A once dear friend of mine loved to compare me to the American singer, songwriter, composer and pianist Nina Simone. He would send me messages saying he was listening to Nina, who reminds him of me. Instead of accepting the compliment I would resist the temptation to lash out at him and only focus on the fact that he missed me, thought of me from time to time.
But in the privacy of my own mind, I resented the insinuation. Don’t get me wrong, to say I loved Nina would be an understatement; I soaked my soul in her music and I truly felt that she was the only artist dead or alive at the time who could define the sound of my heart beat one small cardiac vein at a time. Her conflation of classical, jazz and pop improvisations hit just the right notes with me.
Indeed while there was a whole squad of great American soul sisters who rocked my world such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington, and they all still do, there was something distinct about Nina which rattled me, her political being got right under my skin.
A child prodigy who started playing the piano when she was three years old, she personified the ideal of black power in her body while articulating black pain and aspirations like no other male or female artist I have known of in my life. Busi Mhlongo comes a close second. She was a perfect paradox and I could relate to her.
And yet the idea that my friend whom I loved and respected saw something resembling Nina Simone in me filled me with enormous indignation. I was convinced that he must have fundamentally misunderstood who I was and what I was about, because how else could he compare me to Nina Simone?
I was scared of Nina Simone. I was startled by her genius and the fact that she got me and all of us from the past, present and future stupified me. The magnitude of her ability to feel left me nauseous and sometimes seasick in a dry Johannesburg winter. Her agility in navigating swathes of pain which seemed infinite in a voice which could be as rough as gravel or smooth as coffee and cream left me simply unhinged. She peeled off my skin as if were a bandage covering ancient scars which were as fresh as if they had been inflicted mere minutes ago. Her grief poured out of her fingers and left me panting with awe, out of breath. Until it filled her body so much so that she could no longer contain it, it poured out of her eyes, her mouth, her skin, her nostrils, and every single breath. It was raw, and sometimes too frightening to watch.
By the time she died in Paris, France in 2003, I had read her autobiography I Put a Spell On You (1992) and heard anecdotes from those who had met her that she was a brash, bitter and unfriendly woman – an insufferable prima donna to the very end. I was greatly disappointed. Though I admired her talent I didn’t want to end up bitter and alone or spoken of in such disparaging terms by those who knew me intimately. How could someone so talented and great who fought so hard not to be minimized as an artist be reduced to nothing because of her love for whiskey and cigarettes?
While I loved her and felt immense gratitude because she helped me dive deep into the ocean of my feelings, I didn’t want her life, it seemed too hard, too painful, too haunted, too lonely and just too much.
So when my friend compared me to her it felt as though he was putting a spell on me, telling me that I was like her, a talented black woman with a heart as big as Wakanda but who would always live to regret not being able to reach her fullest potential. I was like Nina who still thought, three years before her death, that she would have been happier had she achieved her goal of becoming the first black woman concert pianist in the US. She thought she would have been a happier person had she went to the most prestigious music venue in America, Carnegie Hall and been the first black woman to play Bach, Carl Czerny and Liszt.
Despite her enormous success – in her mind, she had been effectively cheated out of her dream when she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race. Not only that but music her first love had robbed her of her desire for a life-long companionship in marriage. She still craved the kind of love which would take all of her brilliance in. Not just the fame, influence and potential to make loads of money, but the other side as well; the grieving, lonely, suffering part of her which still held on to all the loves and lives she had lost – the little girl who was still playing Bach in music halls across the world, not just My Baby Just Cares For Me or I loves you Porgy.
And yet the lady doth protest too much.
Indeed there is some element of truth in his comparison. Perhaps not in my level of talent nor in my activism which has been minute, to say the least. Perhaps we are similar in that we are both, Nina Simone and I, collectors of a vast array of human emotions through space and time. Hers found expression in her music and activism while mine… well that’s a story for another day.
In many ways I am like her, I hate being pigeonholed and I often find that I do have to “constantly re-identify myself to myself, reactivate my own standards, my own convictions about what I’m doing and why.” I am sold out to freedom.
Last night as I sat up reflecting on my life so far and what’s next – I thought of Nina Simone – who taught me so much about my own life by fully living hers. Even though I hate to admit, we are more alike than different.
So as I made peace with her, with the fact that just as she knew the contents of my heart without looking in, I could see her tears without her shedding any. As I accepted parts of her I was uncomfortable with, afraid of even, I remembered that there is someone who once loved Nina Simone as much as I did. He was able to show me another kinder and gentler side to her.
Many moons ago, my father sang a Nina Simone song for me after I informed him of my discovery of her music. I was all caught up in my feelings about the strange fruit in Mississippi Goddamn while trying not be a misunderstood blackbird wishing it knew how it would feel to be free when he interrupted me with a smooth rendition of, “to be young gifted and black oh what a lovely precious dream, to be young gifted and black open your heart to what I mean…” A song Simone named after an unfinished play by her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who was the first black writer to have a hit Broadway show. I was impressed by him, he sang it until I started to feel, Good.
I began to understand a little about what love is. My father is able to find me, wherever I am, in whatever language and cultural iconographies I may have adopted in my explorations of what this world has to offer. It’s incredible to know that I am a recipient of such an immense well of unconditional love and freedom. Through this song, my father showed me a side of Nina Simone which I was unaware of, which helped me understand her humaneness, her fragility. This song allowed me to embrace all of her. Embrace her completely and unconditionally. She was visionary, a warrior who loved in extraordinary ways. Finally, my father helped me to accept myself, through Nina’s music.
The fact that we can we can look around today whether we are in Africa or in the diaspora in Parliaments or the classroom, from the streets corners to the worlds’ stages – from top to bottom, east to west, the fact that we can look at the world around us today and be genuinely proud to say that despite everything we still need to do -“to be young, gifted and black, it’s where it’s at!!! – Is because of Nina Simone, my father and generations black people who saw beyond the pain.
Carnegie Hall and the Curtis School of Music could not contain her. And that’s a fact!
This picture of former South African President Jacob Zuma with the newly elected South African President Cyril Ramaphosa brought to mind a 1975 transhistorical film by Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. It is a story I will never forget.
Xala! (meaning impotence) is an adaptation of Sembene’s book with the same name.
If you have time to fill in the gaps with regard to recent events in South African politics, you can watch the film here.
Back when I was a journalism student at Natal Technikon now DUT I attempted, rather poorly, to articulate the continuous tension between tradition and culture which created a fair amount of conflict within my own mind and in the public sphere. I used the traditional practice of initiating boys into manhood in African-black culture as an example of when culture and tradition can be at odds.
In the piece I attempted to explain the practical reasons why male initiates went to the “mountain” during winter months for circumcision; first for privacy and second; the cold weather would speed up the healing process for their wounds. I argued that while living conditions and medical treatments had advanced to a point where male circumcision could take place almost anywhere in any season; initiation schools continued to perform the rituals as they were done 200 years ago as if nothing had changed. My analysis was made in the context of a rising number of botched circumcisions which killed a number of boys and left many others injured and or castrated.
But it’s not that simple
This week a better example presented itself through the banning of Inxeba, – The Wound, a South African film which explores tradition and sexuality amid Xhosa male rites of passage or male circumcision at some Cinemas in parts of the country.
The film hit a raw nerve among ( Xhosa) traditionalist who see it as a violation of a sacred tradition. Lwando Xasa and Zukiswa Pikoli opined that the filmmaker, William Trengove, a white male had no right making a movie about us.
“Telling our stories through a white lens ensures the dominance and centrality of whiteness.We don’t know Trengove or his reasons for making the movie and showing it to a foreign audience. What we do know is that he made a movie on Xhosa initiation that is off-limits to him.”
The pair along with many who are opposed to the film argue that it is a continuation of a white supremacists policy of demeaning and bastardising African cultural beliefs.
Others said the film, which I have not seen, is less about Xhosa initiation rites and more about homosexuality. A subject which was the motivation behind the films’ creation according to its director William Trengove,
“In writing ‘The Wound’, inspiration came, unexpectedly, from Robert Mugabe. Statements that he and other African leaders have made since the early 90s imply that homosexuality is a symptom of Western decadence that threatens ‘‘traditional’’ culture. And so, we thought ok, let’s use that idea. Let’s imagine ‘‘gayness’’ as a kind of virus that penetrates and threatens a patriarchal organism, and let’s see how that organism responds to being penetrated.”
Not very well it seems.
In the film, he used a cast of untrained actors who were all former Xhosa initiates who re-enacted some of the rituals involved in the initiation process including a sex scene which is the main bone of contention. The inclusion of the sexual act during the initiation ceremony has angered many people including the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (contralesa) who said the movie “wounds” African cultural practices. Contralesa’s Prince Manene said in a Mail&Guardian interview that they are not opposed to the film’s gay content.
“If people do that thing, they can do it somewhere else — not within our cultural practice. It doesn’t happen in initiation schools. This is ridiculing our cultural practice. We are being embarrassed. The things that are being shown there is not what is happening in the mountain. It is disgusting and disrespectful of our cultural practices. People making love in an initiation school is not something we see,”
And this is where the conflict between tradition; the passing of beliefs and customs to the next generation and culture; characteristics which describe a particular society at a particular time, takes place.
Trengove is well within his rights in a democratic society to use his imagination to explore and probe subjects which fascinate him which are not only limited to his own culture, tradition or lived experiences – irrespective of his privileged power position as a white male. The constitution guarantees him this right. Despite his own admission that doing the film is problematic…
“As a white man, representing marginalised black realities that are not my own, the situation is of course complicated. Even highly problematic – It was important to me that the story mirrors this problem. The character of Kwanda is an outsider to the traditional world; he expresses many of my own ideas about human rights and individual freedom. He’s also the problem. His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him. This was my way of saying, ‘‘I don’t have the answers and my own values don’t necessarily apply here.’’
In this way Trengoves’ “The Wound” shares a similar narrative tackled by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene whose last film Moolaade (2004) which depicts women’s’ resistance against the practice of female circumcision (FGC) in a small village in Burkina Faso, was criticised for being a ‘staging of a human rights drama; a performance of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights by employing an “ethical and political category that takes as its departure point a modernity rooted in colonialism.” A slight supported by it being awarded UNESCO Felini Medal, for a long career depicting the struggle for Women’s rights, asserting the role of NGO’s and the United Nations as long-term supporters of Sembene’s films.
Through Moolaade we are made to understand that female circumcision prevalent in West African countries is a tradition clung to for no other reason than to maintain the status quo of male supremacy and patriarchy; by making females docile and marriageable. In Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Amy Boden argues that by, “writing the Islamic male elders of the village as one-dimensional characters who seem to oppress their wives and daughters solely for the sake of religious tradition and their own sexual desires and egos, Sembène avoids staging a dialogue between the cultural factions advocating for and against genital cutting”
True, only those who are passing on traditional customs can speak highly of its merits both for an individual and community. Yet this should not automatically disqualify them from performing such customs as a consequence of incidents of malpractice including accidents.
A character flaw
Even though traditionalists might have a point about the inaccurate depiction of male initiation rights in the film, their protestations however valid make them appear mean and homophobic.
Similar to an incident in the UK, when the Australian teenage heart-throb and former Neighbours star Jason Donovan sued The Face magazine in 1992 for claiming he was gay. Although he was successful in the case, he also successfully alienated the gay community which resulted in an overall loss of support from his fan base; who saw his court action as petty and unnecessarily vindictive. Though by all accounts he was entitled to defend himself and his honour – doing so was interpreted as “hate-speech.” His defence inferred that there is something intrinsically wrong or unacceptable about those people who are, in fact, homosexual.
If Contralesa and indeed all those negatively affected by Inxeba are seriously aggrieved by the film they should also approach the Film and Publication Board of South Africa, The South African Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the South African Human Rights Commission including the courts, for remedy.
Because this is what we all signed up for
We wanted a democratic country which embraces multiculturalism in all its resplendent manifestations. So we must protect the right to freedom of expression so that we too can practice our traditional customs freely. We signed up for a country in which we could speak freely and have open and transparent discussions about topics and practices which concern us, including those we might deem to be sacrosanct.
So, by all accounts, traditionalist must protest and protect their traditional customs from ridicule and degradation by imaginative artists if they must, but they do not have the right to block others from practising their culture freely; i.e their right to watch a movie of their choice at a cinema.
As “they” say: it takes more than balls to be a man.
I’m here watching as the brilliant pallet of hopeful colours democracy once painted for us in vivid penetrating hues of bright reds, warm oranges, sunny yellows, soft airy blues which so mesmerized the eye that some of us had to squint just to see the picture clearly; begins to fade.
The dazzling ideal which democracy once hung in front of our eyes is grey now no longer black or white. Bold or striking in crisp sparkling white or deep saturated blacks – the colours have bled into each other so much that while we are too petrified to pronounce the words describing what this image is fading into – we know for sure that it is not what we once hoped for. It is not about freedom, equality or justice.
The grey clouds in our democratic winter accomplished something remarkable – they have removed the illusions and pretences which we are so desperate to cling to.
It is about money
The tragic election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States has done us, the global public, a favour. In Trump, the true nature of the political system which has been governing our lives has been unveiled in all its raw-callousness.
American prof of Linguistics Noam Chomsky spoke about the construction of a political system which is “moving towards a real articulated expression of contempt for the general population,” 30 years ago. In the interview on dissent and democracy in 1988, Chomsky observed a trend in which the political system run by the elite including the intellegencia – increasingly operates without public participation, “where elections have been almost removed from the point where the public takes them seriously as involving a matter of choice.”
In the interview, Chomsky describes a system which we are all too familiar with by now: A political figure (democratic or republican/ liberal or conservative/ right-wing or left-wing) who represents something, is supported by certain interests, has certain commitments comes before us produces and says things which the polls and his advisers tell him will increase his chances of gaining office; after which he will dispense with everything he has said before to gain office and then proceed with his own commitments, interests and what is demanded of him by those who supported him and those who provided him with resources. Chomsky noted that while this has always been true what is interesting now is the extent to which it is recognized to be the “democratic system.”
The election of Donald Trump has caused an uproar among the ruling elite precisely because he has let the cat out of the bag; the political system exists only to protect privilege and power at all costs. Not only has he revealed that the ruling class does not care at all about the so-called ” people” or “general public” – he has made it clear that it is not in the interest of power for the public to be well-informed, empowered or participate meaningfully in the decisions or choices that government makes. They don’t want that; dissent is a crisis for democracy and since they can’t force people through violent means to do what they want, they have employed sophisticated ways to control what people think; through media propaganda and coercion by pure charm: saying everything we want to hear and then doing the opposite.
While democracies who have bought into the American political ideology of Democratic Capitalism are still pretending that the public has a “choice” – Donald Trump has pulled the hat out of the rabbit.
Even as our politicians continue to say one thing and do something else, we can no longer pretend that the ruling party or opposition parties in our parliaments are there to serve the interests of the public. We cannot pretend that the newly elected president of the ruling ANC in South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is representing the publics’ interest. No matter what he says in eloquent well-crafted speeches. He is only representing the interests of a privileged class the private sector of which he is a high-ranking member.
It is not a conspiracy
We know now from the events of Marikana where at least 34 striking miners were killed in order for Lonmin to continue production – whose side Ramaphosa is on. We know that he ordered government officials to end the strike by any means necessary. We know whose interests the police served when they opened fire. We know whose interests Ramaphosa will serve once he is sworn into office in 2019. We can’t pretend that he has not been obvious about it. We also know from the incidents surrounding the publication of his sex-scandal story who the mass media in this country will support.
Patrons of Power
The elite class including the media exists to serve the interests of power. Chomsky observed that in this deck’ If you want to be an expert or part of the specialized class you have to be able to serve the interests of objective power – that’s an institutional role that has to be played and if you do it, if you’re able to articulate the interests of people with power, you’re in ‘
The same applies to journalism -if you want to be a journalist he said, you have to accord the needs of the institution; imbibe its culture and values. Mass media are major corporations (monopolies) and like any other business, they have to make a profit. It doesn’t matter what you say to the people, as long as there’s a profit at the end of the day. In this context then the primary function of mass media is to mobilize public support for the special interest of the dominant class.
The role of the government in a capitalist democracy then is also similar; to make laws which protect the property rights and interests of a minority who own and control natural resources, industry and transport.
So, while we continue to live under an economic system where a few private individuals control the means of production and distribution of an entire country – democracy will remain what it has always been. Just a Mirage.
It’s not real
We are free to the extent to which our freedom serves (profits) the interests of those with power. That’s the reality.
I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell – Coconut (2007), Kopano Matlwa
Within a few hours of picking up the book from a family friends’ impressive bookshelves, it was all over. I didn’t understand why I had been so resistant to reading it when all those years ago, I stood hiding behind bookshelves listening to Kopano Matlwa; a precocious medical student then and now qualified medical doctor, health activist, Oxford Scholar and author of three successful manuscripts (Spilt Milk, 2010 and Period Pain 2017) answer questions about her debut novel, Coconut (2007) which had also scooped the European prize for literature in 2008.
It was interesting.
Her audience at the time, composed mostly of white people with some highlights, including myself. I can’t remember everything that was being said. But I do remember watching myself watch her sitting there, a young woman just like me who had achieved more with her life than I had in my entire my lifetime. Was it jealousy? Envy? Bring her down syndrome? “It’s a day in the life of a black school girl, it takes place in a day,” she said shyly. I wanted to ask a question but I had not read the book so I let the moment pass and continued to inhale the intoxicating smell of new books. I may not be a writer nor a published author but I can, at the very least, read.
It took me a decade, 10 years to be precise to finally read the book which peaked at me from other people’s shelves as if to ask, and me? Yes, yes she’s a gifted writer I would say each time her name came up in conversation about new reads. But I had no idea what was between the books’ covers. Now I understand why it took me so long to read it from cover to cover in just four hours.
The title of the book rubbed me up the wrong way. I couldn’t get past it even though the cover clearly said; A Novel. But now that I’ve read every word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter and all its parts – since I have gone through it. I get it.
I was a victim of words; language meant a lot to me.
I had been called a coconut ( a derogatory term used to describe black-African people who could speak English fluently – i.e black on outside and white on the inside) for so long that by the time Matlwa came out shining in all her brilliance I couldn’t bring myself to purchase or read the insult. It was too much, I didn’t want to relive the experience. The word Coconut had taunted, haunted, bullied, sneered, laughed, humiliated me at every turn. She wants to be white they whispered in front of me, who do you think you are, trying to be better than us eh? they shouted behind my back.
Instead, I drifted to the academic section at the Boekehuis and picked out a much lighter read than what Matlwa offered, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952).
It’s been a rough ride.
Today most (aspirational – middle class) South Africans appreciate that fluency in English(the imperial language) does not mean that the speaker desires to be white nor does it make the person more or less African or more or less intelligent. Neither does it make them a nice, good, evil or a bad person or vice versa for African language speakers. All these appendages depend on the speaker’s individual character and their motives for speaking or not speaking said language notwithstanding the power structures or systems governing society.
A language is a tool (a means to an end, not an end in itself). It can be used for just about anything under the sun if one has the power and influence to lubricate its application. I have spoken Afrikaans with white English-speaking South Africans in the Middle-East just so that the Arabic-French- English-speaking taxi driver would not hear what we were saying. In school, we invented code languages so that we could confuse others but understand each other just for the fun of it. We pretended not to understand others so we could hear them speak freely in languages we were fluent in. So we could see or know the man behind the mask.
The more languages a person cultivates the better. Words are only as powerful as the value you place on them regardless of where they come from – of course, life is easier if one can use and understand the dominant syntax (power and ideology). But what you believe ( i.e hold dear, value or love: the philosophy you live by ) is more important than anything else.
So, I am happy to finally put this delightful, sometimes funny and discomforting story about being a black African in the world today along with its long list of relatives including but not limited to race and identity to bed.
Besides, coconut oil is all the rage for growing Afros, naturally.
It has become phenomenally difficult to retain any level of optimism regarding African politics these days. It’s as if the new wave of cynicism is overshadowing anything positive taking place including an event which at any other time in history would have been cause for enormous celebration throughout the continent. But the removal of the oldest statesman in the world to date, President Robert Mugabe, by the country’s military has been received with mixed emotions. As young Zimbabweans took to the streets in Harare and other major cities around the world celebrating being able to finally hoist and wrap the Zimbabwean flag around their shoulders with pride – an army of writers, political analysts, historians and arm-chair critics also took to their screens drafting opinion pieces warning the long-suffering nation not to claim easy victories; the newly installed president – Emmerson Mnangagwa – is a ruthless crocodile after-all.
A protégé who had only good things to say about the outgoing President.
In South Africa, ANC presidential candidate Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Deal speech which he practised at the ANC Johannesburg Regional Economic Colloquium in Soweto ten days ago– was overshadowed by the winds of change sweeping over Zimbabwe. Even though the South African press which is only now catching up to the story, were present to report on it, they would have found, like financial journalist Duma Gqubule nothing new in it.
“I was disturbed by my former boss’ speech. It said dololo (nothing) on what he would do to get the economy out of its worst post-apartheid crisis. I got the impression he so badly wants to be president he cannot think of anything else. He will decide what to do with the economy when he is elected.” Gqubule went on to share similar sentiments expressed by a former ANC friend who opined in a chat group that; “Not just about the economy, it says nothing about everything. I don’t know what’s wrong with us about detail. It’s drivel, waffle and pointless verbiage. Ramaphosa’s running mate for the ANC presidency Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma who is promising “radical economic transformation” did not inspire confidence in Gqubule either, “ I also listened to NDZ’s interview on ANN7; she also said dololo (nothing) about what she will do to get the economy out of its worst post-apartheid crisis.”
Mervyn Abrahams director of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (PACSA)shared a similar, though more detailed analysis of Ramaphosa’ New Deal – One million new jobs plan.“It’s not bold” he said,” It is a small vision which does not respond to the economic crisis,” he said in a statement released shortly after his speech.
Good For Few; Bad For Many
“With 8.4million black South Africans already unemployed and with an untenable expanded unemployment rate of 41 percent: a target of one million jobs over five years is an inadequate response in terms of the depth of the economic crisis we’re in.” he added that “ one million jobs over five years translates to the creation of 200,000 jobs per year over the next five years”.
The latest jobs statistics out of Statistics South Africa for the third quarter show that while 723 thousand South Africans joined the labour force, 366 thousand became unemployed in the last year.
He also notes that since 2015 poverty rates have increased (reversed) with three-thirds of the black population (64%) living in poverty.
If you are anything like me, perhaps you are starting to see a pattern emerge – a global pattern which has been the mainstay of African politics, almost without exception, since the winds of change swept the continent in the 1960’s.
This pattern is better explained by US Major General Smedley when he appeared before the US congressional to tell what he knew of activities (business plot) which he believed might lead to an attempt to set up a fascist dictatorship in the US by corporate America. “ A plan which was outlined to me was to form an organization of veterans, to use as a bluff or a club at least to intimidate government and breakdown government and our democratic institutions. The upshot of the whole things was that I was supposed to lead a group of 500,000 men which would be able to take over functions of government. My main interest in this is to maintain our democratic institutions I want to retain the right to vote the right to speak freely and the right to write if we maintain these basic principles our democracy is safe. No dictatorship can exist with suffrage, freedom of speech and the press” he said during a press conference circa 1933. Whether or not Corporate America ever managed to execute this plan, later on, is debatable. But the correlations of this plot with what’s been happing in African states and more recently both in South Africa with Ramaphosa as the highly favoured future president or in Zimbabwe, with Mnangagwa taking over the reins.
I would like to believe that our past, current and perhaps even future presidents succeed or fail on their own terms; that they are not operating at the behest of global multinational corporations with nefarious narcissistic interests, who decide through a variety of blackmails, debt and violent tactics, who stays and who goes. I would love to believe that we are truly independent.
The incoming president of the Business Woman Association of South Africa (BWASA) Happy Ralinala has challenged women to put their money where their mouth is and support at least one of the three women candidates running the presidential race of the African National Congress (ANC). Speaking at a leadership dialogue in Sandton, Johannesburg Ralinala said women hold the majority vote in elections and it is they who have the power to elect a female president – if they so choose. The former managing Executive of Private and Wealth Banking Africa at Barclays Africa Group Limited said women are the ones who put presidents in power because they are the majority but for some reason, they don’t choose well. “We are forever choosing wrong,” she said.
The three senior long-standing members of the ANC; Parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbethe, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the current minister of human settlements and stalwart daughter Lindiwe Sisulu have thrown their hats in the ring to contest the presidency amongst five men in the upcoming ANC Elective Conference in December. Makhosini Nkosi manager for Lindiwe Sisulu’s campaign said Sisulu like Parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbethe is running solely on a gender-card. In an interview with Timeslive, he said, “Comrade Lindiwe Sisulu believes now is the time to elect a female president. She is of the view that the more female candidates there are the better. As far as we are concerned we are trying to get Lindiwe Sisulu elected president. That is the mandate of the branches that nominated her,” said Nkosi. According to recent polls, Sisulu has surpassed Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma with a 52 percent approval rating which has seen her being ear-marked as Cyril Ramaphosas’ deputy. At the same time strongest candidate for president based on experience, Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma’s campaign has failed to take off due to her links to the president and the embattled Gupta family.
So, Happy Ralinala’s comments forced me to reflect on what it actually means to be a woman in politics today. It made me think about the countless women politicians who have repeatedly told me in interviews that once elected into political office women must, just like men, tow the party line since anything else would result in political suicide.
Their sentiments were echoed by one of the panellists at the leadership gathering who said that women often face obstacles in business because they don’t want to play by the existing rules. “ Someone put it very clear to me and said you know Lizzy if you are playing Soccer don’t come with Rugby rules because the Rugby rules won’t do you any good in Soccer. Women, women (we) believe in working hard, we don’t believe in getting sponsors from the corporate world. From the corporate world, one of the most important things is, find yourself a sponsor. Find yourself someone who at the table if no one else mentions your name, they are going to mention your name. Sometimes we think our work is good enough to talk for itself but in the corporate world, it’s the opposite. Those are the soccer rule games, and we want to come with rugby rules in the corporate world. You talk to lots of women and you ask them, who is your sponsor? Some of them don’t have sponsors and you know they start blinking, some of them confuse a sponsor with a coach. Finding a sponsor is someone who is at an influential position who can position you in the organizations. There comes a certain level where your growth is no longer about what you deliver, it’s about who knows you, who knows what you’re capable of and who can vouch for you. It gets to a point where you have to balance those two things of thinking your work will sell you versus getting other people to sell you” she said.
So where does that leave women? What about the case of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who has played by the rules of the party since she was elected into office in 1994 and has never violated party protocol. Not only was she nominated by the ANC women’s league which is infamous for repeatedly nominating male candidates for the ANC presidency in the past, her campaign has been endorsed by one of the most influential men in the country at the moment; President Jacob Zuma. Despite her excellent sportsmanship throughout the years, her presidential campaign has fallen in the shadows of scandals surrounding her sponsor’s camp. Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Ok. She chose the wrong sponsor, you say.
How about Lindiwe Sisulu who despite having broken protocol by launching her own campaign without the support or endorsement of the ANC women’s league – has been labelled an entitled and annoying candidate? What chance does she stand against the well-oiled machinery of Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign? What does playing by the rules mean exactly? Does it mean that one ceases to be a woman when playing a pre-dominantly male game? How can you be a woman playing a man’s game and have that not be a game changer? Is the fact of being a woman in politics enough of a game-changer in and of itself?
Should it matter? Should women be judged by how well they play a man’s game since politics is a man’s game and men are political animals? Should women be playing a different game? Do women have a game of their own? Are there different standards for women in politics? Should we vote for one of the three candidates simply because they are women?
How about the speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete who went against the grain and took a decision to welcome a vote of no confidence against her own party leadership? Will her bold move help her realise her ambitions to one day become madam president? Who will sponsor her now?
Is it not the same rules in this political game of sponsorship and name-dropping which has led to the corruption we are witnessing from the upper and lower echelons of government and business? If we are playing by the same rules how will we ever change the status quo?
Since none of the opposition political parties have put forward a female candidate for leadership – will we be forced to vote for the ANC if we want to see a woman become president in 2019?
Why should it matter that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is endorsed by President Jacob Zuma? Why can’t she be judged on her own merits? Why can’t we vote for her because she deserves it, worked hard for it, played by the rules? None of the candidates who’ve raised their hands for the presidency are scandal-free. All of them to some degree have blood on their hands. Does it matter if their nails are painted with crimson red nail polish or not?
At this point in the game, I’m not sure what matters more. The type of underwear one puts on in the morning or the kinds of thoughts and ideas one dreams up at night. Is an idea’s merit dependent on the sexual organs of the person who conjures it up or not? But what I do know for sure is, of the two – one is an incident of nature which for the most part can’t be helped and another is a choice.
So do we choose women because their gender made it impossible for them to make different choices? Or do we elect women because they made different choices period?
Who is more deserving of the presidency between Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Baleka Mbete and Lindiwe Sisulu? All of them are running on the gender-card in the same (slate) political party. Is being a woman more important than being ethical and principled? Why should we use these standards on women and not on men? What qualifies men to be President? Is it because they are men or because they know how to play the game?
Happy Ralinala also noted that even though the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May is a woman, she has not raised any gender-related issues during her tenure including how the Brexit saga affects women. So then what does it mean to be a woman president? Should it mean anything?
In the US some women like actress Susan Sarandon who famously said “ I don’t vote with my vagina” turned their back on Hillary Clinton saying their vote was bigger than the two candidates contesting the 2016 elections. They refused to vote for the lesser of the two evils saying both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stood for Capitalism and Financial interests which are destroying the environment, even if their approaches are different. So should South African women vote with their vagina’s this time?
You can listen to a podcast-radio version of this story here.
It is arguably one of the largest shack dweller’s movements in the country. The movement started small on the pavements of Kennedy road in the very early 2000 ‘s with a handful of families left without a roof over their heads – having been evicted overnight. Back then, the shack dwellers’ corrugated iron sheets which they used to construct their homes were mauled down, crushed like newspaper while their household goods and furniture were tossed out like used toilet paper. The men and women whose homes had been demolished protested blocking Kenny road until council officials could address them, but their voices are nothing compared to the thunder which is taking over the streets these days.
Abahlali Basemojondolo are organized and over the past eleven years or more they have been relentlessly defending their right to shelter through land occupation using “inkani” despite constant harassment, assault and arrest by the city’s police or security officials employed by the City Improvement Districts (CID’s).
The City Improvement Districts are private-public partnerships created in the early 90’s to meet the needs of cities which were buckling under the pressure of high rates of urbanisation after 1994. The city’s infrastructure was stretched to the limit – which meant that existing tax regimes could not ensure adequate service delivery.
