To many people the Olympics that are currently going on in Rio are just another jamboree designed to only benefit multinationals through advertising. But in truth, to millions of the poor throughout the world, witnessing one of their own take on and beat the world gives them unmatched hope.
South Africans go to the polls on the 3rd of August for what has been termed “the most closely contested elections” since 1994. Here’s why I feel everyone must vote, disgruntled or not.
South Africa is going through interesting times. An irate artist has produced some artwork that depicts the president in compromising positions. Question is: Is this justified. Read my take at http://www.citizen.co.za/1205293/the-emperor-is-very-naked/
Why do our Presidents have a tendency to disappear when the poor rise up? http://www.citizen.co.za/1176389/fiddling-while-tshwane-burns/
- Hi All,
Here’s my latest column on how we can build a common identity im South Africa.
My latest column:
Hello everyone, it’s been a while, haha. Glad to let you know that the writing hasn’t stopped, just changed to a new platform. I will continue to post here as and when I get the time.
My latest column in a local online title, The Citizen, can be accessed through the following link: http://www.citizen.co.za/1144183/the-poor-are-back-in-fashion/
Let me know what you think.
I know, I know, you are feeling all tired and quite worn-out to will yourself to read another piece of writing meant to make you feel guilty for being who you are, for being white. I mean, you didn’t choose to be white, you were simply born that way, and worse still, born on this Southern tip of Africa, where you get reminded everyday that you are white and your ancestors messed up, pretty bad. Just bear with me though, my aim is not to put salt on your already festering wound of whiteness, it’s merely to relay a few sentiments that you might have missed in the recent shouting and screaming match that this country has just been through.
First things first, why write yet another piece when so much has been written on this subject of whiteness in recent weeks?(‘Whiteness’ is used here as reference to the system of white privilege as bestowed upon white people). Sorry to disappoint you, this was no ‘lightbulb’ moment on my part, it’s simply out of the pity that I felt for an ‘ordinary’ white South African who wrote:
“A question – with respect – Most white people are just living their lives, working and paying taxes, paying a home loan, and trying to live as law abiding citizens. Are they less deserving of their homes (land) simply because they are white? A friend works in a corporate company where blacks have to be paid more than whites for the same work. Surely in that company the “playing field” is more than level. I guess my real question is (because maybe I’m a little ignorant) What do black people want me to do? I cannot change the privilege I supposedly have. I am unemployed. My husband works, and we mind our own business. We don’t even vote (and have therefore been blamed for the ANC still being in power). And yet, we are part of the hated minority.”
German philosopher, Karl Jaspers put it aptly when he said “our greatest guilt is that we are alive” in reference to the general feeling of guilt that ordinary Germans felt in relation to the Holocaust. With millions of Jews having lost their lives, it only made sense that the German people take some responsibility for what Hitler had done. To paraphrase him in relation to the ‘ordinary’ South African white person, your biggest guilt “is that you were born white in South Africa”.
To attempt to escape your position within whiteness is to try and deny what has happened, to try and forget, and again, Karl Jaspers issued this warning:
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”
Oh, I nearly forgot. Most white folks are “just busy minding their own business”. They’re not like Penny Sparrow or Steve, spewing racist bile on social media. They are just good white folk trying to get by. Well, I’ve got news for you. Penny Sparrow called black people monkeys not for the sake of it, but because she is assured of her place within whiteness. Steve knows that no matter how much hateful bile he spews “whiteness has got my back”.
The same whiteness that you were born into, the same whiteness that guaranteed that you have a “business to mind”, that whiteness, is what protects the bigots. When you seek to absolve yourself of the responsibility that goes with the privileges that it bestows upon you, you are no better than Penny Sparrow, you make light of the material conditions of the majority of your fellow countrymen whose dire living conditions are a result of a system that legalized white privilege.
Sure, some white people came out and condemned Penny Sparrow, and some declare their hate for the likes of Steve but the truth of the matter is the silent majority of “ordinary” white South Africans still regard Steve as a superstar, he remains a top-selling artist, if not the best in their circles. A huge number of Penny Sparrows sit comfortably in their jobs and come out to share their racist views within the safety net of whiteness, fully knowing, “my people” have my back. Guess what, “my people” are the ordinary white South Africans who allow these bigots to flourish. “My people” keep quiet and mind their own business when the bigots call their compatriots monkeys. Worse still, “my people” react angrily when their black compatriots react angrily and generalize that “all whites are racist”. That angry reaction is very telling if you ask me.
