The First Comrade I Ever Knew.

On an unusually cold day in August 2014 we laid a Comrade to rest. Not comrade as in friend but a man who had earned the title of Comrade in the trenches of the struggle for the emancipation of the people of South Africa. ‘Com’ in spoken language or Cde in writing, not used lightly but with reverence when referring to freedom fighters. This was the chosen form of showing respect to a fellow freedom fighter during the struggle.

Such funerals happen every weekend in this beautiful country of ours but this one held a speci al significance for me. The man we were sending on his last journey had lived right across the street from our house, ‘front opposite’ in township talk.

When the then President of South Africa PW Botha, the last true defender of apartheid as president declared a state of emergency in 1985 the man we were laying to rest was the most practical evidence of its enforcement for me. Comrade Stanley was detained without trial during that period.

I remember reading hastily written graffiti on walls: “Realise Stanley”. My grasp of the English language back then was not enough to understand that the author had misspelt the word “release”. It didn’t matter though because I read the misspelt word as it was intended.

Even though I was barely a teenager when that state of emergency was declared, I understood the state of the country because of the constant skirmishes with the police and army in the streets of our township. I too grew to know the searing smell of teargas and I grew accustomed to young white soldiers jumping fences in pursuit of comrades. The kind of comrades that Stanley was part of.

In 1986 my parents decided to ship me off to boarding school in the homelands, far away from the burning streets of Johannesburg. In the week I was due to leave Stanley the Comrade requested a meeting with my father. He was already in high school and a member of the Student Representative Council of the school. Very well spoken and convincing. Back then he spotted quite a big Afro in the mould of the Black Panthers of the United States.

“Sending your children away from the raging battles we are fighting in the streets of Tembisa is just what the Boers want you to do. It reduces our numbers and weakens our structures. You are also playing into the hands of the regime by sending them to the homelands, that’s what they want”. I cannot recall word for word what Comrade Stanley said on that day but I recall my dad listening intently and engaging him. My respect for the high school pupil grew. See, he was presenting his case clearly and without fear, and at the same time doing a lot to ensure that even I could grasp the state of the struggle at that time. My dad’s mind was made up though and off I went to boarding school.

When I heard of Comrade Stanley’s passing it had been a while since I had last seen him. My mind raced back to the days of my youth and I knew, I just knew that I had to make his funeral to pay my last respects to the first comrade I ever knew.

In the week leading up to the funeral on the weekend there were reports of gunshots by some of his comrades as they came to pay their last respects at his home. You are right, it’s very irresponsible to set off a gun in a residential area. But this was something else, this was Stanley’s comrades telling the world that a soldier had fallen. One of our own is no more. So with my irrational fear of guns I still set off for the funeral that Saturday.

On my arrival at the local church that hosted the funeral service I was left in no doubt that Comrade Stanley’s funeral was not going to be an ordinary one. In a scene reminiscent of the many marches of the 1990s a group of ‘freedom fighters’ in full millitary regalia were congregated at the gate of the church. They were part of a group singing freedom songs that took one back to the heart of the freedom struggle in the1980s. I felt really overdressed in a formal jacket and pants. One didn’t go to marches dressed formally.

The fence of the church was draped in flags of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and Orlando Pirates, the football team that meant everything to him. Freedom songs reverberated inside the relatively small church. As I had already guessed, there were no empty chairs so I settled for following proceedings through an open window.

Every speaker prefaced and ended their speeches with shouts of “Viva Comrade Stanley Viva”. When I arrived the current provincial Minister of Education was on the podium. These were the bigwigs. I strained my neck to look at who else had turned out for the funeral of the first comrade I had ever known. It was a who’s who of political personalities in there. And that’s when it sank in, Stanley, Stepisi as we had come to know him, might have been my local comrade, but he belonged to South Africa at large.

He represented all the youth who had stayed defiant at the sight of a brutal regime that was determined to do anything to stay in power. See, Stanley and his generation had attended clandestine organisational meetings, and as many a speaker testified at the funeral, Stanley was a brave MK. That shocked me to the core, and you’ll find out why shortlyStanley.

I left the church window to join a group of friends I had grown up with, so many of whom I had not seen in years. We all had stories to tell about the man we were laying to rest that morning. Most of them humorous. See, later on in his life, when the struggle for political freedom was over, Stanley had taken to the bottle a bit, and when he had had a few he would threaten anyone who got into altercation with him with the words: “I will shoot you right now, I’m not a coward”. He never shot any of those people though or took out a gun on them. So we concluded he was deluded, thinking himself more capable than he was.

So imagine our collective shock when my friends and I discovered for real that Stepisi was MK, a member of the now defunct military wing of the African National Congress, umKhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). All these guys owned guns, Ak47s and the like. So all those threats, “I will shoot you right now” were empty insofar as carrying them out but he had the capabilities to carry them out!

The funeral procession itself was taken over by his comrades,  they chose the songs that were sung and made sure his favourite freedom songs were on the menu. One has to spare a thought for his family and his parents who were gracious enough to let Stanley’s comrades send him off in the way they wanted to. The cemetery that he was to be interned at was a good 4 to 5 kilometres away. We got ready to get into our cars for the drive there but his comrades chose to march there on foot. And the gunshots started ringing again. A comrade was on his last journey.

Having witnessed the funeral service and how it was conducted, I had no doubt that Stanley was going to be laid to rest in the Heroes Acre section of the cemetery. This section is reserved for those members of the community who have given selflessly to the cause of the liberation of the people of South Africa.

A proper 21- gun salute was given at the cemetery. We stayed silent for that period. A special person had left us. There was a celebratory mood to the whole procession so it was no surprise that we all partook in the now obligatory “after tears”, where we all took time to catch up with one another and marvel at this giant who had appeared ever so ordinary to the rest of us.

This scene probably plays itself out in several communities throughout our country whenever people deem it necessary, but this particular Saturday was our turn to say goodbye to a comrade. The first comrade I ever knew.

REST IN PEACE STANLEY MATHEBULA. VIVA.

(Published with the permission of the Mathebula Family. Thank you.)

In Black And White

17This past week I sat in a school hall with about 30 other parents, playing our role in being responsible parents, attending our first PTA meeting(damn, I’m old). Halfway through proceedings I got a little lost in thought. What if I raised my hand and  when afforded the chance to speak I directed this question to the school principal: “During the last week’s orientation meeting I noticed that about 30 to 40% of parents here are either African, coloured or Indian, with the remainder white. But your teaching and support staff are all white people. Seeing that 30% or more of your student body is not white, what plans do you have to get your teaching and support staff to reflect the composition of your student body?”

In my mind’s eye I could see and hear the hall quieten down. To the point of being so silent I could hear myself breathe. I could see the discomfort on the principal’s face, I could also hear the very loud objection of a white male parent shouting me down from the back of the room: “You want black teachers, take your child to the township schools!” I also heard the resounding “Yeah!” from the rest of the white parents in the hall. The principal regained his composure and some colour in his face, and responded: “Sir, this is neither the time nor the place to raise matters like that. Those can only be raised at the School Governing Body(SGB) meeting which takes place once a term, and you have to be elected to be on it at an election that only happens once every three years”.

“And just to add, we’ve had black pupils in this school since I’ve been here, which is six years and I’ve never had one parent complain of racism”. I want to challenge him on that, that my point is not about racism but having the school start to reflect the reality of our beautiful country. To allow ALL the kids in the school to learn that positions of power and authority in our society are not the sole preserve of one chosen race but that everyone, irrespective of their skin colour stands a good shot at being in charge. I want to continue this imaginary dialogue with this seemingly nice hardworking man but my reverie is rudely interrupted by the urgent and pressing matter of attending to this year’s fundraiser at the PTA.

Later, much later, I tried to imagine how a real life discussion about race would have proceeded in that setting and all I kept hearing in my head was “Why do you people have to keep raising apartheid at each and every turn? Why must you spoil everything and blame apartheid all the time?” I didn’t answer because some of the black parents in the hall started shouting back, and chaos ensued. Far-fetched? Hardly. This, although mere constructions of my imagination, sums up the level of public debate on race in this country.

