Austil Mathebula
8 minute read
7 Jun 2016
10:45 am

50 shades of black – SA, the pigmentocracy

Austil Mathebula

Given the choice to go a few shades lighter or darker, which way would almost every black South African go? The answer is obvious, but why?

“Lord, I long to be perfectly whole; I want thee forever to live in my soul. Break down every idol, cast out every foe – now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

This is a line from a popular church song. As the congregants sing it aloud, they hope against the kingdom of darkness whose devil has so often been represented in most human cultures as someone with a dark skin.

Anything black is rarely positive. People will blackmail you, make you wear black clothes when the dark cloud has fallen on you, and the black cat supposedly brings bad luck – but, hey, don’t worry, because at the end of the dark tunnel, there’s light. When you are intelligent, you are bright. Some black people prefer “white weddings”. When you are bad-mannered, some blacks derogatorily call others mnyamane [darkie in isiZulu], especially if you have a darker skin tone. And well, as expected, the principal office in the US is the White House even when it’s inhabited by a black man.

The list of examples of black=bad is endless, and these connotations, often expressed indirectly, undoubtedly contribute to negative perceptions about blackness in society. Not only do they foster white supremacy, but also something known as “colourism”, which is prejudice against individuals with a darker skin tone, and this is typically expressed among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

It doesn’t end there. When colourism is naturalised and normative, it graduates into the creation of “pigmentocracies”, which describes societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin tone – as seen with India’s caste system in which people with more melanin usually belong to the lower caste. Colourism is an internalised form of racism that involves prejudice and the stereotyping of beauty among members of the same racial group. Lighter skin is invariably more highly valued than darker. A lighter skin doesn’t only heighten the probability of one acquiring more wealth, but also social acceptance.

“There are numerous pigmentocracies throughout the world, and they all have the remarkable characteristic that the light-skinned peoples have the highest social status. These are followed by the brown-skinned, who occupy intermediate positions, and finally by the black-skinned, who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy,” notes Richard Lynn in Pigmentocracy: Racial Hierarchies in the Caribbean and Latin America.

There are hierarchies of blackness, socially constructed by slave masters in the Victorian era who spent lots of money and time on research that tried to prove that, the darker you are, the dumber you are. Even though they lost the battle of proving anything scientifically (because it’s nonsense), they won the war by inculcating the notion of colourism, thus creating pigmentocracies in many parts of the world using this pseudo-science.

Of course, prejudice against the darker people among us may have developed despite the the 19th-century propaganda against them, but one doesn’t find much evidence of colour-based racism or colourism in the works of Shakespeare and other dramatists of the time, and in the Ancient World anyone could be sold into slavery. It had nothing to do with your race.

“Before the encounter with Africans in the 16th century, the English had already assigned a variety of negative aesthetic and moral values to the word ‘black’. To be black was to be dirty, ugly, evil, deadly, devilish. To be white was to be clean, beautiful, good, lively and godly,” notes Deborah Gabriel in Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora.

Over the centuries, of course, religion also played, and continues to play a big role in perpetuating colourism, and even racism.

In Christianity, the depiction of Jesus and the devil on the basis of race has not-so-subtly influenced how we perceive what’s good and evil. In pictorial depictions, we often see the dark, or red-skinned devil trying to overthrow a white Jesus, who represents light and salvation.

In most African traditions, as in most parts of the world, people wear dark clothes when they mourn the loss of a close relative. Sometimes traditional healers will tell their patients that they have, in Xitsonga, Xinyama [darkness], when they have bad luck. By performing rituals on you, they claim they can remove this darkness, thus making you pure and lovable, among other things.

“Blackness acquired negative connotations in the European psyche as early as the third century, through the writings of the early Christian fathers who depicted blackness as being synonymous with sin,” Gabriel adds.


You can’t be the the devil without at least having a tan.


Arrested for being ‘too dark’

In South Africa, colourism is very much alive. South Africans will ask you questions like: “Are you from Africa?” as if South Africa is not in Africa. In 2013, former SA Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni’s son was threatened with deportation after a police officer suspected that he was a foreigner. This after the police singled him out of a group of taxi commuters he had been travelling with, telling him he was a foreigner just by the look of his face. For the officer, Tumelo Mboweni was “too dark” to be South African. Mara, can you imagine?

Tumelo Mboweni, Wendy Lucus-Bull nad Tito Mboweni at the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies Awards on October 28, 2015 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. The awards celebrate the best-performing JSE-listed companies based on their shareholder returns and performance over a five-year period. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Simphiwe Nkwali)

Tumelo Mboweni, Wendy Lucus-Bull and Tito Mboweni at the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies Awards on October 28, 2015 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Simphiwe Nkwali)


In 2012, a good friend of mine, the late Surprise Mazibila, who was a journalist with Sowetan, was stopped by black police officers at Bree in central Johannesburg. He was singled out on a street with intensely congested pedestrian activity. The officers demanded a passport from this man who was supposedly also “too dark” to be South African.

“Perplexed by their line of questioning, I shivered in fear, thinking that maybe there must’ve been an announcement I probably missed, which publicly warned people not to walk around Johannesburg without this document [passport] in hand,” said Mazibila.

Perhaps his crime was walking in public while (too) black.

Migration into Johannesburg should be seen as an opportunity not just a challenge. Commons Wikimedia.

Johannesburg central. Commons Wikimedia.


The need for a light skin in South Africa is such “a thing” now that we have the Yellow-Bone Factory. A yellow-bone “is the lightest type of light-skinned black female. They are rare in comparison with other black people,” Urban Dictionary explains helpfully. South Africa has become a “factory” for the yellow-boned, a country where darkskinned people are steadily de-pigmented, washing away all their socially constructed and mercilessly imposed embarrassment.

“Lightening, whitening or de-pigmenting your skin can, may and most likely will change your life in ways that you never imagined. You are innately aware of the difference you will receive in terms of how people perceive and accept you once you look the way you wish to look. This is the primary reason why you wish to undergo a treatment to lighten, whiten or de-pigment your skin,” an argument from the blog The Yellow Bone Factory.

“It is an indisputable fact that people get treated differently generally, on the basis of how they look, before any other measure of who they are or what they are about. We tend to accord more respect, favour and acknowledgment for things and people that are the most attractive and well presented.”

It should be noted that not all people use skin-lightening products for the mere need for a lighter skin, but for medical reasons. But they’re the minority. The skin-lightening industry is now worth billions of dollars the world over. People use the products for a variety of reasons, including reducing the pigmentation of the skin and hiding scars, acne, discoloration, age spots, and pimples. But mostly, they just don’t want to look “too” black.

The business leaders in this skin-lightening industry take advantage of the old ideology of beauty created by the now dead slave masters, which is kept alive by the media, and normalised by religion and other tenets of ideology in general. In Bollywood for example, from a country full of very dark Indians, try finding even one beloved Bollywood actress who isn’t nearly as pale as Nicole Kidman.

South Africa is a democracy that rightfully allows anyone to be what they like and look how they want for whatever reason. We have rights over our own bodies.

However, there needs to be a lot of unlearning of a system that seeks to categorise people on the basis of their skin tone. A lot of the de-pigmentation products are dangerous and can leave people with numerous skin and even more general health problems.

There’s nothing negative about dark skin. It’s simply pigmentation and contributes nothing to the content of your character.

As to whether South Africa is a pigmentocracy or not, just look around. Try to think of the skin tone of most of the receptionists you have seen, the bank tellers and the television presenters. How dark was their skin?

Let’s not even begin to do an audit on which side of the spectrum of 50 shades of black our celebs are congregated.