So many “ordinary” white South Africans push themselves to a point of “minding their own business” because look at what happened to Gareth Cliff for not minding his own business. This is exactly why yours is huge responsibility, to ditch the arrogance that whiteness has bestowed upon you and come to a realization that although the problem manifests itself in a million different ways, the primary problem eating away at our supposed social cohesion is nothing other than whiteness. Like an addict, an alcoholic, until the patrons of white privilege come to a moment of clarity, that moment when the addict admits to himself and the world that he has a problem, arrogance will continue to prevail and more “innocent, ordinary” white South Africans will fall by their own sword.
That arrogance manifests in whiteness wanting to retain its superiority complex which seeks to tell black people that “the playing field is level”, “more black people earn above what white people earn”, “there are unemployed white people”, “apartheid ended 22 years ago, get over it”. Listen, the reason some people claim to prefer the outspoken Penny Sparrows of this world is because there is nothing as condescending as whiteness that refuses to acknowledge its arrogance but rather stands on top of a hill and trumpets how ” I am unlike the others”, claiming that it is more enlightened. Yet it cannot believe that a black person can determine how whiteness affects him and how he will choose to react to it.
Steve Biko wrote on the role of ‘liberals’ more than 30 years ago. Not that as an “ordinary” white South African I would expect you to be familiar with the writings of Steve Biko, that would be asking too much of a person “minding their own business”. But since I’ve invited you to read this far let me paraphrase Biko for you: the “ordinary” white South African must fight for himself. He must realize that the bigotry of a Penny Sparrow and Steve oppresses him too. (“The liberal must fight on his own and for himself too…Steve Biko in White Racism and Black Consciousness”)
The question that seems to be a burning one for many “ordinary” white South Africans is “What do black people want me to do?” , because when I open my mouth I’m wrong and when I keep quiet I’m accused of complicity in racism. Biko gave you the answer years ago, “fight for yourself, fight for your own freedom”. Renounce your whiteness. Your white privilege. Truly doing this will mean you will not give the bigots the space to flourish in your midst. You will be the first to scream when a Sparrow or a Steve spew their racist bile at that Sunday lunch where you are all on your own.
When you are truly free, you will not have to be scared that your drunken Facebook post or Tweet could make you trend on the social networks. That man, Karl Jaspers says: “…to forget is guilt”. When you are truly free my dear compatriot, my dear ‘ordinary’ white South African, you will not want us to forget the past in a hurry nor will you feel guilty about it, you will be driven to truly work towards a society in which past injustices are corrected. When you are truly free, you will realize, on your own, that you do not “supposedly have a privilege”. You will simply own up to that privilege. You realize that there is nothing such as an ‘ordinary’ white South African. ‘Ordinary’ carries no privilege
About two months ago my little boy who started school in January this year looked at the wall clock in his room with a serious look on his face. He frowned a little bit. And for a second I thought my little boy is about to tell time for the very first time in his life. It’s a wall clock decorated with the animated characters Woody and Buzz from one of his favourite movies, Toy Story. As I continued dressing him without wanting to give away that I’m rooting for him to give this thing a try, he opened his mouth, carefully mouthing the first word, and it took him a while before any sound came out. “We come to play” he said.
I looked at the wall clock, right next to Woody and Buzz were the words “We came to play”. It didn’t matter that he got the tense of the middle word wrong, I was ecstatic. I wanted to shout, to scream: “My boy can read!” It didn’t matter that he’s still got no concept of time, that will come later, to me, by reading those few words he was confirming that he is getting ready to join that privileged class of people on our continent and indeed the world who can read.
I have recently been involved in social media discussions with a few friends who are consumers of the written word. I have learnt that some of South Africa’s best authors struggle to sell their books. Whatever the reason for that, I’m really concerned that our low literacy levels have indeed translated into an artificially reduced love for books. More worrying for me though is that even amongst the classes of people who are literate, our love for books, especially books by black South African authors is really low.
In my mind, our love for books should be unmatched. Yes we cannot all love books but the majority of us should. The way I see it, a people with our history should not have an option of not loving the written word. I’m almost tempted to say our love for books should be mandatory, not an optional hobby. We owe it to ourselves to discover that which we were denied for decades, or even centuries.
I have to admit, my own love for reading was purely coincidental. I grew up in a large family and unlike other people who love literature I was not born into a world rich in books. I struggle to this day to recall what Cinderella and other children’s classics are all about. I didn’t have access to those. Any of the classics that I read were books that an older cousin had for his English Literature classes. Danny the Champion of The World, The Big Friendly Giant and Oliver Twist come to mind.
But the first assault on my literary senses came in the form of a Tsonga language book, Xisomisana. I read that book at about age eleven, and even though it was a book prescribed for a class 4 or 5 years ahead of me, I learnt that a book can move you from this world we inhabit into a totally new world where you are at the mercy of the author. I was quite a sensitive child and I remember crying copious amounts of tears at Xisomisana’s fate, an orphaned girl who had so much trouble in her life because she seemed to have no one in the world.