To solve this problem property owners realized that they needed to mobilise local resources such as tax and levies to supplement municipal services. CID’s are comprised of 51 percent of property owners representing 51 percent of the property value, who enter into a service level agreement with the council which collect levies on the behalf of property owners. These CID’s are divided into two main categories: improvement districts which address crime and grime and competitive nodes called management districts which focused on place marketing.
CID’s would then have highly visible patrol officers who would among other things deter and prevent crime. Cleaning and maintaining the area including washing side-walks, cutting grass and trees, dealing with homeless people, Youth and sweeping out inappropriate social behaviour.
This cleaning up process also included cleaning up high jacked buildings occupied by people considered to be illegal tenants in inner cities, moving homeless people out of the cities, and removing or demolishing shacks erected on private or public owned land leaving thousands of people without shelter. Back in 2007 Abahali marched as they often did to the city, demanding that the city mayor at the time Obed Mlaba engage with Abahlalibasemjondolo to secure some land and provide them with basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity. They were repeatedly met with silence -the mayor along with his second in command was too busy to meet with them. Almost a decade later the trend has not changed.
Presidential hopeful and current minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu, who is serving for the second time in the housing department since democracy recently stated that despite the government having built more than four million homes since the early 90’s – it was still not enough to meet the country’s needs. She noted that there is still a large number of informal settlements and backyard shanties which still need to be eradicated.
In her recent open interview as a presidential candidate for the ANC, Lindiwe Sisulu emphasised the need for a woman president to take over the reigns of government. She spoke about increasing transparency and accountability within the ANC, but she did not mention with any great detail the one story which could make a difference in the country going forward. The Land question; How does she plan to resolve the question of land tenure, or create an environment conducive to constructive dialogue on the issue? What will she do differently as the country’s president which she couldn’t do as a minister of human settlements?
What is to be done with the increasing number of homeless and unemployed people including street traders who are being swept out of sight to make way for pristine world-class cities, with no land on which to build a home? Despite comments about more housing being needed, opening up a new bank for low-cost housing loans, allocating more than 600million to urban development projects in the country’s metropolitan areas. Her most assertive response to the question of landlessness recently has been to address the needs of property owners: “Property owners have a responsibility to ensure that their properties are guarded when they see illegal occupations taking place they must act immediately and report it to law enforcement agencies. I will be meeting with property owners to indicate my views about this, municipalities and law enforcement agencies must take action immediately when cases of illegal occupations have been reported” she said in an interview with a local newspaper.
Those who support her candidacy say she is the most radical social democrat within the ANC, who is introducing practical pro-poor policies. Meanwhile, Abahalibasemjondolo are no longer waiting or requesting permission to occupy the land. They are doing it, despite constant evictions, demolitions and state-sponsored violence. The movement is growing. The mood South African right brings to mind the famous opening line in Charles Dickens famous novel – A tale of Two Cities – where he wrote about the poverty and opulence which preceded the French revolution in the 1800’s.
“It was the best of the times, It was the worst of times, It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of, incredulity, It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it t was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisier authorities insisted on its being received for good and for evil in the superlative degree of comparison only”
Take a trip to Nairobi, Kenya and you will find a country at war with itself where political contest continues to be a zero-sum game. Next to them in Kampala Uganda even the right to protest is under threat so, citizens and politicians wear red headbands instead.Or you can go across to Togo over Benin in the west and find multitudes of people protesting 50 years of autocratic rule or fly a take a short flight to Nigeria to find a country divided with a people still seeking cessation – Biafra calls. Next door to them in Cameroon hundreds have died in protest against a controlling government. If you like, drift placidly down to Zimbabwe where citizens have resigned themselves to their fate – President Robert Mugabe for life. Or glance up to South Sudan where millions cross the border daily seeking refuge from a hailstorm of bullets flooding their homes. Let your eyes settle for a moment in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has been in the grip of a low-level civil war since King Leopold the second of Belgium declared it his personal property. The landscape is littered with people who are in pain displaced in their own countries because even though the lights are on – there is no one home. There’s no one to listen. There is no compassion or empathy. No sense of duty except, the duty to explicitly self-enrich at the expense of all others. Greed is killing people.
Everything seems set in stone until…
Someone comes along who does something remarkable. His name. Jose Pepe Mujica. Ironically described by the media as the poorest president in the world. In an interview with Al-Jazeera’s’ Lucia Newman in 2013, the 82-year-old former president who served Uruguay between from 2010 and 2015 …. sips bitter tea, in a small living room barely large enough to fit a TV crew and decorated with shelves full of books which he shares with his wife and a three-legged dog. He speaks like somebody we know
“No. I’m not a poor president,” he said. “Poor are those who describe me as poor. My definition of poor is those who need too much because those who need too much are never satisfied. I am frugal, not poor”
Which means he’s economical about how he spends his money, giving 90 percent of his salary back into public service.
“Frugal with a light suitcase. I live with little, just what’s necessary. Not too tied down to material things. Why? so that I can have free time. For what? to do what I like.Freedom is having time to live. Living Frugally is a philosophy of life but I’m not poor. I have a way of life that doesn’t change because I’m president.
I earn more than I need even if it’s not enough for others. My wife is a senator and she has to contribute a lot to her party. But her salary is enough for us to live. And we still have a bit left over which we put in the bank just in case. I contribute to my political group and projects like housing for unmarried mothers. For me, it’s not a sacrifice it’s a duty.”
“I don’t oppose consumption. I am against waste. We have to produce food for the hungry, roofs for those who need a home. Build schools for those who don’t have schools. We have to solve the water problem now. If every powerful person has three, four, five cars and needs 400sq meters to live and a house on the beach and an aeroplane to get here and there… then there isn’t enough for everyone. What does modern science tell us? It tells us indisputable facts. If the current world population aspired to consume like the average American. We would need three planet earth(s). Which means that if we continue tossing out things. Naturally, a great part of humanity will never have anything. They are doomed.”
Mujica only has one car, a 1980s beetle golf. When asked why he hasn’t tried to change the status quo or how his fellow countrymen live, he doesn’t beat about the bush.
“Because if I tried to impose my way of living on the rest they’d kill me. They’d kill me I know it. But allow me the freedom to express myself. Because we complain about global warming while we assault nature by producing so much waste. We are mortgaging the future of the next generations. I can’t fix this as a government, I am a prisoner of this myself. What I’m pointing out is where we are heading. True there is extraordinary waste here. There are houses only used 20 days a year in Punta del Est. Luxurious houses while other’s don’t even have a shack to sleep at night. It’s crazy unjust. I oppose that world, but I am a prisoner of that world.”
The former Marxist guerrilla fighter is against re-election. For him, a president in a republic is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is neither a King nor a God. He is especially not – a witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant and as such he must leave and be replaced. Mujica believes the ideal way for a president to live is like the vast majority of the people whom he is attempting to serve and represent.
“My goal is to achieve a little less injustice in Uruguay to help the most vulnerable and leave behind a political way of thinking a way of looking at a future that will be passed on and used to move forward. There’s nothing short-term, no victory around the corner. I will not achieve paradise or anything like that. What I want is to fight a common good for progress. Life slips by, the way to continue it is for others to continue your work.”
Once in a while, something so surprisingly beautiful happens.Just when you think you are going to fall into an endless tunnel of nothingness suspended in space and time, you blink and there it is. A, way.
Click here to listen to the audio version of this article.
It is rather unfortunate that the newest political party in South Africa chose to name itself the Economic Freedom Fighters because instead of it articulating that it is a political party which stands for economic freedom for the majority of the country’s citizens it sounds as if they are a political party fighting (against) economic freedom.
The difference here is analogous to a recent incident involving a tweet by US President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. After a long day of making speeches and meeting with heads of state at the United Nations’ General assembly, Ivanka Tweeted: “Cuddling with my little nephew Luke…the best part after an otherwise incredible day”. Media personality and celebrity Chrissy Teigen didn’t waste time correcting Ivanka’s grammar and syntax. “otherwise makes it sound like you didn’t like hangin’ with this baby” she reacted to the tweet, later adding that “overall, is the word.” Twitter fell in love with Chrissy Tiegens’ comments who has been outspoken about her hatred for Trump, promptly crowning her Twitter’s Grammar Police in Chief.
The sentence construction is wrong because ‘otherwise’ in this context is an adverb that means in other respects or apart from that’. Even though most people would agree that Ivanka wrote the exact opposite of what she actually meant, she would not be forgiven for it because she represents Donald Trump – a man a section of American people and parts of the world love to hate.
Obviously, this is the kind of mistake that would be understated had Ivanka been president Obama’s daughter – and in the larger scheme of things it does nothing to change the status quo in the United States government. Donald Trump remains president. Tiegen interestingly is also an admirer of Ivanka Trump. She said as much in a Glamour magazine interview last year saying she thinks Ivanka should run for office.’I think Ivanka seems like an incredibly wonderful businesswoman and mother. She has enviable poise and grace in a very difficult situation”
While the party’s inclusion of the word “fighter” is unfortunate – it was no mistake, it was a strategic and deliberate choice for them. The word holds symbolic meaning both for the party’s commander-in-chief Julius Malema who is fighting back against the man and political party which made him and a growing number of black South Africans disillusioned with the ANC who are seeking a new political home. It hearkens to an epoch which animated and motivated thousands of African black people across the country’s townships to take to the streets in an effort to overthrow the Apartheid government only to discover that the system still stands in post-Apartheid South Africa. It calls on ghosts who lie restless in a cemetery of a stunted revolution.
In this context, Julius Malema behaves much like the one eyed-character of Raletloana in the popular 1980’s South African drama series Lesilo Rula, who blew on a horn calling on the ghost of Lesilo to arise from its’ grave and attack his opponents whenever his words failed him. Fighter triggers the widely repressed belief in the psyche of black South Africans that the war was not won in 1994 and that it somehow continues on albeit in a different form. The word fighter, like otherwise, diminishes the objectives of the political party to achieve Economic Freedom overall.
Much like the overall uniforms, the party’s MPs wore in parliament when they were sworn in for the first time – did nothing to advocate for improved working conditions or the enforcement of a minimum wage for thousands of the country’s domestic and mine workers. All we’ve heard since the EFF was elected to parliament is Zuma, Zuma, Zuma.
Julius Malema rose to the top by using fear; the fear of violence and death as a weapon against his competition. He shouted from podiums that he will kill for Zuma and sang struggle songs saying “Kill the boer “or “Dubula’bhunu” which captured the imagination of all South Africans black and white for different and opposing reasons including the media which loved to hate him.
Now recently he and his fellow fighters who have become media darlings, caused a stir in parliament for calling President Jacob Zuma, Duduzane’s Father, claiming that Zuma is not their president. When reproached for using Duduzane’s Father as a pejorative he countered that in his culture calling a man by his son’s name is, in fact, a sign of respect. Which is true when you are visiting him in his domestic abode and not so much when addressing a head of state at the national assembly.
The EFFs haggling in parliament has been canonized in a house song called “ UbabakaDuduzane” featuring a variety of South African dance moves including that of President Jacob Zuma dancing outside the ANC’s headquarters in 2009 – following a victory at the polls, which Julius Malema and co. helped him win.
All of this makes the EFF look like a party which is employed to dramatically over-react in a play they did not write. While Malema and his supporters seem to challenge traditional or orthodox political thought, on one hand, they do so by deliberately manipulating language using context transcending narratives where it suits them and employing genealogical contexts when it is expedient for them, on the other. They are shape-shifting composites of multiple ideas becoming other while producing something which is continuously metamorphosing: pandering to power structures while simultaneously throwing them off.They pose in red and black academic gowns celebrating their academic achievements – while simultaneously attacking the very foundations of the education they want to make “fashionable.” Unlike Burkinabe President Thomas Sankara whose ideology they used as a red carpet on their way to claim their seats in parliament, they are not upright.
Julius Malema and his fighters are in parliament not to empower but to get their own back much like the Sicarios; zealots of Jerusalem who hunted the Romans for invading their homeland. They are agents provocateurs captured by a power unknown to us which is using them as bait or as a distraction in the real takeover taking place in the country. Their motives and overall objectives so far seem to advocate for the opposite of economic freedom, for all.
You can also listen to an audio version of this columnhere
In the 2008 documentary film Behind the Rainbow by Egyptian-French filmmaker, Jihan El Tahri President Jacob Zuma told a story which has stayed with me for nine years. The story was about his arrest in Swaziland while working as the ANC underground coordinator in 1975. At the time, the ANC wanted to train military operatives whom they planned to inject back into South Africa to conduct missions. The Swazi authorities did not want the ANC to conduct military activities on their soil, so they kept the ANC house under close surveillance. President Jacob Zuma recounted the story which gives us an insight into how he behaves under pressure. “I saw a car parked and shortly thereafter the police came in. When the police say, come to the police station you are not likely to come back.” He said, raising his hands up in mock surrender. ‘So, I said Let me eat first, so we ate and that’s how we were arrested”
This short story defined the character of President Jacob Zuma for me, cementing him in my mind as a man who holds his ground tenaciously regardless of the apocalypse surrounding him.
The ancient Greeks defined the word apocalypse, not as a foreboding word spelling doom, disaster or the end of the world as we have come to understand it in Biblical terms. The word apocalypse in Greek literally means the uncovering, a disclosure of knowledge or revelation. Lifting the veil on that which was formerly hidden.
Interpreted in this way, this word then gives us a framework within which to understand and describe what is happening politically in South Africa today. We are going through an apocalypse of gigantic proportions which brings to light each week all the different ways in which the political elite, government officials, state agencies and corporate South Africa have colluded in corrupt practices since 1994.
And President Jacob Zuma who is currently at the centre of this storm is bidding his time, hanging on quietly to ensure that his wives, children, extended family and friends are well taken care of before he is forced to leave the table. He will eat first despite the vultures which are surrounding his camp waiting to pluck at the dead flesh of his controversial presidency.
As much as most of South Africa and some members of the ANC are desperate to get President Jacob Zuma out of government with immediate effect – we would all be remiss to focus only on him as the source of the fungus clogging up systems in government – because he is very clearly not the only one. White monopoly capital is as real and true as the insidious nature of the friendship between the Gupta’s and the president. We should never forget that it was indeed former president Nelson Mandela himself who ordered his “boys” in the ANC not to upset the ship in the order for the negotiated settlement go ahead as planned with all the compromises that had been made.
Former president Thabo Mbeki said a much in an interview he gave in Behind The Rainbow, “we put ourselves in the shoes of the other side, we said to ourselves if we were the National Party we would be reluctant to lose power and therefore we would fight against change…. because they’d be fearful. These black people who they’ve always defined in a particular way; terrorists, communists all these terrible things you’d be fearful of them taking over. So, we said well, to address that fear we said let’s offer them the sunset clauses to say you will not lose power completely. And it meant not only retaining some of them in cabinet it also meant retaining people in the public service”
While this may have been a great negotiating tactic for the ANC at the time the unintended consequences meant that the structures of apartheid both in government and in the corporate sector were not entirely dismantled
When President Nelson Mandela went on a tour in Europe he told the corporate world in Paris France that he had the labour unions under his control and a large number of state enterprises which were open for business – for private-public partnerships which became the new buzzwords of our new democracy.
Thabo Mbeki said pleasing the west was paramount in their decision-making at the time “we had to take into account the international setting what we do here could turn a significant part of the world against us which would not be right. If we hadn’t done that I
20 years on the violence they feared would tipple the ship is now eating away at the very fabric of our society, from our bedrooms to the streets and it is threatening to unravel the delicate stitches weaving the country together.
If we all understand that much of what is happening in the country economically is a result of decisions made 20, 30, 40 years ago. We can also see that the new information which is coming to light is important to help us steer the ship in a completely new direction, one which is more aligned with the values and principles inscribed in the constitution and the bill of rights.
Changing course might not seem easy but it is our best alternative to continuing down this path. Perhaps this time we can apply our minds more rigorously to the real options we have available; which of the political parties contesting the elections are the embodiment of our highest ideals?
What we decide to do now will be critical to the future of South Africa. It is important for us to know what is happening and who the real players are behind the faces in parliament.
Perhaps then we can have a chance to elect leaders who are sober, courageous and pragmatic enough to stand for what is right with as much passion and tenacity as President Jacob Zuma and the ANC are at the dinner table.
Change is taking place and we need to be wide awake to it. We need to make sure that it’s a change we can believe in and support with our actions, lest we cross the Rubicon.
“In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.” – BR Ambedkar, leader of India’s “Untouchables”, 1949
There’s an old story that’s been passed around in some circles here, where I live. It’s about an old woman who, upon learning that freedom had descended in South Africa, left her home in a predominantly black township and headed towards the tree-lined cool mansions in a whites-only neighbourhood and stood outside her dream house, waiting. The old woman had been convinced that, with democracy, black South Africans who had been previously excluded from sharing in the wealth of the country, would automatically gain access to it. For her, this meant that she could have her pick of her dream house and move in – just like that.
In the period leading up to the elections of 1994, part of the ANC election campaign included promises to provide free housing, free education, free electricity and free water. It is said that this woman camped outside the house for days – waiting for the occupants of her house to leave – until someone had to explain to her that that’s not how democracy or freedom works.
The occupants of this house were not moving out. They owned the house. Even if they were willing to sell, she would have to find the money to buy the house and pay for its upkeep, including amenities such as water and electricity. To get that house she would have to work and earn enough money to qualify for a loan to buy it. Democracy meant that she was free to move and live anywhere in the country – but at her own cost.
In many ways, I think that there are many South Africans who are still camping outside their dream homes – waiting for the occupants to come out so they can move in. Like the old woman, they seem to have never gotten the memo.
Nothing is free
In her book,Money From Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa, Deborah James notes that the novel economic policies adopted by the new democratic dispensation – which was a surprising deviation from the Marxist-leaning ANC – had unintended consequences. She says statistics showed a significant rate of indebtedness in the population.
“As consumers, new aspirations were unleashed. It began to appear that the freedom to exercise political choice was being paralleled, even outstripped, by the freedom to engage in conspicuous consumption.”
Since the creation of the black middle-class seemed difficult to achieve without credit – people were getting in over their heads and this trend has not abated. Data released in 2016 by the debt managing firm, Debt Rescue, shows that South African men and women have now become almost equal in the R1.64 trillion debt they collectively owe to creditors.
CEO, Neil Roets, said the group’s in-house statistics showed that men made up 49% of the indebted consumers, while women came in first, making up 51%.
I did not join the revolution to be poor
Even the government has not been immune to this trend. In an article published in 2015, Budgeting In The Real World, Michael Sachs of the National Treasury notes that despite increased government spending in the public sector, growth in South Africa remained sluggish. “The economy has grown slowly for six years. If the National Treasury’s projections are correct, we face another three years of slow growth. Despite massive additions to spending on social services, economic growth has remained sluggish. Instead of promoting faster growth, it is likely that public spending is now contributing to a widening current account deficit, entrenching our dependence on foreign savings.”
Not only are individuals over-indebted, so is the State, which is now being forced to rely on foreign loans to meet domestic needs. The overstretched middle class will have to face the reality of having to pay even higher taxes in order to help government bridge the shortfall. We have become slaves to debt.
What this comes down to is: instead of more money we need more creative thinking around our current problems. Instead of more money-laundering schemes, we need more mind-laundering strategies.
Because even if that old woman’s dream had come true – even if the occupants of the house vacated and said, ‘here’s the house; you can have it’ – she would still need to find a way to maintain the house in the leafy suburbs. She would need money to pay for goods and services and, in the end, without any means of generating an income, she will end up being poorer than she was before.
We need to count the cost
Back in 1992, African-American writer and academic, bell hooks, raised an issue among black intellectuals and professionals which I think is one we need to ask ourselves collectively, particularly in black communities who are afflicted with the burden of addictions and a myriad other psychological diseases brought on by a breakdown in the support systems within our communities. “The question for me then is how do we share resources within diverse black communities… For me, dealing with addicts in the family – the concrete questions of co-dependency to what extent do we share our resources to enable (continued drug use), to what extent do we share resources in the interest of allowing people to redeem their lives?” What models of responsibility do we have in cases where people are trying to figure out how to share resources without further disabling those who have made progress?
How do we talk about the redistribution of resources without talking about what we are all willing to give up? I don’t believe that we can convince masses of other people to give up some of their resources if we don’t.
The answer, it seems, does not lie in more money, but in what we do with it.
“The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” ― Steve Biko
The recent exchange between ‘the people’s bae’ South African Member of Parliament and Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi (PhD) and a candidate for the SABC board Rachel Kalidass, got me thinking about the politics of representation, race and class in the country.
During the interview ‘the people’s bae‘ leaned into his mic and asked, ‘what do you think about Tjovitjo?” The respondent Kalidass, a chartered accountant and former SABC board member evidently flustered by his question, batted her eyes lids behind clear thin glasses and then answered the MP with her own question “I’m sorry, what?”
After a few rounds of clarification, Kalidass who is included in the final list of 12 names recommended to serve on the SABC board, eventually answered that not only does she not know who or what Tjovitjo is she is, in fact, more inclined to watch SABC 3 which is a channel geared towards urban metropolitan South Africans – who are global citizens, well read, well-travelled and earn on average over 17 thousand rands a month (LSM 7-10). Tjovitjo is aired on SABC 1 which targets the often-rural peri urban working class South Africans, with some primary education and earn between one thousand and 6 thousand rand a month (LSM 1-6).
The question and her answer were laughed off by the parliamentary panel. But it got people on twitter tweeting on opposite lines of the fence. Some argued that she is not a board member of the SABC 3 channel only and should rather stay home while others countered that she can’t possibly be expected to know all programming on SABC’s numerous platforms.
Be that as it may. I sight this incident which is possibly innocuous in the context of everything else that’s happening both within government and at the SABC, because it speaks directly to what concerns me the most about the state of our nation. The jarring, growing and consistent disconnect between those who are elected to serve or work for the public’s interest and the actual public.
Kalidass and her colleagues are faced with a mammoth of task of restoring the image, reputation and credibility of the public-state- broadcaster from a long history of scandals, mismanagement, corruption, undue political interference and censorship which led to the firing of its most controversial Chief Operations Officer (COO) to date, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the purging of the SABC board, the firing of SABC8 journalists who blew the whistle against increased censorship in the broadcaster’s news division. Censorship which later led to the untimely death of SABC8 journalist Suna Venter three months ago.
Viewed in this historical context, Tjovitjo a 26-part drama series about the lives of a group dancers amatjovitjo, who live in peri-urban-poverty-ridden-opportunity-less squatter camps who use dance as way to not only express their frustration with their lives but to overcome them – is the only good news story to have come out of the SABC in recent months. The drama series drew more than 5 million viewers for its first episode breaking the SABC’s own records since Yizo-Yizo, a popular youth drama series which aired in 1999-2004.
While watching episode three of the series it felt so real I cried real ones when one of the protagonists – a young unemployed school dropout and mother who pays for her child’s transportation to school with sexual favours – broke down crying saying, “I’m tired of this life, every day I must hustle, hustle, hustle for everything.” Her mother who sat quietly by responded: “don’t cry my child everyone is living this life.” Everyone must hustle.
Despite the positive reviews which praised the producers and actors for their brilliant artistry. I realized how exhausted I was by this seemingly never-ending story of black poverty. I began to think to myself – if I never see another inspirational story of South Africans dancing and singing their way through the dusty streets of some township, ghetto, crime ridden, corrupt, poverty-stricken, hungry smiling, disease laden squatter camp – it will be too soon. Too soon indeed.
Despite the many misgivings I may have about the stereotypes which persist in the series and questions of whether we are not in some ways continuing to monetize the anxieties and suffering of black people. I also know this:
TjoviTjo is about the 30 million South Africans who are currently living in poverty, the majority of whom are black (women) people who watch SABC1 for entertainment. It depicts in real and tangible terms what the government and the ruling party ANC have failed to do and still need to do. This is what Tjovitjo represents. The lived experiences of more than half of the country’s population.
Like Kalidass I myself am inclined towards the upwardly mobile educated lifestyle populated with people who are travelling the world and read books for leisure, who isn’t? Except that I have been there before. I have lived among those people who reside in the forgotten wastelands of our rainbow nation and together we met the glare of hopelessness in the eye and danced sePansula by candle light until midnight to while away the time. We danced, rehearsed every chance we could to stave off hunger or the desire to do something more damaging to our prospects. We danced against despair and we danced for survival. I know how significant it is to shout or hear screams of tjovitjo!!! Amid whistles and claps of appreciation from friends as we fall into step together. So, I cannot afford not to know. I cannot afford to look away and as a public representative, neither can she. Because the only hope we all have of changing this particular story is to face it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Beyond the biblical definition of what love is: kind, patient, does not boast, does not think of evil, always hopes, is not self-seeking etc. I have had a serious struggle with love, loving and being loved. At times when thinking of love the words of African-American writer James Baldwin came to mind with his very sobering recognition that ‘love does not begin and end the way we think it does, love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up” or when he said, “Love takes off the masks we fear we can’t live without and know we cannot live within.”
Here, Baldwin offers a complex understanding of what love is, which contradicts the dominant popular culture or what depictions of love in mainstream media would have us believe. This type of love, Baldwins’ love calls one out, holds one accountable, forces one to face reality without rose-tinted glasses without the endorphins that rush to the head when we’re in love, obsessed and infatuated with an idea, something or someone. This love is about taking responsibility in this moment, in the now, for future generations. It is about temperance and balance, it is a sobering love.
Yet often when one thinks of love, one is not met with images of war and battles even if those people waging said wars might say they are motivated by the love of country, spouse, family member etc. The word love often conjures up images of comfort, affection, passivity and care.
Instead of love being used as a positive change agent it has become a platitude. Much like, beauty, intensely arresting, fleeting and almost always intangible.
Personally, I have struggled with knowing or identifying what true love is, when love begins, when it ends, when to recommit or when to leave a relationship or situation. I have not always known how to be both loving to myself and to another in such a way that both parties are aware or understand that the act of love is taking place. Often my struggle with love, loving and being loved has been internalized, hidden from view. At times, my words have fallen on the floor forcing me to retreat further into silence.
Now I understand Baldwins’ assertion of love being a battle and a war, to be one which a person embarks on internally. The journey to love is in effect an interior one, it is an inner conflict – a journey towards an interior conquest and domination of ones’ self, of one’s impulses. This journey is about developing self-control by voluntarily putting limitations on ones’ desires, urges, anxieties and proclivities. While the masks love removes can be very personal they also represent the ‘gods”; they are the personification of power structures in any society. Removing the masks in effect removes your dependence on them.
Speaking of race and racism in the 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro – Baldwin removes race or racism as an objective reason for misbehaviour in our society. “It’s not a racial problem,” he says ” it’s a problem of whether you are able to look at yourself, are willing to look at your life, take responsibility for it and be willing to change it”
Baldwin’s statement which personalises a systemic (structural) problem in diverse global societies might seem misguided at first, but when used to analyse a society like South Africa where Africans and or non-white people hold the seat of power – the truth emerges. Because within this framework it makes no sense to continue to blame white supremacists’ capitalist patriarchy or Apartheid structures when we are the ones who are in control. The white-supremacy-capitalist-patriarchy complex is no longer an outside enemy personified by white men and women – it is in-fact an idea which resides within- for which we have become willing and active agents. We have broken through these constructs as fact and understand them to be a metaphor. We have become representatives of what these metaphors stand for.
So, it makes no sense to continue to focus only on the Guptas or the Zumas, even the ANC as the sole progenitors of our collective malaise. Love would require us to be cognizant of reality; of what is going on, that we are also active agents in our own oppression. We, like them, have fallen victim to these external forces because we lack self-control. We are out of control. As individuals and as a nation we have voluntarily given our power away. We refuse to take responsibility for our own lives and so for this reason if it’s not Zuma, it’s the Guptas, if it’s not the Guptas it will be white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy if it’s not it will be white monopoly capital, if it’s not then it must be China, if not then it’s the third force, if it’s not the third force, it is the DA, EFF or IFP, if it’s not then it is surely the foreigners, the immigrants, the men, the women, our neighbours and then finally the ever-elusive demons.
This type of thinking allows us to remain perpetual victims; people who are incapacitated – who are always powerless against external interventions.
I think of love today and I know that I cannot claim to truly love anything or anyone if I don’t speak the truth for fear of being abandoned or isolated from it. That’s the risk one must bear as a practitioner of love. Just like a normal parent.
The Guptas may be on our stoep but we invited them in and served them whiskey or tea on the rocks.
Whether the cause of our pain comes from systemic racism fuelled by white supremacist’s capitalist patriarchy or not, as individual men and women we still need to take responsibility for our roles within the system. We must recognize that we also have something to do with it. When we do we’ll find out that we have been, for the most part, hiding behind these constructs in order to continue our lives as victims of something or someone because as victims we cannot be held accountable or made responsible for anything that happens to us. Much less what we do or do not do. If we remove white supremacist’s capitalist patriarchy, racism and all its appendices we find that we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We are responsible for our communities, countries and nations. We are responsible for who we are in them, and how we choose to show up. We are responsible for how we treat each other.
Part of regaining our power will be to embrace radical openness in our public and private lives. To learn or know how to hear information and think critically about it, without eliminating or silencing dissenting voices or every and any opinion that goes against the status quo. Because the more we suppress and annihilate radical opposing voices the more we will suffer as a result, this is what silencing does, it makes the problem worse. Examples of this are too numerous to list. Taking control of our personal and public lives, acknowledging our limitations and identifying our strengths; being conscious does not make us victims but equal partners at the seat of power. Because when we do that, we cease to be slaves to our own appetites, good or bad. We are not victims.
African-American cultural critic and writer bell hooks notes that we’ve always thought of our heroes as having to do with death and war. Referencing Joseph Campbell and the whole idea of a heroic journey (A Hero With a Thousand Faces) hooks says this journey is rarely a journey that’s about love, it’s about deeds that have to do with conquering and domination she adds. “Living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic, to work at love to really let yourself understand the art of loving.”
To choose to be patient, or kind. To trust, to always hope and to persevere.
