If you were to stop anybody on the streets today and asked their thoughts on South Africa’s transformation you’ll most probably get a response that has to do with how many people of color are in the national rugby or cricket team. Transformation has been reduced to numbers on a sports field.
“I will not preside over a tweaked apartheid education system”. These telling words were uttered two weeks ago by the Gauteng Provincial Minister of Education, Panyaza Lesufi. It was in response to a report that confirmed that a Curro Private school had been caught out using race as a determinant in the separation of kids in their school. Lesufi has decided that the government would finally do what they should have started doing 20 years ago and overhaul the way our education system is structured.
That there is a private school that will accept money from black parents and yet find it acceptable to humiliate them by declaring their kids not “culturally” in sync with the norms of the school is testament to the fact that the custodins oftransformation have outsourced their fundamental responsibility for the true transformation of our society. What exactly must this transformation look like? At what point can we declare society transformed.
The most tragic thing about transformation in our society is that the victims of the artificially constructed race-based “crime against humanity” have turned around and trusted the beneficiaries of that system to voluntarily give up their unjust benefits and invite their former victims for a share in the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. That’s like a deer expecting a lion to suddenly give up his naturally endowed position in the food chain because it has been declared unfair. It’s not not going to happen, moreover the lion will fight to hang on to his position.
The victims of the unjust system made the grave mistake of believing that because they have repealed the laws that put the system in place, the benefits of that system will suddenly flow in the “right” direction. With a little help from affirmative action, society will be put right and everyone will be happy they thought. Twenty one years into democracy it’s suddenly dawning on them that they should not only have repealed the laws that kept them captive but also actively defined what they see as a transformed society and also clearly put in place the means to achieve this transformed society.
One of the most beautiful examples of transformation in nature is that of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Right at the beginning of the process, nature saw fit to ensure that every single caterpillar possesses the means(genes) that will ensure that the process happens, but also, it ensures that a cocoon is in place to safeguard the process. No caterpillar ever finds itself halfway through the process and wondering “is this going to happen for me? Am I stuck here? Will I ever become a butterfly?” But we have identified that we want to transform into butterflies without putting in the safeguards in place to ensure that the process happens, and happens for the benefit of everyone concerned.
I was was unfortunate enough to find myself in a University class as one of 5 black students in a class of more than 30 students in the early 90s, this in a country that’s 80% black. And I remember clearly the dead quiet that engulfed the class each time I raised my hand to ask something, like there was an expectation that I would ask something “wrong” or “not clever”. But also the “congratulations” that came with the “surprising” eventuality of me actually asking a ‘very good question, keep it up’.
Two weeks ago a black author, Thando Mgqolozana, issued a statement on why he would be attending the Franschoek Literary festival for the last time this year, detailing how tired he was of being viewed as a “specimen”(my word) at this festival. This took me right back to my Microbiology class more than twenty years ago. Yes, maybe my alma matter “transformed” their campus, but there are still many situations in this country where South African citizens are still treated as curious visitors, there for a while, but without much expectation of them making an impact because the agenda was set ages ago, and these visitors better shape up or ship out. And by shaping up, the expectation is that they will willfully go along with the tone and agenda of the festival.
In Thando’s own words: “I feel that I’m here to perform for an audience that does not treat me as literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm suspicions that somehow I’m inferior to them”. Mqolozana went on further to explain that the current literary setup in our country “systematically excludes black people….setups like this one, the Franschoek literary festival”
Here’s the deal, tears of anger and outrage flowed from some members of the white literary community because they wanted the public to receive “what they paid for, not this”. “They were tired of being made to feel guilty”, they said.
Remember the example above, about the lion, he will not voluntarily give up protecting a system that benefits him, because after all, it’s his natural position.
But we, the victims of the current setup have it within ourselves to transform that setup. But we need to stop asking the lion to change voluntarily in the first place and define the path to that transformation ourselves. We must stop “defining” transformation and start demolishing the current system. Mgqolozana sums it up best when he says ” I don’t want this literary festival to change anymore….the kids at the University of Cape Town are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things…what we want is the demolition of the whole system…starting something new”.
