The most important lesson blacks must learn from the Chinese is that whites will take them seriously the day blacks distinguish themselves in the field of knowledge production, technology and wealth creation.
Once blacks have collectively reached higher levels in this regard, whites will be forced to think of them in the same way they respect the Chinese.
They will see blacks as people who are worthy of genuine respect, not the current pretence by many whites in South Africa.
If blacks want to get to this stage – where they are taken seriously by whites – they need to stop playing marbles and begin to take intellectual work seriously.
The aim, though, must not be to please whites, but to register their presence and make a contribution to the world of scientific knowledge and technological innovation.
When the black elite begin to do this, they will in turn improve the socio-economic development of their poor brothers and sisters.
In South Africa, the vast majority of poor blacks still look up to a white man for a job and if the black elite do not wake up from their slumber, this could still be the case in the next 100 years.
We know by now that Kwame Nkrumah’s call for blacks to seek the political kingdom in the hope that the economic kingdom would follow was grossly misleading.
To this day, the economic kingdom has yet to be added unto the African countries that gained independence in the 1960s, including Nkrumah’s own country, Ghana.
While they have political power, their “power” is meaningless since it fails to bring food to the tables of millions of poor Africans. As such, freedom is nothing more than an eviscerated animal.
Indeed, WEB Du Bois was correct in his cynicism: “The most piteous thing amid all this was the freedman who threw down this hoe because the world called him free. What did such a mockery of freedom mean? Not a cent of money, not an inch of land, not a mouthful of victuals – not even ownership of the rags on his back.”
How can the millions of blacks in South Africa think they are free when they still languish in poverty?
How can the millions of blacks see themselves as free when they still kneel before a white man for a job?
How can the millions of blacks call themselves free citizens when the white man from whom they seek work tells them to go and tell Nelson Mandela to give them jobs?
How can the millions of blacks feel like freed men when they have not an inch of land, not a mouthful of victuals, and not even ownership of the rags on their backs?
Parallel to the poor conditions of black people are the opulent conditions of a minority of white citizens whose situation makes it possible for them to have a more vivid imagination of heaven. They live blissfully here on earth.
When you visit the best restaurants in the most up-market suburbs, you find the restaurants always brimming with whites having a good time.
You only count one or two black heads that look like lost goats in a herd of sheep.
To these millions of cruising white South Africans, the idea of black freedom is more comical than a joke. They are very happy that apartheid spatial planning continues to shield them from hordes of poor blacks who live in shanty towns, rural areas and in the townships.
So determined are whites not to share public spaces with poor blacks that they have literally moved out of the city centres.
To a visitor the Johannesburg CBD creates the wrong impression that there are no whites in South Africa.
They now have their shopping malls in the middle of their suburbs. But because it is illegal to have whites-only public spaces, blacks find ways to go wherever these plush malls are.
Thanks to the much-hated taxi industry, there is no stylish white shopping mall that a poor black person cannot reach – even if they go there to spend their last dime on basics like mealie meal.
If blacks wish to change their economic conditions, they must disregard Kwame Nkrumah and seek the economic kingdom now.
The black middle class will have to wake up from their collective slumber and begin to work hard and be productive.
They will have to stop hankering after big cars and expensive alcohol as their ultimate purpose in life. Worse, the flashy cars they drive and the snazzy fashion they wear are not made in Africa – they are made in Italy, France or China.
So foolish are the black middle class that they detest clothes that are made locally and they do not drink alcohol that is brewed by a local brewer.
If blacks are to make a move towards economic liberation, they must first learn an important lesson from history: that no nation ever achieved greatness on the basis of hedonism.
Countries that chase consumerism without limits – such as the US – are periodically prone to calamitous bubbles.
The Chinese are not respected by whites because they wear expensive clothes or drink expensive whisky, but because they produce and innovate.
For the black middle class to begin thinking like this, they need to be shaken out of the comfort zone of government jobs and to be imbued with a new spirit – a brave spirit that does not fear risk.
The fear of risk is the killer of initiative.
In post-colonial African states, the black middle classes mainly dream of government jobs.
You find thousands of university students studying social sciences, especially the disciplines that are related to the work of state departments.
On acquiring their first degrees, they all clog government departments with applications.
Their first employment signals the end of learning for these people. The spirit of learning dies an instant death, and the fear of books takes over their lives like a powerful demon.
To assuage their collective guilt, they develop and support each other in spreading public aversion for intellectuals.
In other words, they hold hands in their blind agreement to roll down the abyss of darkness.
In this self-defeating and dangerous mentality, the black middle class is not alone; it is supported by politicians who are themselves entrepreneurs of ignorance.
As Chinua Achebe wonders: “For how else could you account for the fact that a minister of culture announced in public that he had never heard of his country’s most famous novel, and received applause – as indeed he did again later when he prophesied that before long our great country would produce great writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Bernard Shaw and – raising his eyes off the script – Michael West and Dudley Stamp.
In their comical attempt to project themselves as knowledgeable, the black politicians are, ironically, leaders in ridiculing those who are educated.
The drunkenness of political power blinds them into thinking that everything that has life must kneel before the judgement seat of politics.
Thus these politicians see themselves as omnipotent super-beings that are in control of every aspect of life.
They think they know everything and that they are the most powerful animals under the sun.
Thus does a constructionist outlook emerge in most African societies, a mentality that is based on the belief that politicians are builders of society and that citizens sit like passengers on a bus whose destination is known only to the driver – the politician.
This is an oppressive rather than a liberationist attitude.
Parallel to the black middle class stands a white middle class in South Africa.
These are descendants of grandfathers who engineered the economic and political disempowerment of the African majority.
Unlike its black counterpart, the white middle class has real wealth, inherited from the grandfathers of racial oppression.
More importantly, these white grandsons and granddaughters have inherited good education; an education that taught them the direct opposite of Kwame Nkrumah’s misleading lessons to blacks.
As white parents and other supporting institutions foresaw the impending collapse of the political edifice of apartheid, they intensified their focus on the economic content of their children’s education.
Economic freedom became the core of white education.
Children were told that blacks would take over political power and that white kids must work hard to retain economic power.
While there are publicly vigilant associations of white interests that constantly raise the alarm about the dangers of affirmative action policies, most white youths do not want government jobs.
They want to start their own companies and make money in the private sector.
Those who worry about affirmative action are mainly concerned about its application in the private sector, not in government.
While both the black and white middle classes share the same public spaces – dine at the same restaurants, live in the same suburbs, drive the same cars, etc – there is still a social distance between them.
They hardly know each other; they hardly ever intermarry; and, indeed, they hardly trust each other.
The mistrust between whites and blacks has very deep roots.
Generally, whites have accepted that blacks have the political power, although they do not think blacks are capable of governing.
The daily stories of corruption and maladministration in black-run municipalities are interpreted to validate the perception of most white South Africans.
On their side, most blacks think whites have an agenda against blacks in general and their government in particular.
This is an excerpt from Prince Mashele’s new book: The Death of our Society.You can order it from: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally appeared in The Sunday Independent