Representation and Belonging: Why it matters to young South Africans


It was during my first week of orientation at university. In a place that felt strange with few people that looked like me. The faculty welcoming coordinator asked us to look to our right and then to look to our left. Sweaty and nervous I glanced to my left to the boy who sat next to me. Built like a rugby player he smiled widely at the coordinator and regarded me from head to toe. To my right was a coloured girl from my residence, we smiled reassuringly at each other. The coordinator preceded by saying that one of the students sitting next to you would not be there when you graduated. The girl sitting next to me looked at me, our smiles faulted and I was filled with dread, writes KHADIJA BAWA.

It was in my third year of law, in a lecturer room that probably seats about 200 students. The number of black, coloured and Indian students together could only fill three rows of the middle aisle. Of course I was disheartened. My legal education didn’t reflect the black majority of South Africa let alone try to speak to the positionality of how Indians (many who were passengers on ships and others who were brought here as indentured labour for sugar plantations) fit into transformative justice of a new South Africa.

This, predictably, only got worse. In my honours philosophy class of ±15 students I ended up being the only woman of colour.

While my high school was very representative of the demographics of this country (among students, definitely not staff) the university I attended was not. I think, probably because of how the Western Cape is set up, spatially and culturally, I almost accepted this reality. Many neighbourhoods are still reflective of forced removal.

I started to accept, implicitly, that this is what universities in the Western Cape are like and this is probably what the work place will be like, that I’d always have to be the model minority. I would have to prove that I deserved to be in this space; I had to be more focused, more present and more outspoken. Academically I had to outperform because mediocrity would further fuel stereotypes. I had to be involved in leadership structures and committees because I needed to add value to my CV. I had to be outspoken about the issues that young students of colour face because I was the only one in most spaces. If I didn’t do it who would? Being the only woman of colour, with no black persons in a classroom saturated with whiteness meant that I had to have opinions on race and gender that sought to essentialise the multitude of voice of people of colour in South Africa. Not only do we come from different races, genders, classes and are differently-abled but we also experience the world and South African society in different ways.

This year, I find myself in a very different space. I am surprised that I didn’t have to come in guns blazing and teach people how to pronounce my name. I do not have to be met with shock by a person who has never spoken to a Muslim woman before. I don’t have to perform intelligence to prove I am very well read, confident and opinionated. I don’t have to answer questions about how I can be Muslim and Indian at the same time. I do not have to ask if the food at staff functions are halaal. Now if I am inappropriate, wrong or even failing at something, it will be because Khadija Bawa is inappropriate, wrong or failing not because Muslims or brown women are.

I explained to a colleague a while ago why representation is so important for young people. It’s important for two reasons. Firstly, it is important because having a boss or co-worker who can empathise with the struggles you face allows for supportive and facilitative mentoring. Of course this is not to say that people of other backgrounds cannot mentor but there is often a level of relatability whether it relates to language, culture or race. Secondly, for young people in tertiary education or in the workplace this can have a profound effect on how we see ourselves, how we see the space and how we see our belonging in the space. In the South Africa where we have to reimagine a better future for ourselves and for our country, representation is a powerful instrument. It allows us to see our future selves in positions of influence because other women of colour have already done it. This is true for all young people but especially those from groups that are not visible and often marginalised in our society. It is true for poor, black, queer folk and women who don’t see themselves in positions of authority. We look at Noloyiso, Monique and Tasneem and see our future selves in them with renewed motivation and confidence.

We can because they already have.

Khadija Bawa is an Intern in the Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She did her undergraduate degree in Ba Law at the University of Stellenbosch and completed her Philosophy Honours with a special focus on feminist theory and the law. She is currently reading towards her Masters in Philosophy with a focus on Gender Justice.

Featured image by Gulshan Khan


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