It’s difficult. I am at a loss for words and a piece of me is still hoping that it’s not true. My former SABC Radio News Assignment editor and Veteran Journalist Zola “The General” Ntutu has passed away. Found dead, in bed, alone in his flat on Sunday the 20th August 2017. I was talking to him just the other day, about work. I wondered if what I was proposing was worth his time he said no, he doesn’t think it would be worth his time. I agreed with him and wished him well. Just a few days ago. How could he now be no more? Yes, my Facebook timeline was often filled with regular updates regarding his health. He was frequently in and out of the hospital, I would comment on his thread at times; “Strength to you Zola” or “Get well soon General” (a name he got for his struggle days in Port Elizabeth). But lately he had been posting cheerful stuff, jokes about women, men and soccer fans being sore losers. So I assumed all was well. After our conversation, I had no reason to believe that those would be the last and final words I would say to him. Stay well. You see I had a vested, selfish interest in his survival, in his life because I was hoping to eventually give him a copy of my book one day, a book inspired in part by him and journalists of his generation. I had hoped that he would open the book and read about himself, through my eyes. Read about how he was such a strong and ever-present dependable influence and character in my tenure as a radio journalist at the SABC. It was my way of thanking him for teaching me how to write, how to tell a story, a great radio story – more importantly he taught me how to think, how to defend, clarify, argue my positions when we debated stories in diary meetings or when he’d call me to sit by him while he edited my stories. Think Jedi…. What do you mean by this…. Nooo man Jedi but this does not make sense, what are you trying to say? I can still hear his voice loudly in my head as I write this. What am I trying to say? Gosh it was meant to be a surprise.
To be honest there was something stinging about his last words to me. When he replied that it wasn’t worth his time. I mean I knew it wasn’t worth his time, I was surprised by his interest. But I still felt a tinge of sadness, I wanted to know what he was busy with instead. I didn’t want to pry into his private life yet I knew I could trust him to be honest, to always tell me the truth even if I didn’t want to hear it. Like when I returned from my first international assignment. He didn’t mince his words, “You f***d up” and he was right. Or when I refused to get married “you must light other people’s candles, don’t be selfish” or when I was job hopping “You’re all over the place, you need to settle down”
Why didn’t I think to say thank you then while I still had his attention, why hadn’t I told him then that I thought he was one of the best editors/journalists I knew?
Why hadn’t I told him that despite everything, I respected him?
Because I thought I had time. I thought I would walk into the Johannesburg SABC radio news office, my second home for close to ten years and still find him sitting there, at the corner wearing his black leather jacket or an African print shirt, a black beret, or rolled up woollen hat on his head, editing radio scripts or asking yet another radio journalist what they meant by this sentence – place the book next to him on his desk and say thank you. Enkosi. Check.
Ours was a largely professional relationship. I met him when I was 20 while still an intern, lost and confused at the World Racism Conference in Durban, 2001. He was loud, boisterous, argumentative, playful, witty, dark, broody, moody, his laugh was lyrical, loud, and foreboding all at once. I didn’t know what to make of him. He put the fear of God in me and I was a born-again Christian. It took a very long time for me to warm to him and relax. Because I didn’t know how to deal with I treated him like a distant father figure, an elder, a strict, wayward but favourite uncle.
And yet Zola Ntutu was no respecter of titles, positions, hierarchy, social class, power structures he was, for the most part, the most irreverent person I knew. I was curious about him and found him simultaneously open and closed off to me. I stalked him in other ways, by listening to his archived radio stories, in particular, those he produced around the TRC, and I caught glimpses of him in Antjie Krog’s book of the on the TRC hearings, Country of my Skull. He reported extensively on the pre-election violence in the early 1990’s in various townships, particularly on Johannesburg’s East Rand. But for a large part he remained a mystery to me, a Pandora’s box I was afraid to open. I didn’t know about his background in photojournalism, though he liked my photojournalism after I had left. He seldom spoke of himself. And so for years, he remained to me an elder and boss but never a peer.
Until he showed up one day after a group of us (women) journalists while off-duty had been robbed at gunpoint at Johannesburg’s’ Zoolake, he drove out to the scene to make sure that we were all still breathing. I saw how unbelievably tender his heart was. I got a glimpse of what was hiding behind his loud, witty and brooding often hung-over face. He was a softie. Tender and kind. A man who cared deeply about life, he was perhaps a closet idealist. I found a new fondness for him and in my heart, he became more than a comrade, more than an editor and more than my boss. He was a Kindred. He made a fuss. He cared. He was passionate, compassionate, loving. Even when he barely grunted a hello on Monday or weekend mornings walking past my desk, or when shouted where’s your script or bellowed my name at the top of his voice from his office, even though at times I dreaded it when he was the editor on duty because he would (not) let things slide; he would interrogate you, send you to stories you didn’t want to cover or make you write about subjects you didn’t think were newsworthy because he had won the argument about why that story was important. He was intellectually rigorous. Could debate you on any subject. He was tough, stubborn, relentless and often difficult, he challenged me and sometimes this made him seem impossible. But despite all of that I knew that he was my comrade.
He was with us in the trenches. He defended us at Line talk. He was a journalists’ ally.
Before I finally left the SABC for the second time, post-Marikana we had a difficult conversation. About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst journalists an underlying theme of the book, I’ve been working on. He said it was a huge problem in South African newsrooms. One which both editors and journalists neither dealt with or were prepared for. I was trying not to lose my temper and argue with him. Because he was not well.
It’s hard to describe a journalists’ relationship with an editor. It’s personal, intimate, often vacillates from love to hate in a matter of milliseconds. Sometimes frustratingly hostile, bitter, competitive, tearful and at other times joyful, funny, sarcastic other times endearing, full of tension, admiration and mutual respect. It is also at the same time distant, detached. Alien, foreign, clinical. More than that though the editor knows things about you. They know all the unedited parts of you. They see you every day, raw and unpolished and like a parent, they clean you up, show you how to do it, and hope you can one-day do it yourself and surprise them, in a good way.
It’s hard for me to describe my relationship with him and for all these reasons I couldn’t for the life of me ask him. I couldn’t get the question out of my mouth. What I wanted to know the most during our interview.
There was so much that was left unsaid.
What I know for sure though, is that Zola Ntutu always had time for me. He had time for me and my fellow (former) Johannesburg Radio News Journalists. He fought with and for us, he forced us to grow. He pushed us even when he himself was weak and, barely breathing. He made the time for each and everyone of us. My words, our words mattered to him, not because he was paid to look at them, but because we shared the same belief about the reason many of us had become journalists.
“Our job is to tell the truth if we don’t who will?”
And for that, I will be forever grateful. I never thought I’d see these words so soon.
You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served”— Nina Simone.
A Facebook update from a friend of a friend posted on National Women’s Day in South Africa got me thinking, deeply. She said;
“Don’t call me a strong woman. I’m not your Mbokodo (Rock/Boulder) me. This thing of likening women to indestructible boulders is getting us killed”
At first glance, this statement seems to spit in the face of thousands of women who bravely marched to the Union Buildings 61 years ago in protest against the brutal and imperialistic Apartheid government. The reason we celebrate Womans’ Day on the 9th August every year. It was an auspicious March, arguably the largest gathering of activists from around the country since the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955. The women covered every inch of the of the historic lawns united by one song, an anthem: Wathinta’abafazi Wathinti’mbokodo. You strike a woman, you strike a rock, you have dislodged a boulder which will roll down and crush you. This anthem galvanized the women. It gave them the strength to challenge the iron fisted Right Wing Hans Strydom, Verwoerd and co. It was a necessary coping/defiance mechanism against an arrogant racist, violent, and repressive government.
But between you and me, I agree with my friends’ friend. I think this anthem, this slogan has served its purpose. This coping mechanism, this metaphor which once symbolised courage has now become a weapon used against women in South Africa. As if at the march, the women exchanged the dom-pas for a male fist. It has expired, it is outdated. It no longer works. In a country where one in three men admit that they have forced themselves (raped) on women at some point in their lives, in a country with one of the highest rates of femicide in the world; it is abundantly clear that women are not rocks, we are not indestructible boulders. We hurt, we bleed, we feel pain, and we are ultimately mortal. We won’t rise like the Phoenix. It’s a myth.
A friend of mine who works as a domestic worker in the suburbs of Johannesburg once put this into sharp perspective for me. She said, you know Jedi I’m tired. Every day as I clean and rub the floor, it’s not the concrete that disappears, it’s me. The rock stays the same, but you don’t, it wears you down after a while.
So, knowing that you are not a rock, that you do bruise and you will die if you stay with a man or woman who treats your body like a rock will save you. It will help you to get out. Today you must be soft and walk away, don’t look back. I know that the other women paved the way for your freedom, but they didn’t bravely march to the Union Buildings to confront imperialists so that you can die at the hands of your comrades in the revolution. They marched so you can be free to leave, free to move, free to love and be loved by someone who would not even consider laying a hand on your beautiful face to solve a problem. They did not march so you can be beaten, raped or murdered in the name of a political party or the liberation movement.
Listen even the ANC’s women’s league president Bathabile Dlamini made this clear in an interview given to the Sunday papers. She said that the Deputy Director of Higher Education Mduduzi Mananas’ recent assault of a young woman was negligible compared to what other senior political figures in government have done or are currently doing to women. Implying that Manana is not the only nor the worst sexual offender in government. In fact, gender based violence has become just a political game for Dlamini. “I don’t want to be part of those games…. Even in other parties, there is sexual harassment and it’s not treated the way it’s treated in the ANC. And I refuse that this issue is made a political tool. It’s not a political tool”
Between you and me. We know that sex and violence are political tools often used between the sheets or between the pages shuffled in government so Dlamini’s statement is vacuous. It is empty, there’s nothing to it. Nada. Dololo. Don’t stay. Get out.
The ruling political party’s ideals are limited by an attachment to a status quo that keeps them the dominant class. Even well-intentioned individuals within the liberation movement can’t resist the rewards of an unequal society that favours them. Their true and primary allegiance is to their class and the privileges they are Happy to enjoy.
One of my more erudite friends on Facebook commenting on a controversial American film said something which I think can be applied to our current situation: “There can be a fine line between the portrayal of racial violence as a critical and necessary record of the long history of white supremacy and the portrayal of racial violence such that it repeats white supremacy’s very terms. Katheryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” about the 1967 riots and a particularly vicious night of police brutality at the Algiers Hotel, in my opinion, doesn’t fall clearly on the right side of that line.”
I would like you to replace white supremacy with patriarchy and racial violence with misogyny. And see that there can be a fine line between standing up for women’s rights (you strike a woman, you strike a rock) as a critical and necessary resistance against patriarchy and standing up for women’s rights in such a way that it repeats and perpetuates violence against women.
In this context, the slogan, Wathinti’Abafazi, You strike a Rock, no longer falls on the right side of that line. In my 14 years as a journalist observing and speaking to female politicians, I noticed a disturbing trend with women politicians admitting that they will consciously tow the party line at the expense of women’s rights. Progressive, intelligent, nice, sweet, stylish beautiful and friendly women and men with bright smiles will vote in favour of your abuser in order to stay in power and keep their positions. It’s the nature of politics. Why? Because they have been rocks, they have been sexually harassed, abused and assaulted as a result they expect you to do the same. They expect you to be strong. Be a Rock. Take one for the team. Take it. For the liberation movement. They have become numb to pain. Don’t be like the ANC Women’s league or a Rock. they are the veteran survivors or even current victims of abuse.
Do not exchange toxic masculinity for toxic femininity. Both are bad for you.
Don’t feel bad for leaving. You are saving your own life and his or hers mind you. If you need scientific evidence, a recent study by psychologists at the University of UC Berkeley found that feeling bad about feeling bad only serves to make things worse. Don’t attempt to feel upbeat about a bad situation. Don’t feel bad about leaving. It’s bad enough that you’re in an abusive relationship or that you have been violated in some way – accept that it’s bad and that as much as you love the revolution, you can’t change anyone or that man. Your man needs help. But you are not his saviour. You can’t change him, heal him or save him. The only way to help him is to show him that you are not a rock. You are soft. Let him see and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that what he is doing is killing you, walk away. Get the restraining order. Call POWA. Even the police. Make a detailed record of events. File a case. Move out. Call a friend.
Not all men cheat, not all men rape or abuse women. Not all men are trash I promise you. You’ll meet someone who knows that love does not equal violence or pain. Dare to leave.
Being a rock may have worked in 1956 but it’s not working today. So, exchange that fist for a piece of paper and walk out. I know it’s been said before that “Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka mo bogaleng” A Sesotho idiom which means a woman holds the sharp end of the knife. Yes, she does but only if she has to, only if her children are under siege. Don’t let it get there. Walk out.
While you still can. You’re not a rock, you’re woman. Soft and human. Apartheid is over, and while this freedom may exist only on paper for most women, this paper is still a valid ticket for you to get out of there. Apply it. Use that App. Make it speak for you. You have a right to live a full and happy life. This is how you honour the women who marched in 1956.
Take your freedom and Leave. Run if you have to. Let them know that you strike a woman, she leaves. Period.
“Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as codewords, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality, to improve the concrete situation of the masses of our country.” ― Thomas Sankara
I’ve been itching to write a review of Trevor Noah’s book of childhood stories Born A Crime (2016, Spiegel and Grau) after picking it up one night reading it and finishing before daybreak. A great fan of African(fiction) literature which tends to be heavy, it was refreshing to read a non-fiction book which was so funny I cried so hard from laughter. What cracked me up the most was his experiences with his hyper-religious mother; the long travels to the different churches, the prayer meetings, the exorcising of demons including the debates about how one determines the will of God in solving everyday problems. His stories resonated with me and at times it felt as if Noah and I grew up together while having parallel life experiences with different parents, in different parts of the country and now world. I have often wished to have a conversation with someone about the psychological impacts of dogma; what sort of human does an upbringing like that produce?
I wanted to write a whole blog post about how funny I thought he was and how much I loved his writing style in time for his South African three-day Comedy show (There’s a Gupta on my Stoep) from Wednesday to Friday at the Dome this week. But his first show coincides with Women’s day here in South Africa on the 9th of August which commemorates the 1956 March of an estimated 20 thousand women to the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government in Pretoria. The women marched in protest against pass laws or the 1952 Native Law Amendment Act. The Law aimed to tighten the influx into the country’s urban areas making it illegal for any African (black men including women) to be in any urban area for more than 72 hours or three days unless in possession of the necessary documentation; pass books or dom-passes.
I wanted to reflect on what this historic day means for all South African women today, and writing about Trevor Noah’s book felt a little bit off. I also wondered if my reflections or sharing a story with you about the plight of women in South Africa today, wouldn’t be eclipsed by the results of the secret ballot or vote of no confidence against current President Jacob Zuma, which would either have parliamentary speaker and presidential hopeful Baleka Mbete elected as a (token woman) acting President of South Africa for the next 30 days or maintain the status quo with President Jacob Zuma holding on to his seat. You see, there’s so much material I had to work with…
Before you start accusing me of using Trevor Noah, his book and comedy show as click-bait to force you to read another unrelated story, let me do a two-paragraph review of the book. It was a wonderfully refreshing read which had me congratulating Trevor Noah out-loud for having the ability to turn his life story and experiences into a thriving multimillion dollar empire. Well done T! I bought the book as a birthday present for my youngest brother hoping that he would be acquainted with a bit of South African history which Noah does a great job of summarizing in this book. I thought he’d also end up saying hello fellow anomaly. But, Alas.
In short, I loved the book, thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I even told my younger sister about it who promptly borrowed it from my brother and is now reading it as we speak. She wants to start a support group for people who were raised by Jimmy Swaggart and radio pulpit. Even so, I was still torn about writing a review of Trevor Noah’s book on women’s day; even though Born A Crime is essentially about Trevor’s mother, even though Trevor gave his mother the last word in it. Even though Trevor has confessed in interviews and during his comedy shows that he’s a feminist. I was still hesitant because Trevor is still a man. He is a man who rightfully wrote a book about himself in honour of his mother. He can’t be faulted; the book speaks for itself so why do I even want to write about it? On women’s day too?
My dilemma provides a great segue way to this story: the one I actually want to tell you about. It concerns women in rural KwaZulu Natal who are made to pay a spot fine for speaking up and protesting decisions that their chiefs, Induna’s and iNkosi make on their behalf without their consent. They are charged because they are women challenging a man’s authority. Their story is a very long one which begins in the early 1970’s when they were being forcibly removed by the Apartheid Government from one community to the next, but today they are being silenced by culture and tradition under a democratic dispensation. Each time they have tried to voice their concerns over mining activities in their communities which have killed their crops, livestock and polluted their drinking water they are told that they are women, they don’t have a right to speak up. The king does not listen to women, he listens to men. And yet many of these women are widows, others have absentee husbands who work in urban areas and cities, others are too ill to do anything. Under the laws governing Traditional Authority, they have no right to complain, because to question a man is to question traditional authorities which are protected by our constitution over and above women’s rights to self-determination. So many of them die in silence and even if they speak out their voices are often drowned out by the more urban, trendy voices of those in power or those with influence.
And perhaps this is the difference between me and Trevor Noah. He’s a nice guy. He may have been born a crime but he was not born a woman which is still considered a crime in South Africa, today. So you will listen when he says something.
Maybe he can make you laugh about it too. I haven’t found the humour in it, yet.
I’m sharing something I wrote three years ago about censorship at the South African Public Broadcaster (SABCNews) which was initially published on IPS in 2013 as I am thinking and reflecting on the bravery of SABC8 Journalist Suna Venter who died from Heart Break Syndrome. I didn’t know then that the state of emergency in our country would escalate to a point where one of own journalists would be harassed, stalked, assaulted, isolated, hounded and victimized to the point of death. I don’t think it’s fair that one person, a single individual has to die before we all can realize how pervasive the power structures in all state and or public institutions have become. It’s not fair to sacrifice people at the alter of your lust for power, money, influence or the vote. Yes, principles might not pay your bills but not having them will certainly kill the conscience of this country. Can you live with that?
In this blog for World Press Freedom Day 2013, journalist Jedi Ramalapa shares the pressures journalists often face from State institutions to censor their work, and the emotional toll this can have on both the journalist and the subject.
In the Public Interest
by Jedi Ramalapa
The South African Broadcasting Corporation or SABC broadcasts news and current affairs daily to more than 48 million South Africans, through 18 radio stations in all the 11 official languages and has three television channels which can be accessed even in the remotest parts of the country.
It is more powerful than any of the local South African broadcasters put together in swaying public opinion and, more importantly, with winning votes. Having control over the public broadcaster is having control of the country. Businesses and politicians understand this fact all too well. If it’s not on SABC, it can’t be completely true.
I was busy editing an interview with one of the Marikana widows, whose husband was killed along with 50 or so other mine workers on the 16th of August 2012. It was the kind of interview I had done a thousand times before, speaking to grieving relatives about their loved ones. It was in my opinion nothing out of the ordinary or controversial.
But this time and for the first time in an eight-and-a-half year public broadcasting career at the SABC they, the executive producers, asked to listen to the final cut of the interview which we planned to air later that day.
They listened as the widow spoke of her grief and her anger. “I blame the government, the police, the unions and Lonmin for what happened,” she said on tape.
Play that again, said the executive producers. They listened and said, “Cut out that part.”
“Which part,” I asked? Like a naïve little girl.
“That part where she says: ‘I blame the government, the unions, the police and Lonmin for what happened.’”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there’s no one to blame, we don’t know who is responsible, and we just don’t want to have to deal with questions.”
What questions, I asked myself in disbelief thinking that even in her grief the widow had managed to be impartial in apportioning blame to everyone involved in the Marikana massacre; not many people were able to do that.
But I couldn’t fight it. I had woken this woman up at 6am to do the interview, which had taken me at least three days and a string of phone-calls to convince her to speak to me. We cried together during the interview- in which I tried to convince her that life was still worth living. She had trusted me with her heart. I was not going to let her down. So I did as I was told and cut out the offending parts like a surgeon saving a life.
The widow had been censored in the most subtle of ways, by omission and not only was I not prepared for it, I became an accomplice.
Even today I don’t know who to blame for that moment in my life, myself for doing the interview in the first place? Or for failing to defend her or my work when I was told to cut out certain parts? I don’t know.
But I am writing this to honour the Marikana widow who in a moment of great loss and pain managed to do what I and the public broadcaster failed to do, speak truth to power and remain impartial.
Quo Vadis is an ancient Latin question attributed to St Peter who, while fleeing persecution in Rome met Christ on the Appian Way and asked him, Domine quo Vadis? Which means Lord, where are you going? I am going to Rome to be persecuted again, Christ replied. Quo Vadis, this is the question which stared back at me while I stood on top of the Voortrekker Monument surveying its magnificent panoramic views. As I stood in reverential silence I began to think that perhaps I should have asked myself this question before getting into a car and onto a the lift which placed me on the top floor of the monument giving me a view of Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa, which I had never seen before. It took me 35 years to get here. On this monument built in honour and praise to God who delivered the enemy (African-Bantu people) into the Voortrekker’s hands. In this context I am a descendent of the enemy.
There have been so many times over the last decade when I have asked myself this question – and I have been asking this question more and more recently in an effort to integrate the past with the present. There were many tourists populating the Voortrekker monument when I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. The most enthusiastic of them where from China. Something which I didn’t understand at first while reading the banner at the main entrance of the hall which announced that the Monument was a winner of the Gold Award in the top category “Overall performance” at the China outbound Travel and Tourism Market in Beijing, 2013. Perhaps it had something to do with how it’s built, walking up its’ top floor with cathedral-like pillars felt familiar as if I had been there before in some other timeline.
Die Rooi Gevaar.
It is only once I had gone up to the top of the monument that I understood the connection for me and perhaps for the multitudes of Chinese visitors to the Voortrekker monument. It had similar features, and fortitude to the Great Wall of China. The irony of this situation, of the fact that the Voortrekker Monument was being celebrated by China, a former communist country which the Calvinistic, fascist-capitalist Afrikaner government was once vehemently against was lost to me as I tried to find meaning in my being there. A more grounding reason than mere curiosity. The Vow.
How was it possible that we could all be praying to the same God? The God whom the Voortrekker men prayed to under command of Andries Pretorius before the battle of Blood River? On the 16th of December 1838. The same God contained in the Bible that the English gave to the Voortrekkers after killing their women and children in concentration camps? The same God of the bible that multitudes of black South Africans worship in the bible every Sunday? All of this killing was done in the name of the God of heaven and earth. The one in the Bible. Reasonable Conscience.
If I were a rational human being I would say that based on the evidence of events in the Bible and those performed because of it, all of it must have been the will of God. It was all in Gods’ plan and it was his will for it to happen. He is on the side of both oppressor and the oppressed. He is both life and death. But as we know I’m irrational and Unreasonable at the best of times. So, I have to ask where are you going. Do you know?
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18.
Don’t forget, your ancestor fought for the losing side. There is no sacred ground for the conquered– Xander Feng (House of Cards)
My younger sister and I have often toyed with the idea of me re-entering the dating scene through South Africa’s leading reality dating show: Date My Family, just for fun. Date my family is a show where a bachelor or bachelorette dates three potential mates’ families before they could date them. We love the show because it is full of real life drama, intrigue and humour from embarrassing family members, possessive parents, awkward questions and lots of laughs. The shows’ successes hinges on the fact that a potential partner is judged solely on the relatives, close family members and or friends they choose to represent them. The bachelor or bachelorette bases his or her decision on how the family members cook, behave and treat him/her not to mention what they say about the potential date in question who watches/monitors the date from a separate location. It opens the door to South African society, while highlighting the dating habits of men and women in the country which are the foundation of how families are created and what values and principles most South Africans families hold.
I considered sending in a letter to date my family but decided against it. Thinking that if the show had existed 20 years earlier I would have been more willing to throw caution to the wind and ask to participate in this grand experiment especially since I’ve tried everything including online-dating, speed-dating, slow-dating , long-distance dating and no-dating at all to find a partner. None of it has worked.
When I told my mother that I was considering writing in to date-my family to participate she asked why was I hesitant. Are you afraid of the competition? I had to suppress the urge to take on her challenge and accept that some things are best enjoyed on Television, I don’t have to be in them. Besides, it would make me look desperate and I’m not right? Right.
So I threw the idea in the rubbish bin and continued to watch the show via YouTube whenever I felt like having a bit of a laugh. But seeing as the word was out, even though it was a non-committal one, a moment came when I accidentally went on an untelevised, off camera, unproduced or edited date with my family – literally. It was organic. I have never laughed so much! It was an unexpected – out of nowhere situation on my last night in Johannesburg. My brother in-law and his friend were having a boy’s night out together at HoggsHead restaurant where my journey began. They later invited my sister and I to join them so we could celebrate together. I liked him the first time I laid eyes on him; he had a wide smile, beautifully sculpted body, easy on the eye, and he literally swept me off my feet. He picked me up and spun me around a few times over an invisible threshold, you know, like they do in the movies after a couple gets married and I thought to myself, wow! I could get used to this. I felt safe and comfortable in his arms. No stranger has ever been this happy to see me!
Then he put me down, showed me his dance moves which left me immobile and breathless against my sister’s car. Bringing to mind a 90’s naughty song we danced to as children in primary school by Another level, called – Freak Me. All this while my sister and brother in-law looked on cheering, jeering, teasing and commenting on our every move. At another establishment we gravitated to each other. Even though he and I both worked the room from separate corners we had eyes on each other. He was surrounded by legions of female fans and I danced courageously with my sister to dodgy white (sic) music. Later as we left the establishment my brother in-law’s friend and I started coding. He told me he was into (prefers) vanilla but he works well with chocolate. I told him I love all the colours of the rainbow. So you’re a politician? He asked, Somewhat, I responded. Can you count? I asked him. What if I told you a story? He asked. As longs as it’s numerical poetry, I responded. That is so nice, so nice I’m in, he said. I smiled.
All four of us took an uber back home. He and I tried not to kiss while my brother in-law sat next to me and my sister conducted running commentary of my dating habits from the front seat of the car: My sister is into full PDA (Public Display of Affection). Then later on she reprimanded me: no! sisi you promised me you’ll never do that to me. I can hear the sound of your kissing, she said. The Uber driver nodded in agreement. I had forgotten they were there. I was only aware of him and my mission to find out if he could actually kiss. Despite the fact that he made me extremely shy. We had to stop. We parted just as things were about to get interesting. Then my sister asked about the kiss: How was it? It had a rocky start, I told her. He tried to shove his tongue into my mouth like a lizard from the get go. No I did not, he protested leaning into me with laughter. In fact you’re the one who initiated the whole thing! he retorted. #toosoon my sister laughed! But the kiss got better after I demonstrated how I wished he could do it, I told her wishing she was not there to chaperone the whole encounter. I wished we could be alone and it was impossible. We discussed the kiss at length until my sister decided to make the statement of the year, in his direction later that evening:
“we (women) are like ovens not microwaves”
That’s a good one, he said smiling. He is such a joy to be with, I thought.
We’re going to the shop, what can I bring for you? He asked sweetly wrapping his arms around my shoulders. Death by Chocolate, I responded. When he came back he hadn’t bought it. Why? I asked perplexed. I thought it was a metaphor for me! He said laughing, I didn’t think you actually wanted Death by Chocolate. #duh. He laughed, I laughed too, so did my sister and her husband.
The next day as my sister and I made breakfast I breathed an old tune; rolling with my homies while swaying my hands like a wave. That’s from Clueless right? My sister guessed. Yes, I said. I was happy and at ease, a rare combination for me. Once it was ready he and my brother joined us at the table, my brother was already protective of me. “Who is this guy? Where was he when she was in Senegal?” He questioned my sister. #Silence. We rummaged through the previous evenings events and retold the highlights. I wore the most unattractive outfit I could find to make things easier for myself. Then we were both roasted and teased about liking each other while we blushed together openly trying not to stare into each other’s eyes or talk about the future, follow-ups and if we wanted to have children. I felt like a teenager dressed in a woman’s clothes. “It’s too good to be true” he said to me. We threw pillows, glances and massages at each other, we were both relaxed in an uncomfortable situation.
He couldn’t believe I was flying out in less than an hour. I was happy to go home until I met you, I told him. We all took a sip of our drinks at the same time around the table. My brother, brother in law, his friend, my sister and I. #Deep. We gulped.
We hugged, he said goodbye Homie. I said I can’t believe you have friend zoned me already. My brother in-law said you just met yesterday, my brother said being a homie is a good sign, he’s the most attractive and likeable guy you’ve ever introduced to me. I was beginning to worry about your taste in men he said laughing, I thought you like die skobo! #phew. My sister said she’s sorry it didn’t work out. I said I wish him well. He really is amazing.
We didn’t exchange numbers or social media contacts. #nothing. The experience was fun, exciting, passionate, embarrassing, it made me blush so much I needed a fan. It was open, honest, direct and refreshing. But I was glad that only my family was able to see me like that; all giddy, happy and vulnerable. What I loved most about him was how well he fit in with me and my family.
I was even happier to learn that my happiness matters to them so much. It was good to see how everyone wanted to see me smile again. I learnt that even when things I try out or do, don’t work out. I can still have fun (enjoy) with the process and my family as a unit is a great wing man, they are my strength.
My New Homie taught me that there are three things which make love last in any relationship:
One: Empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Two: The ability to control your own stress and emotions.
Three: Having positive illusions about your partner: i.e. the ability to overlook what you don’t like about them and focus on what you do like…consistently.
This way you’re guaranteed to stay in-love for as long as you (both) want. Hopefully my next date will be for a lifetime. Until then…
I’m booked !
I hung my head in shame when I heard the news of the passing of South African author, journalist and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Tlali (83) on the 24 of February. I hung head my in shame because despite having been a supporter of the Miriam Tlali Book Club run by Writes Associates’ Raks Seakhoa, I never once read a book of hers. I’ve been meaning to but never quite got around to it. This is a particularly shameful admission because not only was Miram Tlali the first black woman in South African to publish a book under the title Muriel at Metropolitan (1975) – she was also a journalist. I had never come across any of her works, it was never a part of the curriculum when I was studying journalism at Natal Tech now the Durban University of Technology. I hung my head in shame because I wanted to write something moving and meaningful about her but realized that actually, I know nothing. I didn’t know her and I had never had an opportunity to speak to her or to interview her, let alone read her books. This of course, was going to remain a private shame, I was going to keep this shameful fact to myself and try correct it through other means. By reading her books. So I made a request through my book club: The Joburg African Literature Club if we could read her next month.
None of her books are available for purchase. They are out of print. With the exception of used copies on Amazon.
This turned my private shame into a public one. It was so shameful it made me recall the piercing words of Ghanaian writer, Ama ata Aidoo during her tour in South Africa last year when she confessed that she was too shocked to learn that Rhodes University students didn’t know who Lewis Nkosi was. It made me flinch. It’s a sad day for South Africans indeed. It is regrettable that we have not been admirable custodians of our own history as black people – that we are neglecting our ancestors (read answers) even as they live and breathe among us. We no longer see any value in their beings. No only are we failing to acknowledge and honour our living legends – even when they have left something of value – we throw it to the dogs. We don’t take it, treasure it, feed it to our children, so they never forget.
Tlali’s first book published at the height of Apartheid in 1975, gave the world an inside view into what it was like to be Black, Female and oppressed living in South Africa. When she published her second book Amandla! which was banned because it chronicled the 1976 Soweto Riots she wrote with us in mind. In her interview with Steirn from 21 Icons she said she put her hope in future generations.
