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
. 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.
I 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.