“When we blame the legacy of apartheid most white people take it as a personal attack on them…This is not the case. Blaming the legacy of apartheid is an attack on the system…We are not asking you to feel guilty…”(Khaya Dlanga,2008). I have quoted this passage elsewhere on my blog before but I’ve found it necessary to return to it because of recent events. Move away from my imagined PTA exchange with the school principal to the very real issue of one Zelda le Grange.

Zelda went and put her foot in it, actually I think she put her whole leg in it but I’m not sure that’s good English. Le Grange, Nelson Mandela’s erstwhile Personal Assistant had until last week been held up as a living example that race relations in this country are not beyond redemption and that her saviour and employer, Nelson Mandela, had done enough to show us that despite our rather painful past, we can get this race thing right. And then she goes on a Twitter rant and undoes all of that, shame on her. Okay, okay, she apologised but the damage was done already. The daggers were drawn for her and her apology did nothing to reassure those that looked up to her that she didn’t mean what she said.
Her apology is not unlike the morning regrets of a person who had too much to drink and then waking up with that weird feeling that they had opened their mouth and said everything that was in their heart. Only thing was, the audience was everyone they had wished was not around when they finally said their ‘truth’. So sheepishly, they apologise. Fully knowing the damage is done. Ask Mel Gibson, he knows rather well the consequences of a drunken rant to an unintended audience. But the truth of the matter is, what she said is what had always been in her heart. She just lacked the sober courage to voice it.

Sadly, Zelda’s rant at the President’s assertion that South Africa’s problems only started with the arrival of the white man on our shores in 1652 captures what the black majority of this country believes is the view of white people on their past and present sufferings. To allege that the President’s views that Jan Van Riebeeck was the beginning of our problems shows that “white people in this country are not wanted” is stretching the limits of degrees of association by 364 odd years. But let’s not dismiss her views as entirely racist and not worthy of discussion. And here’s why.

Each time some racist takes to an online platform to spew their racist nonsense that’s the kneejerk reaction of the majority of South Africans. “She’s showing her true colours”, “White people never loved us”, “Ja, they might as well pack up and head back to Holland” are but a few of the responses to Zelda’s utterances. But that never gets us anywhere does it? We trade insults, have a few talk shows, “condemn Zelda in the strongest possible terms” and then life goes on. In a way, for a short while, the country becomes that school hall during my imaginary PTA exchange.

What will it take for South Africans to have mature discussions on race that are not punctuated by insults on either side? I’m a bit of a dreamer and an idealist. Every once in a while I dream of “fireside chats” not very different from the ones that FD Roosevelt used in the US during the Second world war to get America to think as one. Not the contents of the chats but the style, a relaxed approach to a very difficult and messy subject. Cooling and calming emotions and dissecting an issue to its core.

Zelda might never know why what she said is racist, she knows it is for sure but that’s only because we came down on her like a ton of bricks. But if we agree Zelda represents a “majority view” of white South Africans can we honestly say we are doing enough to get them to appreciate that their view is racist?
I have come to believe that racism is not going to be solved by the racist because frankly, he couldn’t be bothered and sometimes doesn’t even know he is racist. It is not going to be sorted out by the victim of racism because he didn’t cause it. That leaves a large majority of “non-racist” whites with the responsibility of reaching out to their fellow white people and pointing out the error of their ways.

I am an idealist but not naïve. It’s been said before that one cannot change people’s warped racist ways by appealing to their “inherent” goodness. I concur, fully. If the goodness was inherent in them we would not be having this discussion now, would we? So it is necessary to come down hard on the likes of Zelda and Steve Hofmeyer when they go on their drunken Twitter rants, but the rest of sane society needs a way, a platform to educate those naïve and gullible enough to swallow their untested “truths”.

White people of our generation have access to a get-out-of-guilt-free card, “It wasn’t me”. So long as the mention of Jan Van Riebeeck, the Dromedaris, white settlers and apartheid causes white people to feel guilty, we are going to stay in diametrically opposed racial camps as a country, unable to talk anything with sense once the “A” word is mentioned. The idealist in me wonders why a white South African today would want to carry the burden of the guilt of events carried out by their ancestors (unless they believe they are still benefitting from that system or its consequences).

I know what you are thinking. I do, I kid you not. So what about your side, “it’s not like blacks don’t spew racist bile, yes, what about them?” See, I knew, what you were thinking. You are right. Black people can say hurtful things. Crazy things. And some of us believe we have earned the right to be downright nasty to other races simply because they did it first. And they did. But when have you ever seen a tit-for-tat spat resolved by pointing at who started what. Call me a Mandela apologist but I admire that man for teaching me that creating racial cohesion is a process that requires the victim to reassure the racist that there is nothing to fear. “Look, I’m normal, just like you”.

But it is a mistake of mammoth proportions on the part of the white section of our population to expect black people to suddenly stop talking about an aspect of our country’s history simply because it “doesn’t sit well with us. We are made to feel guilty”. That would legitimising the shame that the system sought to implant in us. And that shame has unintended but dangerous consequences. It spawns a new brand of black consciousness that is based on a hatred of the past (the system and the white people who created it).

This new brand of “black consciousness” is based on hatred for white people and anything white. The exponents of that consciousness would actually take offence at the views I have expressed here, probably calling me all sorts of unprintable names suggesting I grovel at the feet of the masters. But they forget one simple truth. White people are here to stay. Yes, you’ll get the yellow-bellied few who will run at the first sight of trouble but it is almost impossible for white South Africans to claim another continent as home.

Zelda was wrong when she asserted whites are not needed in South Africa. They are needed, what is not going to happen though is people will not stop looking back. And if looking back and blaming a system that placed whites above all other races makes whites feel they are not needed, then white people need to look at themselves. Zelda needs to look at herself. Start with the man in the mirror and ask him why he needs to be reassured that he is needed.

If anybody needs reassuring it should be black people who have factual evidence that “they never loved us”.

Zelda, the rather likeable blonde who dedicated almost two decades of her life to be personal assistant to the man who has come to embody racial reconciliation the world over went further to suggest that she would henceforth change her surname to Van Riebeeck. To the unlucky few who are not old enough to have learnt old syllabus South African history Jan Van Riebeeck is the Christopher Columbus of South Africa. He “discovered” South Africa in 1652 and set up base in Cape Town. And as the say, the rest is history.

So Zelda Van Riebeeck understands that the black people in this country hold a rather dim or negative view of the Dutchman adventurer Van Riebeeck. Otherwise she wouldn’t suggest that marrying him posthumously is revenge enough for the president’s insults to white people.

“If I was a white investor I would more or less leave now. It’s very clear whites are not wanted or needed in SA”. This for me was the lowest of her insults, the idea that “white investors” are doing South Africa a favour by investing their money here. I swear I would have puked if I wasn’t made of sterner stuff. And then she wonders why people like the President figure white people are the origins of our problems? It’s because of this patronising attitude that they think they are also the solution to our problems, because they can tell their fellow white folk not to invest in this black people’s country.

Maybe poor Zelda didn’t get the memo, investors will invest in any place that promises returns on their investment, they follow the smell of money. President’s Hollande’s France is not looking for a group of white people who are afraid of fixing up what their ancestors messed up.

But the biggest message I have for Zelda is that your fellow countrymen, those of a darker hue, don’t hold you personally responsible for our lot. We are a bit more intelligent than that, and the majority are simply looking for a hand up from their man-made colour-based misery. PS Your dislike for No 1 is shared by millions in this country. If you think “investors” can help us get rid of him, please don’t exclude us in your campaign based on our skin colour, we want him out too.

Mourning My Lost Creative Babies

creative writingA friend bought me a copy of the Joseph Heller classic, Catch 22, for my birthday. I had last read the book a good twenty years ago so this 50th anniversary collector’s edition was a God-sent. I had since put it away for when I need a serious pick-me-up read, and that need came up last week. As I looked through the chapter titles my excitement and anticipation kept rising. This is a state that difficult to explain to someone else but if you’ve never experienced it I can liken it to settling down to watch a live sport final, say tennis or soccer, which you ‘know’ your favourite is going to win. You are almost ready to celebrate in anticipation of the win.

Books do that to me sometimes. Looking at the chapter “The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice” had me giggling before I could even read the chapter. The only other activity that gives me the same amount and type of pleasure is discovering a piece of writing that I had completely forgotten I had written. Like going through your files and discovering an incomplete but very well-written article that makes you think “did I write that?” You feel like giving yourself a high-five. That’s why I love creative writing, but don’t be misled, there are emotional pitfalls in this process.