“I knew it wouldn’t be accepted I really didn’t mind about that, I knew that coming generations would pick it up and publish it. I was already now infused with the idea that I have to write everything.”
She continued to write – documenting the lived experiences of millions of South Africans – in the hope that we would one day read them, know them and ourselves. I suppose the greatest honour for any writer is not just to receive awards of which ma Tlali was a recipient of many. The greatest honour for any writer is to be read, and read widely by her own people.
Are we going to fail her? How can Miriam Tlali rest in power when we don’t even read her?
The best way we can pay our respects to those who paved the way for so many of us, is to read and teach about who they were, at the very least.
And it’s a real shame that none of her works can be found in our country’s leading bookstores today. As Jodi Picualt said if we don’t change the direction we’re headed we’ll end up where we are going.
Miriam Tladi’s story is one of unmitigated courage, strength and determination against an oppressive regime which not only saught to control the black body but the black mind.
She demonstrated through her dedication and fearlessness that we are greater than our physical circumstances. She epitomised the kind of leadership our country sorely lacks in this moment. Leaders with a vision not only for themselves but for future generations.
How can we become such leaders if we have no models of it. If we don’t know our own herstories?
It is sad to realize that the Apartheid regime succeeded in conquoring us. We have been conquered in the cruelest way possible. We have internalized the oppression so much that we don’t even see how we are still living in subjugation and bondage. The stories we choose to tell about ourselves bear testament to this. We are missing out on a chance to change – a chance to become more than we thought we could be.
This time there’s no one else to blame. It is simply too soon for Miriam Tlali to be out of print. It is way too soon for that. We don’t know nearly enough.
“A good book, if it has the right messages in it, it can change a whole human being into something he never thought he would be” Miriam Tlali
What you are about to read will answer all your questions. Can you read multiple stories at once? Find yours.
This past week has been a culmination of the toughest years of my life. I came face to face with myself in a way that petrified me. I turned down an offer I have been waiting for, something I had been working on relentlessly for the past four years if not more. It was literally going to set me up for life or for as long as I needed it to. I have consistently put everything on the line in my life to achieve this goal. I have lost friends, colleagues, promising jobs, social status, potential relationships, money, security, comfort, food and at some point even spent a few nights at a thousand star hotel. I spent sleepless nights hoping and praying that one day all the hard work and sacrifice will pay off. That one day I will wake up smiling knowing that I had achieved my goal.
But when the offer arrived I hesitated.
I was surprised by my reaction because I thought this was exactly what I wanted. Most of my friends including myself thought this was a great opportunity. A once in a lifetime offer and after all I’d been through – I’d be very stupid not to take it. Even though it looked like everything I wanted – I didn’t feel right about it. And this was the hardest thing for me to understand. I wasn’t jumping for joy, smiling from ear to ear or even feeling vaguely excited. I felt drained, tired.
So What Happened?
My first thought was fear. I am obviously afraid of the unknown. Then I thought maybe it’s self-sabotage, why would someone like me who had nothing going for her look a gift horse in the mouth. In fact my recruiter said I’d be the most sought after person in the industry if I took this job. Why after working so hard for all these years would I say no? I started to think about this famous poem by Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
But thinking about this poem didn’t help me. How does this work? I couldn’t decide if what I feared the most was taking the job or rejecting it? I couldn’t believe that I was hesitant. Why is this happening to me? I had listed all the pros and cons and this had more pros than any job offer I’ve had in my life so far. Although it was not exactly what I was hoping for it still had the potential to become that, after a year or two maybe.
I Put My Heart on The line
I thought about why I wanted this job, I thought about the path and everything I had gone through to get it. I thought about all the times I sent in my application and it was rejected over and over and over again. I thought about a lot of hurtful things that happened in the process, bad things I did, the things they said I lacked from the very beginning. The man behind the phone told me repeatedly that he only wanted the best in the business. And he doubted that I was it. I said I understood. I went through a series of interviews and whatever confidence I had in myself at the beginning was eroded with each step. So that when I finally received an email with an offer I cried, I couldn’t believe they still wanted to hire me after all of that or that I still wanted the job regardless. Instead of being triumphant that I made it, I felt sad. I decided to ignore my feelings and proceed with the prerequisite paperwork anyway. After it was completed and I was ready to start working I was told the offer had been rescinded. They had found someone else but they promised to keep me in their database should new posts open up. After almost a year of negotiations they had found my replacement, just like that. I was just getting used to the idea that it was over when three weeks later they offered me the same post again. Instead of asking questions I thought it best to say yes before they changed their minds. I wanted this right?
But at what cost?
I was not their first choice. I was only the cheapest and most available option. I compromised myself throughout the negotiations. Everything I asked for was denied and I felt compelled to accept their offer as is and they were still not satisfied with me, they were actively looking for someone better. I couldn’t deny the truth. This was not my HELL YEAH!! And my future partner was barely tolerating me. Even if everything checked out on paper.
There was no love there.
I was settling. For far too long, I was ready and willing to give up my time, effort, love and everything for people who were not sure they wanted me in the first place, people who were ready to drop me without a moments’ notice at the sight of someone or something much better. I was at a crossroads, I could accept something which was not quite what I wanted for the upteenth time or take my chances in the free open market for something I did want, unconditionally. So I took the opportunity to do something I should have done a long, long, long, loooong time ago many times over. I said no. Thank you for the offer. I have put everything on the line for this and it’s too big a risk for a, maybe.
Needless to say, I have never been more terrified in my life.
These past few weeks I have had the pleasure of attending my sister’s childhood friends’ wedding. It was in many ways a dream come true for her and somewhat of a fairy-tale wedding since she ended up marrying her childhood sweetheart. The couple had dated for a spell in High school and my mother still has a copy of a picture of the two of them taken when they were a couple as teenagers. After ten long years of life apart they met and she said, she saw him in a different light. They talked and two years later sealed their love in marriage, in a beautiful traditional ceremony in their hometown.
Weddings and Funerals have a way of forcing one to re-evaluate ones choices and decisions. Where one is and where one wants or hopes to go. What’s important and what is not. The truth for me was undeniable.
I’ve always wanted to get married. I have always desired married life. If I had my own way I would have been married years ago, that is, if I had met someone I thought I could commit to. Someone who was also willing to commit to me. I started to think about how it all went wrong. Why it was that I was 35 and still very much a single lady still secretly hoping that someone will like “it” enough to put a ring on it.
Getting married is not a measure of success or is it?
I mean there are enough divorces and dysfunctional relationships and marriages in the world to make even the most optimistic of romantics to shy away at the prospect of ever after. But let’s face it, when marriage works or a union between two committed people, when it works, it really is beautiful, it is something to behold. Despite being considered the most vociferous of feminists in my family, I am also a hopeless (meaning can’t resist love) romantic at heart. I love seeing couples in love, I love romance. I enjoy loving and being loved. And being single has deprived me of one of my greatest joys. I guess I have just become jaded over time because despite my numerous efforts at finding romantic love with another I have failed to secure a real and genuine proposal I can’t refuse.
In My Sister’s Shadow
My sister’s friends’ wedding took me back in time to five years ago, when my youngest sister got married. She asked my older sister and I to be flower ladies at her wedding – replacing the ubiquitous little flower girls who walk in front of the bride throwing rose petals as a symbol of good luck, fertility and prosperity for the couple. At first I didn’t think too much about it. But there was a part of me that wondered if my older sister and I weren’t “babies” in the game of love, children who had a long way to go still. Her request conjured up images of a scene in the movie Father of the Bride when the father while listening to his 22 year old daughter announcing her engagement only saw her as a three year old baby girl. Except my sister and I were three year old flower girls in this scenario. In the end though I was honoured to be there for her. Ye despite having enjoyed some success professionally: doing work that I love and travelling around the world, to my parents I had not yet matured. “Your man will find you once you’ve grown up” my mom would say to me when the subject of marriage comes up.
As a result of her marriage and subsequent birth of her two children and through no effort of her own my sister now enjoys the role of ‘big’ sister in our household, someone my parents defer to for advice in any discussions of important family matters, because as my father likes to say “she has graduated” into a different office. She is a wife and mother, a mature woman. My sister and I not so much. Yet.
At times I can’t help but feel damaged. That perhaps my experiences in life, love, my line of work including my own choices have damaged my future prospects of being in a healthy relationship with another. It’s been said that men /women play with women and when they are ready to get married they go for innocent young virgins, who have been prepared for the office of wifehood, people who know how to be wives and mothers. A wise old journalist (male) who had done the exact same thing told me once over wine that the only men I’m good for, are white old men. They, he said emphatically, are the only ones confident enough to deal with and commit to an opinionated black woman who ‘knows” too much. They are the only ones who wouldn’t be threatened or challenged by your independent mind he concluded. I like my wife because I can teach her so much and she’s like a sponge, she takes it all in. She respects me as her husband and the head of the family. She needs me and my support. He said taking a last sip of his vin-rouge.
Lessons from the Dark Side of Love
Now that I think about it, despite leaving me still single, a little lonely and slightly jaded byt romantic love, all my failed relationships have taught me two important lessons. One: It matters who you’re in a relationship with, who you end up marrying matters. It matters more to some extent than your career choices and the work you decide to do with your life. Because who you date or marry has the power to drastically change your life, for better or worse. They can derail your progress in life or propel it forward. The emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma from abusive or just plain bad or toxic relationships can take a lifetime to repair, heal and recover from. We all know relationships are important -despite what people say – and everyone including those people who say things, want to be in a good one.
Two: When in doubt don’t do it. Be single-minded. The right one for you is very much worth the wait. Hopefully it won’t be a 60 year old white male! Either way you’ll be the better for it.
I’ve heard it being said a million times in the blue corridors of the embattled public (state) broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Journalist after senior journalist and editor after senior editor giving us newcomers, the young ones, sage advice. Lay low, do your job, keep your head down and let the storm pass and it will, we’ve been through this many times. We have worked under Apartheid and under different chiefs; Mandela, Mbeki, Mbeki again, and now Jacob Zuma. We have been here since Barney Mthombothi, Matata Tsedu, Snuki Zikalala etc. They all come and go, like the revolving door. Each one comes with their own policies and rules, but we’re still here. Unless you’re a trust fund kid, have wealthy parents or loads of money stashed away somewhere for you, a nest egg of a lifetime, unless you’re connected to powerful people in powerful positions who can intervene on your behalf – you just better keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your job. If you make a noise, you are on your own. Stay.
There are other ways to fight the demon of censorship. Leak the story to the outside media. Call in anonymously on 702. But don’t make yourself a target. The media space in South Africa is pretty small, everyone knows everyone and sooner or later you’ll have to knock right back at the door you slammed a few hours ago. Unless you are a media demigod, insert a name of your choice here.
Are you a member of a union? Are you an ANC member? Do you have connections? So, don’t let other people’s battles become yours. Mind your own business. It doesn’t matter, you have here an opportunity to do wonderful work, to contribute to the archives of our history, to tell stories like no other organization can. To be a voice for the voiceless.
Your story will be heard in 18 radio stations across the country, in all 11 official languages. And if you work for TV, your work will be screened in all four Television stations broadcasting in four, five or more official languages.
SABC’s market share for audiences is still very large, even though the higher income earners in the LSM 7-10 bracket have moved on to other free-to air and or private media such as E-tv and Mnet, Multichoice and the internet. The majority of the nation still listens to SABC channels whether it’s Television or Radio. Don’t let them fool you. If you want to do real work that matters, if you want to speak to South Africa today. This is the place.
While the actions of the SABC8 journalist who are now sadly fired are commendable they will join a long line of former SABC journalists who also stood up and took up a principled decision to walk out the door instead of doing what they were told. Some never returned, some left only to return again and again.
The SABC8 were vindicated with the SANEF Nat Nakasa Award for showing exceptional courage and integrity in their work. Donations are pouring in to assist them to weather the storms of unemployment while they fight for their jobs, in a show of unprecedented compassion for those who were brave enough to speak truth to power. Maybe the SABC8 will win their case in court and get their jobs back, maybe they won’t. Who knows, anything can happen.
But in the meantime, censorship still continues at the SABC. At least 3 thousand employees will wake-up and go to work tomorrow. Someone will fill in the vacant positions from inside, someone will pick up where the SABC8 have left off and act in their positions until the situation is normalized and the storm dies down and the current Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng is replaced by someone else. A woman this time.
Because in this game called life…
iJob iJob. Local elections are around the corner, there are other stories that need to be covered, soapies to broadcast, Somizi’s new radio show to put on air, advertisers need to be billed, programs need commissioning, slots must be filled. At the core of it all, it is about power and influence – and these potent but invisible things are not easy to give up.
So then, life will continue as it does even after someone we once loved deeply, like freedom, dies. The grief subsides and the pain slowly fades away. And we find ourselves laughing again, because we must.
Nothing will change at the SABC until the day that principles can pay the bills. Then only will the entire staff or at least the majority of it, down tools, stage an internal black-out or stay away from work in a form of protest. Just take a cursive glance at the recent events in Zimbabwe.
Until then, others will continue to live off the sweat of a few who dare to face the heat and are now faced with a future of eating principles for lunch. This is true for most media houses across the world. Nothing new there.
Didn’t you know? That’s how democracy works. The majority rule.
Today I want to talk about a subject close to my heart: Food and why millions of well-fed people are dying of hunger, today. See report here. Why do we eat what we eat? Ever asked yourself that question? Without thinking about weight loss. Why Burger King and not Chisanyama? Why Mcdonalds instead of Nandos? Why buy food at WoolWorths instead of cooking the food yourself? Why go to the Food Lovers’ market instead of the local farmer’s market or street vendors who sell fresh produce? What influences your choices? Is it the country you live in? Is it the car you drive? Where you live? Where you work? The work that you do? Where you went to school? Hygiene? Time? Social and economic status? What are the set of values which influence your decision making process when you go shopping for food or when you decide on a restaurant to eat at? Is taste the only deciding factor? Service? Money? Personal Preferences, Culture, Tradition, Politics, Comfort or Ease?
Do you ever think about it?
I started to think about these questions more deeply in the process of trying to understand how my mind works. I started to notice specific behavioural patterns induced by varying stages or degrees of hunger in my own life. When I started to pay attention to what hunger does to the physiology of the body, its biological functions – I started to see amazing connections between how those energy systems or energy in motion (emotions) influence how I felt, how those feelings influenced my thoughts, how those thoughts influenced my actions or behaviour which then produced certain outcomes or results. Food then was not simply just stuff I consumed to stay alive, but the kind of food I ate also influenced the quality of the life I led. The more I searched deeper and deeper I began to discover that what I eat, not only influences my health or what I look like, but most importantly how my thoughts are formed. Access to food influences how I think about myself and the world around me. The food I eat on a daily basis actually directly influences the quality and kinds of thoughts I think every day.
Can you imagine that?
I suppose we all know this. The choices you make when you are hungry are very different to those you make when you are full. The choices you make after you’ve eaten a large burger are different from the ones you make after eating a bowl of fresh greens, simply because the nutritional value is different. The fuel is different. The chemical digestive Process is different. It’s the difference between drinking water and having a shot of vodka. Not only is food essential for brain function but the type of food we eat can enhance or impair how our brain works, how we think, feel and behave.
So what’s wrong with Bread?
Paying attention to my body (biology) helped me to understand the intricacies of the global food system. While the question of how food systems work or how your plate of food influences labour and the economy is too complex to unravel in one simple blogpost, I thought we should at least start to think about how we acquire the food we eat and what it does to us our bodies and the world we must continue to live in once we‘ve eaten it.
Food like politics makes the world go round. Whole revolutions have been started by a lack of certain foods. So I decided to enlist the help of a dear friend Brittany Kesselman who is a food systems researcher and founder of Jozi(Un)cooked to help me understand how food systems work outside of my body and how those systems impact on my food choices and ultimately my perspective on life or the quality of my thoughts. Ms K can see all the way down the alphabet when it comes to food, so I thought I should ask once and for all what, if anything is wrong with bread (read food) and what I can do about it.
JediW:What’s wrong with bread?
BrittanyK: Many things are wrong with bread and nothing is wrong with bread. The current dehumanization of bread as the evil food responsible for everyone being overweight and unhealthy I think is a bit unfair to bread. But at the same time bread as we know it today – in the mainstream in the supermarkets is in some ways worthy of that characterization because it is made of highly processed, heavily sprayed with chemicals, industrially produced artificial ingredients that are designed to travel long distances and stay on the shelves for a long time and so they are incredibly unhealthy and are responsible for people being over-weight and under nourished.
This bread is nothing like the daily bread of the past.
JW: Are you suggesting that we do away with bread? People can hardly afford it as it is.
Bk: I’m suggesting that we radically overhaul the food system so that it doesn’t produce bread like that anymore. In fact the consumption of bread as a staple in this country (South Africa) by the majority of the population is only about a 50 or 60 year old phenomena. People didn’t eat bread but in the bad old days (Apartheid/colonial era) there were farmer co-ops they artificially lowered the price of bread and pushed it to become a staple for the underpaid labouring majority who hadn’t been previously eating bread and now when the government just raised the wheat tariff to protect wheat farmers in this country, people worried that it would increase the bread price, in fact only about 30 percent of the price of bread is related to the price of wheat. Which is odd because if you made bread properly, if you just make it and ate it, about 95 percent of your bread price would be based on wheat.
There’s marketing, transport, packaging, the price of bread is not reflective of the ingredients used to make bread but is reflective of all those other things. The costs are born out of this long distance food systems. If you had someone growing wheat nearby, if you had someone milling wheat nearby and baking bread nearby it wouldn’t have to cost so much.
JW: But there’s a bakery down the road here which bakes bread every day and bread there costs twice as much as the standard bread loaves found in mainstream supermarkets?
Their bread is pricey because the current food system favours mass production instead of small scale production. So people receive benefits like access to credit and other things from the government for being large which gives them an unfair advantage and that enables them to have very low prices. But they still have all of these other costs that they then add in that makes the prices go up. If you pay labour a fair price and you grow a quality ingredient then it’s also true that food shouldn’t be super cheap, cheap, cheap. Because farming very is hard work and producing food is hard work and so it does have costs and the costs in some ways are artificially low even though they seem to be too expensive for other people because everyone is unemployed. The reality is if you had the proper cost for food to reflect its actual value – good food – then you’d have to pay more for it. People would have to be paid fairly across the economic chain in order for them to afford good food. It takes cheap food to create cheap labour and none of those things should be cheap.
JW: I’m not sure that many people would want to think about what you’ve just said when deciding on what to eat for lunch?
BK: It’s a lot to think about. But for someone who is struggling to buy that loaf of bread might wish to be aware that it’s not their individual fault that they are struggling to buy that loaf of bread but it’s the system. The system that creates that bread is the very same system that leaves them unemployed or working on a job where they can still not afford to buy bread. And so at the moment good food costs more than it should but some of it is not that expensive. So a bag of lentils is not expensive but goes a long way in terms of calories and nutrients. A head of cabbage is not so expensive it goes a long way as well. So someone might need to keep buying that bread and fill up on calories right now but could perhaps mixed it in with more healthy items and then we need to start advocating for changing to the systems so that people can afford good food.
JW: Oh my god lentils, I think they’re so boring!
BK: Lentils are not boring, the entire Indian Sub-continent eats them every day and they taste delicious. I mean is mealie meal exciting food? A great deal of this country according to studies live on plain bread or mealie meal, most of the time. That’s not exciting food either, it’s what people can manage, so if you can manage something else that’s better for you… Lentils are not familiar and the fact is lentils are not indigenous to this region but other beans are and nobody is eating those anymore like Bambara beans? It’s not something you see, those are indigenous to South Africa, what happened to Bambara beans? Millet is indigenous to Africa, why aren’t we eating millet? The thing is these things can grow more cheaply, wheat is not indigenous to this region so growing wheat here sometimes involves acquiring more chemicals or more water or more costs compared to growing something more indigenous.
BK:The fact that a small number of corporations – the oligopolies of the world own every stage of the food systems in this country from the fertilizers to the seeds, to the large still white-owned commercial farms to the few dealers and a few retailers, all of those oligopolies are making billions of rands in profit while people can’t afford to eat. And the point of the BreadPricesMustfall campaign is that it’s unfair, unjust if not criminal that they could be making billions, while people can’t afford to eat. It’s not as though they are selling the bread at cost, or close to at cost, they are making literally billions! And I would agree that if you treat food as a human right which is what it is according to the South African constitution other than a commodity then you don’t make it about profit you make it about a public good. But ultimately what we should pay less for is not chemical laden, nutrient poor white bread, we should pay less for good food.
JW: How do you define good food?
BK: Good food is nourishing. Not only to your body biologically but also to your spirit. Good food is food that was not produced through exploiting workers, it was not produced by destroying the planet, it was not produced with chemicals, and it is produced with love in traditional ways that then nourish your body and your community and your planet. And Ideally you will then sit down and enjoy that good food with good people around you, so that it’s actually an entire experience and not something you eat while driving your car or sitting at your desk at work.
JW: I’ve never consciously thought of food as a human right, like water. I’ve always thought that if I want food I must go out and work for it. I’ve never thought that my right to life equates to the right to food? Is that crazy?
BK: In this neoliberal world we’ve come to think of food as something you have to pay for, in many ways water has also become something that we pay for, land is something that we pay for and before we know it air will be something that we pay for. That’s the spread of neo-liberalism, the idea that everything falls under the market place. But I think we need to take certain key things back out of that market system or at least recognize that they are beyond the market system and food is definitely one of them. Because if you don’t have food you cannot enjoy a single other human right. There’s no point in having a right to vote, or a right to education if you don’t eat because, you’re dead.
JW: Are there healthy food systems in the world we could emulate? How can an individual affect change?
BK: It’s challenging because the oligopolistic industrial system is certainly the main one at the moment globally. To seek to imagine alternatives, sometimes it’s more imagining than seeing, but there are pockets of alternatives that have sprouted up all over the place. And are spreading and give us glimmers of hope and some examples like, in Cuba out of necessity when the Soviet Union fell no longer had support from the communist bloc , they had to make another plan because suddenly there was no cheap petrol coming in and cheap fertilizers, so they transformed the entire agricultural system.
In Chiapas, Mexico you see more of a solidarity economy, in Malawi to a more agro-ecological approach and also changing gender relations within the food system so that they can produce healthy food by involving both men and women in these tasks, so there are little pockets. You see people occupying land in Brazil, you see people saying no to genetically modified expensive seeds and chemicals opting to use agro-ecological approaches, you see people trying to save heirloom seeds and bring back traditional varieties instead of the few mono-cultures that people tend to grow now. So there are pockets were people are either fighting back or imagining new futures or going back to traditional ways which worked well before.
JW: Does buying Organic Food from Supermarkets help?
BK: Look if you’re buying organic from the shop, yes you’re buying a product that wasn’t sprayed with thousands of chemicals and already that’s an improvement. And you’re also sending a market signal through the retailers to the farmers that there is demand for this type of alternative way of production. But if you’re buying it from the supermarket from one of those few retailers which control the entire retail sector then you’re not exactly striking a blow to the entire economic system behind the food chains. So if you have the option of doing it, it is certainly worth doing, but buying organic won’t change the system.
JW: What more would we need to do?
BK: We need to find alternative means of sourcing our food, we need to get out of the supermarkets if we can and buy from small farmers who get such a small percentage of the price when we buy from supermarkets, but if you can skip the supermarket and the other middlemen and purchase your food directly from farmers we can both negotiate a fair price. We can also communicate directly with the farmers about what we want and the types of food they can grow, so it gives the producer and the consumer more control.
JW: But wouldn’t that be inconvenient?
BK:Maybe, but it has become inconvenient because our entire systems of living have changed. In many parts of the world both in the north and the south there are weekly if not daily famers markets, people go and buy fresh things and they buy them because they are good. Why don’t we have that?
JW: How effective are food gardens in changing the system?
BK:On the one hand they don’t have a big impact in terms of how much food they are able to produce. It’s not likely that the city will be able to feed itself ever. But on the other hand they have a very big impact first because they reconnect people to their food. Remember there are children who don’t even know where their food comes from or that a vegetable grows from the ground and that’s extraordinary. When people in the community are growing different food they can start to trade it, they can start to share it and they begin to step out of the main economy as well. We can re-establish those community bonds over food which the supermarket takes away from us.
JW: Isn’t that like going backwards? Isn’t that old and boring, haven’t we evolved from that?
I think the modernist notion of progress is something that is questionable. It’s only the neoliberalist system that has convinced us that living an individualistic, career cantered life is of value. Many of the values that may have been lost along the way are certainly worth reviving and preserving.
JW: But Why though? I think some people might aspire to one day being able to afford Burger King…
Brittany K: And once they are able to afford Burger King they will find that they are not any happier! Once they can afford Burger KING and KFC they will still not be any happier. But they will have a higher chance of getting a heart attack or a stroke or Diabetes of Hypertension. The singular focus on wealth as the path to happiness is ridiculous, because it minimizes all of our other elements as human beings and we’re multidimensional creatures if we put all our focus on one dimension we will never be happy. It’s not as if there is a lower incidents of depression amongst the wealthy. That’s just strictly not true.
JW: So would baking your own bread be a solution to the current nutrient deficient bread sold at supermarkets?
BK:Your questions don’t have easy answers. In some ways yes, of course it would. Baking bread is extremely therapeutic you knead the bread and it’s like giving yourself a massage! But if you have to buy the mainstream bread of that flour to make that bread, it’s not significantly radical and in our rushed time pressed world people will find that they don’t have time to bake bread or don’t want to make time to bake bread. But if you start to break bread, if you find it therapeutic then you might look for better alternatives to the flour, find someone who is producing or selling such a thing and in another way then you’re getting out of the main stream and finding another way and you might find yourself baking more bread and sharing it with your neighbours. And then yes the might be a change.
JW: So the problem with bread is the flour?
BK:The problem with bread is the ten things I’ve said before. Certainly, flour is sprayed with chemicals and refined to no longer resemble the wheat that it once was in any way shape or form, our bodies don’t even recognize that it’s a food by the time it get into our system. There’s nothing so wrong with Wheat per se, human beings have consumed wheat for about ten thousand years but by the time it becomes that white flour in the supermarket it’s not food anymore.
JW: So are you saying that there’s not nutritional value whatsoever in the bread we buy at super markets even though they say it’s got added vitamins?
BK: Raj Patel gives an amazing talk about poverty and added vitamins. Taking all of the nutrients out of an ingredient that originally had them because it looks better and lasts longer better and then pumping all the vitamins at the end is the ultimate capitalist way to approach food. Whereas using the fresh ingredient in its natural state with its original nutrients and then consuming it fairly quickly meaning there’s no shipping or transportation costs would be a better approach. But multinationals don’t benefit from that.
JW: So if I stopped buying from them would that change anything?
BK:Having worker owned co-operatives is certainly a solution. Places like Brazil and Argentina they have a lot of worker own co-operatives which tend to have more than just a profit motive, they have other social objectives to their businesses and they of course would want to make enough money to benefit those who participate from it but they care about their communities as well. Because they understand that they are embedded in those communities. So I cannot just say walk away from your job to those people who need that job but those who are in a position to look into alternatives and eventually create jobs from them should certainly do so.
Brittany Kesselman is a food systems researcher and founder of JoziUncooked, Johannesburg’s first raw food company. You can visit her website at JoziUncooked.com
This week a man I used to love dearly sent me a message informing me that he is married now. I congratulated him and told him I was glad he found the one for him. He said I will find someone too one day. I told him I was not looking and he responded by saying, Sorry! I was slightly amused by his response since I was not looking when we first met so I told him not be sorry, because I wasn’t. Our conversation continued to other topics and after it ended I couldn’t help thinking about life, love and relationships and how unpredictable and deceptive they can be.
Looking back it was simply amazing to see how relationships I thought would definitely work like the one I had with him, didn’t and those I thought wouldn’t survive a day have. In many ways this year has been a year of incredible love stories – many of which I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to and even be a link to in some small ways, while others have unraveled spectacularly at the seams others have come together in the most exquisitely beautiful ways.
This particular conversation touched me because it was a moment of saying goodbye to an idea, to a life I once led, to a hope I once held so dearly and so close to my heart. I realized as I unpacked his emotional trinkets that I had been carrying him with me all this while, I wasn’t aware that I had left the door slightly open, a little bit ajar, just in case I was wrong about him. His message was calling me to wake up to the reality that this particular dream, the one where we end up together in the end will never come true and that it was in all honesty never real to begin with, it was just simply a mirage.
So I began this week to wash and fold the laundry of our relationship, emptying my suitcase of all items I had kept safe, pieces of colourful clothing which never quite fit, from the white sandals, the orange jacket, the pictures, the memories, the music, the promises to have and to hold, forever. The shoes were a size too small and the jacket was two sizes too big, but I wore it anyway, hoping that I would one day grow in the jacket or that my feet would somehow shrink and I would be Cinderella. The illusion disappeared. After packing away what was never mine and handing the items over to charity, a beautiful moment of nostalgia overwhelmed me and a memory of a clever ad emerged as if from a dream. One of the most amazing and ingenious advertisement I had ever seen between the luxury cars BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Chrisannes Kousas a South African marketing student wrote about it in her blog House of marketing. And it goes like this:
“There is a coastal road in Cape Town, South Africa, called Chapman’s Peak. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful sightseeing attractions in the whole of Africa. The road winds through spectacular coastal-mountain scenery, with cliffs sinking into the Atlantic ocean on one side, and steep mountains towering over the road on the other side. Despite its beauty, this road is a notoriously dangerous one to drive on, as it consists of 114 sharp, meandering, bends in the road. Several years ago, a gigantic coastal cleanup campaign was launched, and a helicopter pulled 22 car wrecks out of the water adjacent to Chapman’s Peak. A well-known story in the area resurfaced: it was the tale of an Irish businessman who lost control of his Mercedes-Benz when driving along this road in 1988, and plunged 100m down one of the cliffs. Miraculously, he not only survived the accident, but crawled out of the wreckage with hardly a scratch on his body. Mercedes heard about this story, and were so impressed with the safety features and stability of their car, that they decided to base their new advertisement on the story. For the advertisement, they drove a Mercedes off the road in the exact same location. In the TV advertisement, the Mercedes plunges off the edge of the cliff, but then the driver survives, to illustrate the phenomenal safety features of Mercedes-Benz. BMW noticed this ad, and ingeniously mimicked it. A week later, they showed a BMW driving along the exact same stretch of road in the rain, however, when it reached the point at which the Mercedes plunged off the cliff, the BMW negotiated it safely, and continued driving along the road. The catchphrase” Would it not make sense to drive a luxury car that beats the Benz? The line referring both to the bends on the road and the Mercedes Benz which failed to conquer the road.”
