The local medical community, staff and students of the University of Cape Town alike are still reeling from the tragic news that Professor Bongani Mayosi, renowned cardiologist and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town, had passed on. And to add to the tragedy, had committed suicide.

According to News24, his devastated family revealed that Bongani was struggling with depression. He was hailed as someone who was an inspiration to the medical student community and whose contribution to the medical sector was invaluable. 

Unfortunately he also faced a lot of abuse, which no doubt only exacerbated the depression that he was already struggling with. 

In a recent open letter to the public, vice-chancellor of UCT, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng addressed Professor Bongani’s suicide, touching on the #FeesMustFall movement and how he was labelled a coconut and sell-out by angry students during the protests.

Professor Mamokgethi goes on to add that as traumatic as the protests were for the students because they took such a violent turn, so too did they and things like namecalling affect many of the staff faculty members. 

The term coconut, a derogatory term that accuses people of being brown or black on the outside, but white on the inside, is often aimed at black and non-black people of colour, by mostly people within their own racial group. 

It unfortunately also highlights the struggles we have within our community when it comes to classist constructs and social hierarchies.  

It’s a difficult and uncomfortable topic to talk about because, based on my own personal experience, I’ve seen it come from a place where the assumption is made that because you have the privilege of having access to things like education and higher learning experiences, you look down on your own and think of yourself as being higher up on the societal scale. 

I myself am still busy unlearning behaviours that are rooted in this type of thinking. 

I have also been called a coconut for many reasons including the fact that I consume content and pop culture that has been labelled as “white.”   

A while back I wrote a piece about how Bonang was criticised for playing “westernised” music at her 31st birthday party. The troll behind the tweet implied that she was a traitor because she wasn’t celebrating her culture.

People who make this kind of statement often treat individuals as a collective whole representing an entire race. 

As if personal preferences don’t matter and as if enjoying something outside of your culture suddenly means we’ve abandoned celebrating things within our own culture. 

Carmen elaborated a little on this:

“I’ve been called sturvy (stuck up) by a few people. They’re usually the same colour as I am, but have a completely different view of the world.

The fact that I speak a certain way and use “big words” and prefer listening to the Beatles over Drake is an issue for some people and I’ve been told that I’m white on the inside as a joke. 

Sometimes I lean into the joke too and play along and even say it myself, but it does still irk me. Why do I need to be white to enjoy certain kinds of music or because I speak a certain way? Since when did these things become exclusive to one race? 

I’m still coloured, I’m still brown, I still have big, bushy, curly hair and can talk like I was born and raised on the Flats (because I was), but I also know all the words to most 80s rock songs and Harry Potter. This doesn’t make me any less of a coloured woman. It just makes me different.”  

READ MORE: I married a white woman and many call me traitor

Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country also believes that the conversation goes beyond simply being called a coconut.

"I don't remember someone calling me a coconut directly, but maybe that's just a function of getting to a certain age in life where those kinds of things don't upset me anymore.

I mean, in terms of Professor Mayosi, I think for me, it's such a complicated issue because it's not being called a coconut that I would imagine that is hurtful. For me it's the class systems grinding people down and it's class systems that are making people cruel to one another.

I think it's really important to not talk about the term coconut without talking about the insults that we haul at black people who haven't quite made it or black people who don't speak a certain way. 

So I think in a society where that happens it can be very hurtful, but it also happens and is noticed because we notice the pain and measure that against people who matter in our society through the level of influence they have.

So I don't want to diminish this conversation and the importance of the hurt and pain of our dear professor but I think that a bigger social conversation about depression is very important and necessary in our society. 

What tends to happen is that we choose the people the public sympathy lies with - people who are noticed because they’re famous or they're well-known and we know that there's an epidemic of suicide and depression amongst very, very poor people in our country.

So it feels like the conversation around coconut is interesting, but it's disconnected from the structural issues that make so many people in our society depressed. So, to talk about coconut as a slur is important if we also talk about the other kinds of slurs that we hurl at people who aren't "coconuts", who aren't successful. "

Lindiwe has been criticised by her family and friends for taking French lessons and enjoying festivals that, at its surface is rooted in whiteness.

“I like festivals like Rocking the Daisies and Oppikoppi. The audiences for both, I’ve found have always been predominantly white, but I’ve mostly been comfortable in those spaces because I simply like the music. I’ve been called names by my cousins for this though - and don’t even get me started on learning to speak a language that is “unAfrican.” Big sigh.”

Finally, Haji Mohamed Dawjee, journalist and author of Sorry Not Sorry,  says that although she’s never been called coconut, she understands how damaging it is.

"I myself have never been called a coconut. But that doesn't mean I didn't ever think of 'being' one. The term of course is one of adaptability.

It speaks to a type of dress up in one’s accent, slang, even fashion that seeks to make it easier to fit into white spaces, feel more accepted, less castigated and come across as the 'good black'. 

It's a tool that can be used to navigate a white space more easily, with less controversy so to speak. 

For example, in white schools, there are many 'good blacks' who often undergo this conversion to survive in those spaces. I was never one of those, of course it had its consequences. Not being very popular, the least of them.

But the term is also weaponised.

It's a harmful word that seeks to segregate even further and perpetuate the 'us and them' in what should be homogeneous communities and this can be both harmful - physically as well as psychologically.

Often, people in these communities are so afraid of being painted with the coconut brush amongst their own people that they will make efforts to make themselves small. 

Someone who has the privilege to get a good education for example will downplay their intelligence out of fear of being called out for their "whiteness", I have seen it happen.

But we need to think about this in existential terms. Reserving education for whites is a harmful and degenerate ideology. 

Being caught in cultural-crossfires is an ongoing battle for most of us. What does it mean to be brown or black? What does it mean to fit? What in fact does it mean to stand out? 

One of the most powerful things we can do is start to truly interrogate these questions and indeed, one of the ways of doing that is to recognise that acting white as well as the shame and shaming of acting white only defeats the means to an identifiable end.”

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