Don’t let anyone fool you. Creative writing is not for sissies. There are times when I’ve felt it must be easier to squeeze water out of a rock than it is to put down two coherent sentences on a piece of paper. Creative writing is hard business I tell you. Don’t laugh or sneer now, I believe I know what I’m talking about. Don’t believe me? Well you are entitled to your beliefs, even though I know they are wrong. But seriously though, I have been going through a rather serious patch of non-creativity if you want to call it that. But despair not dear reader, my muse has returned. But she’s a little pissed off and here’s why.

My non-creative patch was brought on by two things. The first is the simple matter of having fallen victim to crime. I have joined the long list of my fellow countrymen who have had the misfortune of losing both their tablet and laptop at the same time. Surely there is a category or list of people like that? Both gadgets, stolen. In the same bag. I refuse to be the only one to whom this has happened. I have to be part of some sort of category or list damn it!

I implore you not judge me when I tell you that the theft was probably a result of me having forgotten to lock the car. Yep, say it, I gave away my tablet and laptop. Like a dear friend said to me when I told them: “Why didn’t you lock your car dude, this is South Africa!” As you can imagine, without the tools to aid me in putting my thoughts down my creative ideas were dead in the water so to speak.

It’s as though the ideas refused to come simply because they knew I had no instrument to capture them with. My butt didn’t help matters either, it seemed to conspire with my brain by also refusing to sit itself down long enough for the creative juices to flow. As 2PAC said, it felt like it was just ‘me against the world’. I had ‘nothing to lose’ too because all that could be lost was lost already. So my non-creative patch continued unabated.

Here’s the strangest thing. You would think I would be totally broken by the loss of the actual gadgets themselves. No. Not even by the loss of information that I can never really recover. I can hear you whispering back-up, back-up. I will ok. I have learnt. I know I should have known better. You are missing the point though. Just bear with me as I share the real misery of losing those two gadgets.

It was actually the loss of the half-written and sometimes untitled ramblings that hurt the most. No I did not lose a finished novel that I’m worried someone might publish as their own.

I lost random thoughts, random musings that meant nothing to anyone but me. I lost two paragraphs in certain instances. Hell, it hurts losing even a single sentence if you’ve not used it in one way or another. Those two paragraphs or one sentence might never have progressed into anything suitable for public consumption but damn, they were my creative babies. I conceived them and made sure they took their place in that world of unpublished ideas that one day might be part of something bigger.

Some of the random thoughts and writings that I lost were complete thoughts and articles that I had decided against putting up on my blog. I do not cry for those ideas that had been published already. Those are there for everyone to see. I cry for those of my creative babies that have now simply moved from a position where anything was possible into that unfathomable vortex in cyberspace where abandoned creative babies go: into nothingness. That hurts. Those ideas were mine. There are days when I have wished that they’ll find their way into the hands of someone who will use them, even if it means just reading them or passing them off as their own. See, the biblical wisdom of Solomon taught me that if you love your baby you should be willing to have them continue their life even as someone else’s baby rather than have them die.

This loss of my creative babies has taught me about the uniqueness of every creative thought and idea that I put down. A creative baby is just as unique as a real life baby. I’m certain there are people who have sought to recapture a creative baby they’ve lost and have painfully discovered that it cannot be recreated, just like one cannot recreate a real-life baby. A creative baby is a product of a set of inputs that cannot be put together in the same manner again, these inputs form part of that creative baby’s DNA.

You would never dare suggest to Michael Jackson : “It’s ok that you lost Thriller, you can just right another one” or to Steven Spielberg: “There’s more where ET came from, losing that script is not so bad”. It is bad to lose ideas that you had created and birthed. It’s painful. Ok, so I’m not Michael Jackson or Spielberg, but my ideas are just as original as theirs were and I will mourn my creative babies just as much as they would have mourned theirs, had they had their scripts disappear or get stolen.

There are thoughts I captured during the depths and darkness of depression. A state I would never wish to recreate but was part of the creative process. Those creative babies are gone, forever.

It’s been a while since I blogged on depression, not because I’m rid of the scourge but because it can feel obsessive, plus the condition itself keeps “telling” you not to bother the good people out there, your depression is your own problem. So before putting a single word down on my reflections on depression, I have to fight off that disconcerting feeling that I’m being ‘too much’, that I must shut up and curl up in my little corner and deal with my issues. But I’ve learnt that depression thrives on your backing off. It’s happy when you beat yourself up before anybody else does, and you back off. Before backing off into that little corner I sometimes manage to put down a thought or two. These thoughts cannot be recreated. And now some gadget thief just took off with them.

So you see, my tears are not about the gadgets. They are not about the contacts, or even pictures that the thief got. No, they are about my creative babies. Babies who cannot be recreated.

You’ve probably forgotten that I told you my non-creative patch was aided and abetted by two things. The first of which was the theft of the gadgets. The second one is the depression that you’ve just read about. Worry not, my muse is still on festive steroids so she refuses to allow me to bore you with stories of darkness. So I will not tell you about the whirlwind I’ve just been through or even whether I have come out of it.

But here’s the thing. It was this non-creative patch that got me thinking that the depression itself, although a source of some dark creative thoughts, it is a huge stumbling block to the development of a creative routine which is necessary to ensuring that creative babies are nurtured to a point of growing up and fulfilling their purpose in the world of full-grown creative writing.

So whilst I mourn the premature death of my creative babies in the hands of unsympathetic gadget thieves, I also celebrate that this unfortunate non-creative patch brought on by depression and crime has put my future creative babies on a trajectory totally different to the one that saw my other creative babies melt into nothingness.

I look forward to seeing my future creative babies mature and take their place of pride amongst other creative babies in the world, in my blog and hopefully media with better readership. I look forward to nursing and maturing them not only for my own gratification but also for the benefit of those that believe in the old African saying “It takes a village to raise a child”. I want my next creative children to be nurtured by villages, not just me, lest they fall victim to more gadget thieves.

Again, I assert, Creative writing is not for sissies. You must be prepared for the loss of your creative babies, and not let the pain and haziness resulting from the loss stop you from dreaming big for your yet-to-be-conceived creative babies.

One of the most gratifying things about writing is going through your unpolished creative ideas and come across one that just sparks a creative streak. That’s where the pain come from. That I cannot get the chance to go through those thoughts, ideas and paragraphs again in search of that spark that is so necessary when non-creativity rears its ugly head.

Village Blues

I don’t know why but the December holiday period tends to fill me with nostalgia. I look back at great Christmases past but also at the irreplaceable part of my youth growing up in the village. It’s very funny how I have grown up to make peace with the fact that I grew up in a rural village. Back in the day, being a village boy was an unpardonable sin in urban South Africa.

But times have changed, so much that those without a village background are now looked at the same way we look at snakes in the city: “where the hell do you come from?” So Yes, I’m proud of my village roots and the contribution the village made to my being. Elim

Village Green

Village Green

. That’s where I spent the first twelve years of my life before boarding school introduced me to electricity and showers. But the most revolutionary thing that boarding school introduced to a lot of us village bumpkins was tap water, inside the house.

No longer would we have to carry 20litre canisters down to the river and back up just to have a bath. We had water, inside. With basins and all. Damn. And wait for this one. It was goodbye the long-drop toilet. Now, for those not familiar with this form of ablutions, the idea was quite simple. Dig a deep hole in the ground: build a toilet seat over the hole and erect a suitable structure over this and voila, you a have yourself a nun-flush toilet for the next few years, depending on family size(and of course meal size and frequency). This structure deserves a blog in itself and I was reminded recently of the goings-on inside the long-drop toilet by a well-told tale of a facebook friend about his experiences with the long-drop.

There must have been a great deal of good vibes in the village for it to be the place of refuge for my mind whenever we approach these holidays. Our village, before the introduction of ‘locations’ was your typical rural African village. Everything was done in slow motion, almost. You never rushed anywhere. If you wanted to get anywhere on time, you left early. None of this ‘put the foot down’ nonsense because you’re running late. Running late was not even an option.