The BMW rebuttal was a moment of awesome inspiration. I have loved it since school days. I identify with BMW and the fact that I have survived this and other romantic interactions so far without falling off the cliff is testimony to the fact that some people are just simply designed to beat the bends. But more significantly and to quote actress Kerry Washington (because she puts it brilliantly) “I realized that I don’t have to be perfect. All I have to do is show up and enjoy the messy, imperfect journey of my life”.
And this journey, the one I’m on right now, I’m beginning to Like it, very much :).
The issue of “title” or “entitlement” takes a different tone during the month of June in South Africa with cries by media commentators, politicians, business leaders, social activist and others claiming that today’s (black) youth has an attitude of “entitlement” and they are not willing to work for a living. I think it is useful to remember that there is a difference between knowing what you are entitled to, claiming it and being lazy. But all too often these attitudes are either confused or used interchangeably and the word “entitlement” has become a synonym for laziness. The youth of 1976 would not have stood against the Apartheid regime on that fateful day if they did not believe that they were “entitled” to learn in a language of their choice. No one can say with a straight face that black youth took to the streets because they didn’t want to be educated or that they were lazy. I think it’s important that we are careful not to discourage citizens from claiming what is rightfully theirs when those claims threaten the status quo. In this week’s blog post constitutional court journalist Candice Nolan writes about the ongoing struggle for land title in South Africa with a test case being deliberated by the highest court in the land, the constitutional court. In this story she asks:
Who is “entitled” to this land?
An all too familiar narrative is playing out on South Africa’s rural landscape. People are being pitted against their traditional leaders in a battle over land ownership. Numbering some 350 thousand households, the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela people live in 32 sub villages in the Moses Kotane Municipal Area in the North West Province. The chief, Kgosi Nyalala Pilane successfully won a land claim on behalf of his people, approved by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. That was back in 2006 and some nine years later the people say they are yet to see the benefits of that land claim. The people unanimously chose a Community Property Association as the vehicle to manage that land, setting them on a collision course with their chief. This battle has reached South Africa’s highest court – in a case testing the validity and authority of Community Property Associations (CPA’s). The court is yet to make its decision but government officials and indeed the Bakgatla Chief had a tough time answering questions during the hearing. Bridgeman Sojane the Secretary General of the Community Property Association says the land sits on rich platinum deposits on which the Chief concluded mining deals with Anglo-American Platinum. Sojane complains that while the land is said to be owned by the Bakgatla community, they are yet to see any of the proceeds. “They are in the direct control of the Chief and his traditional council,” says Sojane, “they are the people who now, at the end of the day, decide what to do with the finances generated from this”.
Tara Weinberg, a specialist researcher on Community Property Associations at the Centre for Law and Society says this is one of the very few cases that gets to the heart of the land reform dilemma in South Africa. Weinberg says there seems to be a general shift within government policy away from democratically elected structures in which people have chosen to hold land (such as CPA’s) toward traditional council’s or traditional leaders. She reckons that this may be because it is far easier for investors to negotiate with a traditional council or a Chief, than to have mining deals considered by democratically elected structures which are beholden to the will of the people. The Bakgatla CPA was never made permanent due to admitted bungling by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. The argument now, is that the provisional CPA expired after 12 months and that it therefore cannot hold land. Tara Weinberg says the people are now looking to the Constitutional Court to give the final word on the matter. Kgosi Pilane asked the Constitutional Court to order that the matter be sent back to the vote by the community. This despite the fact that a previous vote was unanimously in favour of a community property association as the vehicle to manage the land. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform backs the legitimacy of the Bakgatla CPA. But they insist that Kgosi Pilane must be part of any decision on who should manage the land. There was a spirited debate in the Constitutional Court on how to resolve the present impasse. Justice Bess Nkabinde pointed out an age-old African adage “Kgosi ke Kgosi ka morafe” or the King is king by the will of his people. Certainly, Kgosi Pilane would argue that this does not mean that his power is subject to popular vote. He maintains that he is the rightful administrator of the land on behalf of the people. The Constitutional Court has reserved Judgment – meaning its judges will deliberate the issue and announce their decision on a date yet to be determined. Candice Nolan is a senior constitutional court reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Her stories can be heard on SAfm 104-107. Follow her @Candice_Klein on Twitter.
If food is the way to a man’s heart, 33-year-old *Thembi Nkosi seemed to have the exact Global Positioning System (GPS) co-ordinates to *Soren Adamsen’s. The couple met ten years ago at a mutual friends’ Johannesburg home for dinner which Nkosi an invited guest and professional chef, ended up cooking from start to finish. It was shortly after taking bites of Nkosi’s lemon chicken dish that Adamsen, a Danish national was permanently hooked on her. “Two months or so later after our first meeting he invited me to Denmark and introduced me to his family and friends” says Nkosi a South African citizen. “I guess he is only human” she says, explaining why Adamsen found her so irresistible. After ten years of travelling between South Africa and Denmark the couple finally decided to take the plunge and build a life together in 2013. This meant that Thembi Nkosi and her three-year old daughter had to move from South Africa and join Soren Adamsen in Denmark using the family re-unification visa for entry. First the couple had to prove that they had lived together for two years consecutively in order to qualify for a visa, an issue which presented a huge challenge for the couple.“The family unification process is a laborious one” says Adamsen, who works as a journalist for a leading investigative television program in Copenhagen. “We had to fill out at least 100 pages of documents justifying why we wanted to be re-united or why we wanted to live together.” He says adding that “Our initial application was rejected” Adamsen and Nkosi like many other couples who’ve had to apply for family re-unification visa’s found the process punitive and sometimes unfair. While the family re-unification laws in most EU countries require applicants to apply from their country of residence, those who do, do so at their own risk as they are more likely to be rejected from the outset. “We paid a big price for being honest, and trying to do things the right way” says Adamsen, adding that from his perspective the laws seem to favour those who are dishonest or cheat the process. The process however was even more frustrating for Nkosi as the paper work and all forms were written in Danish and she was ostensibly excluded from the entire visa application process. Yet in the end it was not the paper-work nor the bureaucracy that would finally open the doors to a life together for the couple. Money was the key without which it would have been impossible for them to be re-united even if they met all the other required criteria. “Soren had to get a bank guarantee loan of 50 thousand Kroner, equivalent to 100,000 ZAR as an insurance” Says Nkosi. Fortunately for the couple, Adamsen who is financially solvent and had not been on state-welfare in the past two to five years qualified for a bank guarantee and the family was able to be re-united six months after the initial application process.“I think it’s just another way for government to make it difficult to families to be together” says Adamsen. “For other people it may be difficult (to acquire the funds) but for us the money issue was irrelevant. We just wanted to be together and I did everything in my power to make sure that, that happens, but it is still upsetting to know that government can have the last word on a private issue such as who you decide to spend your life with.” New family re-unification laws in the United Kingdom came under the spotlight last year after a couple in Cornwall was denied a family re-unification visa due to insufficient funds. In 2013 the UK issued new regulations which stipulate that UK residents wanting to sponsor a loved one from a non- European Economic Area ( EEA) should earn a minimum of 18 thousand Pounds or 311, 973 Rands a year or about 25 thousand rands a month. The amount increases with each child a couple has. The British Home office staunchly defended its policy in court justifying the financial requirement as being part of an effort to help immigrants to integrate. When asked by a judge if the home office was suggesting that an affluent person would integrate more easily than a poor person, the response was “yes”. London, the capital city of the United Kingdom is currently the billionaire capital of the world with a recorded 104 Billionaires living in the city. UK officials say the new visa regulations introduced in 2012 are working as intended and estimated that the new policy would reduce family visa applications by 17,800 a year. Under the EU directive on the right to family reunification non-EU nationals can bring their spouse, under-age children and the children of their spouse to the EU State in which they are residing. After a maximum of five years of residence, family members may apply for autonomous status if the family links still exist. The Directive only however only applies to 25 member states excluding the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland which determine their own criteria for family reunification. The UK is currently canvassing for new EU reforms which will ensure even tougher or stricter legislation on benefits for migrants. While South African immigration law does not use money as the main criteria ( there is no financial threshold only proof of affordability) for family re-unification visa’s or family relative visas. The visa application process can be extremely tedious (littered with bureaucratic misunderstandings) for relatives applying through the South African Home Affairs offices. *Lamya Luall, a Sudanese-American writer, married to a South African says US visa policies make it comparatively easier for families to be together. “My husband is eligible for permanent residence or green card as soon as we are married, his residence papers once issued are first on a conditional basis, to ensure people are still married but after two years the conditions are lifted and a full green card is issued which is good for 15 years.” She said. However South Africa does not have a residency or work permit option for spouses once married. ” There’s a relatives permit, which needs to be renewed every two years pending police Clearance, a TB test, doctors clearance and a host of other requirements.” She adds “You have to hire lawyers (who don’t come cheap) to help because most people at home affairs aren’t familiar with these rules.” She said concluding “I can only be eligible for permanent residence in South Africa after 5 years of proving a marriage and/or life partner relationship. I could only apply for citizenship after 10 years”. Lamya says marriage to a South African does not make the process any easier. She says she will be applying for a separate special skills visa which does not have a two-year renewal requirement. Even though the process of applying for a family re-unification visa in Denmark would have been made much easier had Thembi Nkosi and Soren Adamsen decided to tie the knot Nkosi says she didn’t want to get married for a visa, she wants to marry for love. “I’m a catholic girl after all, I still want the official proposal. I want fire works!” She concluded. *original names changed to protect identity
Imagine if I had to pitch an advertising campaign congratulating Latvia on the successful conclusion of its maiden Presidency of the European Union (EU) in June this year, since it joined the union in 2004. If someone randomly came up to me and asked what my concept would be: it would be exactly what you just saw: The title and picture saying: Latvia, your flag is on my lips, Congratulations!
But to do that I would have to assume that you know what Latvias’ national flag looks like and why it would be significant for me to wear it on my lips. Since I myself was simply clueless about Latvia less than ten months ago, I thought it might be cool to let you in on the thinking behind this fictitious advertising campaign of mine which no one has asked me to do by the way. I do it just because its fun to learn new things and to travel, even virtually. So my pitch is all about current history as you may have guessed so here goes:
First a disclaimer: I have never set foot in this country
So those of you who watch the news beyond your borders might be wondering why I would even bother congratulating Latvia on its EU presidency when the EU itself is faced with arguably more pressing matters to resolve. First among them being the question of sanctions against Russia and Ukraine, should they be lifted or not? The second is the issue of EU reforms brought forward by the United Kingdom, which wants a package of changes including tougher rules on migrant benefits and fair trade with the Eurozone. Britain has a planned referendum in 2017 to decide on whether to stay in or out of the Union. So in light of this and many other issues concerning the EU such as Greece’s increasing financial delinquency, including an increasing wave of migrants from Africa into Europe, Riga – Latvia’s capital city’s role in the EU’s drivers’ seat for the past five months may seem well… inconsequential at best.
Think about our younger years
I was actually quite shocked to discover that I share more in common (politically) with the small republic in North-Eastern Europe than with the rest of the 27 European Union member states combined. It was a strange feeling indeed. How was that possible right? I mean my knowledge of Latvian history and politics was until recently, non-existent. And if on the very rare (unidentified flying object) occasion that it came up in conversation I would have automatically lumped it in the larger pool of Russia’s (USSR) former conquests and basically left it at that.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong
Over the last couple of months, through intermittent and sporadic research prompted by a desire for something new, I found out that I do in actual fact share much more in common with Latvia than with many of the countries in Europe I have visited or wished so fervently to see – I gave it my best shot Paris! Latvia’s history is complicated even for me, I couldn’t keep track of the many, many conquest that took place there. But just to simplify a long story. Because of its strategic geographical location, Latvia has fought many wars with four main enemies at different times and simultaneously in its very tumultuous history: Germany, Sweden, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. They’ve all pushed, pulled, killed and, manipulated in order to gain control of this 94 square kilometer of land. For one Latvians are a brave and persisted lot who fought valiantly and tirelessly, with, for and against their occupiers, Russia and Germany who alternated possession of Latvia as if it were a ball in a tennis match. In fact I think at some point in history Latvian soldiers were fighting from all sides both with and against the Germans and Russians who were in turn fighting other Latvians to gain control of the Baltic nation. I never in a million years thought I could encounter a country whose history is more complicated than my own and as far as Latvia goes – it’s complicated and that’s not even an understatement. Though Latvia gained independence in 1918, it took another 72 years of fighting off the various factions before it regained its independence again in 1990 on the fourth of May, despite having lost its independence formally to Russia in 1940.
Puts independence into perspective right?
In 72 years (and perhaps even to date) Germany and Russia could not leave Latvia alone which meant that Latvians not only had to learn to hold on to who they were and their identity they also had to learn how the Sweet and honest Swedes, Precise and Competent Germans, Passionate and Strategic Russians and the Cynically pragmatic Poles were like and then use that knowledge to attain what they desired most of all: a right to self-determination and sovereignty. They had to ultimately win not only just a physical, logistical or geographical war against the Germans and the Russians et al, they had to win the most important war of all: The psychological war. Learning and understanding how the opposition thinks.
After joining the European Union in 2004 it took 11 years before the chair of the EU chairmanship could rotate to their corner, which for them is a huge milestone. Even though the EU presidency rotates every six months to each of the member states, it shines a spotlight on the host country which is probably equivalent in my case to South Africa being included in the UN Security Council for the first time in 2007 (it was also the first time an African country was included in the SC in the UN’s history!) So it’s a huge deal and milestone for Latvia. This is a time for them to flex their muscle and see how far their influence(if any) goes with the big boys. The country has made many gains and losses since its independence 25 years ago, but is today a largely stable country with a rapid economic growth of about 10 percent a year before an economic crisis and recession in 2009 reversed these gains. The country quickly recovered though and attained an annual growth of 5.5 percent by 2012 making it the fastest growing EU country to date. Even so the rate of unemployment is very high (9.1%) in a country of about 2 million people. Virtually all the previously state-owned small and medium enterprises have now been privatized with the exception of three. ( energy, oil and telecoms) two of which the country is planning to sell. With the second fastest internet speeds in all of Europe after Romania, it’s service sector provides about 24% of jobs in the country.
I see you, Thank you for the compliment
So my campaign which is basically this picture of a black woman is exactly what Latvia is not – on the outside. But I think if you were to look deep into the heart of Latvia ( conflicted and controversial as they may be) you will find that they look just like the pictured black woman. They have a level depth which is as frightening as it is exciting. They have penetrating black diamond like eyes: mysterious, curious, playful, visionary and sad all at the same time. They are wildly free and are connected to nature ( half of Latvia is made up of forest)and most things natural. They are intuitive, compassionate and sensitive. A people of legends, myths and numbers. Practical and wildly creative. They are not only strong and can whether tough storms but they are also resilient and still maintain a youthful maturity, exuberance and just a little touch of innocence or maybe some naivety. And finally they are passionate people: their flag is the colour of dark red on either side representing an ocean of blood spilled for independence (the exact colour of the lipstick, a mix of browns and purples) with a strip of white in the middle (represented here by the biting pearls or teeth). And since Latvians are not known for their wide beaming smiles – the only way to wear their flag on your lips is to do exactly the opposite and yes you guessed it: smile. ( this effect also works with red-wine stained lips). So for what it’s worth, congratulations Latvia, Paldies, for the inspiration.
I wanted to start this week’s blog by writing about the recent e-tolling saga ( formally known as the Electronic Toll Collection or ETC) in Johannesburg which has had Johannesburg motorists up in figurative arms. I wanted to note and remember with you what happened in Johannesburg’s streets after the ETC, went live in December of 2013. I wanted to remind you of the three most outspoken and loudest voices against etolls in Johannesburg with the exception of the Opposition for Urban Tolling Alliance OUTA: Ousted Cosatu president, Zwelinzima Vavi, Patrick Craven, who resigned as the labour union federations’ spokesperson in April this year and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) which has since been expelled from the Union Federation. I thought it curious that the panel of experts resolved to continue with the etolls despite widespread public opposition, and that Cosatu under the new leadership has all but changed its line and has tacitly endorsed the new dispensation, urging Gauteng citizens to just pay in not so many words. I thought it was a curious coincidence then I thought; wait a minute, this is much deeper than I thought.
This feels like a long hang-over: The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project ( GFIP) which includes the two main ETC methods: the “boom-down” electronic toll collection and the ” open road tolling” (ORT) which went live in Johannesburg in 2013 were implemented in 2007. Which means that the decision to install ETC in Johannesburg was taken in the early 2000’s under former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration with minimal to no public consultation with the caveat that perhaps in this instance a majority vote for the ANC was enough of green light for all of the ANC government policy positions. The project which was largely completed by April 2011, is ostensibly not the incumbent President Jacob Zuma’s decision even though he served as former President Mbeki’s right hand man for much of his tenure. In fact these decisions were likely taken and implemented in mid to late 90’s, with the first casualty being the controversial Arms Deal Saga.
It’s so boring though…
You may think that this is effectively a moot point, but I think it puts the issue in context and makes very clear the country’s policy of privatizing some key national assets; which I think (though I will stand to be corrected) will in time include Eskom, Telkom, Sanral etc. Which has not shifted since the country’s democratic dispensation. This follows to the tee former President Nelson Mandela’s plea to the International community for foreign direct investment (FDI) in public-private partnership deals which formed the basic foundation for the country’s economic policies over the years: Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) and now the National Development Plan (NDP). President Mandela urged investors to come to South Africa saying ‘ We have many public assets, and we have the workers and labour unions under our control, we would like to partner with you” during his maiden trips as the country’s first democratically elected president. So what? Perhaps giving in on economy in exchange for “political” freedom was the only peaceful option for transition available to him and his team at the time. Perhaps he hoped that in time we’d gain some ground and through some sheer force of political will gain some control over our economic future, perhaps it was just a foot in the door, perhaps it was the best way to avoid a civil war. Again so what?
Consider God’s Bits of Wood
As we mark and celebrate Africa Day this week, we do so soberly in South Africa on the back of brutal attacks against our brothers and sisters. And boy do they have a lot to teach us. They’ve been there before. Take a look at the book, God’s Bits of Wood, a seminal work of literature by Senegalese writer and film maker Ousmane Sembene, in which he fictionalizes a historical account of the 1947/8 Senegal-Niger railway strike which changed the course of West Africa’s political history. For six months workers demanded salary increases, back pay, family allowances and pension funds – equal to what railway line workers in France were earning. A preposterous request by any stretch of the imagination at the time. Africans were not even considered human, let alone workers who deserved to earn salaries equal to white people who were then considered superior by virtue of the colour of their skin which also offered them a higher level of education, training and skills. The striking workers were ignored and during the course of six-months, had to survive without food, water and money. However they refused to relent, instead they united with other workers in Mali and Senegal and refused to go back to work on the repeated promise that their concerns/needs will be gradually addressed. Their employers argued that they had already benefited from Frances’ civilizing mission to Africa and a family allowances would prove too expensive as the Africans kept more than one wife, calling all African women concubines and or whores in short. Following a march from Mali to Dakar, Senegal led by those very concubines ( Women’s march) the striking railway workers received all of their demands in full; effectively forcing the French to recognize black African workers (African labour) as fundamentally equal and worthy of the same benefits as their European (white) counterparts when performing the same tasks. The book is a work of genius.
You’re not serious…
I think the ETC saga in Gauteng presents a similar opportunity for motorists in the province ( and South Africa citizens in general) to stand for what is right, but of course the battle will not be won by three of the estimated 3.5 million registered motorists in Gauteng. It will only work if all motorists stay united so that government understands that since it did not consider it necessary or imperative to fully and properly consult tax/rate/ payers/users of highways before signing said deals, it is equally and just as unnecessary for them to expect them to pay for something they never endorsed in the first place. It is a matter, indeed, of principle. Government cannot continue to pay lip service to “Batho Pele’. Perhaps in this way, this and the next administration will know to actually put people first when making plans for the country, as it is ultimately this country’s citizens who will have to pay. This might, hopefully, pave the way for government to re-consider its fiscal policy to date and maybe think about truly restructuring South Africa’s economy in a way that truly creates and sustains real growth. Because try as we might, we are not France nor are we Norway, Denmark or any of these European countries we are meant to emulate and impress. We need to create our own economic policies and plans that are tailored to fit and suit our unique economic position and not size zero designs meant for models who live on coffee and cigarettes – we cannot unfortunately copy and paste development. I have faith that if we truly apply ourselves we will find the best economic solution for ourselves, but it has to come from South Africans and not as has been the case so far, our benefactors.
Yoh, dude! So you wanna be starting somethin’
It will be useful to quote here, political economist Mary E Clark when she said “In life some things can be counted and others cannot. Those things which matter most – Beauty, faith, friendship and self-expression – are immeasurable. There is no way to count them. They are not marketable. As soon as we put a price on them they are debased and prostituted. Yet as a society this is exactly what we do. Only what can be bought and sold is given value” I think this is one of those “things” in life, that just cannot be bought or sold: the right to self-determination.
I know what you are thinking. The new name for my blog is an old cliche. It is. But I have two good reasons why I named it the best line. First because it’s simple and is unlikely to cause discombobulation for many people and because there is a mathematical equivalent called the best fit line or line of best fit which makes it sound interesting at best or boringly square at worst. But that’s also fine. You see, for a long time and surprisingly unbeknownst to me I have harbored an irrational fear of numbers. Though I was fortunate to be taught mathematics by a teacher who loved the subject, I could never get myself to do maths exercises. It was a shameful and embarrassing experience for me which I could never vocalize or even speak of beyond the mental paralysis. It was a frustrating fear because I quite enjoyed maths and the story of numbers as my maths teacher told it. So much so that throughout my high-school career I believed I could never be an intelligent person because I didn’t do well in the only subject that automatically bestowed this coveted title on you even if you sucked at the rest of the subjects or were socially inept. So that it didn’t matter how many A’s I got in other subjects, I always viewed myself as a failure because I never aced maths. As you by now well know, the opposite of fear is love. So without realizing it, I found myself drawn to the sciences and math related subjects without ever vocalizing my interest or love for the subjects fearing that some clever person will suddenly ask me to work out the square root of 689, which happens to be an irrational number (26.2) on the spot and so what, we have calculators right? I wanted to change the name of my blog from the bottom line because I was over it. Not everything is about money in life and often money and profits while important are not the most crucial deciding factors when faced with a decision or a choice about how to use or invest our money. Our decisions are usually driven by a plurality of x and y ‘s : the unknown factors of emotions, feelings, experience, thoughts, words, belief systems, ideologies, what people say about the person, institution, job, or intuition about whatever it is you have to decide on. In other words we use money to justify our decisions because most of the reasons we give for our choices and or decisions are highly irrational. So the Line of Best fit or Best fit line in maths, algebra or statistics is a method we use to help us manage what we don’t know, it’s a way to control the result somehow. We use it to predict trends, likelihood, probability and possible value of something in a way that seems and sounds more rational than a gut feeling. It’s an exercise of faith, like religion. When maths is explained in words it sounds like a lot of guess work, which it is, but in maths what often looks unpredictable and scattered looks manageable and contained in graphs, blocks, squares, sequences and angles. Some how it seems logical, and our faith makes it rational. We choose to believe it is true. So now I know, thank God, that words and numbers are the opposite side of the same coin. There is no need to fear only to fully love both. Words are as powerful if not more powerful than numbers, because it is what you say about the numbers, how you explain your theory, your argument that influences a decision one way or the other, numbers in and of themselves cannot generate emotion ( with some exceptions). But words and numbers are inextricably linked to one another. We either use words to justify our mathematical guess work or we use numbers to justify our passionate belief in something. Words and Numbers are most powerful when used together. In every situation one has to look at an infinite number of variables, and decide on a the best line to take or just do what others do because often it takes more time and effort to decide what is best for you in any situation. We use words and numbers to support our belief in why something will work or why it won’t. Why it has worked in the past and why it hasn’t, and most of it is guess work. At times it is more challenging to decide which way to go or what line to take when every way seems correct, because though the numbers may add up, they may not be the best fit for you. Therefore I decided that the Best Line is the most suitable name for my blog at this moment in my life, because it’s suits me and because it’s what we’re all trying to do everyday: the best with an infinite amount variables or choices. The most amazing revelation for me in all of this is simply this: I was and always will be the x and y of any mathematical equation. I love maths, but having the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers to infinitude, while fun and rewarding is not the only sign of intelligence. A true sign of intelligence I believe is being yourself, and being yourself is the difference between simple and easy, it’s hard to define: what is simple is not always easy, and what is easy is not always simple, but you know when it’s just right for you. And that’s the best line!
Many of us are reeling, we are feeling broken and unsure of just how or where to start processing the recent month-long attacks against African citizens in South Africa. The latest spate of violence has created a continent-wide chain reaction against citizens of South Africa in an ugly tit for tat war of words which is pouring salt into the already open and gaping wounds littering our beloved continent. My body. We are all bleeding, some more than others. There is no justification. No mitigating factor or extenuating circumstance for this. This has been a flash of anger and hatred which has been hard to bear, and has sent many of us convulsing into waves of anguish, weakened by ancient sorrows.
Yes there is poverty, but poverty is not new. Unemployment is not a new phenomenon to hit South Africa, nor is a lack of resources. These are not unheard of phenomena in mineral rich Africa. The texture of these recent attacks has an other-worldly feel, something close to an out-of-body experience which has left even the most ardent supporters of (South)Africa with sand in their mouths. It is as if we’re all in a collective dream, a nightmare which our forefathers could not have dreamed or imagined possible even while they preached and advocated for African Unity. Today on the podiums of social and news media, radio, television and government there is no voice that clearly captures the nascent hopelessness which these attacks have embossed on our aching souls. There’s a kind of madness, an insanity which no reason can rationalize. It is like a wild-fire that only gains momentum, power and strength with every drop of water thrown at it. There is so much anger, bitterness, grief, agony and frustration. We have become like hungry lions and lionesses feeding off of our own offspring, digging deeper and deeper into the raw and fresh rare wounds in our hearts, leaving no space or room to heal. And we must heal.
We are drunk with grief, high with sadness, intoxicated with fatigue. We can no longer see, hear or speak clearly. Everything we say is like venom, poison, administered from a place of searing pain and unending agony and distress. We are outstretched, spread thin everywhere and any more pressure or negative energy will see us snapping, tearing each other apart or boiling over because there is no one well enough in the house to see that all is not well. Everyone is hurting.
It is not just South Africa it is Nigeria, Somalia, Namibia, Mozambique, Guinea, Kenya, Egypt, Zimbabwe; all 54 of us are in pain. We can’t eat, we can’t sleep, we can’t rest. Everything is aching, everywhere is war. Day and night have become a long and unending nightmare, a dream within a dream within a dream, with each dream becoming worse than the last.
You see I know this, Africa, because you are my body. My heart is in the east, and one rib in the west so are my lungs and breasts, my belly is in central Africa, my head is in the north, my legs and feet in the south, you are me. Whichever part of you hurts, hurts me too. I carry you in my veins, in my skin, and my sweat. You are everything to me and I am your everything too. I walk like you, talk like you, do everything as you do because we are one.
The current backlash against SA seems to me like a person whose foot has been badly hurt and instead of putting it in a cast and letting it heal, he becomes angry with himself, punishes himself and inflicts more pain on the very foot by stabbing it with a knife, exacerbating the damage to the point of amputation.
Nothing will replace that foot. Some South Africans have done wrong: so our solution is to take bread from the mouths of children and send them off to starve and be drugged into worse crazed futures, so that we can prove a point. A point that we all know is true. An undisputed fact. What has happened in South Africa is wrong. Nothing can be said to make it right or acceptable. All we can say is this:
We are sorry, from the depths of everything I am. On behalf of my country and countrymen. Unequivocally. Sorry.
We are still young and we have thought for a while that we knew everything. We have failed to consult and ask you, our elders to guide us into adulthood. We thought we had it figured out and yes for a while you too were indeed very proud of us, and the progress we were making and as a result abdicated your responsibility for leadership. The truth is we are still hurting and now that you can see just how much we still have to learn please don’t let go. Don’t abdicate your responsibilities now. We still don’t know what it means to be African, some of us don’t even know that we are African to begin with. You have seen us kill each other brutally with no reason. In your anger you have laughed and called us names instead of stepping in and giving us guidance. You have been free for decades more than we have. Help us deal with this. Lift us up from our fallen state, because you can not walk without us. And we cannot breathe without you. We are one body. We thought we could handle all the responsibility of taking Africa forward, but in reality, it is too much. Help us and lighten our load. We cannot do it on our own. I am not blaming you for what has happened, I am trying to illustrate just how much we need you now.
This is a critical, defining and historic moment for Africa, and for us all. How we choose to address this issue, this wound now, today, will determine our future. What future do we want for Africa?
The last thing we need is to be isolated and ex-communicated from each other. Because no matter where we go in the world we carry Africa in us and with us. Though we’ve tried to escape her woes many times and in boat loads from all corners of the continent, we have taken her with us. Her joys and sorrows have been permanently etched on our foreheads.
Africa. She decides our fate.
This is the time for us to join hands in unity and fight to stay alive together. From South to North, East and West. We need to hold on to each other now. We need to keep talking to each other until the words we speak become medicine to our wounds, until it stops hurting. This is the time for us to stay together anyway we can and weather the storm. I know that we are strong enough, brave enough but most of all, I know that we have enough love in our hearts to heal recent hurts. Let’s draw strength from those who’ve come before us. Let’s draw strength from what we have already overcome. I know we have enough love to build a better future for our children. I know that we can change. We have everything we need to make us work.
The answer to our current problems is an unwavering commitment to one another, to African Unity. A commitment to face our challenges head on and together. It is time to focus on us, Africa. It is time for a mutual commitment to go directly to the root cause of our problems, no matter what they are and stand together committed to solving them. We’ve tried doing things apart and “Independently” before. We’ve all gone our own separate ways at different times and it has not worked. All we have achieved is slow progress with heightened strife and more pain. It’s time to commit. Now is the moment our forefathers dreamt of. Now is the time to show unity in the face of opposition like we have never done before. Now is the time to break without exception all the boarders in our hearts and minds and occupy our land in peace. Let us free ourselves now and let love in. It is the only way. We are an amazing and beautiful people, who deserve love, peace and harmony in our daily lives. We need to remain committed to one another, remain committed to loving each other. We need to commit to peace now anyway and no matter what, because that’s the only way any of us will survive.
I commit to you wholeheartedly and without reservation. I pledge my love for you now and forever. Because you and I, are one mind, body and soul. Africa is one and indivisible. No matter what.