Many people will readily agree that something new altogether must be the result of the process of transformation but what matters is not good intentions but actions taken to bring it about. Most beneficiaries of the current setup want transformation, as long as they are comfortable with the process. When uncomfortable, you will hear them utter such deep reflections as ” transformation must not result in the lowering of standards”. Really? Is that what they think of the “other side”? That we want things watered so we can feel capable of fitting in? It is not surprising then that “the other side” is now saying, keep your exclusive clubs and festivals, we will create our own.
The loss of meaning of the word transformation is not limited to universities, national sports teams and the literary sectors only. These are simply the ones that fall onto the media radar every now and then. Agendas set in the apartheid era continue to bedevil transformation efforts in the economic sector. The emergence of radical groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters are a direct result of the window dressing that is labelled as transformation. The Marikana massacre, the deadliest of the post-apartheid era is a result of this watered down version of transformation.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of accepting tweaks to the current setup as acceptable ‘reforms’, but we have a responsibility to future generations of overcoming our unfounded fears of dropping standards and demolishing what seems to be working now, for what will be inclusive and working in the future.
We need to accept that the majority of the citizens of this country are located where apartheid put them, but they are not out of sight. They are there and conscious effort by us, those that recognize the abnormalities of the current setup to construct new and inclusive ones, must be aimed at making them ‘mainstream’.
Reforming the current setup will not work because as demonstrated by Literary festivals like the Fraschhoek one, the current beneficiaries will continue to set the agenda with the excluded groups doing just the listening, to paraphrase Steve Biko. What else can you do if you are only there by invitation? You do not reform abnormal, you get rid of it.
The pain or uncomfortable feeling that comes with us breaking out of the current system to form a new one is one of the necessary ingredients in transformation. Breaking down and demolishing a system cannot come easily and we must be prepared to witnesse some ‘gnashing of teeth’ and ‘violent’ protests from those that are tired of ‘being made to feel guilty’.
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 shortly.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
The 11th of February has come and gone. There were a couple of one-liners on radio news-bulletins and a few paragraphs in some newspapers on the significance of the day. One or two social commentators highlighted its significance on social networks, but that was it. No, I’m not talking about “The Day We Fight Back” campaign aimed at the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. Although that’s a worthy campaign, I’m not referring to it. Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of incarceration on the 11th day of February 1990. Since then so much has happened that people feel justified in forgetting the significance of the day.
Even worse, one gets the feeling that we are entering into the dangerous territory of denialists. Where the majority of the people of this country are constantly told: “Come on, it wasn’t that bad, get over it”, ” Stop playing the race card, it’s so old”, “How long are we going to go on blaming apartheid?” Or my personal favourite “People need to stop being lazy and blaming everything on apartheid”. One is left with the feeling that “apartheid” is a swear word, that mention of past events is not always welcome. And that’s dangerous because populists will come along and play on the suppressed emotions of the marginalised, recreating history to suit their own selfish agendas.
So what must happen on the day, the 11th of February. Another holiday, you might ask. No, we already have enough holidays as it is. The people of this country need to own their history, good and bad. An eNCA study of 4000 people last year revealed that up to 40% of white South Africans denied apartheid negatively affected black people. Give it another couple of years and you will have people who deny apartheid ever existed.
Let me digress a little bit just to make my point. I did history in high school, so I knew a little bit about what is referred to as European History and World history by the time I decided science was more intriguing at tertiary level. I knew about World War Two (WW2), I knew about Auschwitz and other concentration camps. But nothing could have prepared me for the kind of remembrance that The South African Union of Jewish Students put up on each anniversary of the war when I got to varsity.
I could not believe the detail of the gas chambers, the unpalatable photos of concentration camp corpses and survivors. The recounting, each year, by camp survivors of the horrors of the camps. Some were still photos and others videos of the emaciated and disoriented camp survivors when freedom came. It was difficult to even want to rejoice with the survivors in the face of the brutality that they had endured and survived. This remembrance happened every year. I remember asking myself why Jewish people chose to subject themselves to these never-ending re-runs of an era that was aimed at their total removal from the face of the earth.
