I was in grade 9 when I first realised just how much it means for black people to have a representative of our struggle in whatever space we find ourselves. We were sitting in the school hall ready for the announcement to be made. For 102 years Pretoria High School for Girls had stood on fertile ground but never before had a black girl held the highest position there was – the most coveted seat of head girl.
We sat there, with bated breath hoping that the right name would be called to change that steadfast tradition – we were ready to revolt if they dared make a mistake. Luckily for the Head Mistress, the prefects – who voted in the head girl – made the right decision and elected Atli Phatudi as the first black head girl of PHSG.
It was a beautiful moment. We screamed, whoo’d and I think we may have even have given her a standing ovation – none of which was allowed to happen in assembly – but this was a moment for the history books, we couldn’t allow it to be drowned out by the negative nancy’s and their supposed “lady-like behaviour”. Atli had paved the way for black girls to be given recognition for the leadership they displayed and for their achievements.
When I first thought about the importance of celebrating the ‘first black’ I thought it was a good thing. I felt it was very necessary for black people to be celebrated because I mean, we are making moves and overcoming the roadblocks that once stood in the way of our progress.
When my mother was growing up in the 60s/70s black people were servants, just servants, that’s the only thing they could aspire to. They were the miners, nurses, domestic workers and garden boys. They were not the doctors, engineers, accountants and lawyers – it was not encouraged, nevermind that, it was just not allowed. So when black people start assuming roles that we were previously denied it’s a good thing right?
Journalist, Pheladi Sethusa, is not a fan of this ‘celebrating the first black’ phenomenon.
“I find it condescending at times and personally I don’t see it as a real sign of ‘progress’ Often we only have the first black whatever when the system is ready for it not because we are making strides. For me it reminds me of how far we are [from a place of equality]. But oddly it can sometimes be a reminder of the possibility and ability among people who look like me.”
Pheladi believes that the first black is measured by the standard of whiteness which means who we are and how good enough we are is still defined by who they are and their greatness. Digital Content Producer at Live Magazine, Lee Molefi, shares Pheladi’s sentiments. He says the first black just perpetuates the idea that black people need to fit into “white normative principles in order to achieve”. Lee feels we need to redefine what success is by our own principles and our standards.
“We need to inform our own ideals and stack ourselves up against our own perception of success – not according to already established (white) standards of achievement because that limits the scope of our discussions, ignores our unique context and isn’t informed by our own hopes, dreams, benchmarks and conventions of success and achievement. For example, celebrating Nelson Mandela as SA’s first black president is well and good but in a country that is predominantly black, where the apartheid machine has limited black success – shouldn’t the conversation be about how OVERDUE the first black president has been? IE. The success of ONE black man can’t be an adequate barometer of black growth? We need to set a vision of our own that isn’t influenced or informed by benchmarks that aren’t our own or that were set in completely different context.”
Why did it take so long for PHSG to have a black head girl? Why even after our democracy was formed did it take another 10 years for a black girl to assume that position? Was it because of the prejudices of the girls themselves or was it a system at play that ensured the black girl would not progress?
One of the main fights that feminists are embroiled in is this constant struggle to be seen as an entity that does NOT desire to be like men. We want to be seen as equals. We want to engage men on our own terms without being constantly compared on a male scale. We do not want to have to dress like men or to deny our femininity in order to get ahead in corporate or in whatever world we find ourselves that is dominated by male normative standards.
This is what we want as black people. We want to be pilots. We want to be finance ministers. We want to be presidents. We want these things on our own terms. Without having to dance to the fiddle of western or white ideals. If we are to be African leaders, we need to be able to do that and be that without defining ourselves by the merits of whites. We need to set the standard and be leaders.
There was an annual grade 8 camp where the head girl made a speech that usually led to grade 8s being in tears because it dawned on them that they were nobodies who had to work their way up the school’s hierarchy. This was a tradition for Lord knows how long and every year there would be tears and complaints and no repercussions for the head girl in question. Not until Atli was head girl.
She had to go back to the grade 8s tail between her legs and apologise. We were convinced it was because she was black, I mean what else could it possibly be? None of us have the facts but the truth is for as long as Atli’s tenure was informed by 100s of years of white supremacy and leadership – she was always going to bow to that pressure. She had to learn to be a ‘good black, the type that fit seamlessly into the system, but that’s a topic for another day.
I cannot completely abandon the idea that we should celebrate or highlight the achievements of black people. The picture painted is often negative and between us we can agree that we rarely celebrate one another’s achievements and often pull one another down. So we should acknowledge but we should not be blinded or fooled into believing that these small celebrations are victories. Anyone who has worked in transformation will tell you that it is a journey. We must avoid having a few token blacks that are placed to appease us and push to see more of our people doing well. We should push for our success to become a norm. Each celebration is a step to a victory we will enjoy one day.
When you are the oppressed you will always be viewed differently. When you are on the losing end and fighting the good fight it will be years before you are able to simply live according to your own standard. It is unfortunate but the rules take a while to change.