The only thing you could be late for in the village was school. See, your typical village had just one or two schools. The result was 80% of the students came from outside a 5km radius of the school. Depending on weather conditions, late-coming was acceptable. In extreme cases, those that had to go across a river were excused from coming to school on days that the river was swollen.

But you just never had an adult say I was late for church, a funeral, work. No. Waking up early was part of the village’s DNA. It was part of how things were done. You can imagine the cultural shock to my system when I discovered one could run late for things. But I adapted and before I knew it I too could play my part in being late. So much so that in the very few cases that a lady friend has looked me in the eye and blurted Ím late”, I have a standard answer that is rooted back in my village days: It’s not me(mine). I don’t understand why I’m usually the only one laughing at the joke.

Anyways, a boy growing up in the village and not herding some sort of animals was just unacceptable. If your family had none you found a way to help friends herd their own cattle or goats. The experience of being out in the bushes and fending for yourself is one I can never forget. It was just accepted that once you are out there you would find a way to take care of yourself when it came to food. Not that you were not allowed to go back home and eat, you were. But we just got so wrapped up in whatever we did out there that going back home to eat was a huge inconvenience.

Also you forgot about the longdrop toilet when you were out in the bush. You became one with nature. Also there was no 3-ply nor 2-ply toilet roll out in the bush. There was just no-ply toilet paper. So you improvised. And we lived, and survived and grew up to the point where we can now pamper our behinds with 3-ply toilet roll.

Being one with nature meant eating fruit, fish and wild animals for those who had the skill to catch them. But it also meant that when nature called you went behind a rock a short distance away from your chosen base spot. Of course there were one or two hotheads who never bothered with the accepted behind-the- rock convention. So it was not totally unheard of that in running after that cow or goat your foot could find itself landing in the freshest of you know, human excrement.

The most beautiful aspect of village life was that everyone knew each other. Literally. You could walk from one end of the village to the other over a two-hour period and be guaranteed that every single person you would meet knew you or you knew them. And that’s why it was said ‘’it takes a village to raise a child’’. Any adult was your aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather. They could send you to the shops an hour away without consulting your family as long as you were not running an errand for someone else.

The only time of the year when you got an injection of foreign life into the village was at a time like this one, when all the people who worked in the cities made their way home. Bringing with them not only money but Christmas goodies and new clothes for the children in their families.

Like in all close-knit villages strangers stood out like a sore thumb. They didn’t have to do or say anything, they simply had to be and you just knew, ‘not one of us’. Amazingly, back then this meant you had to be extra courteous because you were dealing with someone you didn’t know unlike in the city where not knowing someone means putting on your bigotry hat.

Each family had its own graveyard, usually not far from the family home. Everyone in the family knew all the graves. So it was with agonising horror when the then government decided to disrupt our nice village life by starting a settlement to provide space for people who had been moved from their own areas which were close to or in the then white areas. Part of the process meant the relocation of all graves to a common graveyard to provide space for the new arrivals.

We had grown up to know you don’t mess with people at rest, the dearly departed. But we were quickly disabused of this notion by the arrival of huge earth-moving vehicles that could dig a forty year old grave in two scoops and empty the remains into a small little coffin for reburial at the new gravesite.

The new location brought with it new people, with new behaviours that were not necessarily suited to our village way of life. But we all understood why they had ‘funny’ behaviours. Their settlement was built on the graves of the ancestors of our small picturesque village.

This new village, complete with the mall and everything, is not the village that my mind finds refuge in during times of trouble. My mind finds refuge in that small little green village that had only about three television sets at the beginning of the eighties. The little village in which we knew every car and its registration number without knowing why we knew it.

It is this village that my mind returns to every festive season. It is a village that I cannot physically return to but I guess will stay with me for many more Christmases to come. Happy Holidays and thanks for reading.

Thank You Nelson

20131209-155140.jpgI must admit, like a lot of South Africans I always wondered what a post-Mandela South Africa would look like. Would the centre hold? Or would the country go down ‘like the rest of Africa’ as those who live here reluctantly are very quick to point out. Tata, I’m very glad to report that everything is as you left it. Not necessarily good or bad, but there was no major catastrophe that followed your passing. Whatever good you left here is still intact and whatever mess you couldn’t fix is still a mess.

 It’s hard to believe that it’s been one whole year since you passed on. But the flurry of activities to commemorate your passing has reminded us of your painful absence. One immediate benefit of the anniversary of your passing will always be the welcome break from the incessant Christmas advertising that we are bombarded with from as early as October. Phew, I look forward to the 5th of December now. Not to say we don’t miss you, Tata. We do. I do. Look, I know there are some fellows who would have us believe you failed us.

 They claim Nelson Mandela and his comrades sold out the black people of South Africa during the negotiations for a new government in the 1990s. I hope this doesn’t disturb you at all because I look at those fellows the same way I look at a bunch of Khakhi-clad Afrikaaner rightwingers who still think FW de Klerk sold them out to the black majority in this country. My heart is filled with pity when I look at them and listen to their rants. They are rather detached from reality. The less said about the right wing lunatics the better.

 The bunch that alleges you sold them out are a curious lot though. I mean, just a casual look at the political landscape of our country will tell you that they were born yesterday. Literally. I’m not an ageist but I believe those people who claim you sold us out were actually born in the eighties and nineties. They did not live through the turbulent seventies and eighties, they were also far too young to remember the deftness with which you and your team of negotiators sought to restore value to black life in South Africa.

 These people have no recollection of a South Africa in which people simply disappeared and were never found again. No recollection of a South Africa in which a yellow police van could arbitrarily stop anywhere, grab whoever they came for, beat them up and take them away for six months or more during the state of emergency. They have no recollection whatsoever of a police force and an army that spread fear into the heart of every black South African. That your mandate was to end that madness is immaterial to them.

 I was fortunate to have lived through an era in which when the news spread through the township that Inkatha is coming you genuinely feared for your life. Fortunate because it has made me appreciate what you and your comrades did. A period when a simple T-shirt could result in your death if you happened to go through the ‘wrong’ side of Thokoza township. This was no different from the no-go areas that existed in KwaZulu Natal. Villages were torn apart by violence so barbaric you would sometimes just throw your hands up in the air and stop caring. You Nelson, never did that.

 When it looked like the violence would never end, when political assassinations through letter bombs and drive-by shootings were still rampant, you kept your eye on the ball. There were massacres right until the 27th of April 1994 was declared the day on which we would hold our first democratic election. On the eve of the election, bombs planted by the right wing hell-bent on derailing the election went off and yet more people died. KZN was on knife-edge, the whole country was on tenterhooks. You, Nelson, never despaired.

 You could have. There were times when I feared you would. The Boipatong massacre in 1992 is a case in point. Women and babies were hacked to death in the most barbaric ways. In the middle of the night. 45 people lost their lives to a rampaging group of hostel dwellers and apartheid security policemen that day. When the ANC pulled its team from the negotiations I feared for the worst. That we were destined to live in that fear, violence and blatant racist discrimination.

 But like the talented, gifted and crafty negotiator that you were you retreated and came up with a set of conditions necessary for continued negotiations. You, never despaired. And we drew strength from you.

 Those who are so determined to convince everyone else that you were a sell-out would never understand why I put up simple quote from Thabo Mbeki on my dorm wall in 1992: “It would be nice to wake and read in the newspapers that nobody was killed in political violence yesterday”. Such a simple wish, I don’t remember it happening until you took over government in 1994. You brought about the “New South Africa”.

 Your detractors argue you left economic power in the hands of the white minority in this country. I cannot argue with that. But to brand you a failure because of that is very short-sighted. How do you fight for economic freedom when chances are that you might lose your life every single time you leave your home? First things first. You chose to focus on keeping us alive, alive to fight for that economic freedom.

 You chose to give us dignity. The dignity to make us want to live better lives, the dignity to fight for that which they are accusing you of not having achieved. They forget, Nelson, that you were offered early release from prison. A conditional release that would banish you to the homelands, far away from public life and centres of decision-making. In 1985, your daughter Zindzi famously read that letter at a rally in Orlando: ‘…your freedom and mine cannot be separated’. I still get a lump in my throat when I watch the video of her reading that letter. And No, it isn’t because she took after her mom in the looks department. Yes Nelson, some of us young men appreciated the fine eye you had for beauty, but I digress.

