Instead of becoming the trusted go-betweens between black and white, we are turning to conceptions of blackness and mobilising our anger at the very idea of the Rainbow Nation.
The fantasy of a colour-blind, post-race South Africa has been projected onto Coconuts but our lived experiences are far from free of racism.
A “coconut” is described as a person who is black on the outside but white on the inside. At best, non-white. At worst, Uncle Toms or agents of whiteness.
I use the term to refer to an experience of socialisation into what my fellow Coconut Eusebius McKaiser, a commentator and author, termed “white grammar” by virtue of having been educated at a formerly white or a private school. According to Coconut McKaiser, knowledge of “white grammar” is how you would know that, for example, a “sarmie” is a sandwich or that “bru” and “oke” are white-speak for “mfwethu”.
That Coconuts are unthinking dupes of whiteness is patently not true. Many Coconuts , or the so-called “native elite” – think Rolihlahla Mandela, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Bantu Biko – refused co-option.
I choose to appropriate the term Coconut and identify myself as one because it offers an opportunity for refusal, and this very refusal allows for radical anti-racist politics to emerge. (It is an act of considering myself as part of the black middle class that is supposedly a buffer against more radical elements. And I recognise that someone like me “who speaks so well” and “is not like other black people” can be easily co-opted into maintaining the inequalities of post-apartheid South Africa.)
A Coconut’s almost-but-not-quite-intimate relationship with whiteness allows us to begin to critique it in ways that are not as easy to do when on the “outside”.
African American scholar WEB Du Bois argues that certain pivotal life experiences jolt black people into “double-consciousness”, where an individual’s identity is divided into several faces – “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body”.
There wasn’t one moment but rather a series of moments that “woke me up” – when invitations to “the farm” from white childhood friends started to disappear in high school, and how we tacitly accepted that we didn’t date each other.
Through this, the myth of meritocracy- that if we worked hard enough and spoke well enough we would have the same opportunities – was revealed.
Much of this racism was not recognised or articulated until I found the anti-racist vocabulary with which to name it.
In my matric year, I encountered books by African authors. On page after page, I began to read about and, most importantly, feel just how alienated I was from myself as an African.
The question that stuck in my mind was: “What would I have been like had it not been for colonialism?” Why was it that I not only articulated myself better in English but, painfully, that I actually thought and dreamt in it, too?
So years later when poo hit the statue of Cecil John Rhodes it struck a deep emotional chord within me. The Rhodes Must Fall protests resonated so strongly with the experiences of black students at historically white universities that other campus movements, such as the Black Students Movement at Rhodes University, Open Stellenbosch and Transform Wits, were rejuvenated and formed.
The idea that black youth were politically apathetic was quickly dispelled as students began calling for the “decolonising of the university” and, by implication, of the Rainbow Nation.
Although the movements are predominantly led by black working-class students and are driven by their concerns, there are Coconuts among them.
The question is why are these Coconuts behaving so badly?
For Wits student Vuyani Pambo taking a taxi every day between Soweto and the elite St David’s College in Sandton led to what he calls a “‘bipolaric” experience.
“You move around with a permanent sense of exile . You don’t belong . in your neighbourhood [or] at school . you try and negotiate two worlds which don’t come together, set apart geographically, economically, in a way that they never meet .”
Even when the demographics of schools shifted from being mostly white pupils to being predominantly black, they retained the form and culture of white schools.
Coconuts’ engagement with the rules and policies that police blackness, for example hair regulations at school, makes them more conscious.
But through their privileged experience Coconuts have gained power and now, with an arsenal of words and knowledge, can more clearly and readily articulate the ubiquitous disdain for the Rainbow Nation. One described it as “a gloss … a palimpsest, painting over racism as opposed to eradicating it”.
Coconuts identify as black as a way to find agency. It allows us to mobilise with others with similar experiences.
Former model C and private schools include(d) black children without differentiating them, despite the different names, despite the different bodies, despite the different hair, despite the different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is symbolic of the wider Rainbow Nation project: include blacks but don’t dare touch the underlying structures of inequality that rely on racism.
But “conscious Coconuts” are clearly disrupting that model.
The experiences of “inclusive” whiteness that can never truly accommodate our fullness as black people is what forces us to realise that, no matter how hard we work or how well we speak, we remain black. That is what forces Coconuts to become conscious. And in the end, that is what forces us Coconuts to join the call for Rhodes to Fall.