ‘hair that is neat’ and, and if it can’t do so naturally,  it can and must be made to do so.

Much of this racism was not recognised or articulated until later years when we had found the anti-racist vocabulary to name it. It is over the last couple of years that Coconuts have increasingly articulated experiences of racial difference, forcing the mainstream public discourse to take note. We are now part of wider movement of young South Africans forcing a country still on a nation-building project to ask itself hard questions about the future of race relations through student movements on historically white university campuses under the banner of ‘decolonizing the university’ and by implication, the Rainbow Nation.

These movements are ones that are led predominantly by the black working class students and their concerns. And so, as I participate in these anti-racist struggles, as an upper middle class black woman, I believe it’s important that I ‘check my privilege’ by locating myself within post-apartheid South Africa’s socio-economic landscape. By recognising of how someone like myself “who speaks so well” and “is not like other black people”, can be so easily co-opted into maintaining the “Add blacks and stir” model of  the wider Rainbow Nation project, I find agency. I choose to appropriate the term ‘Coconut’ and self-identify as one because I believe it offers an opportunity for refusal of cooption as the designated buffer against more ‘radical elements’.

This act of refusal by Coconuts is not a new one. Many Coconuts or so-called “native elites”, ranging from S.E.K. Mqhayi, Rolihlahla Mandela, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Bantu Biko and many more have refused to become so-called ‘agents of whiteness’, despite the many incentives to do so.

Coconuts are of course privileged socio-economically by this very proximity to whiteness. And yet, it is those experiences of whiteness as a system and as a physical embodiment that cause us pain. These are the experiences of ‘inclusive’ whiteness that can never truly accommodate us in our fullness as black people and instead force us into chameleon status as we constantly manipulate our accents and our hair and our names and our entire ways of being in order to be acceptable. That is what forces us to realise that no matter how hard we work or how well we speak, we remain black.

Understanding how Coconuts have come to confront the realities of their blackness within the ‘Rainbow Nation’ can thus offer a significant mirror through which the country can begin to meaningfully confront its reality as an ‘colonized’ society. Hopefully this can go towards mitigating against some of the damage of the delusionary absolution of race work responsibility to ‘post-race’ bornfrees.

Panashe Chigumadzi is the founder and Editor of Vanguard Magazine. She is a 2015 Ruth First Fellow, and her forthcoming novel Sweet Medicine will be published by Jacana in October this year.

  1. I notice how consistently, in your articles, you avoid the English names for such heroes as Mandela, Biko, Sobukwe etc. In place of Nelson, you choose Rolihlahla, for Steve you use Bantu, and Robert you opt for Smangaliso. This to me reflects a rigourous search for identity on behalf of the African man and woman whose humanity has either been diluted by European names. Why not advocate for legislation that require African names for African children? I fancy your name ‘Panashe’- a beautiful name indeed for a conscious African woman.

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