 Today, those short-sighted kids for whom you chose to sacrifice rearing your own kids and looking after your own family because you loved and chose to serve your people, those kids whose fathers and mothers could stay at home whilst you languished in prison, those kids, have the audacity to scream Nelson Mandela sold us out. The cheek!

 Let me whisper something in your ear my leader, a month ago a self-confessed racist Afrikaaner musician has-been chose to tell the world that ‘Black people were the architects of apartheid’. He put this on Twitter. Your detractors could only come up with Facebook and Twitter anger. Not even a hint of let’s do something. A puppet took up the fight on their behalf, calling the racist out on his bluff. Where was the Twitter and Facebook brigade that says you failed them: why couldn’t they take up their own fight and show that racist that we refuse to be cowed. We will not be insulted and our dignity impaired. No. They were nowhere to be seen.

 They were still pointing out the faultlines of the negotiated settlement you brought about. The irony of it all is that the racist Afrikaaner is using the freedom of speech that you brought about Nelson, saying what he wants knowing fully well that he enjoys the protection of the constitution that you brought about, how twisted is that?

 Nelly, I can call you that can’t I? After all I’m here defending your legacy, and although I know this nick-name was used by only a few of your comrades, please indulge me. Nelly, your brand of magic is still at work in this country. It still is, believe me. I see it when I put on my springbok Rugby T-shirt and watch those who used to think they owned rugby in this country squirm. Not all of them do, some manage a tense smile, but I have no doubt that without your magic I would have had a few expletives thrown in my direction each time I walked in it in public.

 There are some prophets of doom amongst our melanin-deprived section of our population, granted. But the majority of us want to see the Rainbow Nation work. We are a bit short on detail and visionary leadership but that appears to be a worldwide problem. A Nelson Mandela comes once in a generation, if at all.

 

The other day ‘the honourable’ members of parliament insulted each in parliament and very nearly came to blows. They didn’t, but it could have been worse. Know what the fight was about? The opposition were fighting for the right to bring the president to parliament to account for building an outrageously expensive homestead on taxpayers money. Stolen money. Transparency, Nelson. That’s what you promised us. However twisted the motives of the opposition, in my book, your legacy lives on each day an opposition leader knuckles down to fight corruption.

Nelly, Madiba, Rolihlahla, you might have left us with a president who got booed at your memorial service but all those that booed him got home safely that evening, no witch hunt followed although some non-entities like the Minister of Higher education screamed in a high-pitched voice that the booing brigade must be hunted down, it made me laugh. But that’s your legacy right there. Free political expression.

 

I would like to tell you that the majority of the citizens of this country are grateful for all the sacrifices you made. You didn’t have to. And that matters.

 And those claiming we are turning you into a can-do-no-wrong-saint, well I’ve got news for them. You were always at pains to ensure we did not give you undue credit. You had your love problems, you got a divorce, you remarried. Your children and grandchildren fought and still do. What more evidence do people need that you were far from being a saint, far, and you pointed this out through numerous stories in your public life. You never sought personal glory.

 I cherish the brilliant moments when you called George W. Bush a warmonger. I’m certain you would have told Obama off on his continued use of drones to eliminate people America don’t like in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You would have given him advice on how to tackle the institutionalised racism that still haunts the United States decades after desegregation.

 Know something? There is no Nelson Mandela Theory of This or Theory of That, no, you kept it simple. People were at the centre of all you did, always.

In your typical direct style, you would “urge Bill Cosby to come clean”. Ok, so you wouldn’t have, fine, I’m allowed to dream a little. I’m grateful, truly grateful for everything. So long Nelly.

 

 

 

 

Invisible ‘Whites Only’ Signs

One Monday morning in the late nineties I stood at the window of a hotel room overlooking the North Beach in Durban. There were about five or six other colleagues with me and we had arrived in the coastal city just that morning for a week-long course. It was my second time in Durban but my first at the beachfront and as I saw the beauty of the morning sun on the Ocean I couldn’t help but ask: “So how much is the entrance fee to the beach?” That was followed by a moment of stunned silence from my colleagues and then laughter. That’s when it dawned on me that I had asked one of those Jim-comes-to-town sort of questions.

Who could blame me, the place just looked so beautiful it felt like one had to pay to enjoy it. After all, a mere nine years earlier some beaches were a no-go area for Black South Africans. Although we’d already had one democratic election, the signs that declared “Whites Only” or “Europeans Only” were still fresh in the country’s collective memory.

I remember that memorable march by the leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement in which thousands of people turned up to reclaim public amenities that had been declared for “Whites Only”. The beaches were one of those. Others included parks, public toilets and even public transport like certain sections of trains.

That march, led by Desmond Tutu sounded the death knell for petty apartheid and it was only a matter of time before it was repealed from the statute books. Whilst these “Whites Only” signs were physical and visible to everyone, there is a second set of invisible “Whites Only” signs that unfortunately still stand today -(phrase coined by weavergrace,com)

A black child whose family moves to an Afrikaner-dominated area today is free to attend school in that area. That’s what the law says. Practically though, this child would have to adjust to the norms and culture of the said school, in certain cases giving up sports like soccer and be ‘forced’ to take up rugby and other traditionally “white-dominated” sports like hockey. Goodbye personal choice. Oh, but the child has another choice, find another school that offers soccer, in other words, respect the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the school’s front gate.

A few years ago I changed gyms, from the one national franchise to another that was closer to home and was open 24/7, in search of that ever elusive six-pack. As I walked into that gym at 4.30am I could have sworn I was walking into some Nordic enclave or I was ‘violating the Group Areas Act’ as a Facebook acquaintance put it recently. But I was there to work out so I went ahead and did just that.

It became quite clear that I was an unwelcome visitor because when I approached the free weights area which was packed a few moments before it became almost magically empty and I had undisturbed access to the free weights. So what am I complaining about? A coincidence maybe? Well, I tried to believe that it was all in my mind the first time it happened,  but over the next few weeks, my visits to the gym became acts of defiance. So when the gym underwent a reconstruction, I used that as an excuse to self to move to a more socially ‘accepting’ gym environment.

If you’ve ever suffered a proper toothache you would agree with me that Googling a friendly neighbourhood dentist is not on your list of priorities, you just want a dentist to get rid of the problem, now! So off I went to the “dentist/TANDAARTS” place that I passed daily just down the road from where I live. Now, it’s not abnormal to feel a bit uneasy in a new dental surgery but the uneasiness I felt in this particular waiting area multiplied when the dentist popped his head in and acknowledged just me in a room with about 6 waiting patients. Needless to say I was the only sprinkle of colour in there.

When you have to explain that “No I don’t speak Afrikaans” to a receptionist it’s normally a good sign that maybe you should have read the invisible “Whites Only” sign outside. The two patients ahead of me were taken into a room towards the left of the waiting area. When my turn came, I was taken to a room to the right of the waiting area. The dentist chair looked rather old and tattered, but the toothache instructed me to get help, pronto. Lying down with a numb cheek and a drill in your mouth is not the right time to ask why the cleaner walks into the dentist’s room to retrieve their cleaning equipment in a cupboard within that room. Odd I thought.

As I left, I was curious to know what was in the room to the left of the waiting area, and that’s when I saw it. A zebra-coloured newish-looking dental chair in a dentist’s room that looked nothing like the one I had just been assisted on. There were posters on the walls of this one. I attempted to utter something but everything was numb in my mouth as it all dawned on me, the sign was clear, that proper looking room was for “Whites Only”. At least I got help, I just made a mental note to look for a friendly dentist in the neighborhood.

The medical field seems fraught with professionals who would put up such signs outside their practices if they were legally allowed to do so.

I remember wanting to give up on going to a 24-hr medical centre because it just seemed to be filled with such individuals. How does a doctor diagnose a patient with tonsillitis without examining the patient, examining the mouth/throat area. No temperature taken, no “open wide”,  no examination to ascertain that what I said was the problem was actually the problem.

But I should have sensed this was coming when on entering the doctor’s room, the “what can I do for you today?” came out before I had even shut the door behind me. I was  left in no doubt that the intention was to get rid of me as quickly as possible. I must have been in and out of there in two minutes flat, and the bugger charged me the full rate.