This weeks’ blog post features a story by journalist, editor and writer Clinton Nagoor. My former colleague, editor and boss. We’ve worked together for the greatest part of my career as journalist. He never seized to challenge me to come up with more creative ways to tell a compelling story, to write well and to write stories that matter and have an impact. He’s pushed me to do better and inspired me to be a better storyteller and I have admired his ability to remain so positive and focused in a profession that can sometimes be brutally unforgiving. In many ways he has been my mentor and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him. Last week he moved me. Here’s why:
WRITE HARD, DIE FREE by Clinton Nagoor
I used to be a crime reporter. That first murder scene. I can’t recall her name. But she was eight-years-old and still in her white school dress. She lay in the gutter of a park known as Strawberry Fields. She lay there next to the swings and merry-go-round. Her shoes kicked off-her panties scrunched and thrown beside her. Head turned to one side, her knees slightly drawn up- almost asleep-like. But she had been raped. Then strangled with surgical tubing. Raped and murdered at eight. And left there in the gutter of a child’s playground. It was the early 90s in KZN so I attended many more crime scenes. Massacres where families were shot and their bodies set alight, suicide by gunshot, robberies gone wrong, gone right, death by friends, by serial killers and customers. Political violence and tribal violence. A violent death is an ugly thing. The last crime scene. July 28th 2003. It was a Monday. The house was empty when I got there. There was bloody handprints as I walked up the stairway to the first floor. I noticed blood on the panic button and the alarm panel. A great pool of dark cloying blood on the kitchen floor. Lots of bloody marks in the corridor leading to it. I didn’t look intently but there was enough to burn in my memory. The police docket, witness statements and picture book told a story. The home panic button had been set off sometime in the night. Security guards came to the house but no one answered and everything seemed to be in order. So they left. The alarm went off again. This time they returned with policemen. At the back of the house through the kitchen window they could see a man lying on the floor He was not responsive to their calls so they went in. One of the constables says in his statement that the male victim’s fingers were still twitching. But by the time paramedics arrived there had been lots of blood loss. He was declared dead on scene. The post-mortem will show a massive blunt force trauma to the back of his head. Several stab wounds to his face and upper body. I remember everything about this scene of murder. The man was a 60-year-old who had celebrated his birthday on April 18th with friends and family. He was a printer by trade. Ink dyed into his finger tips. A lifetime of work to raise his sons. He never met his grandkids. Never got to play with them. Nor regale them with childhood stories or teach them to kick a ball. I remember everything about that last crime scene of mine. His name was Larry. But I called him Daddy.
I have been thinking about my chosen profession recently. In fact for the past 14 years. Each day I have asked myself if this is something I want or wish to do for the rest of my life. I have asked myself this question on every occasion I have returned from the heat of the field, still half listening to the interviews in my head, still getting accustomed to the characters in the play let alone sorting out the facts from the truth. I have asked myself this question while still trying to find the words to describe the mood, the cadences of ordinary scenes pregnant with nuances beyond logical description. The scars in someone’s soul. Hours after the interview(s) I would still be listening, trying to find the best way to include into my script all the silences between words in the interviews, to find the words that could describe feelings that were never expressed, thoughts that were never uttered, the hopes and fears that were caught somewhere in someone’s throat or which silently gathered behind brave round eyes or spilled over in a moment of weakness onto curled eyelashes and leaked without a sound on firm cheeks. Spreading across someone’s face in a distant smile.
I would still be thinking, wondering if there is a way to write about the sound of a silent tear drop, the weight behind each one, and how each tastes different to the other. Some are as light as mist while others heavy and thick like a pound of dead flesh, drop loudly on quivering cheeks like a thunderstorm. Other tears flow slowly as fluid as crimson lava from a raptured volcano etching pigments of memory on tired faces long after the eyes have dried up. Each tear contains a story. A story which seconds on the clock could never contain. In order to write I tell myself, I can do it. I close my eyes to the silent tick of the clock, each red dot marking a second, a minute, an hour before the show is over. I close my eyes and in the darkness tell myself that somehow I can do it. I can make them hear the sound of falling a tear drop.
The pressure is sometimes so strong I need a song that can help me silence the critic inside. I need music to initiate movement. To silence the white noise. In all honesty I cannot remember a day when I didn’t ask myself if this is truly what I have chosen to do with my life. Because in many ways I didn’t fully believe or accept that journalism and I are well suited. The pressure to file a story every hour was both a wondrous thrill and a heavy burden. It was superb when the story pumped like the inaudible flow of blood in your veins, when you knew all the elements of the story as well as you know your own name, when you knew the subject inside-out, when it was a subject you believed in, when love took over and you found yourself floating on water like a surfer who has just caught the largest wave, the highest tide, flying. In those moments time would be irrelevant, in fact, when you reached the point of equilibrium between yourself and a story it felt as though time herself was bowing to you, waiting for you. It stood as if in an eternal salute to a master creating a timeless experience balancing the past and future fully in the present moment. Everything would be in sync, synergized and you would never ever want time to start its relentless drill again. Tick Tock. In fact you didn’t even think about it. But those days and moments were rare, because you were not a specialist you had to learn a story from scratch every day, like cramming for an exam every single time you go to work. Most days putting a story on air would be as hard and tedious as trying to squeeze milk from an old-cow whose udders have lost their youthful lustre. In those moments time would always be against you, either too fast or too slow. In my early days as a journalist, I found myself quite perplexed, both at myself and the nature of what I was attempting to do every day, to write down stories I was never told. I would have to shut my eyes tight. Forget about time, write what was not said with varying degrees of success. At times I thought I put too much pressure on myself, which is why at least once or twice a week, I would find myself immobile unable to move, because I was still waiting to hear the splashing sound of a falling tear drop as it hits the floor. It never has.
Today, I would like to believe that I can look at what I do with a certain level of professional dispassion. Perhaps I am mature enough to capture a tear-drop and tell a timely story.
Technology is ever-changing the way we consume and understand news and current affairs. To a large extent, the tools we use, the technology itself has become news. What makes the headlines today would probably have never made it onto a national news bulletin when I started working with words and silences over ten years ago. What would make headlines ten years ago, is not even considered news today. Reporting/Journalism has never been as fast as it is today, it has never been so easy nor so convenient for any journalist, reporter or ordinary person with the right tools to break a story and make headlines. There are a multiple ways in which stories can be told and often new reporters and journalists are expected to have an ability to use all of them with equal competence. From filing radio hard copy, voice reports from the field, capturing video footage, taking photographs, getting the interviews, tweeting about it, posting (selfies) with news makers on Instagram, Facebook, liveblogs and podcasts while simultaneously conducting live television reports with a selfie stick for a camera operator. Then there are infographics, photo snacks and hashtags, meant to compress everything to 70 characters and 30 second videos. Your value as journalist is embedded in your ability to do all these successfully, and by success we mean your tweets must go viral, your story must be shared by millions, reposted by a hundred thousand more, tagged, favoured, and retweeted, liked, by your followers around the world. That has become the bottom line. Any errors made we can apologize for later.
There’s no time to pause before we report what we see. The story of the sound of a tear drop is out of sync with the times, it is old news. What we are asking journalists to do today, is like asking someone who was trained as a General Practitioner, to start doing brain surgery, be a vet, an obstetrician , an ophthalmologist among other things all in the course of one day. Any self-respecting medical professional would refuse such an assignment not only because it is impractical but simply because such an assignment is a recipe for failure and the worst case scenario would result in one of the patients suffering from lack of attention and or expertise advice. Whatever the outcome we can all expect the results of this to be average at best.
While it sounds very impressive to say you can and have been able to do all of those things, it is ultimately not sustainable. Perhaps not so much for the corporation itself as it operates on the belief that it can just as easily “replace” you with someone younger and more eager to not only do all of the above, but to also run and build a website from scratch and do marketing and publicity while you’re still trying to figure out how Twitter works. The question is not whether one person can perform all those functions, it is whether doing so would be in the best interest of the profession and the bottom line.
I understand. I was trained in all the imaginable methods of reporting from what we called desk top publishing (DTP) at the time, to photojournalism, TV, radio journalism, online journalism. I’ve learnt how to edit words, moving and still pictures, design websites, edit documentaries, write scripts, shoot video footage, and produce essays, learn history, politics, and a few foreign languages in three years. I know how it feels like to be turned into an octopus with suctions on every imaginable aspect of journalism, a jack of all trades but a master of none. It is wonderful to have a working knowledge of these tools of telling stories, but ultimately what matters most is the story. You can have the best and most technologically advanced story telling tools – but they will never tell a story like a human being can.
So in the past four years as freelance journalist I have seen how amazing it can be to be a one man show on the rare occasion that it works, and how devastating it can be when everything comes falling apart like a deck of cards. Because in the end we only have two hands, two eyes, two ears and two feet.
I have enjoyed working in solitude as a radio reporter for eight years. Yet nothing is sweeter and is more wonderful and fulfilling that embarking on a creative project with like-minded people. I have tasted the undeniable high of working with others. Nothing surpasses a High Five with another hand at the end of a long day. No technology can replace another human being. The Technology we use is just a tool, it will never replace another human’s eye, another person’s perspective. It is a delicate balance between being independent, versatile and being unreasonably narcissistic. An inanimate object, no matter how technologically advanced and innovative it is, can never replace a human mind heart or soul. And if one day we wake up and think it does, then we will do so at our own peril.
The bottom line is, life is better when we’re doing it two-gether.
True freedom therefore is a courageous act, a brave decision to face the unchangeable fact of your past and present. It requires fearlessness to confront the hurting parts of you, your most delicate wounds, scars which run as deep as the roots of a Baobab tree. True freedom is choosing to forgive yourself and others for your role and theirs in creating the hurts that can never be changed. It is the courage to weave together from torn and worn out garments and stories a tapestry of forgiveness, a blanket that will cover future generations in their moments of cold, dark, loneliness because none of us are immune. True freedom is in the words of Thomas Sankara, a dare to invent the future, to imagine something new. To move on and thrive, love and give regardless of how much has been taken or stolen in the past. True freedom is when you give yourself a chance, a little chance, with the knowledge that after a while, you have a choice, a decision to make. You can choose how you want to live, you can choose the contents of your heart, and once you’ve made that decision, take the responsibility to act on it, to fill it with things that will make you stronger. You can decide to dust it off, mop the floor and enjoy the space. True freedom is a process, an individual private journey that we must all begin collectively with immediate effect. I have written pieces of my journey in this blog over the years, but this one I hope you will spend a bit of time reading. Because ultimately it is about our future together – when we become an us.
It’s Saturday Night, the 26 of April 2014. The suns’ glow which lit up a clear blue sky was highlighted by wisps of white clouds, shone for a few hours before traveling west. The air is starting to bite, clinging to my clothes, shoes and linen. I remind myself that I love April with its changing hues of orange, brown and yellow. Autumn, there’s a scent of freshness in the air that comes with the changing season. I am grateful. I am sitting outside on the balcony of Brown Sugar Backpackers in Observatory, a suburb on Johannesburg’s East Rand. It is now my temporary new home. I arrived here just a few hours ago from Curiosity Backpackers, downtown Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD).
Curiosity backpackers is in the newly gentrified tourist location for tourists seeking alternatives to the usual wildlife Safaris which continue to draw thousands of tourists to African countries. The new district is called Maboneng Precinct, a seSotho word which when literally translated means where there is light. “It’s a place meant for you, so you can be inspired to create” says Lunga, a slickly dressed 22-year-old property agent as he ushers me into vacant flats (apartments) at the Artists’ Lofts building. “I’m not selling you a dream, I’m telling you reality” he says showing me the views in a New York style loft apartment still under construction. It has its own private lift as an entrance. “This one has already been bought” he adds. Lunga “the charming hustler” as he calls himself works for Mafadi Properties a subsidiary of companies owned by Johnathan Liebman, the man who is currently breathing new life into what used to be a no-go area for middle class South Africans, who hid safety behind gated-communities, high walls and electric fences not so long ago now.
The Artists Loft buildings’ entrance is on Albertina siSulu Street, recently renamed from Market Street: rewriting history in honour of one of South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle icons and a heroine of the African National Congress women’s league. As we walk out of the building I glance across the street and I come face to face with Jeppe police station. And I realize as if I had been lost in time, that this is the Jeppe’s town. Pieces of my fragmented history start to converge. My memory is returning to me vividly as we walk briskly through the coolness of the grey morning clouds with paper cups of coffee in hand. Smiling from ear to ear. My lips stick to my teeth as if frozen in time.
This is where I walked alone, breathlessly seeking direction to the scene of the crime(s) four years ago. It was here when I answered my bosses’ impatient call. “Where are you?” he demanded. “I’m here, downtown” I responded in the blurred vision of the familiar. “Where in town” He asked again. Then I noticed the police station and answered with some relief “I’m here, at Jeppe’s police station, there are many people here”. It was Monday the 12th of May 2008. The day after Xenophobic violence broke out killing five people, injuring 50 and robbing countless others of their homes, business and peace in Jeppe’s town specifically. The air had been knocked out of my lungs amid haunted-deserted streets mid-morning. The debris of the week-end chaos was strewn carelessly on the sweltering concrete, shards of newly broken glass shimmered under the wintry sun, velvet soot from smouldering fires, papers, garbage, abandoned splintering new merchandise, shoes, belts, stock forgotten in a frenzy of adrenalin pumped feet escaping death. I was lost in the inner belly of a city whose blood was pulsating through my veins with every passing second, not knowing what to expect, where to go or who to ask what. “They took everything” said a shop owner, hurriedly packing up his shop. ”We are closing shop now, we are scared they’ll come back again, we don’t know if they’ll come back again”. The air was thin with tension making it difficult to blink. My coffee had grown cold. “They plan to turn this building into a state of the art-gallery” says Lunga pointing to an old Victorian-esque building on the opposite corner of Commissioner and Albrecht Street.” They’ll do renovations but they will preserve its original architecture” he says. “It’s beautiful, I can see myself living my life here riding a bike” I say. ” Yes, in your future amazing life” he smiles at me. I smile back and think my life is already amazing. The offspring of the Washington consensus.
Curiosity Backpackers has been open for less than four months and business is practically blooming. Media coverage of the new open space for globe trotters around the world has been equally good. All the rooms have been booked out to foreign travelers. “Until the end of May” the booking manager tells me “more travelers from European countries are coming ” she says. As I roll my suitcase out of this inner city hide out, there’s a flurry of activity: brand new crisp white sheets have just been delivered. Curiosity staff scurried from one corner to another like mice cleaning up every inch and corner of the grey concrete building. No stone is left un-turned.
Fresh new sparkling white faces smile with wonder-lust in their eyes, high on the curious adventures in the concrete jungle. “Zwarte-piet (black assistants to the dutch St Nicholas/ the Dutch celebrate the holiday by painting their faces black their lips red and wearing Afros) was just like Santa-Clause or Father Christmas for us, for me as a child he represented the happy exciting feeling of Christmas, his represent only good things to us” A Dutch journalism student tells me in the crammed passageways of curiosity. “It’s a sentimental tradition which though I don’t celebrate anymore and can see why it can be “offensive” But for me it has nothing to do with racism. It is a festival full of excitement, celebrations, a time for gifts, sweets and such like, whenever I think of Zwarte -piet, I have good memories. It was the highlight of my childhood” She concludes sipping black label beer.
I am reminded of how lucky I am. A few years ago, ten of them to be exact, the luxury of staying at a backpackers in my own country was virtually impossible, unheard of in fact. In 2004, the year South Africa marked and celebrated 10 years of freedom, I walked down Cape Town’s busy and popular Long Street, knocking from one backpacker to another seeking accommodation. Then there was no room at the inn. I couldn’t stay in a single Backpacker on long street there was a policy that reserved the right of admission only to foreign passport holders. I was excluded only on that basis, it was neither the issue of availability nor affordability. “It’s our policy, no South Africans” the guy said. I was more than perplexed at the irony of the situation. Even the citizenship that our forefathers fought so hard to achieve did not guarantee a roof over my head as a traveler in my home country.
“This place is cool, at least you can stay” said a friend of mine while visiting me at Curiosity. “A few years ago I couldn’t find a backpacker to stay in, in Cape Town” she said as if reading my mind.
The previous night I sat around a fire with a group of young South Africans, a group which included a dread-locked white guy who asked for a sip of black label beer in isiZulu, a 25-year-old Jewish architect who was searching for inspiration, maybe even a life changing epiphany and yet another “born-free” (a term used to describe South Africans born after 1994) guy who didn’t want to vote in the upcoming elections on May 7 2014. “It’s about me now” he said looking at me with such intensity I felt my own words coming out of his mouth. “I have to know myself first. I need to know who I am, what I am about, I need to understand me first, sort out the issues with my family – find my place in the world before I can even hope to change this country” he said staring at the ashen coals of a dying fire. He’s of mixed descent what South Africans refer to as “coloured” or “biracial”. ” They don’t see this, they don’t understand it, but I won’t be forced to vote” He said tightening his grip on the dark brown black label bottle. I listen amazed by his confidence and resolve. I am disarmed by it. ” Locals were never allowed to stay at Backpackers before, the rules just changed recently” the staff at Brown Sugar tells me as I walk in and inquire about rooms. I hear myself asking why in a weak moment of complete amnesia. “They say you locals steal. So foreigners don’t want to share rooms with you” she says smiling and shrugging her shoulders. ” So you can’t stay in a shared room because you’re staying for more than one night” she continues “You have to get a single room and it costs more.” I look at her silently. “It’s the rules” she says folding her arms.
I think of Lyth. A beautiful Irish- Palestinian man I met a few days ago on my first Sunday back in the city of Johannesburg. I noticed him a few times. I liked his style.He was sitting alone at a coffee Kiosk called Uncle Merves’ on Maboneng’s Districts’ Fox Street – paging through a thick green and yellow guide to the city of Johannesburg. It was my favourite spot too. I ask him for a light and use the opportunity to ask him where he’s from. ” I’m from Cape Town” He says trying to size me up “I was there on holiday with my girlfriend, who has gone to visit family in Durban. I decided to visit Johannesburg instead, to get a real sense of the country”. He said closing the tome between his hands. It was his first time on the African continent he confessed. I refused to ask him why he didn’t join his girlfriend in Durban. I was also just simply passing time, enjoying people watching in the afternoon sun. It was none of my sun-shining-day-business. He tells me that they traveled from London where he lives (with his girlfriend) and works as a commercial lawyer for a huge mining conglomerate (which he refused to name). He wants to be a journalist like me he says, he is considering doing some human rights work. He lives not too far from London’s famed Nottinghill District. “My favourite movie” I quip and he smiles knowingly. But I can see how disturbed he is.
After what seemed like an eternity he finally let it out. “I’m shocked that in this country I’m considered white!” he says peering at me as if the answer to that question was written on my face. “I mean I am Palestinian!” He exclaimed shaking his head. I smile and in a moment of sheer exhaustion decide to by pass all his inferred history and simply simplify the reality of South Africa’s racially segregated past. I nod and only manage to say “Here you are white, brother.” As if to prove a much laboured point he reaches into his backpack and shows me his reading material a book called “Biko: A life” by South African Academic Xolela Mangcu.
I wince a little as images of me sitting at the newly opened, fresh out of the box constitutional court of South Africa flash in front of me making it hard for me to delve deeper into the book. On that particular night in my very early and firey 20’s I shared the stage with Dr Mangcu himself and African-American philosopher and public intellectual Cornell West. The subject; a conversation about the meaning of Mandela. I surprised many if not everyone with my youthful analysis of our new rainbow nation. I told them I don’t care about Mandela or Hip-Hop. I didn’t grow up listening to Kwaito. I didn’t believe in this rainbow. But nobody was ready for that. “You are very brave” one woman confided to me afterwards. “What a shame, young people nowadays!” flutters of disgusted whispers hovered over my head in hushed tones. I had to escape my own notoriety. I had shamed the country’s esteemed public intellectuals, returned exiles, academics, writers, journalists and many others right in the centre of a building that embodied our greatest hopes and dreams as a nation. This then was my truth. My silence become uncomfortable. ” It’s really a brilliant book, best biography I’ve read about the man” he said quickly returning it into his backpack like a prized possession. I agreed with him desperately wanting to change the subject. I was in a cheerful mood, determined to focus only on the bright side of life and Lyth was begging me with his thoughtful, questioning silent side-ways glances to go into the deep political ocean with him. “How will you manage that?” He asked of my determination to remain light as I looked away searching for something even more cheerful to talk about. We somehow ended up in Beirut – a city we both love. He was also there in June 2006, dubbed the Hottest Summer in Lebanon, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah. I bought the t-shirt but my mother promptly discarded it. “Your girlfriend is lucky to have you” I say hoping to brighten his mood. Later I discovered to my surprise that he was also a curiosity resident. I invite him to the African Freedom Station where I introduce him to Bra Steve Kwena Mokwena. There, with a glass of whiskey in hand – he was at peace, at home. He grew up listening to Hip-Hop.
RAMPHOSA AND THE BURNING MAN
I’m sure by now you’re asking where this story is going or how it is related to the the recent and in some cases ongoing attacks on African immigrants in Soweto and other parts of South Africa. Before I get there, I want to use the story of Ramaphosa Township which made international headlines in 2008 after a picture of the “burning-man” who was known as Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was broadcast to the world. His en flamed body became a symbol of xenophobic brutality in South Africa. Photographers watched on as he burnt to death, collapsing, crawling, trying to escape the inferno that clung to him like white on rice. Many were too scared to save a man’s life, but most were indeed brave enough to document it.
Shortly after being assigned to Jeppe’s town I was assigned to this very township, Ernestos isolated frame still etched in my vision. Violence had not abated. Police were still exchanging fire with unidentified gunmen. As I walked through this informal settlement I found some people, cleaning up and moving into newly vacant homes or shacks. Thinking they were victims of recent violence I approached to ask them questions about what had happened. It turned out that they were just residents, perhaps neighbours, who saw the violence as an opportunity to meet their housing needs. Many of them had already staked their claim on homes, some were already moving furniture, others were using what material was left to erect new homes, some just stood on vacant doors. Enough evidence to prove that this space belongs to you now. Each home already had a new owner who was moving in, barely days if not hours after many had been chased out of their homes. I asked why? They answered that the foreigners “take our jobs, they take our women, we’ve also been waiting for houses. for plots of land from where to erect our shacks. For something to happen. We want houses.” So they just simply moved in, took advantage of the situation. No police were there to monitor the situation, there was no one to lay charges or dispute what was happening. Everyone had ample opportunity to do just as they pleased with what was left behind. I realized then that there was something sinister. A sickening opportunism, a blatant take -over of someone else’s dream and years of hard work, whose reality was made worse by the fact that there was no one to blame, no one could be held accountable, in the greater scheme of things. If any of the African migrants who survived had to return, they would find nothing left for them, what little they had was no longer theirs. The vultures had been hovering long before the violence broke out, they would find their home occupied, taken over.
A HISTORY IN THE ECONOMIES OF SCALE
Shortly after the Xenophobic attacks in Jeppestown which left much of the area abandoned and vacant, Propertuity, a company owned by Johnathan Liebman acquired its first property on Fox and main streets in 2008. The building would be turned into Arts on Main: a mixed use space for creatives to have an integrated live and work offering. With the support of important artists and institutions such as William Kent ridge and the Nirox Foundation. Arts on Main was opened in 2009 and has since resulted in further acquisition of more and more buildings to become Maboneng and has since been listed in the New York times as one of the most fascinating places to visit for tourists. Before the xenophobic attacks of 2008 Jeppe’s town was occupied by SMME’s many of them had been there for decades. Traders and merchants – trading mostly in designer men’s clothing and specialist shoe shops. There was no mass exodus of people. I bought my first car in Jeppe’s town.
What opportunistic residents of Ramaphosa did is no different to what Propertuity did in order to acquire buildings in Jeppe’s town for next to nothing. Perhaps it was all just a fortuitous coincident that Propertuity was able to acquire a building shortly after xenophobic violence broke-out, perhaps the idea had been there all along. Perhaps they like Ramaphosa residents created, instigated or used the misfortune to create business opportunities for themselves where there had been no opportunities before. The difference here is of course that Propertuity makes money out of this, its urban regeneration projects are perceived to be a generally good intervention into the inner city’s “decaying” landscape. Entrepreneurs in informal settlements such as Ramaphosa who engaged in the same or similar activities are looked at with scorn looked, as if they are “bad” apples. But this is what many in the business world would consider as a “hostile-take over”. A natural process of doing business.
The scapegoat however valid (xenophobia) is an easy one to make. Everybody knows that Africans dislike each other. The existing weaknesses in our fragile identities make it easy for anyone to manipulate the situation for their own benefit. In cases of mob justice it is often hard to find the instigators or the real reasons behind the violence. And if found those reasons on balance do not support such extreme violence, the response seems disproportionate . In such cases, as the media often does and should everyone focuses on the perceived losers and never on those who stand to benefit the most from the ensuing violence or instability. I have witnessed this in Ramaphosa, Jeppe’s town and in other parts of Africa where suddenly property prices plummet with violence and instability, allowing speculators, investors and others to acquire property and assets that would have taken much longer to secure in the normal course of business negotiations. Indeed they cannot be blamed for the violence or for profiting from a bad situation, because in essence that is the definition of entrepreneurship.
Many people admire Jonathan Liebmans’ genius, his intelligence and quick thinking action as an entrepreneur, a brave man who has gone where no-one dared go before, a pioneering spirit so full of inspiring original ideas and creative ways of getting what he wants. I say he’s just as clever, intelligent and as creative as those Ramphosa Residents, who seized an opportunity and moved into plots made vacant by faceless nameless crowds. They are all cut from the same cloth. One is despised for it, shamed for it. The other is praised and worshiped for doing the exact same thing.
And Lyth? The point about his story is to illustrate the reality of life. That it is not black or white in the way we’ve always understood it, based on the colour of one’s skin. The bigger picture is to a large extent no longer about what you look like; whether it be white, black, coloured, Jewish, Indian or brown or Japanese. What’s more important than what you look like is what you think, your motives, your reasons, the ideas or ideology which motivates and inspires your actions. These supersede your appearance or the natural length of your hair because they determine who you are at your very core, your nature. These thoughts and attitudes are what determine your way in life, the people you associate with and the choices you make in life. It’s about an ideology, a belief system that resonates with your personal core values whatever they may be. Lyth was shocked at the fact that he is considered “white” in South Africa because he understood whiteness as an ideology, a state of mind in much the same way as Black Consciousness is a state of mind.
It is my belief that we need to move from a white, black, skin and money consciousness narrative and be more “People” conscious. Let’s read the constitution and the bill of rights of this country again, over and over, every day. Let’s do this to remember where we started, to understand where we are, let’s do it so we can see the direction we must take, using the bill of rights and the countries’ constitution as a map for where we want to go. Then measure all of our current actions and inactions against the goals and aspirations written in the constitution and bill of rights. Are we going in the right direction? The idea of a rainbow nation was birthed as a poetic celebration, a metaphor of humanity’s landscape throughout the world. A call to celebrate diversity, because we are not all white or black or coloured, we have different shades and hues and together we look just as magnificent as the rainbow. Despite how we look however, we all deserve the same rights, respect and consideration irrespective of our country of origin. If we welcome Europeans, Asians, and others warmly into our cities, or neighbourhoods to do business or build lives we must surely extend the same courtesy to Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalians etc because they too are our honoured guests, because they too deserve the same rights and respect. If we do not do that, then we are betraying ourselves, we are going against our core values as a nation as set forth in the Bill of Rights which affords everyone in this country a right to dignity. If we don’t condemn these attacks, if we do not stand against capital or money being used to routinely violate human rights, we are agreeing with them, we are implicated by our silence. We may be in trouble as a nation but we are not without direction, we have the blueprint for a society that we want to live in, enshrined in the constitution and the bill of rights. Let’s use that as our campus and do whatever is necessary to defend the human rights and dignity of others as if our own lives depend on them being upheld, because ultimately they do.
“Bhuti (brother) Ngiceli’ lift ( can I get a lift)In your Zola Budd, Zola Budd, Zola budd!
I wanna be in your Zola Budd, Zola Budd, I want to be in your Zola Budd, Zola Budd, Zola Budd!!
Two very simple lines and a melody that still makes me want to stand up run and dance on the spot like she did in the video , with her index finger flaying in the air. The Apartheid Government could not ban her (music/song) like they did so many more other black revolutionary artists at the time. Brenda’s Music was classified as “Bubble Gum” music. You know what you do with bubble gum, you first chew it , play with it, make bubbles, then spit it out when the sweetness is gone. But I can still taste the sugar in Brenda Fassie’s music today. The song Zola Budd, which apart from having a pop theme in the beginning ends with a soulful choir like hymn with her almost crying..slowly repeating Zola Budd.. Zoooola Budd, Zola Budd!!. It echoed the pain and aspirations of both black and white South Africans at the height of the country’s state of emergency, her song spread and became popular like wildfire. No only putting a shine on Brenda the artist our beloved star, but on the mini-bus taxis (which the majority of black south african workers depend on to get to work everyday) and even Zola Budd herself ( she has a song and taxi named after her)
You can imagine then how Popular Brenda Fassie must have been to little black girls like me who growing up in the literal dusty streets of Soweto (because that’s where I’m from) emulated her. We all wanted to be Brenda when we grew up, even boys; we imitated her from head to toe voice to actions. She popularized braids (we called them singles) with colourful beads ( like those worn by traditional healers sometimes) because that’s how she wore her hair. She was a trend-setter. She had bad teeth, but nobody cared, she was more than her tiny frame, bigger greater and larger. I used to love doing impersonations of Brenda Fassie as a child, any chance I’d get, especially the “No senor”, track about a woman being held hostage by her spanish lover. I was dark and awkwardly beautiful like Brenda, so even as a child in the process of becoming aware of myself and what made me different from other humans I could see myself in her, I identified with her. She embodied mine and South Africa’s aspirations. She inspired me, made me believe in myself. That I am black , and that is beautiful. I think my mother took me to TV auditions once, because I believed I could be a star, like Brenda Fassie. Maybe she did too.
So later on in her career Brenda Fassie released another hit song “Indaba ya’m i straight – ayifun’irula” [ My story is straight it doesn’t need a ruler]. It was a response to media accusations, if I am correct, about her sexuality or sexual orientation and activities, she was often rumored to keep multiple partners – male and female. I think she was mostly seeing women at the time of her untimely death.
I think about that song and wonder what Mabrrr (as she was affectionately known) would have to say to the state of the nation today, when women are being raped and assaulted on a daily basis, others only because they are gay – to “correct” them. Or what she would have to say to the fact that our very own Runner and 800 meter’s record breaker, Caster Semenya, was almost stripped of her title and dreams of being an international athlete because she was accused of being a man, running as a woman.