By the time I went to boarding school to start my high school and coming into contact with a library for the first time I knew that this world, this physical world wasn’t our only option. There existed a world which could be accessed through reading books. I plunged myself into series’ like the Hardy Boys and read them sequentially that I felt that I knew their world, a world so far away from mine. By my middle year in high school I had discovered James Hardly Chase and Sidney Sheldon. Material I would not recommend for an impressionable fourteen-year-old mind but books nonetheless.
Imagine my joy when I learnt of the trials and tribulations of Mariam Makeba, Don Mattera and other South African artists at the hands of the apartheid government, their years in exile, forced removals and all that was going on then. I learnt of culturally iconic places like Sophiatown throw books. I learnt of Nelson Mandela and his speech in the dock through banned books. I escaped my depression, which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time, through burying myself in a good paperback.
I remember the sadness which would come over me on school holidays at the realisation that I was running out of paperbacks faster than I was running out of holiday time. I had no qualms about being labelled a ‘bookworm’ at some stage in high school. Books that I could lay my hands on were my life.
I regret that I had no adult to guide me towards reading material that could develop me as I grew up because young and impressionable as I was, I realise now that with more guidance I could have discovered more authors who could talk to my age at the different points in my life. I could maybe have developed a more positive approach to poetry and other disciplines.
Of paramount importance though is that books gave me the idea that world is so much more than our physical surroundings. That’s why I find it so difficult to understand that there are people who can read, and should read but don’t.
I honestly believe that the saddest thing that can happen to any individual is to be denied the opportunity to learn how to read. If there was a magic wand that I could use to transform the world I’m afraid I would use it to make everyone literate. Imagine me being asked that not so bright question that is asked of most beauty pageants winners (they still do don’t they): “What are you going to do to change the world during your reign?”, “TEACH THE WHOLE WORLD TO READ!!” would be my answer all the time. That’s why that education activist, the teenager Malaala Yousufzai is my hero. she discovered at a very tender age that books can save the world.
I have at various points in my life gone through dry patches of depression when it has become so difficult to do anything. The first sign that things were improving has always been the return of my need to read. To get buried into a good paperback and forget the world.
I hope I’ll have the presence of mind to feed my kids’ minds the right books at various points in their development and that they will develop a very healthy love for reading. I beamed with pride recently when my boy brought home a little certificate that he has completed 50 kiddies books for his age group, the little certificate states, “Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader”. I can’t argue with that.
I think my obsession with the written word might be clouding my judgement when it comes to a lot of what I observe about our society, mostly African society. Recently there was a discovery of an 18th century Shipwreck off the coast of Cape Town that was confirmed as a slave carrier from Mozambique headed towards Portugal, filled with hundreds of Africans destined for a life of slavery in Portugal.
The media commentary that I heard or read on the discovery labelled it as “fascinating, intriguing, a breakthrough”. None of those voices were African. They were voices of an observer of Africa. It pained me that none of our people have put themselves in a position to cry out and shout “That’s not fascinating, it’s a painful monument to the lives of all those Africans who were shipped off as slaves to continents where to this they are still fighting for full citizenship”.
I cannot see a people who have a deep love for reading letting that happen to their memory. It has been my untested observation that all the indigenous peoples of the world whose cultural heritages are disappearing have been deprived of books.
I digress. The point I’m making here is if enough of us had an appetite for books this discovery would be another chapter in those books, books that we would write with respect about our own past. Our love for books should not be optional. Our history, our continent and our future demands that we develop an insatiable appetite for books.
If you were to stop anybody on the streets today and asked their thoughts on South Africa’s transformation you’ll most probably get a response that has to do with how many people of color are in the national rugby or cricket team. Transformation has been reduced to numbers on a sports field.
“I will not preside over a tweaked apartheid education system”. These telling words were uttered two weeks ago by the Gauteng Provincial Minister of Education, Panyaza Lesufi. It was in response to a report that confirmed that a Curro Private school had been caught out using race as a determinant in the separation of kids in their school. Lesufi has decided that the government would finally do what they should have started doing 20 years ago and overhaul the way our education system is structured.
That there is a private school that will accept money from black parents and yet find it acceptable to humiliate them by declaring their kids not “culturally” in sync with the norms of the school is testament to the fact that the custodins oftransformation have outsourced their fundamental responsibility for the true transformation of our society. What exactly must this transformation look like? At what point can we declare society transformed.
The most tragic thing about transformation in our society is that the victims of the artificially constructed race-based “crime against humanity” have turned around and trusted the beneficiaries of that system to voluntarily give up their unjust benefits and invite their former victims for a share in the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. That’s like a deer expecting a lion to suddenly give up his naturally endowed position in the food chain because it has been declared unfair. It’s not not going to happen, moreover the lion will fight to hang on to his position.