As I  waited in the queue to collect my medication the same doctor comes out with the patient who followed me,  sympathetically conversing in Afrikaans and making the right oohing sounds and I  could only marvel at the professionalism that was sorely lacking when it was my turn. And then I  remembered, it must have been that I missed the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the entrance.

If you’ve never been to the year-end preschool concert in an area such as the one I live in you are missing out on a lot Afrikaans music, sokkie-sokkie I believe it’s called. That’s not really a problem because you were told it’s a dual-medium language school before you register your child there. Look, I can only take so much sokkie-sokkie in one evening, but that in a cramped school hall can drive you up the wall if your musical tastes are usually laid back R’nB.

But to then get a 10-year-old white girl frantically wiping herself because our black helper had attempted to pick her up to help her across where we were sitting is positively disgusting. I could only wonder if her parents haven’t been poisoning her mind to enable her to read the invisible “Whites Only” signs. I had an idea to ask our helper to scrub her hands with disinfectant for having touched such an obviously poisoned child but I realized sinking to their level will not help.

These are but a few examples that poison our daily social environment, but like a fellow writer wondered recently about the existence of these kind of signs in the USA where desegregation happened in the 1960s one wonders how long these invisible signs will stay in place in this country.

I applaud the efforts of all people who take it upon themselves to defy these signs daily. In the workplace, In the sport fields, at varsity, at school. It is one thing to be the only person of colour in a group of 20 or 30 people, it is yet another thing for people in that group to actively work towards making sure that you feel unwelcome. I know the feeling, I’ve been in situations where I felt like the unwanted extra. To be felt sorry for and patronized, to be assisted “quickly” so that you can leave “them” alone. Where “listen here my friend” is actually a veiled warning to stop being the cheeky black that you are.

These are only personal anecdotal instances, but from conversations with friends and acquaintances it is quite clear to me that there still a lot of areas where “Whites Only” signs are still up, although invisible. That’s why I take my hat off to my friend who has taken up mountain biking. He does it because he loves cycling, but he’s now noted that he is playing his role in ensuring that those sickening “Whites Only” signs come down.

White is still the norm in Cape Town’ screamed a City Press newspaper headline two Sunday ago. Cape Town possesses a lot of areas that Black people are regarded only as part of the cooking or cleaning staff and not the clientele. That a place like that still exists twenty years into our democracy demonstrates the short-comings of our social engineering policies. Clearly a day visitor to Cape Town can be excused for thinking this is a European city because of the lack of colour in certain establishments. Even worse is that the city as a whole should have been up in arms over the article, unless the leadership of the city likes the ‘norm’.

Until you’ve been mistaken for a member of the cooking or cleaning staff at an establishment it must be quite difficult to grasp the deep-seated embedded racism in that ‘honest mistake’. That places and establishments exist that lead to these kind of ‘honest mistakes’ is a terrible indictment on the City of Cape Town, the flagship of the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

A facebook friend recently posted this status on his wall. “You are at an establishment for the first time and within a few minutes you realize you are not welcome(you also happen to be the only sprinkle of colour in there, save for the waiters and the kitchen staff. Do you 1) Up and leave and go spend your hard-earned money somewhere else or 2) Exercise your right to freely eat wherever you choose to. Overwhelmingly, the response was to up and leave.

I however differed with that. It might sound like I’m a sucker for deliberate poor service but I feel these “Whites Only” signs can only be brought down by the intended victims frequenting those establishments that would wish they could go elsewhere. I call this Civil Obedience (get it?). I know what you are thinking, why don’t you leave them in peace with their bigotry? If that’s our standard response to things then Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela wasted their time and energy, ‘they should have just left these bigots in peace’ right?

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I’m Only Human…

Originally posted on THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE:

There are issues that I’ve avoided commenting on in my blog. The reason is mainly that they have not been resolved legally or because I deem them too sensitive for me to look at objectively. Today’s blog addresses  one such issue.

On Valentine’s Day this year we woke up to the surreal(or unbelievable?) news that a top South African athlete had shot dead his girlfriend in a case of mistaken identity, thinking she was a burglar. It didn’t take long before we found out that the athlete concerned was the era-defining Paralympic and Olympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius. I was gobsmacked. No, not Oscar, he’s the brightest track star to have come out of our country in years.

His role in changing the face of athletics will be better appreciated in years to come when more disabled athletes take part in the regular Olympics competing against able-bodied athletes. The one person…

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Mistaken Identity

At the beginning of 1995 I decided to get my right ear pierced. I got the piercing and chose a gold plated stud to bling my ear away. I cut my hair short and did an s-curl. It didn’t matter that the hair transformation came at a very painful cost to my scalp.

I had never applied strong hair straighteners to my head till then. The salon lady, in some dingy 7th floor flat in Central Johannesburg gave me a look of disdain when I complained about the burning pain that the s-curl lotion inflicted on my scalp, a look that said, “so you expected this to come painlessly?”. For the first time I understood where the phrase “Bontle ba berekelwa” came from. Loosely translated it means “looking good comes at a cost”. I was happy with the final look though. The gold stud and the s-curl gave me that little extra confidence boost that was necessary to carry favour where it mattered, with the ladies. Remember, no one holds a patent on vanity.

Imagine my shock three months down the line when I discovered that a stud in the right ear was an ‘underground’ signal in the gay community that said “I’m available”. I immediately cast my mind back to the few situations where I may have received unsolicited attention from fellow males. There was one unforgettable instance two weeks prior to my discovery at a nightclub in Yeoville. I had received the most beautiful smile from a gentleman as we passed each other in the passageway to the restrooms. My s-curl and stud were definitely working, only my intended targets if you will, were those of the opposite sex. I realised the stud had me assume an identity that I was personally not aware of. A mistaken identity if you will.

No, I didn’t stop wearing my stud on discovering that I might be sending mixed signals out there. It had taken an enormous amount of courage for me to overcome my shyness to get the damn stud, let alone the risk of being disowned(boys just didn’t do ear jewelry in my dad’s house). If it worked both ways, tough, I couldn’t help it. Unfortunately I got a nasty infection on my right earlobe, and had to go pierce the obviously homophobic left one as I left the right earlobe to heal.

Looking back, I just realized that for the period that I had the stud on the right ear I had led certain people to believe I was someone I wasn’t. There is nothing wrong with what my mistaken identity was taken to be, but I find it fascinating that human beings feel the need to put labels on everything so that their world can make sense to them. Sadly those labels don’t come light, they are loaded labels. Take for instance, this incident that on the face of it seems innocuous, but under different circumstances could mean life or death.

When the first wave of West African immigrants hit the streets of Johannesburg I nearly got arrested for being in the country illegally. One Sunday afternoon I was walking in Joubert Park minding my own business when two undercover cops appeared on either side of me. In the most conversational tone one of them asked to see my ID. I thought this was some kind of a joke, the need to carry Identity Documents on your person at all times had been abolished a few years before. This was a free South Africa, or so I thought. What they didn’t count on was that this ‘illegal’ immigrant could converse in near-perfect Zulu and Tswana, which they were using alternatively, obviously trying to use the languages to establish my claims to being South African.

This illegal immigrant was also cheeky, he was soon talking about his ‘human rights’ and they quickly parted ways with me. That’s when a certain person whom I assumed to be local came up to me and indicated that wearing a national soccer Tshirt in town was one of the ways immigrants used to blend in with the local population. It didn’t help that I’m quite tall and my skin colour not too fair. Add a soccer Tshirt and I was a Ghanain or Nigerian.

This is a mistaken identity I was not about to shake off. As the years went on I have grown to accept that in our country that is so conscious of physical differences, chances of me being identified as “the other” will always be there. The mistaken identity can be an innocuous little mistake. Like the other day at the Carwash.

This lady assisting customers approached me whilst conversing with one of her colleagues in a local language. She immediately switched to English the minute I rolled down my window, a sure sign that I had been identified as “the other”. When I responded in one of the local languages the shock on her face was priceless. She even called a colleague to help her witness this amazing freak of nature, a “foreigner” who spoke the local languages perfectly. The only thing is I didn’t giggle along with her to start with, and nine out of ten times people apologize for the mistake, which tells me their label was negatively loaded. I’m no meanie so I normally ease the tension by letting them know they are not alone in giving me their assumed foreign identity.