I watched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and a great many other movies about the war and Jewish suffering. I can’t remember when I read Anne Frank’s diary but I did. It eventually dawned on me that Jewish people were not about to stop this simply because it gave me an uncomfortable feeling, the kind of helplessness that goes with watching barbaric acts visited on other human beings. Yes it makes some people hot under the collar and has spawned what are referred to as Holocaust denialists. Associations and organizations that will outlive the last survivors of the camps have been set up to facilitate the remembering of the gruesome events of that war.
School syllabi in Jewish communities incorporate lessons on the Holocaust. Tertiary institutions as well.
And what have we set up to remember our history through the apartheid years. Oh, the apartheid museum? In Johannesburg. What about a kid born on some farm in the North West, what are the chances of him ever discovering the truth about apartheid? What about all the young people who see only the effects of the past but have no understanding of why things are as they are. Why are we making it optional for people to remember the past?
I finally figured that Jewish people don’t really care that the memories of Auschwitz are painful, or that they are demeaning or humiliating. It is precisely because they are painful, humiliating, hurtful, harrowing and demeaning that they want those events remembered. See, human beings have very short memories. The genocide in Rwanda occurred in 1994, yet twenty short years later we have watched indecisively as the Central African Republic (CAR) ‘plots its own parameters of a genocide’. We have forgotten Rwanda in twenty short years. Jewish people are not about to let the world forget the concentration camps, not by a long shot. And that’s almost seventy years later.
If you like, you can visit the wall of remembrance at Auschwitz and see the name of each and every single person who perished in the camps. Every single person. The apartheid museum does not even begin to have a go at such a thorough recording of our history. Down to the stories of individuals.
Go onto any online site that has a mention of race on it in this country and you will be entirely disgusted at the level of vitriol that is spewed by both black and white people as we all attempt to claim the moral high ground. Kids born in the 90s seem to have no clue of what went on and all they want is ‘to forget what happened and move on’. According to most of them, “black people and white people just hated each other”. And we are all surprised at why we can’t genuinely start reading from the same page.
A major part of the reason Jewish people have meticulously documented their suffering and humiliation is to ensure that it never happens again. That should any denial come up, they have the evidence of what happened ready.
What if on the 11th of February we had seen the launch of a nationwide campaign of remembrance. A campaign that not only set out to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela, but one that sought to educate. Why was Mandela there in first place? How was he treated in jail? Let’s take our people through these events in detail so that when Freedom Day comes, the 27th of April has more more meaning.
Part of the reason this does not happen is because “the wounds are too raw” on the black side of the equation and “white guilt” would set the white section of our population into defensive mode.But that need not be. Khaya Dlanga puts it so well in his 2012 blog, “why we still talk about race and apartheid”. “When we blame the legacy of apartheid most white people take it as a personal attack on them for having benefited from the system. Or they accuse blacks of refusing to take responsibility for whatever is going wrong in the country. This is not the case. Blaming the legacy of apartheid is an attack on the system. We are not asking you to feel guilty. If anyone needs to get over anything, it is white people who walk around carrying guilt. This guilt might paralyse or even make them unwitting racists”.
But that’s not all, there are people who seem to wake up each day preparing to hunt down anybody who even hints at apartheid having been a reality in this country. What they don’t realize is they are the ones setting this country back. I was never in favour of a blanket apology for the atrocities of apartheid, but I feel the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should have been set up with a mandate to ensure that the institutional memory required to make us never forget be set in place. And by us I mean every citizen of this country.
If that does not happen you will still have idiots who respond to any mention of race or apartheid in this way: “I have a huge problem with your “facts”. You and every other apartheid-blaming coward forget that as white Afrikaners in South Africa were fighting for our freedom against the British until 1911. We also had inferior schools. You are right when you say we are not the same. Instead of burning our English schools we thrived in them. Instead of blaming the British empire for the over 1,200,000 women and children they killed in their concentration camps we prospered. You were not oppressed for generations. Your culture of hate, rape, theft and violence has been holding you back for thousands of years”.
Given a whiff of power, how do you suppose the person who wrote that response to Khaya Dlanga’s blog would act? No wonder there is continued suspicion that given a chance, some people would give apartheid another go.