The victims of the unjust system made the grave mistake of believing that because they have repealed the laws that put the system in place, the benefits of that system will suddenly flow in the “right” direction. With a little help from affirmative action, society will be put right and everyone will be happy they thought. Twenty one years into democracy it’s suddenly dawning on them that they should not only have repealed the laws that kept them captive but also actively defined what they see as a transformed society and also clearly put in place the means to achieve this transformed society.
One of the most beautiful examples of transformation in nature is that of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Right at the beginning of the process, nature saw fit to ensure that every single caterpillar possesses the means(genes) that will ensure that the process happens, but also, it ensures that a cocoon is in place to safeguard the process. No caterpillar ever finds itself halfway through the process and wondering “is this going to happen for me? Am I stuck here? Will I ever become a butterfly?” But we have identified that we want to transform into butterflies without putting in the safeguards in place to ensure that the process happens, and happens for the benefit of everyone concerned.
I was was unfortunate enough to find myself in a University class as one of 5 black students in a class of more than 30 students in the early 90s, this in a country that’s 80% black. And I remember clearly the dead quiet that engulfed the class each time I raised my hand to ask something, like there was an expectation that I would ask something “wrong” or “not clever”. But also the “congratulations” that came with the “surprising” eventuality of me actually asking a ‘very good question, keep it up’.
Two weeks ago a black author, Thando Mgqolozana, issued a statement on why he would be attending the Franschoek Literary festival for the last time this year, detailing how tired he was of being viewed as a “specimen”(my word) at this festival. This took me right back to my Microbiology class more than twenty years ago. Yes, maybe my alma matter “transformed” their campus, but there are still many situations in this country where South African citizens are still treated as curious visitors, there for a while, but without much expectation of them making an impact because the agenda was set ages ago, and these visitors better shape up or ship out. And by shaping up, the expectation is that they will willfully go along with the tone and agenda of the festival.
In Thando’s own words: “I feel that I’m here to perform for an audience that does not treat me as literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm suspicions that somehow I’m inferior to them”. Mqolozana went on further to explain that the current literary setup in our country “systematically excludes black people….setups like this one, the Franschoek literary festival”
Here’s the deal, tears of anger and outrage flowed from some members of the white literary community because they wanted the public to receive “what they paid for, not this”. “They were tired of being made to feel guilty”, they said.
Remember the example above, about the lion, he will not voluntarily give up protecting a system that benefits him, because after all, it’s his natural position.
But we, the victims of the current setup have it within ourselves to transform that setup. But we need to stop asking the lion to change voluntarily in the first place and define the path to that transformation ourselves. We must stop “defining” transformation and start demolishing the current system. Mgqolozana sums it up best when he says ” I don’t want this literary festival to change anymore….the kids at the University of Cape Town are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things…what we want is the demolition of the whole system…starting something new”.
Many people will readily agree that something new altogether must be the result of the process of transformation but what matters is not good intentions but actions taken to bring it about. Most beneficiaries of the current setup want transformation, as long as they are comfortable with the process. When uncomfortable, you will hear them utter such deep reflections as ” transformation must not result in the lowering of standards”. Really? Is that what they think of the “other side”? That we want things watered so we can feel capable of fitting in? It is not surprising then that “the other side” is now saying, keep your exclusive clubs and festivals, we will create our own.
The loss of meaning of the word transformation is not limited to universities, national sports teams and the literary sectors only. These are simply the ones that fall onto the media radar every now and then. Agendas set in the apartheid era continue to bedevil transformation efforts in the economic sector. The emergence of radical groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters are a direct result of the window dressing that is labelled as transformation. The Marikana massacre, the deadliest of the post-apartheid era is a result of this watered down version of transformation.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of accepting tweaks to the current setup as acceptable ‘reforms’, but we have a responsibility to future generations of overcoming our unfounded fears of dropping standards and demolishing what seems to be working now, for what will be inclusive and working in the future.
We need to accept that the majority of the citizens of this country are located where apartheid put them, but they are not out of sight. They are there and conscious effort by us, those that recognize the abnormalities of the current setup to construct new and inclusive ones, must be aimed at making them ‘mainstream’.
Reforming the current setup will not work because as demonstrated by Literary festivals like the Fraschhoek one, the current beneficiaries will continue to set the agenda with the excluded groups doing just the listening, to paraphrase Steve Biko. What else can you do if you are only there by invitation? You do not reform abnormal, you get rid of it.
The pain or uncomfortable feeling that comes with us breaking out of the current system to form a new one is one of the necessary ingredients in transformation. Breaking down and demolishing a system cannot come easily and we must be prepared to witnesse some ‘gnashing of teeth’ and ‘violent’ protests from those that are tired of ‘being made to feel guilty’.