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.