The New Black

Is Islam the new Christianity? Tablets the new iPhones? Cauliflower the new rice? The above are debatable, depending on your age, locality, and culture. One unarguable fact though is that Black is the new Black. Only more so.

Unbelievable but true is that black was seldom worn before the 80s: as a student in the late 70s I had one black dress, two black skirts, a black leotard, and a pair of black kid gloves (the ballet flats only more elegant) and was known around campus as the girl who wore black.

I also wore white, and blue, and lavender, and even saffron. No-one remembered those: it was the black that stuck in people’s minds, because it was so uncommon outside funerals or cocktail parties.


Then Punk reached South Africa, followed by Generation X, Grunge, and Gothic, and black was no longer a sign of existential crisis; now we have a generation that would not recognise Masha’s comment ‘I am in mourning for my life’ if it was presented to them on a page marked “Most Popular Quotes from Chekhov”.

When I still had a job (oh, happy days) there were at least six people in the not-so-very-large newsroom who only ever wore black. All roughly the same age – about five years younger than me – and having attended university at roughly the same time. No-one gave them a second look.

Zoom forward to April 2017. South Africa is in the doldrums, up shit creek without a paddle, hurtling to disaster – whatever.  The state has been well and truly captured or, maybe more accurately, handed over; Plutocracy and Kleptocracy reign supreme.

The Rainbow Nation has become black and white, but mainly black, where support for Zuma and the ANC equals pro-black non-racism. Anti-Zuma, even if pro-ANC, is racist, and anti-ANC is anti-black, pro-Racist Apartheid Colonialism.

When Zuma tossed the competent but unexceptional Finance Minister and his deputy – both remarkable only in that they appear to have resisted looting tax payers’ money and major corruption – together with other cabinet ministers of similar ilk, replacing them with Gupta stooges while retaining ministers whose names are a by-word for theft, graft, and disaster, some South Africans were not happy.

Unhappy people often make a lot of noise: they talk to the press, they provide soundbites for TV, they call for action. They manipulate the media, who never seem to see through the tactics. Just look at the triumph of Trump in the US and the unexpected results of the Brexit referendum.

In South Africa the media has always underestimated Zuma’s appeal, starting with Polokwane back in 2007 and continuing through every election and motion of no-confidence since.

When news of the cabinet reshuffle broke, some deluded fools shared their optimism, having convinced themselves that this time Zupta had gone too far and the ordinary citizen, the ones who voted ANC through thick and thin and supported Zuma despite everything, would rise up.

Protests were envisioned, stay-aways called for, marches and meetings planned. The inevitable consequences, terrifying and heart-breaking, were shared on social media and in the independent press. The poor and the middle class, the tax payers and those on a fixed income, we were the ones who would suffer.

Most of the poor have no access to social media and don’t read newspapers; the state broadcasters on TV and radio, the means by which most South Africans get their news, are hardly going to start biting the hand that feeds it [excuse the cliché] so spin capture in ‘a good story’.

Today was ‘Black Monday’ and the concerned citizenry was asked to indicate their displeasure by wearing black. A small ask. Friday is a much bigger ask, when South Africans are called to ‘close down’ the country by staying at home, except to protest.

It’s no longer the 1970s, and I make my own clothes, by hand. Hand stitching a black dress with black cotton is very difficult for old computer-ruined eyes, so I now have only one black dress.

As a concerned citizen, I put it on and strolled down to my Fellowship meeting. The Republic of Rosebank is a popular place more or less any time of day, but Tyrwhitt Avenue at 9.15 on Monday morning – rubbish collection time – is not a good reflection.

There were tourists walking up from the hotels of course – identifiable by their backpacks, hairstyles, age, and poor dress sense. Especially the older ones. And most especially the Germans. There are also beggars, messengers, delivery people, and the unemployed. Lots of black people, but no-one wearing black.

My Fellowship meeting takes place in the middle of the morning so no real surprise that the attendants are mainly white, mainly middle class, and mainly over 40. Not Ladies Who Lunch you understand, but not office workers either.

There were nine of us, eight white women aged over 45, wearing black, and one black woman, under the age of 25, wearing bright colours. And suddenly, immediately, it became about race.

We were challenged during the tea break: the fellowship meets twice a week so we more or less know one another’s wardrobe and style, making it impossible to brush off our deep mourning as anything other than a deliberate stance.

Our black fellow obviously found it offensive and although the word race was not mentioned, it was the elephant in the room. Cowards like me just looked vague, a couple of others sited the constitution and the way the wishes of the people had been disregarded by government.

One woman spoke of ‘The Arseholes’ in power. Oh dear. The atmosphere grew increasingly icy. No more was said, but telepathic accusations of white privilege, monopoly capital, hegemony, colonialism, apartheid, racism and all the rest were leveled at us.

After the meeting, I went into Rosebank proper and was interested to observe how many women were wearing black; the majority were young white women, probably the demographic most influenced by social media, but there were also people of colour, some older women, and even a few young men.

But what does it mean? In the 70s, funereal black would have been a sure sign of – well, a funeral – or protest and solidarity. But now? Women my age, brought up in the days when a lady always wore accessories, broke the sombre colour with a white blouse, a printed scarf or, in my case, scarlet Venetian beads and a butterfly brooch.

Youngsters don’t often care about such things. The former solecism of wearing blue with green or pink with read had gone the way of white gloves and dressing for dinner. So, were those women wearing dead black because they like to wear black? Or was it in response to the call to make this a Black Monday?

In the interests of clarity, future calls should perhaps be for a Black with a Touch of Bright Pink Monday? Green Scarf or Tie Monday? Black Lipstick and Nail Varnish Monday? Just so I know, because Black is back, and if we really want an accurate measure of opinion, let the people wear Purple.


One thought on “The New Black

  1. I’m so bloody sick of the “white privilege” accusation. YES, I know it’s real. YES, I know I’m privileged, and so are you, even if one might not always feel that way. But when it becomes an excuse for victimthink and not-giving-a-shit and blaming and inaction, it makes me sick. How far would women have progressed if we’d spent all our energy sitting around blaming male privilege, instead of marching in and getting the job done?

    Yeah, I know, my privilege is showing.


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