So this got me thinking about writing and how we document and celebrate our history, our heritage and those people who had an impact in our lives such as Brenda Fassie, as we mark the UNESCO World Heritage and Archive week . I have always wanted to be a performer, an artist , an entertainer. But since art didn’t pay, my mother who was and still is my greatest supporter (and I)thought journalism would be best. So now I would like to be myself, today, and use what I have now, today, my journalism education and vast experience ( Thank you mom) to live out those childhood dreams wherever possible, so that when I do have children one day, I can allow them to explore and accept who they are sooner, so they are more balanced and happier adults. One of my colleagues who is celebrating 15 years as a journalist at the public broadcaster today came to my desk this morning and said to me ” I wish I had the insight, 15 years ago, of using what I have been given to the best of my ability. I wish I had known then what I know now, that life is what you make of it now, here where you are, not somewhere in the future, I’m glad I’m doing it now but I swear, I could have kicked myself” – She is in her 50’s.
” Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent” C G. Jung.
Before I tell you my list of ten things I didn’t know about Denmark, indulge me as I tell you a little story. A story I was told by an old friend of mine over dinner during my recent visit to the Scandinavian country which boarders Sweden and Germany. The story concerns an erstwhile Danish-American chef who wanted to cook a traditional Danish dish it could have been dessert but I don’t remember exactly. He searched the web for a recipe and found one written in the Danish language, which he duly translated into English. According to the recipe the dish required sweet milk (sød mælk) in Danish. So the American-Danish went and bought condensed milk and added it to the ingredients which resulted in a less that perfect dish. The Danish American soon found out that while sød mælk literally translated from Danish to English means sweet milk – sød mælk in Danish actually means full cream milk. Basically in the Danish language sweet-milk is not sweet-milk even if it is called sweet milk. So obviously I was curious about the etymology of the term or word, a curiosity which sparked a series of questions which led my friend to retort with some irritation that: ‘I didn’t invent the language’. So perhaps there is a reason for this perhaps there is no reason – but this particular story sums up my overall impression of Denmark. But as with most things, places and circumstances in life things are often never what people say they are nor are they what they seem. So Denmark in this context is not in any way peculiar. So without wasting any more of your time… here are some fun facts about Denmark. Yes it’s an odd country.
1. THERE ARE MORE PIGS THAN HUMANS IN THE COUNTRY
Denmark produces approximately 28 million pigs a year, that’s five times the Danish population of 5.6 million people according to 2013 populations figures. The pigs are reared in around 5,000 pig farms, most pigs are slaughtered at the co-operative abattoirs Danish Crown and Tican. In addition, a substantial number of live piglets are exported, mainly to Germany. Exports of pig meat account for almost half of all agricultural exports and for more than 5 percent of Denmark’s total exports.
2 . FOREPLAY IS KEY TO THE FLOURISHING PIG INDUSTRY
I’m sure you’re wondering how it is that Denmark’s pig population is larger that the human population, the reason is quite simple. Researchers found that if female pigs are aroused before insemination they are likely to become more fertile or produce more piglets. So farm workers are tasked with performing professional foreplay on the animals before they are inseminated to increase fertility rates. You can check out the actual video here to see how it’s done.
3. ANIMAL BROTHELS ARE A POPULAR TOURIST DESTINATION
Laws in both Denmark and Norway are fairly open when it comes to a person’s legal right to engage in sexual activity with an animal. The law states that doing so is perfectly legal, so long as the animal involved does not suffer. According to the Danish newspaper 24timer, this interesting gap in the law has led to a flourishing business in which people pay in order to have sex with animals. On the internet, several Danish animal owners openly advertise their services. The newspaper contacted several such individuals and was told that many of the animals have been engaged in this kind of activity for several years and that the animals crave the sexual stimulation. The newspaper found that the cost charged by the animal owners varied from DKK 500 to 1,000 (USD$85 to $170).
4. AT HEART DENMARK IS A GREEN COUNTRY
Denmark is well-known the world over for its progressive environmental policies and sustainable living. From cycling to work and recycling but within Denmark’s Capital City Copenhagen, there’s a different kind of green living. In Christiania, Copenhagens’ worst kept secret, is a free green zone. Meaning once you enter, you can buy and smoke weed, marijuana, or cannabis, freely without fear. You only have to obey three rules: Take No pictures, Don’t Run and just have fun. It’s a fascinating place. My friends took me there one night at my request. It was as if I was walking into a western-cowboy movie set, without the image of the bumble weed floating aimlessly against the piercing hot sun. The lighting was dim and the walls were illuminated with green lights which made the place suddenly feel like a ghost town. Being winter there were braziers lighting the way to the main eating areas.Vendors sold their product behind camouflaged tents which looked like set-dressing from horror or ghost movies. Everyone spoke in hushed tones and whispers, no loud music could be heard. Only the faint sound of money exchanging hands and the thick scent of purple haze which danced around nostrils on pusher street. Christiania had a distinctly illicit lane feel about it, far from the breakfast at Tiffiney’s boutique or the silicone valley image I often associated with the free or ‘legal’ consumption of weed. It’s a place for hippies, for stoners, it’s off the grid, or rather it is an autonomous town because by law it’s allowed to exist. Police conduct raids once in while but it’s not frequent. The last time they tried to close down Christiania, drug peddlers scattered around the city, increasing crime rates in an otherwise peaceful city, creating choas in a well ordered environment. So authorities changed their minds. This way it’s all under control. Everyone knows everyone. It’s ‘crime’ but it’s organized so for the most part it’s fine. Everyone raises their eyebrows in shock at the sound of the word Christiania. Most people would rather pretend it didn’t exist. Everyone has a relative like that.
5. DEMOCRACY WORKS IN DENMARK
Not far from Christiania is the country’s parliament, the Christiansborg Palace – the only building in the world to house three of the countries executive pillars of government. The country is proud of its democracy, because as residents like to say, Democracy works in Denmark. I imagined it would work but what I didn’t know was that until recently the Danish parliament was the only parliament in the world to offer free access to the public. You can still walk through the building but since the cartoon incident – Denmark has earned the wrath of the Arab-Muslim world which has necessitated screening for those wishing to attend parliamentary proceedings. There are sporadic bomb threats in the city every now and then.
6. CHRISTMAS IS NOT CHRISTMAS WITHOUT SNOW.
‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” is a song almost every Dane sang even though they didn’t know the words or had never heard the song before – because Christmas is not Christmas without snow fall. I was quite surprised when people openly expressed disappointment at the warm temperatures (+5 degrees Celsius). Many lamented at the possibility of not having snow in the winter. It is beautiful, pretty and everyone looks forward to a white Christmas every year. People were downright depressed that they would not after–all have a white Christmas. Apparently when it snows it’s not so cold. Anyway it made no difference to me. The air was always fresh and crisp. There’s a euphemism for everything.
YOU CAN PARK YOUR BABY OUTSIDE WHILE YOU SHOP
I forgot about the chills beneath my feet when I noticed that parents routinely parked their baby strollers and prams outside in order to go shopping. Perhaps there is nothing strange about that, except that they left their babies in the prams/strollers outside while they continued to shop inside. No one seemed to worry that their children would disappear or get cold, because no one steals in Denmark. Children learn to live with the cold at a very young age. It took me a while to get used to seeing that. I had wow moments each time. possibly the coolest thing about Copenhagen if you love shopping. You don’t need a baby sitter!
8. FOLK HIGH SCHOOLS ARE COOL
There are approx. 70 folk high schools spread across the country, most of them are situated in rural areas or smaller towns, and they are typically named after the local district. In the early 1800’s, thoughts of enlightenment in Denmark were peaking and the tradition of national romanticism were developing. Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872) was deeply inspired of these thoughts, and after personal experience from the Trinity College in England, he developed the concept of the folk high school. Grundtvig identified a growing democratic need in society – a need of enlightening the often both uneducated and poor peasantry. This social group had neither the time nor the money to enroll at a university and needed an alternative. The aim of the folk high school was to help people qualify as active and engaged members of society, to give them a movement and the means to change the political situation from below and be a place to meet across social boarders. Key feature of folk high schools is the fact that there are not exams or age restrictions with two or three exceptions to the rule. Some schools are specialized ( film, music or sports) while others are more general and any community can start a folk high school which is funded and or subsidized by the state.
9 THERE ARE HOLIDAY TAX RETURNS
Though Denmark maybe one of the richest countries in the world its citizens are heavily taxed in order for the government to provide social services such as free health care and education among a host of other benefits for its citizens. But what surprised me most is that there is a holiday tax too. Government deducts a certain amount from your salary every months and then refunds it when you go on leave or holiday. Many Danes use the money to travel the world; having a Christmas office party at a Michelin star hotel in Italy over the weekend is not unheard of. It’s par for the course.
IT’S BASICALLY THE LAND OF FAIRY TALES
Fairy-tales have a huge following in Denmark, especially those produced by Walt Disney and they feature prominently in people’s TV screens around Christmas time. The Danish National broadcaster screens a series of Walt Disney Movies and the latest animation film for that year- it is now par of the Danish tradition . The fairy tale is topped on Christmas eve when families join hands and dance around the Christmas tree while singing Christmas carols. Christmas would not be Christmas without singing and dancing around the Christmas tree. Most adults acknowledge that it’s a strange practice – but they do it anyway, wherever they may be around the world because it is their heritage after all.
WAAW! A CULTURAL SHOCK
In conclusion these are ten things I didn’t know about Denmark until I went there. But the most interesting thing of all, the most heart-breaking thing I didn’t know did not make it on the list, simply because the headline says 10 things I didn’t know not 11. Another reason is because technically speaking the 11th thing is not a Danish thing necessarily.
IT’S JUST ANOTHER BUS SCENE
Picture it. My friend and I caught a bus on a sight-seeing trip around the city. We sit opposite a man who immediately looked to me like a West African, because he was very tall, very thin and very dark. He was speaking loudly on his mobile phone. A white old woman sat next to him looking quite distressed by his loudness. I listened to the conversation and discovered that the man was speaking a mixture of Wolof and French, which led me to assume that he might be on a long distance call to Senegal. My friend and I were thoroughly amused by the scene as the man seemed quite oblivious to the discomfort he was causing around him. Soon the old woman moved seats as soon as one was available, and this seemed to free-up the mans’ lungs. He spoke with free abandon with no one sitting next to him, laughing and saying sweet nothings between exclamations of waaw! Wolof for yes! my friend and I laughed and I was secretly glad and pleasantly surprised in fact to hear someone speak Wolof in Denmark, I mean what were the odds? He reminded me of home. It’s been two long years since I last heard those words. Soon another black-African passenger who was sitting at the back of the bus approached the man and told him to keep quiet, to keep it down as he was disturbing the peace in the bus. The man went silent, as if he had been shot with a silencer. And even though he continued on the phone his hello? hallo? waaw… had become lifeless. For the first time he looked around the bus and our eyes met briefly, I quickly looked down in mutual embarrassment because I had never seen the face of a man seconds after being stripped of his voice. ‘ That’s a first’ my friend commented ‘ seeing another African tell a fellow African to keep it down, not embarrass us in public’. It was an ordinary day, in an ordinary bus, no big deal. But for some insignificant reason, in an insignificant moment my heart broke. For some reason, I think a man died that day.
The term ‘happy-ending” is ambiguous at best. Depending on who you are, where you are from and your perspective in life a happy ending could infer an illicit activity, behaviour or inversely it could mean something sweet, innocent, and wonderfully miraculous. Be that as it may, Morocco’s third largest city and tourism capital Marrakesh, has all the happy endings you can dream of.
LET YOUR HEART DECIDE
Picture the spirit of Marrakesh through the words sung by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle in the song “A whole new world”, a soundtrack for the 1992 Walt Disney animation fantasy film “Aladdin”.
“I can show you the world, shining shimmering splendid, tell me princess, now when did you last let your heart decide? I can open your eyes take you wonder by wonder, over sideways and under on a magic carpet ride. A whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no or where to go or say we’re only dreaming”. A whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes) A hundred thousand things to see – (hold your breath it gets better). I’m like a shooting star, I’ve come so far… I can’t go back to where I used to be….”
It is these words which spring to mind as I reflect on my recent week-long trip to Marrakesh – Morocco. It is surprising to me that I didn’t think of it at the time, because, it’s a song which best describes my experience of the country. But in that week I was entirely focused on something else. In fact there was no room to wonder. I had been given, offered, an opportunity to tell a story which I had been training and preparing for retrospectively for the past 13 years. In a competition initiated by the African Media Initiative (AMI) called The African Story Challenge aimed at improving the quality of news stories in the continent. By this time I knew that there was more to see than I could ever see and more to do than I could ever do. My heart had decided on what was most important to me and the story was all I could think about. I had enough on my proverbial plate, and was, as a result content to remain within the tall palm trees and the beautiful landscape at the Pullman Resort and Hotel were we had been booked.
MAKE A SHOPPING WISH
Before travelling to Morocco, I did a bit of online trolling to see if there was anything tourism related which I’d love to do or see whilst there. The souks and historic Mosques and buildings popped up prominently as popular tourist destinations. Online pictures of course looked magical, an amalgam of colours, and endless choices of shiny trinkets which reminded me of markets in Egypt. I had accompanied a colleague of mine to one of them en-route to Syria some years ago. She needed to buy Louis Vuitton bags for her relatives back home, but she didn’t want to go shopping alone and I was the only person willing to go with her. After what seemed like hours of walking around, the novelty of the souks quickly wore off. I felt as though I had been swallowed into a rabbit hole of monotonous stalls, shops, wares and people so much so, I could no longer tell my left from right. Everyone beckoned, begged, bickered, haggled, hustled, insisted, in an effort to lure customers into their shop, for the best price for this, good quality that, cheapest this you could ever find in the world. The alleyways were narrow, hot and crowded. Everything started to look identical, the heat was suffocating, and the vibrant noise was loud enough to silence the sound of my heart beat. I had no energy to engage in endless banter or mindless negotiations for goods I knew I had no intention to purchase. I just smiled and laughed the rest of the way, the least offensive response to people hard at work, making a living. No amount of no thank you would stop them. Egyptians were relentless negotiators.
ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY
By the time I was physically walking through one of those Moroccan souks in Marrakesh – accompanying a colleague who was eager to experience what Moroccan Markets had to offer and needed some company I was claustrophobic. As we walked through the popular tourists square Djemma El f-na the crowded evening streets, meandering through the mosque, horse driven carriages, through to the main square where musicians, magicians, fortune tellers, snake charmers and artisans employed their best tricks for a dirham – I realized that I had no desire to see more. Perfumes, scarves, clothes, carpets, lamps, lamp shades, fabric, electronic gadgets, everything for sale, I had seen before countless times. I committed instead to enjoying the experience through the eyes of my colleague who was curiously excited about the new-ness of everything and was in search for a special gift for a special friend back home.
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
The food stalls near the entrance of the souk were, bright and honestly very inviting. Mountains of fruits and vegetables, fish, beef, lamb kebabs, seafood, pizza, pasta, patisseries, burgers, pita bread, all lit brightly and prepared while you wait were hard to resist. Maybe a taste of something, I thought to myself. The food stalls reminded me of food quarters in Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. It suddenly occurred to me as we meandered through the different stalls and I feeling a bit like a famous movie star who was being pursued by the “paparazzi”, who all shouted enticingly with animated hand gestures, inviting me with their gleaming eyes,and striking smiles on bright young faces begging me to “please join us for dinner, please come this way, madam please” while ignoring my please of “no thank you, I’m not hungry’ responses as if I were speaking a language they didn’t recognize. It was only then, in that totally unrelated haze that I realized – I hardly ate in Beirut. I cannot remember what Lebanese food tastes like. A late colleague of mine, Dudley Saunders, a camera-man who had been in Beirut for a while before we arrived had organized a fixer in the city who invited us to a place said to serve the most delicious food in town. It was full, lively, and vibrant, people were talking and shouting everywhere, food was in abundance the tables were overflowing. The atmosphere was electric for lack of a better word, people’s faces were animated with laughter and loud passionate conversations about war. It was June 2006 the hottest summer in Lebanon. We had just walked down from a five-star hotel chain Les Commodores Hotel, where we were staying for a few days. The hotel is famous for its 50 year history of hospitality to international journalists and reporters in the centre of the Amhara business district. The festive scene, the hustle and bustle of waiters traipsing back and forth like busy buzzing bees between tables, serving plates piled high with falafel, shwarmas, Tabbouleh, pitta bread lamb, chicken on rice, coca cola and sprite in an endless list of food items on the menu, all of it belied the fact that just a few kilometres away people were dying. The festiveness of the restaurant did not give an impression that just south of the city rockets were being fired, there were no signs that Lebanon was under attack. So even though the food looked deliciously inviting in Marrakesh – I had no appetite for any of it.
PEOPLE AND PAPERS
I considered writing one or two news stories about Morocco’s migration policies in the absence of a tourist activity worth pursuing within that short space of time. I had read news articles of Moroccans specifically targeting, assaulting, abusing and tormenting sub-Saharan Africans from neighbouring countries such as Mali, Guinea and Senegal. “ Moroccans are racists” warned a friend before my trip “they don’t consider themselves African, even though the country is on the continent of Africa” She insisted “Cover up, it’s a Muslim country” she advised. It seemed there was an endless number of news stories to pursue. Moroccan authorities had refused entry visas to artists traveling by road from Lagos, Nigeria en-route to Sarajevo called the Invisible Borders Trans-African. The project which has been running since 2009, aims to document life and movement on the continent and use that information to create art for Africans by Africans. Invisible Boarders founder and director Immeka Okereke said they hoped to open up a dialogue between Europeans and Africans to re-negotiate the imaginary and physical borders between the two continents. But it seemed Morocco – a gateway country to Europe – was under pressure to further tighten its borders. Which meant that that migrants and or travelers from sub-Saharan countries would face even tighter restrictions for travel and those that didn’t have the required papers or permission for entry did so illegally and hundreds have lost their lives in the process.
ON A NATURAL HIGH
Morocco is also a source, destination and transit country for drug trafficking. It is known to many as the hashish capital of the world, though a recent study by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy &Kenza Afsahi “Hashish Revival in Morocco”- reports that Hashish production levels have fallen by 65% percent in the past decade. Even so Morocco is currently the second largest producer of Hashish and exporter of the drug after Afghanistan. The drug is offered fairly openly by peddlers in the souk who I heard calling out “hashish! Do you want some Hashish” to a group of American tourists who were loudly incensed and offended by the insinuation. This exchange which I found humours I witnessed with my ears during my second trip to the souks in Marrakesh. This time I was with three colleagues who were eager to experience the what Marrakesh had to offer. And since I had been there before I was invited to come as a “guide”. “The square is shaped like a star, I know exactly how to navigate the space, we are not lost” said one of them as we walked aimlessly in circles on the outskirts of the city. There were no tourists milling about in that area, and after a while, the fear of the unknown trickled down with the stcky sweat on our bodies. Two of our colleagues decided to ask for directions “Just to confirm that we’re in the right direction” from local boys who were willing to show us the way for 50 Dirhams or a full packet of Marlboro cigarettes. It seemed like forever before we emerged back to where we had started and the search was now for a restaurant to sit, and cool down after two hours of walking. My colleagues yearned for a cold pint of Beer, but Morocco is a Muslim country: alcohol consumption is strictly forbidden and highly regulated for tourists who can only drink it in secluded or well covered licenced international hotels and restaurants at very high prices. Sweet Mint tea is the preferred national beverage.
After our walk around the food stalls and the market it was hard to imagine what it is that makes Morocco such an attractive holiday destination for hundreds and thousands of people especially tourists from Britain, France and Europe each year. But for those who can afford it, those who had copious amounts of money to spend Morocco is a place of dreams. Even Hollywood actor George Clooney was rumoured to be honeymooning in an undisclosed location in Morocco with his new wife Amal Alamuddin. Morocco is popular with LGBTQI travelers who can enjoy time spent luxurious in Hammams across the city(steam room similar to a Turkish baths where Moroccans habitually go each week to cleanse themselves and each other) While same-sex relationships are forbidden in Morocco – the separate lives between men and women in Morocco (and most Muslim countries) makes it a perfect environment for people in same sex relationships to enjoy each other freely without any judgement or suspicion. Men and women take Hamman baths separately. There are many Hamman Hotels and spas which cater for all kinds of tourists looking to experience something new. And if you’re not unfortunate enough to be caught like the 69 year old British tourist Ray Cole who was detained for four months for ‘homosexual acts” – you can also order a massage with a Happy Ending!
This month on September 11 I marked 13 years as a journalist. So I thought I should dedicate this week’s blog post to an activity that has dominated my life for the past 13 years. Of course, it’s a long story.
IN THE BEGINNING: WHAT AM I?
I had many dreams and aspirations before I decided on a path to become a journalist. In fact I wanted to be a great many things. I had dreams of becoming a cartoonist: working as an animator for Walt Disney, I also dreamed of being a dancer, a singer, maybe even an actress. Everyone in my family had at some point stood silently near the bathroom watching me talk to myself on the mirror while trying out different facial expressions. They would watch me practice over and over at the mirror, talking in a language even I didn’t understand until I mastered the art of crying and laughing on the spot. During those times I took on different characters, a broken-hearted lover, maybe some kind of a star, a teacher, maybe a university professor at an academic institution of high repute, a writer, a mother and so on. At some point I tried competing for the Miss South Africa Title. Alas.
A WHOLE WORLD IN MY HEAD
The list was (still is) endless. One of the options I considered to my mother’s chagrin, was joining the army. I thought then than it would be the easiest way for me to acquire a driver’s licence at no cost to my parents. I wanted to learn how to be disciplined because I had a short attention span and would find myself wondering to foreign lands in the middle of tasks, while washing dishes for example, studying or trying to pay attention during Math class. I was intrigued by the story of numbers . By suggesting I join the army I hoped I would reign in the dreamer in me, and become more like my father who is disciplined, hardworking and always on time. As my mother and I poured over alternatives for my future career while lying on her bed, looking dreamily into the ceiling like lovers planning a future together, the word journalism surfaced. My mother acted as my career guide and told me:” you like to talk; to write, you are very curious, you enjoy reading, finding information and you want to travel, so journalism would be perfect for you. Plus you enjoy asking questions and you can be on TV too if you want to”. It had never occurred to me that I could be a journalist. I was more than a little overwhelmed with the number of things I could do or be for rest of my life, and at 17 the world seemed to contain an infinite amount of possibilities. But when my mother mentioned journalism I thought this would be a good career choice. It seemed the best way to contain all my aspirations. So I enrolled at the best institution for practical journalism at the time and here I am today.
WHAT IS JOURNALISM ABOUT?: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
An online definition of a journalist reads as follows:
“A person who writes for newspaper or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio and television. Synonyms include: a reporter, correspondent, newsman, newswoman, newspaperman, columnist, writer, commentator, reviewer, blogger, investigative journalist, photojournalist, war correspondent, lobby correspondent, editor, sub-editor, copy editor, paparazzo, pressman, legman, wireman and the list continues.”
I think that’s the best definition. Even journalism professors struggle to define who or what is a journalist. So to keep it simple we will go with the above description. My entry into journalism was a very frightening event for me. I was never sure of myself at all. I was always scared and intimidated by fellow students and later colleagues who always seemed more intelligent, knowledgeable and more experienced than I was. My favourite subjects included History, Business Economics and Politics. History because it was fascinating, it put current events into context, Business Economics because it made sense to me (I understood the basic principle of supply and demand.) Politics because our third year Politics lecturer Ashwin Desai was so passionate about his subject he brought the world into our lecture room and made what we were studying real and tangible. Writing essays, however, was my worst fear. I really could not imagine how I ended up studying journalism after all. A profession which at its core involved copious amounts of writing. I remember I once broke out in hives while writing an essay during an exam because I was so nervous. It took me 13 years to gain control over my nervous condition. Even today I have to work up the courage to start writing or even to speak when I am live on Television and or Radio. Each time I write, it feels as though I am writing for the first time.
TOO MANY QUESTIONS…
While studying journalism I learnt that the point of being a journalist, at least as far as I understood it was to ask questions. Who (did) What, Where, When, How and Why. And after you have answered all those questions ask the most important one of all: why should anyone care?
Imagine then my surprise when I discovered years into the profession that: asking questions, the very reason for my existence as a journalist was the worst thing one could do in this profession! I finally discovered that while I was taught/learned to be a journalist, someone who asks questions, in order to give context to current affairs. No one cared about the history of why things are the way they are or why people behave the way they do. In the real world journalists were merely reporters. People who merely presented you with the most basic answers to the five questions. A reporter for me was similar to a minute-taker at meeting, someone who takes minutes of a meeting. It’s a great skills to take great notes, but it’s not journalism. The more you questioned the status quo the more you were ignored, or became less popular with the officials. To get ahead in the profession you had to choose sides and not the middle ground as I was taught. Journalism had become a cross between public relations and reportage. More over in many cases as a general reporter even if you wanted to give context to your work there was never the time to. Newsroom were so that you had to jump from one story to another, and sometimes even do multiple stories a day. Which were ultimately identical to your competitors. Journalists or reporters were often recruited into high level communication positions in government and business so that, journalist often just copied and pasted text from press-releases without question as if it were their own original writing. Spokespeople who were once journalist were even harder nuts to crack.
I always refused to be called a reporter, always thinking in my heart that I was a journalist not a parrot. But the industry dictated otherwise. Each Media house has an agenda, is politically affiliated to a number of people in powerful positions and the merit of the story was always weighed on these factors. The higher up you go – the more compromises you had to make. At the end of the day, you didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you so to speak, even if the chain of command is as far as the distance between Johannesburg, South Africa and Timbuktu, Mali.
BEYOND THE QUESTIONS: ETHICAL JOURNALISM
So when I finally decided to work independently as a journalist I discovered an even darker side of journalism which I would not have believed existed, had it not happen to me. I was on more than one occasion offered an exclusive story that could potentially put me in the league of award-winning journalists. “All you need to do is just put your by-line (name) to the story. You don’t have to do anything I will write the story for you” He said. I was incredulous, and looked at him laughing because I seriously thought he was joking. “How do you think journalists get leaked documents? Do you think all those famous investigative journalist you read about, write their own stories? “he continued realizing that I had no clue. “ Do you think they just stumble on documents?” This is how they do it he said. You just let me write the story and all you have to do is add your name to it.” He pleaded. I refused his offer and suddenly felt relieved. Until that moment I had never doubted the integrity of journalists – I being one them of course. I understood that some days are better than others, as some stories are better than others, but never had it occurred to me that journalists or reporters could participate in ghost writing, pass –off articles or stories they had no hand in writing and pretend it was their own hard work.
I always admired journalists who won awards, because I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a great story. It has been my daily struggle for the past 13 years and each year I hope to write better than the last. I had up until that moment no idea what’s so ever, that journalists were capable of that, more people I had looked up to. For the first time in my life I was proud of myself – proud that even though I had never won an award or been acknowledged for my work by any organization or editor in the country, all the work I had done as a journalist had been my own original work. I was not winning someone’ else’ award. And if I were to ever win anything, it would be based on my own original work. The man in question eventually refused to grant me an interview, but in the end, I was able to write the story without his help, I had to think of other ways of finding information, I had to depend on my own eyes and ears, and finally I had to trust myself. I finally had to ask myself how much do I want to win anything, and is it worth it and is that why I was a journalist in the first place. There is a cost to everything.
A THIN LINE: OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN:
Perhaps I was inspired by the movie starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts called the Pelican Brief. Where the journalist (Denzel Washington) worked in collaboration with an economics student – an informant (Julia Roberts) to write a story which uncovered corruption within the american judicial system. It was dangerous but it’s the story that caught me, the potential power in being a journalist, that you can change history, or someone’s life. Perhaps I thought I could travel around the world, go places I would not otherwise have access to and meet people who would pass me by the next day. A word of caution: not everyone who says they are journalist is actually a journalist. Perhaps I got into this profession for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right ones. I believed in justice, in the right to know, in providing people with information that could change their lives, help people tell their own stories, uncover the hidden side of things – how they work or don’t work. In fact truth be told, I approached this profession naively, thinking that everyone had the best intentions at heart. So what have I learnt? That all those years spent in the mirror have helped me to keep a straight face in the face of danger – even when I was shaking inside. Words are numbers. And numbers are words. So If I love words it means I love numbers too!!! The more I write the more I realize that it’s a mathematical equation. It is ultimate all about numbers which are words. I could tap into any career imaginable just by writing about it. I am in the right profession. But here’s a fun list of things I learnt in the past 13 years of being *flinch * a reporter – journalist:
13 LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST:
1. Information is key: read money.
2. Spokespeople/Media liaisons/ Public relations personnel are information gatekeepers. In other words they are trained to manage information: their purpose in life is to feed you only the information they want you to know. They are trained to stop you from asking probing questions or from finding out information they want to hide.
3. Politicians are trained to be creative with the truth – and only tell the truth (leak information) when it serves their interests
4. There’s an infinitive number of ways to obtaining information. Officials ideally should be the last the last point of contact.
5. It’s the “invisible” people, that you don’t pay attention to who can give you amazing stories – which are true – family and friends, the homeless, etc.
6. Everyone has an agenda. Including your editor, your organization, you, every one.
7. Ultimately journalism – is about storytelling – the stuff that Novelists do without having to back it up with proof.
8. Asking (critical/simple) questions can be a career limiting exercise ( Choose carefully who you work for)
9. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth. The truth is not always convenient. So your great expose can be conveniently ignored.
10. There are many truths.
11. Journalism is fun ( choose wisely who you work for)
12. You can go to most things and places for free. ( if you don’t mind doing PR read marketing and public relations)
13. Acting is a great skill to have as a journalist (use at own risk)
I’ve been delaying writing my next piece due to the orgasmic nature of my last instalment “The Girl Who believed in fairy-tales”. Who knew that life could be so, so, so, delicious… amid such evil in the world. Sometimes I struggle to balance the two with the help of others who find “happiness” as a concept problematic. Some people find it offensive to see you being so happy and smiling when the headlines paint such a grim picture of our world and our fellow human beings. How can you continue to laugh and smile while others are suffering? How can you be happy in a world like this?
This question reminds me of a time I spent in the third floor of an apartment building on the hills of Yeoville, Johannesburg. It was my second time living there. Trinity House. I had such an awesome time in that flat: guests called it the love house! With the inspiration of my brother peace, we decided to call the study – where I kept all my books and where I planned to write; the love factory. We decided to name it this because we wanted anything that took place in the house to be about, for and to love. We wanted work to become love.