But when the ‘Xenophobia’ violence of 2008 broke out, a case of mistaken identity could have meant injury or worse, death, as was the case for 62 other people.

People are so fixated on boxing things that if they cannot get a handle on who you are, they will invent a box to fit you into. Having been a shy and very self-conscious young person, I know what it feels like to want to fit into that box created for you by people who want their own little worlds to make sense by boxing you.

In this social media age one would have thought one’s identity mattered less, as long as they are “like-minded”. But all too often, one gets those comments that make you realize that people’s urge to fit others into their own little boxes remains strong. The danger here is people’s online identities have been shown to be elastic. Online, a person will interact differently with different sets of people.

I have taken a conscious decision to not ‘censor’ my online identity as I did my personal one to fit into boxes people created for me. I mean if one cannot be oneself online and in real life when can I truly be myself in interactions with people?

I will comment on and agree with an atheist’s post as much as I will “Amen” and “Hallelujah” a post by a fellow Christian. The only requirement is that they both make sense to me. “Boys will be boys” when I’m interacting with fellow men on that sexy actress from Isibaya and I will defend women’s rights to dignity because the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, at least till I’m convinced otherwise.

I refuse to censor my thoughts simply because of what my Christian friends would say about my support for gay rights. Rather have them say whatever they want to say than go against my personal principles that tell me that one’s sexual orientation has jack to do with me. As Oprah would say, “you cannot tell adults what to do in the bedroom”. I would hate to be told what to do there too.

To adapt your identity to fit what others want you to be is to exclude a great number of phenomenal people from your life. If you are anti-Islam you have excluded several billion people from having meaningful interactions with you. To stick to interacting with one group of people is to reduce your view of the world to be very narrow indeed. And chances of becoming a hypocrite, a bigot or whatever “-ist” increase exponentially.

 

Who Am I? (Picture used courtesy of Creative Commons, uploaded by moRkiro)

Who Am I? (Picture used courtesy of Creative Commons, uploaded by moRkiro)

So when I grew my beard and the group of East African immigrants mistook me for one of their own and greeted me in Amari, I felt just as proud as I did when that gentleman at the club smiled at me in the sweetest way, thinking I was gay. The way I see it, a mistaken identity that doesn’t put you in a small little box is fine, because it has never stopped me from being who I am.

Simple yet complicated

There is this man called Mulanza. There are quite a few variations to his name, but for the purposes of this piece we’ll use Lazisto. He is a plumber. Not really a qualified plumber you see, no, just a guy who can unblock your toilet when the need arises. And maybe your drain if its not too complex a job. He has limited equipment and experience so sometimes he will struggle with a seemingly simple job for half a day and then declare defeat. When you call a real qualified plumber who does the same job in fifteen minutes, Lazisto will then declare: “And you expected me to do that job without proper equipment”.

In the township economy handymen like Lazisto are necessary. See, unlike your professional plumber he will not charge you an arm a leg, and he does accept IOU’s. And people know that. I have yet to come across Lazisto totally sober. No. He’s always had one or two. Always, no matter what time of the day it is. I guess people do come through for him on all those IOU’s from the various jobs he does, otherwise he wouldn’t be ableto afford those ‘one or two’.

You probably think Lazisto is a very simple man hooked on the ‘sweet waters of King George’ as he likes to refer to his alcoholic beverage of choice. He is not as simple as you would like to think. No. See, I engage Lazisto every time I meet him, and simple he is not.

I’ve taken to playing pool again after years and years of not playing and it is over a game of pool that I get to engage with this plumber/handyman. Although he tends to philosophize before he plays each shot, making each game ever so longer, I try not let show that I enjoy the philosophy lessons more than the game itself. Whenever I play against him I tend to lose focus because of his long winded philosophical observations.

“Being Black is not just a matter of pigmentation – but being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”, Lazisto says before playing one of his shots. I have to tell you, I didn’t see that one coming. Lazisto had just quoted one of my most favourite leaders/authors of all time, Bantu Steven Biko. I’m certain you didn’t see that one coming too, right? So, curious to find out how a township plumber/handyman can quote whole excerpts from the writings of the erstwhile leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, I probed a little further.

Alas, Lazisto is not too forth-coming with his biography. Personal questions seem to make him want to concentrate on the game of pool some more. So I do the next best thing, quote Biko back to him and he is taken aback. As if only he had the right to quote that man.

And whilst I had him on the back foot so-to-speak, I ask him: “Tomorrow is the 12th of September, what is significance of this day?”. Lazisto strokes his almost grizzly un-kept beard as he contemplates his next shot on the pool table.  He takes a very hard shot that has the white ball almost bouncing off the pool table. He sinks the ball and I realize he is about to have a philosophical moment.

“The apartheid police killed Steve Biko, transporting him naked in the back of a police van from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. I was a teenager in 1977 when that happened. But yes, I had forgotten the day was tomorrow Lazisto”. See, he likes calling everybody Lazisto. If you have your back to him and he called out ‘Lazisto’, it’s not unusual to turn around and find him talking to some “other” Lazisto, not you.

I’m not the only one fascinated by his brilliant grasp of Black South African history and his command of the English language. Whilst I notice that the other pool players take his philosophical ramblings as those of a drunken township plumber/handyman, I am totally blown away by his knowledge and apparent “station in life”.

The other day Lazisto turned up in his work-suit, looking all haggard and worn out. Surprisingly he was clutching a very thick Wilbur Smith novel under his armpit. He never ceases to amaze me. A fellow pool player saw the surprise on my face and said to me: “I have no idea what went wrong there, nodding his head in Lazisto’s direction, but if it had not, this man would be very far in life”. I nodded in agreement, but a part of me reckoned this man was very far in life in a manner of speaking. Very few township handymen can claim to escape their world once in a while to a far-away one created by brilliant authors like Wilbur Smith.

Lazisto’s grasp of Black consciousness goes well beyond rehashing a few Steve Biko lines. The other day he was playing pool against a guy who had just come back from a day of unsuccessful job hunting. Constantly lamenting “what a waste” of a day it was, Lazisto lined up for a shot, stopped and looked at the guy and asked him, “so how long are you going to continue looking for a job? Do you know that you were created whole, complete, without defect? Your blackness is not a hindrance, if baas will not give you a job, create your own, become a baas and give others jobs”. Loud laughter followed and Lazisto’s point was lost in the chorus of agreement over “Lazisto is mad”.

Lazisto got me thinking. Biko’s death cut short a process that was meant to make a black man “come to himself, to pump life back into his empty shell, to infuse him with pride and dignity….This is what we mean by an inward looking process. This is the definition of Black Consciousness”. Lazisto made me go back to my copy of Steve Biko’s “I write what I like”.

He made me realize that today, more than ever the need to infuse pride and dignity into the poorest of the poor is as huge as it was in September 1977 when Biko died.

The African Continent, or what others choose to label the dark continent continues to lag behind the rest of the world in bringing stories of hope and pride. What we continue to get are stories of disease(Ebola and AIDS), war, instability and hunger. I don’t see how the majority of the inhabitants of this beautiful continent cannot feel incomplete or hard done by somehow.

Surely Lazisto is right in reminding us that we were born complete. That we too are capable of creating stories of hope.

I really have no idea where Black Consciousness under Steve Biko would have been today but Im almost certain that it would have produced people who would stop looking for jobs and creating jobs themselves. People who would be well aware of their brutalized status but also conscious that their brutalization need not define who they are.

Lazizto has made me realize that because there is nothing lacking in us as people then we too are quite capable of creating something out of nothing. If they won’t give you a job, we should create one for ourselves. That we should continue to unearth and give prominence to stories of Black Excellence, not as a way of proving that we too are capable, but to create conditions for a black child on the African continent to see for himself that indeed “no race possesses a monopoly on intelligence, wealth, innovation or anything”

That a ‘simple’ plumber like Lazisto made me think about deep issues like these only made me realize that nothing is as it seems, that still waters do run deep indeed. Lazisto made me realize that people on the African continent have made a mistake of placing their emancipation in the hands of their leaders and God. Maumar  Gadaffi, Robert Mugabe and plenty others have all fallen short. Lazisto had gotten me to go back and read Steve Biko again. “…people need to realize that God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven and solving people’s problems”.