Nelson Mandela said “We think of those whom apartheid sought to imprison in the jails of hate and fear. We think, too, of those it infused with a false sense of superiority to justify their inhumanity to others, as well as those it conscripted into the machines of destruction, exacting a heavy toll among them in life and limb and giving them a warped disregard for life. We think of the millions of South Africans who still live in poverty because of apartheid, disadvantaged and excluded from opportunity by the discrimination of the past. We recall our terrible past so that we can deal with it, forgiving where forgiveness is necessary – but not forgetting. By remembering, we can ensure that never again will such inhumanity tear us apart, and we can eradicate a dangerous legacy that still lurks as a threat to our democracy.”
Like Jewish people we must strive to remember. Always. So that we can deal with the hate, and the vitriol and sadly those in denial. I remember 11 January so that I do not forget what led to it. So should everybody else.
How I wish I had come up with that title myself, I would retire on its wisdom. Alas, tech-billionaire Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it in one of his blogposts in 2010. But I can still claim the credit for bringing it to your attention. I’ll come back to its merits a little later.
I was a bit startled when I heard reports that Former President Thabo Mbeki has acknowledged that there are instances or indications of tribalism in the sphere of government operations, and by extension in the ruling party, the African National Congress(ANC). Startled because before his admission, there had never been a high-level leader of the ANC who had dared to admit publicly to the existence of racism’s equally-evil twin, tribalism. Shuttleworth calls it the “great-granddaddy of racism and sexism”. I agree. We only differ on its place in that despicable family of bigotry.
Tribalism, like racism, apartheid and other evils like paedophilia has this funny pull towards the “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” arena. It makes it a bit unsavory to discuss in polite company because the first one to raise it appears to be the one who is prejudiced. But therein lies its strength, in its pull towards secrecy. After all, no one wants to be the one to raise these sort of things. The first major reaction to Thabo Mbeki’s assertion has been a general chorus of “what about when you were president, didn’t you see it, don’t act holier than thou”. And an opportunity is lost to address an evil manifestation.
But we must resist that pull. We must place tribalism on the national agenda for the sake of our future. Let it not be enough to joke about “people from the North(Limpopo) are like this and amaZulu are like that”. Where we are all self-assured that I’m not a tribalist because I can laugh at its irrationality. We must get to the bottom of comments like “charity begins at home” when all we mean is I’ll only give opportunities to my home-boys. Or baPedi are arrogant when what we mean is our own tribe is all-understanding. This is the sort of logic that led all the Piets, Jans and Van Tonder’s to employ only their own people because, you guessed it, “people of my culture are easier to deal with”.
There have been murmurs of tribalism from the sidelines before. Even when Nelson Mandela was president of the ANC some murmurs could be heard about the existence of a “Xhosa Nostra”, meaning that getting ahead in the ANC or government was easier if one was of Xhosa origin. These were easily dismissed by a mere rattling off of the names of ANC National Executive Committee members who were not Xhosa and ministers serving in government who were not Xhosa. Times changed and leadership changed, new murmurs that being Zulu was not exactly a hindrance in getting ahead in government and the ANC raised their head again.
When Thabo Mbeki raised the issue again in a lecture on decolonization , they cannot be considered murmurs anymore but a serious sign that there must have been something to the original murmurs. Tribalism has now been elevated to the same level of potential threats to the future of our young democracy as racism is considered to be. None of us should be shocked if an official complaint should be lodged with the Human Rights Commission by a citizen who feels they are being discriminated against in terms of their tribal origins.
We can spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out the causes, but to any casual student of the African narrative, the causes are as clear as daylight, hence the title of the lecture that Thabo Mbeki was giving referred to “decolonization ” . Colonization in itself was bad enough, add to that the evil that apartheid was and the lengths it went to in keeping South African tribes apart, then it should come as no surprise that we have to deal with such detestable issues today. The ruling party, being the broad church that it is, cannot be immune to issues that have affected the people it governs.
