I came across an article recently, by political commentator Andrew P Jones, which made a very interesting point, in the after-glow of the Obama victory. His point is that while indeed the Obama ascendancy to the Presidency has been great and historic, the unquestioning support which African-Americans have given him is something deeply rooted in a master-slave mentality.
African Americans, he argues, have proved themselves in the past, to be virtually incapable of rallying around the “ideas” of liberty (incorporating such issues as restitution and reparations for slavery and psychological independence from the majority) but when a charismatic leader such as Obama comes along, they will follow him, blindly, to the end.
Jones relates conversations he had with his grandfather, who was born in 1861, four years before slavery was abolished. His grandfather had many recollections of the history (which largely preceded him), given to him by others. Most startling was that, contrary to popular belief, many slaves did not hate their white masters. Indeed, slavery was unbelievably hard, but rather than see their masters as tyrants, they saw them as benefactors who looked after them, so long as they acted like slaves. Slaves, he contended, had much more affinity with their masters than they did with other slaves, whom they treated with contempt – since the only way you could survive as a slave was by doing others down.
Most slaves didn’t have any concept of freedom, because being slaves was all they knew. Rather than being free, the fantasies they harboured was about living in the big house, and being the master. Jones’ grandfather had said to him that slaves didn’t want to be free. They wanted to be the master.
I have thought about this startling comment quite a lot recently as we enter a period of elections in this country – particularly in the context of the rather toxic politics of the Western Cape. And I have said before, in this column, that their Obama and our Mandela are not the same thing, by a very long shot. Obama had whites voting for him a-plenty. Mandela most certainly did not – however much they might now love him – I doubt whether they will, even now vote for his party the ANC, in any significant numbers.
But Jones’ argument puts a whole new perspective on it all. What he is saying is that African-Americans, in general, have voted for a master. Behind this master are all the institutions (political and otherwise) which are not in the control of blacks, but rather remain in the control of whites. This is very different from South Africa, where the black majority, once it gained political power immediately set about the task of remaking those institutions. To quote Jones:
“…white people, I submit, via their institutional control of the political system in the United States, elected their first black president, just like black people did … (in South Africa)... We African-Americans, on the other hand, because we do not have that kind of institutional control, nor the mentality that would create it, chose ourselves a master whom for now we shall treat like a king.”
In the Western Cape, slavery has left its mark in the psyche of the majority of the people, in a way in which it simply has not done in the rest of the country. Jacob Zuma’s ancestors were never slaves. They were oppressed, but they were never slaves. And yes, both have suffered immense oppression, but there is a psychological difference between them which plays itself out in the politics of the present (among other things). Because I would bet my bottom Dollar that what the majority of people in the Western Cape really want, and will demonstrate at the polls, is not freedom. Not real freedom - political, institutional, social and psychological - which they build for themselves, from scratch if necessary. What they want, is a master to look after them well.
25 January 2009
The Article referred to in this column is Andrew P Jones: “A people chained by a slave psyche” in The Argus 20 January 2009.
Andrew P Jones is a political commentator and author of the book Barak Obama: America’s Saviour or Judas Goat, Diary of a mad black voter