Thank you Mulanza, a simple yet complicated man.

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We all know someone

RIP. You fought long and hard and we gained from your fight.

RIP. You fought long and hard and we gained from your fight.

This is one of those pieces of writing I have kept away from you because of this incredible pull away from ‘exposing’ myself in public. But I have come to learn that when the writing bug has truly hit you, it will create a time and space for you to share even your most intimate thoughts. In the right context. I published this piece online on Medium in June, I got about six readers and was secretly pleased. It wasn’t time.

With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week I could not help but pull the piece from obscurity onto your world, with the hope that you will read and without judging contribute to the discussion on depression and suicide. I have close family and very dear friends whose lives have been altered permanently by suicide and depression and as I wrote this, I prayed that it would come out in just the right tone to allow them to read this and not have their pain made worse. Here goes:

I don’t know how I came across James Altucher, but I did. He’s one of those few people who’ve made millions of dollars, lost them all and still had the energy to make them all over again. And he had the courage and passion to write about his journey, in books and blogs.

One particular blog got my attention recently: “Seven things happen when you become completely honest”. He writes light-heartedly about anything. It’s not unusual to find a line in his work that says, “The last time I wanted to kill myself, I decided to….” Not many people can casually admit to ever having wanted to kill themselves, not on a public platform anyway. But he does, and he means it and he writes about it so others can learn from his experiences.

He says one of the seven things that happens when you become completely honest in your written work is people think you want to kill yourself because every blog or post is like a suicide note. That got me thinking. Why have I found it so difficult to put down on paper my struggle with suicide.

Wait, hang on a minute here. You haven’t let yourself fall into that trap have you? Thinking I want to kill myself? If you did, it’s ok, it’s a natural reaction, well almost because not many people bring up a subject like this in polite company.

James Altucher reckons suicide is treated like porn by most people. It’s not discussed often enough but when it is, there’s a lot of emotion and self-righteousness that comes to the fore. I mean, let’s face it: When was the last time you discussed porn. Almost never, because society frowns at people who treat porn as an everyday subject. Ditto suicide.

But sadly, we all know someone close to us who has taken their own life or attempted to. We all know the harrowing feelings that go with the guilt. Could I have done or said something to prevent this? Why didn’t they confide in me? Was I the reason?

I saw a little note on facebook recently that said “suicide is never the solution, it just gives the pain to someone else”. As someone who has fought this battle since I was about 10 I had an instant answer to that little note. Suicidal people are not rational, not in the normal sense anyway. Besides wanting to get rid of their own pain, they reason that they cause more pain to others alive than when they are gone. In other words suicide is chosen as a way out of what is perceived as an even bigger pain. Don’t try to reason it out, like I said, the rationality is not your normal straight forward kind.

Sadly, when the discussion of suicide comes up, there is always all-round condemnation of the person who did or attempted to. “I would never kill myself, life is just too good”. “It’s so stupid to kill yourself over a man/woman, I mean really? Just leave them?” “ There’s always a way out, all you need to do is talk about it”. “Suicide is the coward’s way out” and a whole lot more. Easier said than done. I’m certain the majority of people would be literally freaked out by a friend who comes up to them and says: “you know what, I’ve been thinking about taking my own life for a while now”.

“Please don’t talk crazy” you’d be tempted to respond. You would most probably be spurred into action by a lot of tears or some form of emotional breakdown. Not many people can manufacture an emotional breakdown so they can convince someone they really want to take their own life. So they normally just go ahead and do it, to spare themselves all the judgement and condemnation that society spews out.

Religion doesn’t help either. The condemnation there is double because one is regarded as having decided to play God. Worse still, heaven is supposedly not welcoming to suicide victims. So how does a well-meaning child of God raise such a matter and still feel holy?

I’m no psychologist so I will not try to talk for all people who have ever attempted suicide or even just thought about it. I just know what goes on within me and that’s what I’m sharing.

The intensity of the thoughts or ideation differs from person to person. Like I said above, I recall my first suicidal thoughts as having come about at age ten. I had done something I felt ashamed of and could see no way out of the situation. Yes, at ten. It all started as a silly feeling in my head. More like, would I feel all this shame if I was not here? And the idea grew. Like, honestly, if I wasn’t here, would I be feeling this shame and pain?.

The idea of not being ‘there’ stayed with me for a long time. Plus I was an emotionally fragile young person, I easily internalized pain. Whenever I was faced with a situation that seemed to offer no way out, I always reverted to thinking ‘not being there’ was the solution.

Somehow this idea of ending it all when pain surfaced got linked to my performance in life. And any perceived failure triggered the thoughts. I cannot remember the first time I actually thought an attempt through. Like think of a way to end it all and when. That only came later in life, in my late teens. I suppose it could be that by then I was exposed to things in life so even the ideation began to take form and shape. So I began to think of various ways in which I could end the pain. This is another thing that people get completely wrong in how they discuss suicide.

There are some bright sparks who like saying things like ‘If she was serious about taking her life she would have shot herself/thrown himself in front of a truck/drank stronger poison’ and some such nonsense like that. I know in my case it was important to me that I felt no pain. I’m generally averse to physical pain and whichever method I was to choose would include little or no pain.

And I constantly fretted over “what if I survive the attempt” question. The bright sparks above never consider that. Things always go wrong. Even in suicide. The one thought that I could never get out of my mind was how a certain girl ingested some poison and survived the attempt, but she went blind. I know it’s a completely irrational thing to ask you to imagine but try this: try imagining surviving a 10-storey fall or being hit by a truck and surviving or surviving a gunshot wound to the head. Highly unlikely but it could happen.

But the emotional pain from the depression grew stronger as I grew older. Pain stopped being a factor. So yes, even the painful methods were in consideration now. When the vortex of depression is swirling around you, escaping that constant pain becomes the only focal point. Funnily though, once decided, to end it all I mean, this calm came over me. It was like some pressure has been taken off. So you start thinking rationally but only as far as the attempt is concerned. Where am I going to do this? Do I leave a note?

I have always avoided going into how many times and when because I feel it detracts from the point I want to make. Whenever possible, wherever possible, don’t avoid talking about it. Also, either keep your silence or be kind when talking about recent suicide victims because you have no freaking idea who else is going through the pain as you senselessly declare: “only cowards take their own lives”.

The first time I sat down in a psychiatrist’s office and answered all her questions she looked at me and asked me: “Do you feel like taking your life right now?” I answered No because I didn’t. She said to me, “You are very lucky to be alive.” Medication and therapy followed. I’m still on the meds. Will be for as long as I live. The urge to go off them has been there before, but the knowledge of the pain that I went through without them is scary. So I take them like clockwork.

Do I still get the thoughts. Yes, but not as often as before, which was almost daily. Do I still get depressed, Yes, but I cope better now.

When I sat down to write this I had intended for it to be a light-hearted look at a difficult subject, and I could feel it getting away from me as I wrote. If it got you a little upset, believe me, that was not my intention.

As a caring friend you are probably thinking did this man ever attempt suicide for real. Did he get help? And just maybe, was it really necessary to share such a personal and maybe even shameful, embarrassing thing?

The answers to the three questions above are yes I did attempt suicide many times. And yes I did get help, and continue to get help. Which is the whole point of my sharing this with you. There are people like me who are born with a chemical imbalance that predisposes them to suicidal depression. And is it really necessary to share such a personal (and shameful secret), then you know it wasn’t meant for you, but for that one person who is going through a similar journey or knows someone who is. If just one of those people can read this and seek help, then I do not care about the shame( or your thoughts).

Lastly, should it be that you read this and were upset by how such a serious subject can be treated so light-heartedly, then my profound apologies to you. You obviously have been affected by suicide and are still dealing with it. My one lesson from all my attempts, nobody could have stopped me. It’s almost impossible to stop someone from committing suicide but I truly believe if we stop treating it like porn, a taboo subject, then we are well on our way to creating conditions where I could have just blurted out to my parents one day: “You know, I have always wanted to end my own life” and they would have sought help for me.

 

(PS When I read that Robin Williams was 63 when he passed I felt so proud that the man had fought this diabolical disease for 6 decades, and managed to entertain us along the way. Anyone whose thoughts are what a waste is selfish, imagine the pain he had to work through to entertain you.)

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