Of more importance right now should be a mechanism that can determine how entrenched the issue is in government, the ruling party and our politics in general. Not a witch-hunt but a measure of the extent of the problem, and then a recognizable set of solutions. Recognizable because from our history of dealing with the lasting effects of racism we know the dangers of populists playing on the emotions of affected people promising them “true emancipation” whilst in effect using their frustration to fan the dangerous flames of racism or tribalism.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1998 Kenyan post-election violence must serve as stark reminders of what can happen in a country that leaves tribal prejudice unattended. This might sound alarmist but one need only cast their minds back to the “xenophobic” violence that claimed many lives in 2008. Apartheid had taught our people well that physical differences and cultural(linguistic) differences are real differences. Thus reports that marauding groups identified their targets by asking questions like “what is an elbow in Zulu” to identify “foreigners” pointed to the lasting and entrenched damage of apartheid and colonization.
There has been an increase in the number of comments like “but Mangope did more for the people of Bophutatswana than all the other homeland leaders”. These comments come disguised as discussions about “service delivery”. But if one interrogates the argument further, one realizes that Mangope, and therefore Tswanas can take good care of themselves if left to their own devices. Just like Hudson Ntsanwisi “did so much for the Tsonga people”, sad that BaVhenda had Mphephu who was the bane of all manner of jokes. This nostalgic reminiscing has the danger of achieving what Verwoerd had intended in the first place: divide and rule, even worse, inter-tribal strife.
Tribalism, like racism and a whole host of other isms are primarily born out of a fear of what’s different. I can’t make sense of another’s culture and physical appearance so I demonize them and do all I can to keep them from advancing above my level of living. I go so far as blaming all sorts of societal ills on their existence or presence. Highly irrational. But who ever said fear was rational? I can’t get a job because people from Bushbuckridge can bewitch like nobody can, and sadly people believe that and make decisions based on that.
White people(there he goes again on the race card) must not feel exempted from this evil. It is an open secret that people from Zimbabwe “are such hard workers”, hence they fill all sorts of posts in that world. Try finding a restaurant without Zimbabwean workers if you don’t believe me. But that’s just facts, they scream?” I employed guys from the townships and all I got was one excuse after another, I can’t run my business on excuses”. And then we wonder why people “say these foreigners” are taking our jobs. All of us are to blame for its perpetuation.
Our day-to-day practices, although rationalized in a way we find acceptable, go contrary to the spirit of non-isms like non-tribalism that we like to rattle off about our new democracy. But you know what Mandela did when he came into power, he reassured the Afrikaners that they too had a place in the new administration. A simple yet powerful affirmation.
Leaders in such instances must lead by example. The way our very own Nelson Mandela dealt with racism. See, the antidote to fear is confronting that fear and exposing it for what it is, a fallacy. It’s not out of a perceived personal benefit that Mandela elevated racial harmony as a tool in social cohesion but more out of the realization that when white and black mix, fear of the other is dispelled. Sometimes the feared must extend a hand to the fearful, which Mandela did with aplomb.
In our present circumstances, government leaders can lead by example. I hope I’m not lynched for saying this but recently our President donated money to a project to have the bible translated directly from Hebrew and Greek into isiZulu. He would have done racial and tribal harmony a huge favour by initiating a project to have the bible translated directly from Greek into all 11 official languages. Expensive I know, but he would have struck a blow right at the foundation of tribalism .That would have gone a long way to confounding the critics who suggest that being of Zulu lineage confers one an advantage over others in our current circumstances.
The majority of ordinary South Africans are getting along, learning for themselves that there are no real differences between the tribes, just some superficial ones. We joke about the perceived differences, we have been marrying across tribes for years, appreciating that the cultural differences make our interactions all the more richer. Tribalism and racism leads to in-breeding and cultural “incest”, to borrow from a friend’s expression. After all, our national motto is “unity in diversity”.
Back to my title, have you ever heard the arguments advanced by those who want to “keep to myself and my people”? They like saying things like “the other guys have never done anything useful” , Mark Shuttleworth again. These people will say that and try to present you with stupid evidence like who invented what and what race or tribe they were. Being the first to do something doesn’t make your tribe better than other tribes, it just means you were first. Period. Think of a government minister who employs people from their region of birth only, their tribe that is. Doesn’t that automatically tell you how stupid this whole thing is?
It must take some sort of below par intelligence to believe that your people, your tribe has a monopoly on intelligence, hard work and innovation. Tribalism does indeed make you stupid. Like racism, sexism and homophobia.