Zoe Wicomb – Coloured Shame?

I re-read the South African-born ‘coloured’ writer, Zoe Wicomb’s astounding essay ” Shame and identity – the case of the coloured in South Africa ” and found it worthwhile to repeat excerpts of her essay which I highlighted for my own purposes. Ms Wicomb now resides in Scotland where she also teaches;

What she wrote became relevant to an essay I wrote a few years ago on the irony of apartheid within the South African short story genre. You are welcome to read my essay too. It is filed under Academic Portfolio in this Blog.

Speaking about Saartje Baartman, this is what she wrote;

” Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether her burial would also bury black women as an icon of concupiscence, which is to say bury the shame of having had our bodies started at, but also the shame invested in those (females) who have mated with the colonizer. Miscegenation, the origins of which lie within a discourse of ‘race’, concupiscence, and degeneracy, continues to be bound up with shame, a pervasive shame exploited in apartheid’s strategy of the naming of a Coloured race, and recurring in the current attempts by coloureds to establish brownness as pure category, which is to say a denial of shame. We do not speak about miscegenation; it is after all the very nature of shame to stifle its own discourse. What the case of Baartman then shows is how shame, cross-eyed and shy, stalks the postcolonial world broken mirror in hand, reproducing itself in puzzling distortions.”

There may have been shame for some, or many, but Wicomb makes no mention of those who looked beyond the recognition or awareness of race classification or identity, of those who chose to be with, or amongst those who were different from them, for more humane reasons such as love for the ‘other’. Does not love transcend the boundaries and walls that people have built around themselves for the last two hundred years or so?

Ms Wicomb then goes on to speak about the Western Cape’s first democratic elections in 1994;

” In etymologizing terms the death of apartheid and achievement of liberation from settler colonialism signals a condition of youthful postcoloniality. However the shameful vote of Cape coloureds for the National Party in the first democratic elections throws such a label into question. Our electoral behaviour, which ensures the Western Cape is the only region without an ANC parliamentary majority, coincides with the resurgence of the term Coloured, once more capitalized, without its old prefix of so-called and without the disavowing scare quotes earned during the period of revolutionary struggle when it was replaced by the word black, indicating both a rejection of apartheid nomenclature as well as inclusion in the national liberation movement. Such adoption of different names at various historical junctures shows perhaps the difficult which the term ‘coloured’ has in taking on a fixed meaning, and as such exemplifies postmodernity in its shifting allegiances, its duplicitous play between the written capitalization and speech that denies or at least does not reveal the act of renaming – once again the silent inscription of shame. Yet, within the new, exclusively coloured political organizations that have sprung up in the Cape since the election, attempts at blurring differences of language, class, and religion in the interest of a homogenous ethnic group at the same time seem to defy the decentring thrust of postmodernism. What the problem of identity indicates, however, is a position that undermines the new narrative of national unity, the newly democratized South Africa remains dependent on the old economic, social and also epistemological structures of apartheid, and thus it is axiomatic that different groups created by the old system do not participate equally in the category of postcoloniality. Theoretically, the situation can be cast in terms of the diverging interests of postmodernism and postcoloniality, or it may indicate the need to revise popular definitions of the latter to include the coexistence of oppositional and complicit forms. However, in practice such an absorbtion into a single category would gloss over the real threat to the task of establishing democracy, at least in the Cape.”

I had to disagree with Wicomb’s assumptions on the coloured electorate pandering towards the oppressor, rather than the liberator at the polls. There is an old saying on the dusty Cape Flats’ ” better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know. ” The marginal majority of coloured voters, to my mind, took the pragmatic view that the incoming regime of the ANC would do little or nothing to relieve them from oppression, historically, colonially, politically and ideologically, in fact, would perpetuate their condition. Nearly twenty years later, that pragmatic stance seems to have served them well, if only by a bit.

Wicomb then writes on the iconic District Six;

” District Six, an inner-community marked by poverty and crime, was destroyed by the Group Areas Act of 1965, which removed people to the dreary, far-flung suburbs of the Cape Flats. Its assumption as ethnic homeland illustrates not only the fictional nature of identity construction but also the postcolonial relationship with a politics of location. Since the earliest fiction by writers like Alex la Guma and Richard Rive, it has become a ready-made southern counterpart to the loaded signifier of Soweto. Site-specific as media signifiers of oppression had become, District Six had the advantage of being urban, demolished and therefore patently about loss, as well as being associated with forced removals to which far fewer coloured than black communities were in fact subjected.”


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