We referred to the space as the lovetry, in short, which later started to sound a lot like love-a-tree. It was a creative environment, where souls mixed together, shared stories, music, movies, quiet time and prayer. We had enough coffee to last for days, vanilla chai tea was always brewing in the kitchen, the living room wafted with amazing sounds curated by peace. On the stove, fresh vegetables steamed, mealie-meal bubbled, basmati rice purred, the fruit basket was always full of vegetables, the cookie jars were filled with oat crunchies, chocolate crunch cookies, and sweets. It was just beautiful to be home. I welcomed many in my humble abode. It was summer in winter when you walked in.
One day in October of that year, a great friend from Swaziland paid us a visit. She said “I’m coming to Johannesburg and I am coming to your house!” It was such an honour to hear her say that! Out of all the options she had for accommodation in Johannesburg, she chose me to host her, so of course it was a special occasion and we always celebrate special occasions. One night during her stay we shared music, stories, dreams, drinks and chit-chats. As the day light turned to dusk; my brother peace played a song none of us had heard before anywhere. It was a symphony of sounds gleaned from natures’ vibrations, of drum beats moving sand from all over the world. It was a clarion call from the source which sent us all up on our feet in rhythmic chords dancing and digging into ground with our souls. It was simply electric. Soon enough we all heard a drumming that was not in harmony with the ones we were dancing to. At the door, the neighbour had come to complain. I still feared the wrath of human beings and sent my brother to speak to him. The neighbour was not happy,” could we put the music down and stop dancing?”. “Hhawu?” was the collective response of surprise, we all hummed in unison. Folding our hands, shaking heads from side to side, and pacing up and down the minute dance floor. “What is to be done now? Why should we stop dancing? After he returned to his flat below ours we tried our very best to contain the fire that was burning inside all of us. How do you contain such joy? It was not enough for him. Later he came back and what he said the second time caught my attention on the living room floor where I sat cross-legged attempting to speak in hushed tones and loud whispers. Clearly they were not low enough. “What is wrong with you people huh? Just because you are happy does not mean everyone else is. Show some respect!” He bellowed, promising to report us to the body corporate and our landlord and have “him” evict us because he had, had “enough” of this.
I was shocked at his reaction because as far as I was concerned this particular “happy” situation had never happened before at our flat. Seriously. Though we listened to music everyday – we had never danced like that before! And we wanted more. Now we had to stop before we even started.
Eish! Can you imagine! I started to feel a sadness growing inside of me. How could I be this happy? What was this man going through that was so bad, that I had to stop being and feeling happy with my friends and family right at this very minute? I never knew that my own happiness could harm another, and fill another person with such rage! How can such a good and beautiful feeling be the cause of such excruciating pain in another. It didn’t make sense to me. I was curious to find out why. I admonished my brothers and sisters to try to keep it down because somewhere in my heart I knew our neighbour meant every word he said. Soon enough I received an email from my landlord informing me that she would be moving back into her the flat in a month, I should prepare to leave at month’s end. I was not surprised. I thanked her. My brother and I shared such a wonderful time bonding together at Trinity hall I will never forget that place.
SO WHAT’s WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
Nothing. His sadness is as legitimate as my happiness. Which leads back to my initial question. Why does my happiness and the way I choose to express it, offend people? Is there a way of being happy that will not cause others pain? Where does the pain come from? I remembered that I was once in pain, in fact truth be told I am in pain every day. So many things make me sad sometimes, then I think… what can I do about it? The only way to ease another’s pain is show them that even in pain there’s joy, somehow you find yourself laughing even when tears of sorrow are streaming down your face. Sometimes one is stronger than the other…at other times one leads to another – both serve the same purpose, to heal. A great friend of mine summed it up nicely this weekend. She said being sad, angry frustrated depressed is easy, it’s comfortable to just stay there. The challenge is to wake up every day and find a reason to be happy. A reason to celebrate to appreciate, to dance, to smile, to laugh to explore, to learn to try again, to inspire others. To dance for those who can’t dance, to sing for those who can’t sing, and to write for those can’t see, to read for those who can’t hear. To make music for those who can’t play. To laugh for those who can’t until you’re the reason for their laughter.
That’s the challenge of life. To be joyful. Grateful, thankful for all those times shared with those we love and cherish. For the times we get to do what we love. For the times when living is easy. It is not an easy challenge. But it is fortunately the only way to change anything negative. To remind others that sadness and pain are not the only emotions or feelings that exist. And all of them come from within. All of them depend on you. You have to be happy first before you can receive happy things. It takes courage, strength and resilience to continue being happy even as the world seems to be falling apart. Because by loving, being happy, you are creating the world you want to live in. Happiness is the antidote to sadness. We can all be sad, but we need happiness, joy in order to feel better.
So it makes sense that we should all try to be as happy as possible. This does not at all mean that bad things don’t happen, it’s about finding opportunities to love where it seems hard or impossible.
Because with love (joy happiness) everything is possible. Ultimately, happiness and joy are a choice you make every day. It is like deciding what to eat, what to wear, where to go. You always have a choice. You choose.
Choosing to be happy every day – is -the real challenge. There’s enough sadness in the world to last our lifetimes.
Choosing Joy, Love, Gratefulness, has been the greatest challenge my life. It was hard at first, because I never believed that I could happy in the face of sadness. But I don’t t regret choosing joy! Because each day I wake happier than the last. If that’s even possible.
“I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true” he said drawing her close to him. She felt herself melt in his arms, she drew her breath as if breathing in for the first time. She listened to her heart beating in his chest, it calmed her. She didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to think about clichés, myths or fables and fairy tales which sometimes came true. Just the other day she saw a shooting star. She was sitting up, staring as she often did at the dark blue sky. She routinely looked at the sky on most evenings as if trying to see if her heart would be reflected in just one of those stars which littered the infinite sky. Why she continued to do this she didn’t quite know. Perhaps she was keeping a promise she had made to her 13-year-old self. A promise she made every night to her imaginary soul-mate at the time. Because when she was 13 she believed in fairy tales, in dreams coming true, in clichés. She truly believed in the words of a romantic ballad which an unexpected friend taught her in her first year of high school. Her Taiwanese schoolmate sang it to her in Mandarin Chinese and though she didn’t understand the language she enjoyed watching her friend sing it. Her eyes would close lightly while her tiny lips puckered together like a red Lollypop. Her head would tilt from side to side in time with her off-key melody, strands of her black hair flickered, browning in the glow of the yellow sun – the girl who believed in fairy tales would watch her friend sing, transfixed. Fortunately the original song was in English and when she found the words and learned the melody, she would sit outside her veranda at night and sing to the sky. “Somewhere, out there, someone’s saying a prayer, a prayer that we’ll be together somewhere out there, our dreams will come true…. And even though you know how very far apart we are, we might be sleeping underneath the same bright star!!! Somewhere out there, love will see us through…. Somewhere out there our dreams will come true”.
Two decades later and after thousands upon thousands of nights spent star-gazing – this shooting star was unmistakable. It was something she had never seen before. It happened without fan-fare, with no dramatic introduction. No drumroll preceded it. It happened as if it was a natural, everyday occurrence. And yet it was magnificent. Beautiful. She actually didn’t realize she had been looking up at the sky until she saw it, there, beaming across the horizon so bright it took her breath away. It was as if it was meant only for her. At that very moment she felt she was at the right place at the right time, and had been purposed to sit right there facing the exact spot where the star would beam across like a magic wand. In that split second the star seemed to say “hello, is it me you’re looking for?” It happened quietly, peacefully, softly. Unexpectedly. There was no tremor, no earth quake. It flew across like a gentle breeze.
“I just saw a shooting star!’ She said excitedly jumping up and down on the couch like a little girl. He looked at her curiously, his eyes smiling, no words passed his lips. “I have never seen a shooting star before” she said smiling. She felt like the luckiest girl in the whole wide world. Suddenly she realized that she had forgotten to make a wish, as traditional folklore dictates. People said one must always remember to make a wish at the sight of shooting stars. So she sat there with a wide smile on her face thinking about what she could wish for. The evening was sensuous-ly warm and the night crickets were singing loudly to the calming charms of flowing water. She could not think of a single thing to wish for at that very moment. The evening was perfect. She was fully and wholly content, even happy. A kind of happiness she had never known she could feel or have. It did not feel as fleeting or as temporary as a sugar high. This time it felt as if joy had arrived and had come home to stay with her, forever in the form of a shooting star. But somehow the girl who believed in fairy-tales still wanted to make sure, she wanted to be sure that she wasn’t dreaming this time. She wanted to be certain that she was not making this remarkably beautiful moment up, this feeling of being complete, of being completely one and whole. She somehow wanted to be certain that she was not escaping reality and moving into a world of make-believe, just as she had seen thousands of stories play out in movies and the many books she had read. This time she wanted some kind of a guarantee, something that will show her that what was happening to her was real, this time she wanted to know without a shadow of doubt that she was not exchanging reality for a world of fairy-tales and shooting stars and knights in shining armour riding gallant horses from palatial castles far, far away. She was too old for fairy tales. Had seen too much to know better than keep her pre-pubescent, childhood dream alive.
“I looked it up” he said the next day at lunch. “Hmm? What” she said trying to remember if she’d made a request for information. “I looked it up, your shooting star, apparently it was a night of shooting stars, it was meant to happen, there were several meteor- showers, it happened everywhere” he added resisting a smile. She wondered if he meant to say it didn’t just happen to her. “Oh that’s great!” she replied “it makes it more special that I shared it with millions of other people” She thought dismissing his logic. As it happened the girl who believed in fairy-tales was quite lucky to see this shooting star. Astronomers call it the Perseid Meteor Shower from the comet Swift- Tuttle. She was lucky to see it because not only was it rare and sought after by astronomers and star-gazer alike, one could see between 60 to a 100 showers an hour. Without planning, wishing or even hoping to, she saw the biggest and brightest of all meteor showers expected in that year. It was so large, she was glad someone had documented it’s falling, otherwise she would have led herself to believe, in time that what she saw was just a figment of her imagination or an image she had seen somewhere online, in books and or Television and not something that she had actually seen with her own naked eyes.
“I don’t want to say it because it does not make any sense” he said hesitantly, turning his face away from hers. His arms outstretched on the bench in total surrender. “What” she probed “You don’t want to say it because it would seem crazy to say that….you’re falling in…”
“I’m falling in love with you” he said interrupting her. While staring into the distance.
“I knew you didn’t want to say it so that’s why I had to say it first, one of us has to be grown up about it!” she replied playfully.
“No I said it first” He said.
“No I said it first” she retorted.
“You know I said it first…. And it’s crazy to say that just three days after we first met…” he continued slowly.
The girl who believed in fairy-tales smiled, laughed and nodded. “It is crazy” she agreed looking at him and feeling remarkably calm and surprisingly completely sane.
“I know it may sound like a cliché but in this case it’s true… I think I’m falling in love with you” he said.
“Me too” she replied “it’s not a cliché, it’s a fairy-tale”. She thought to herself.
“I think I love you more than you love me” he said shaking his head
“No that’s not possible” she said laughing incredulously.
“I love you” she said amazed at her confidence.
“I love you” he said
“See I said it first” she said
“No I said it first” he said drawing her nearer.
They held each other and in that moment. They both knew.
They were home. Together. In the great somewhere out there.
That night she turned the page of her yellow notebook and re-read her own words, written in prayer five days previously. She had forgotten about them, the words, her prayer, just as soon as she finished writing them in black and white. Now they read like a dream within a dream:
‘Thank you for the love I have had in the past, thank you for all the angels that you have brought my way. Thank you for my companion, a lover and friend who is kind, generous, courageous, intelligent, strong, affectionate, disciplined, adventurous, caring, funny, fun-loving and simple. Thank you for giving me a companion who loves me. Who is not afraid to show it. Who can express his feelings and emotions clearly. Who will fight for me. Thank you for a companion who will inspire and encourage me to be a better and more loving person. A companion, a lover and friend who will bring out all the best of me and love me even when I fail. Thank you for a lover and companion who will love Only me. Who will only want me as his sexual partner. His only wife and the only mother of his children. Thank you for a lover and companion who will meet my needs even before I know I need them. Thank you for a lover and companion who will truly be a friend, who won’t mind listening to me, engaging me on work and other topics of interest to both of us. Thank you for a companion who will open up a new world to me. Who is not afraid to share himself, to open up. A friend who can teach and learn. Who will support my work as fiercely and passionately as he works on his own. Thank you for a companion who will be my help mate and someone who loves to play. Thank you for the fun and beautiful amazing life that we have together. Thank you for making it easy for us to find each other, see each other, and accept each other and to never leave each other’s side”.
She realized. For the first time, she wasn’t dreaming.
What more can a black, South African woman say about the Palestinian question that hasn’t been said. What more could one person or an ocean of people say to change the situation in the Middle-East when those involved will not change their minds about each other for one second. Who can say something that would put an end to killings? When each day brings with it fresh news of freshly decimated bodies to be committed to the ground, when thousand of people are left destitute without homes, without peace, without love. Aren’t you tired of reading about death each and everyday? The senselessness of it? Who can silence the cries of women and children, bereaved fathers whose shrill cries echoe through loud sirens in Israel’s capital Tel-Aviv reminding them that death is just around the corner. Who can comfort the orphans born to be sacrificed in the name of Allah, Elohim. Who can stop this madness when the world wakes up everyday to the un-spun truth of liberal brutality metered out by a country gripped with such fear, she can’t even see that her children are dying, she can’t see that those missiles go straight to the hearts of her unborn children. What more can a black, South African woman say when learned historians, eloquent political analysts, informed journalists, diplomatic politicians and passionate human rights activists, have voiced their opinions, presented their arguments, shared their views with such eloquence on social and professional media platforms, condemning Israel for its ruthless annihilation of a people already cornered into a narrow cage of high walls encased in thick cement and fortified with wires – an open air prison – with nowhere else to go while Israel pushes them further and further into a concentration camp. What more can a black, South African Woman say while others insist with moral justification that Israel has a right, a fundamental God Given right to defend herself and her children. What more can a black South African woman say that hasn’t been said by those affected in Israel and Gaza? What more can a black, South African Woman say? There is nothing more to say.
Except to ask one question: If God is LOVE and Love is : patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. Does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrong. If Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.If love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. If God is LOVE: which is an intense feeling of deep affection or fondness for another person, another human being.
Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist. So since we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am, with you. So this dear one is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move forward. I no longer wish to be entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going. Everything in its own time.
So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.
START FROM THE BEGINNING: A COLOUR PIECE
Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area. It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country. So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African to be racially classified this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together. The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier. When the group areas act law was implemented the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation. Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.
I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it. He smiled and said “do it for TV Radio and Online”. I summoned the courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was the structure I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?. ” Ouma Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.
TWIN-SOULS: NEVER CHANGE
Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools. This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”. The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa; through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy- running while the limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.
WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE: SHIFTS HAPPEN
This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me. I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.
SO THIS IS WHAT ALL THIS WAS ABOUT.
So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.
You see I have been trying to write positive stories about this continent I love and was met with perplexed faces. Wait, have you seen the news lately?
” What is it with you and your obsession with Africa? We want news, real stories. We want to the best in the game. We want traffic to our site. The stories you want to do are issue based. You can’t tell an issue based story in less than 2 minutes. In 200 words. Lets talk about politics, can you tell me what’s going on in the DA? Can you predict who is going to be the elected the premier of Gauteng? Can you file stories under pressure? Can you meet deadlines? Being a presidential correspondent can make or break your career it’s about money you see. We can’t spend 300,000 on you to fly somewhere and you don’t file a single story those things can break you as a journalist. Are you sure you want to be a political correspondent?”
Now it was my turn to have a perplexed facial expression.
“you missed your calling, you should have been a porn star” says an old friend of over evening drinks. That’s a good one I reply. I was just thinking that I have been feeling increasingly like a pawn in an elaborate political chess game, in which no one really cares about me whether I succeeded or fail I am just a means to an end, because either way it makes no difference. I’m what you would call, collateral damage in an inevitable war over the power to control. A tool, expedient. My presence or absence is all the same to those who are at war with each other. I am being used in a negative way and I feel empty. “You mean Pawn, not Porn!” Another friend corrects me later. Ah well I guess it’s time to brush up on my isiZulu language skills I tell her. That’s the best way to learn a new language, by using your mother tongue to understand it. “yes” she, a consummate polyglot, agrees ” I was surprised to find that isiZulu is based on the same grammatical principles as Hungarian, so It’s easy for me to understand the grammar ” she says. ” yes well language is the basis for everything in life, once you understand the language then most things are easier to understand”
I cannot begin to describe my feelings around this recent media phenomena. In fact I have been trying very hard not to think about the multiple ways in which this is disturbingly unacceptable. Why it should not be allowed to continue for yet another day. I did say I am not an angry black woman. But I am angry. Except this time I want to channel my “anger” in a positive way. In a way my work situation(s) have allowed me to tap marginally into how the girls must be feeling, to somehow imagine what they must be going through. It’s incomparable I know, because I will never know what it must feel like to be abducted and trapped, stripped and made to say and do things for a war you know nothing about, where you, regardless of what you do will be the loser. There’s no way of knowing this unless you’re in it. I have been trying to find a way of acting positively, of speaking life to a situation that is so complex it’s simple. I have been thinking about this while Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan is wining and dining in South Africa on President Jacob Zuma’s second presidential inauguration. Kinda brings back memories of American President Bush junior who was telling children stories while 911 happened. But of course the two things are completely unrelated.” That’s the problem with you women, you see connections everywhere even where there are no connections to be made. you think too much” a man once said to me.
” Fair Enough – It’s just a Moon Shot”
The United Nations Security Council has issued sanctions against Boko Haram. When I read this I wondered how they could do this unless they know who Boko Haram is. In a recent interview with South African TV Journalist Deborah Patta for CBS news, a Boko Haram representative said they are “everywhere” in Nigeria. They have “assimilated” into Nigerian society. “we plan to kidnap more girls” he told Ms Patta who looked frozen in her seat. This man could have been lying or telling the truth, but the fact is we have no way of knowing. So who will these sanctions affect? It’s not like they’re going to arrive at the airport with a sign that says I am a member of Boko Haram unless they do as evidenced in Ms Patta’s recent interview. So What is the point? Boko Haram have been terrorizing Nigeria for years. President Jonathan has always maintained that they had it all under control. I remember three years ago while working for the West African Democracy Radio, reading the news, daily there were bomb blasts in Northern Nigeria orchestrated by Boko Haram, every single day multitudes were dying. Now Nigerians want cessation. “let them go and form their own Hausa nation” some Nigerians have commented on news reports. ” South Africa has the capacity to sort this mess out” says an insider. ” But Goodluck Jonathan won’t have it, they don’t want anything to do with South Africa, we’ve tried but they are not giving in” he said ” Now he’s allowing the Americans and the French to go in, once they’re in they’ll never leave” he said. There is still oil in Nigeria, but anyway in all the discussions no one is thinking practically about the girls. Who is thinking about the girls?
“What we need is the pink brigade”
So imagine if all those people who’ve posted pictures of themselves with #bringbackourgirls banners and posters would actually act horizontally. Imagine if we all could take matters in our own hands and not ask for permission, and go and get our beloved girls back? I can hear you say oh that’s a suicide mission. But is it really? You see this is how I know it’s possible. Can we forget about “politics” for a moment? Life is politics you say, fair enough, but can we try a different political experiment? In India there’s a group of women “vigilantes” they call them. Who are doing just that, taking matters in their own hands. Dealing with “politics” in a very unpolitical way as in: they are not running for office in any parliament. It’s not up to Boko Haram or the Presidents of the world to decide what happens to the girls. What do I mean? The group in India clad in electric pink saris dubbed the Pink Vigilantes have been shaming abusive husbands and corrupt officials in India’s agricultural town of Baduas not far from the Taj Mahal… their movement started with five women and now has a following of 20 thousand women who physically march to and confront (sometimes beating them, though I am not advocating for violence, just a physical presence that won’t be moved) men who abuse their wives and children, because they’ve been abused themselves. Boko Haram has guns, you say, and bombs. Sure, but how long will we wait? How much do we value our lives ? How much do we value the girls’ lives. Do we really care? If we did actually care then all us African women, activists, politicians, celebrities, can stop screaming at men asking them to something they have no intention of doing. We must wear our pink scarves and or Hijabs for that matter and physically go there and fetch our girls. That’s just how I see it. There’s power in numbers. That for me would be the ultimate act of love. Someone once said it’s impossible until it’s done. The question is, are you willing?
I was fixing to write some lengthy essay about Google… the search for information on just about anything engine. I found myself sitting at a candle lit table at ANTs quite surprisingly as if I had been sleep walking from my bed to the restaurant maybe I was. So Google will have to wait until some other time while I tell you about this little nook of love called Ants Café on 7th street in Melville, Johannesburg. It’s somewhat of an institution in this popular artist/media village. It is 19 years old this year – as old as our democracy.
When I walked in alone and heavily draped in my Lufthansa airline blanket, jacket and long dress the host showed me to a table by the fire-place. The exact same table I sat at for the first time at ANT almost 13 years ago with my friends, Maceik, Allan and Tom. We were there to eat our last meal pizza – together to wish Tom well on his trip to Argentina South America where he now runs a backpackers with his partner. Maceik now lives in Poland with his grandmother, while he writes, makes films and teaches. Allan the musician is now as we speak currently enjoying the summer in the UK and has been there for close to ten years. I realized for the first time that of the four friends who sat animated and chatting about the future – I was the only one left at the table – literally. I have travelled a lot since then and have lived in another country, but still I find myself so many years later once again at ANT on a date with Jedi.
Being there made me feel so nostalgic of all the friendships and happy moments I shared with so many. I felt nostalgic about what ANT has meant for me over the past decade living in Melville. Almost everyone I have ever loved – and loved – deeply has shared a meal with me under the warm dim light of candles at ANT. It somehow brought love back to me. Because you see I always went or invited people I love to Ant. There is something about rustiness of the place that says ‘home’ to me in so many ways. I have always felt safe at ANT to open up and be my authentic self in a public restaurant. It has none of that pretence – it’s a place you go to talk to the one you love, to tell truth about you somehow. Ant has been a sacred place for me, a hideaway. A love-filled kitchen I couldn’t provide for my many friends, many of whom were in various stages of transit and many of whom have since left the country or chapters in my life. Ant was a place where I could have conversations about love – all kinds of love – and leave feeling happy and secure. ANT is famous for its thin base pizzas… and they are all quite good and until recently you could only pay in cash for the food and service. A trait which added to the restaurants quirkiness. I remembered bringing my younger sister Didi to ANT for the first time to get to know my new partner. I remember countless nights sipping red wine with Gina, who is now a lawyer living in Canada, or stolen lunches from with Adel who is now an award-winning journalist and mother of one, sipping whiskey, it was a place where I went to if I didn’t want my conversation to be interrupted. The many nights with Ms Walker, Jane and countless other friends. Because on Melville 7th street nothing was sacred. I chose ANT to celebrate my 30th birthday three years ago, entering a new phase of my life with old and new friends. There was no other place that could hold my heart as gently as this restaurant did.
Three years later I found myself at Ant sitting across from someone I have always loved, unexpectedly consoling them about a love they’ve been chasing for almost ten years since we last met. It’s a place of untold beauty because of the people and characters I shared this place with. So as I was sitting at his table thinking about my next adventure I read a story about ANT that I never knew before in all the years that I have walked in each time with renewed hope for new beginnings. The story – which I image now in hindsight represents some of the struggles that we spoke about in this very same place about belonging, identity and life. It’s a piece of Johannesburg history with a surprisingly positive ending or should I say beginning
“The story behind the ANT café is as fascinating as its décor. Ronnie van Der Walt (owner) moved to Melville in 1979 and began a studio and art gallery called “things Ceramic”. With the change in government in 1991, however, he decided that in order to survive and prosper in the new South Africa he’s need to go into either tourism or security. Having chosen the security option, the opened a locksmith shop, selling remote controls and security keys to various hijack and mugging victims. After a while though, he found himself becoming increasingly aggressive and paranoid and started thinking of alternatives. It was a friend’s comment that he’s make money without selling a thing if he simply made his own coffee instead of ordering it every day from the house of coffees that convinced Ronnie to kick-in the security business and turn it to something more fulfilling. Work begun at the shop almost immediately. The security business was gradually phased out as renovation began and in a little more than five weeks the locksmith had been transformed into the ANT Café. Short of mixing the concrete and pushing the wheelbarrow – Ronnie did all the renovations himself. Upon entering the café one immediate impression is that of a rustic farm kitchen – wholesome and comfortable. Dried bunches of flowers hang from the ceiling. The compelling smell of brewing coffee all combine to create a homely and appealing sunny ambiance. Colours are earthy and rich, with wooden tables, homemade iron chairs and wall have been plastered with pigments.”
Then it dawned on me, again, that the pursuit of happiness is not as selfish as it may appear; to seek joy in your life, to seek to do what makes you happy is to seek to give joy to others too. Because I have found untold joy at ANT and all because Ronnie decided to do something that would make him joyful that was fulfilling. Through his labour of love he has brought joy to thousands of travellers and locals who have walked through its glass doors. Because, how can you hope to share joy with others if you don’t have joy within yourself. Or love for that matter? ANT was not Ronnie’s first choice, he tried two business before he found one that was just right for him, and it has stayed open in Melville longer than almost all the restaurants and bars on the street today – it’s almost two decades old and still provides that warm homely feeling, same welcoming atmosphere, service and food that stole my heart the first day I walked in. It’s as if when you enter… time stands still just for a moment.
It’s Saturday Night, the 26 of April. The suns’ glow which lit up a clear blue sky highlighted by wisps of gentle clouds, shone for a few hours before traveling to the west. The air is starting to bite, clinging to my clothes, shoes and linen. I love April with its changing hues of orange, brown and yellow. Autumn, there’s a scent of freshness in the air that comes with the changing season. I feel grateful. I am sitting on the balcony of Brown Sugar Backpackers in Observatory east of Johannesburg. My new home. I arrived a few hours ago from Curiosity Backpackers in downtown Johannesburg’s newly gentrified Maboneg District. A place where you the artist can live and work. “It’s a place meant for you, so you can be inspired to create” says Lunga, a 22-year-old property agent as he leads me into vacant flats at the Artists Lofts building. ” I’m not selling you a dream, I’m telling you reality” he says showing me into a New York style loft apartment under construction, with its own private lift as an entrance. “This one has already been bought” he adds. Lunga “the charming hustler” works for Mafadi Properties a subsidiary of companies owned by Johnathan Liebman, the man who is currently breathing new life into what used to be a no-go derelict area for middle class South Africans not so long ago. The Artists Loft buildings’ entrance is on Albertina Sisulu street, recently renamed from Market street: rewriting history in honour of one of South Africa’s anti Apartheid struggle icons and a heroine of the African National Congress women’s league, near Jeppe police station, in Jeppes’s town. It’s all coming together now – my memory is returning to me vividly as we walk with paper cups of coffee in hand. This is where I walked alone and breathlessly in May 2008…the air had been knocked out my lungs amid haunted empty streets mid-morning …. the debris of chaos strewn on the sweltering concrete, shards of newly broken glass, velvet soot from smoldering fires…papers garbage, abandoned splintering new stock forgotten in a frenzy of adrenalin pumped feet. It was Monday, the 12 of May, a day after the xenophobic violent attacks erupted against African foreign nationals living in Jeppe, Johannesburg and other parts of the country. I felt lost in the inner belly of a place whose blood was pulsating in my veins, not knowing what to expect, where to go or who to ask what. “They took everything” said one shop owner.”We are closing shop now, we are scared they’ll come back again”. The air was thin with tension shimmering against the glow of the yellow sun, silver bright and blinding. “They plan to turn this building into a state of the art-gallery” says Lunga pointing to an old Victorian building on the opposite corner.” They’ll do renovations but they will preserve its original architecture” he says. “It’s beautiful, I can see myself living my life here riding a bike” I say ” Yes in your future amazing life” he smiles at me. I smile back and think my life is already amazing. The offspring of the Washington consensuss.
….. Curiosity Backpackers has been open for less than four months and business is good. All the rooms have been booked out to foreign travelers. “Until the end of May” the booking manager tells me to more travelers from European countries. As I roll my suitcase out of this inner city hide out, there’s a flurry of activity, new sheets have just been delivered, the staff is cleaning up, no stone is left un-turned. New sparkling white faces smile with wonder-lust in their eyes. “ Zwarte-piet was like just Santa-Clause or Father Christmas , for me, growing up -as a child” A dutch journalism student tells in the crammed corridors of curiosity. “It’s a sentimental tradition which though I don’t celebrate anymore and can see why it can be “offensive” for me it has nothing to do with racism. It is a festival full of excitement, celebrations, a time for gifts, sweets and such like, whenever I think of zwarte -piet, I have good memories” She concludes. I am reminded of how lucky I am. A few years ago this luxury of staying at a backpackers in my own country would have been impossible. In 2004, as we marked and celebrated 10 years of freedom, I walked down Cape Town’s busy and popular Long Street, knocking from one backpacker to another. There was no room at the inn. I couldn’t stay in any of them… because I had a South African Identity book. I was South African and couldn’t stay at a backpackers even though I could afford to pay. “It’s our policy, no South Africans” the guy said. I was confused . “This place is cool, at least you can stay” said a friend of mine while visiting, ” A few years ago I couldn’t find a backpacker to stay in, in Cape Town” she said echoing my experience. The previous night we sat around a fire with a group of young South Africans, a dread-locked white guy who asked for a sip of beer in isiZulu, a 25-year-old Jewish architect who was searching for inspiration, maybe even a life changing epiphany and yet another “bornfree” guy who didn’t want to vote in the upcoming elections on May 7 2014. “It’s about me now” he said looking at me with such intensity I felt my words coming out of his mouth. “I have to know myself first. I need to know who I am, what I am about, I need to understand me first, sort out the issues with my family. Find my place in the world before I can even hope to change this country” he said staring at the ashen coals of a dying fire. He’s of mixed descent what South Africans call “coloured” or “biracial”. ” They don’t see this, they don’t understand it, but I won’t be forced to vote” he said holding on to his black label. I listen amazed by his confidence and resolve. ” Locals were never allowed to stay at Backpackers before, it just changed recently” the staff at Brown Sugar tell me. Why I ask in moment of complete amnesia ” They say you locals steal, so foreigners don’t want to share with you” she says smiling ” You can’t stay in a shared room because you’re not staying for one night” she says ” you have to get a single room and it costs more” I look at her silently. “It’s the rules” she says folding her arms.
I think of Lyth. An Irish- Palestinian beautiful man I met a few weeks ago, on my first day back in the city of Johannesburg. Sitting alone at a coffee Kiosk called Uncle Merves’ – paging through a thick green and yellow guide to Johannesburg. I ask him for a light and use the opportunity to ask him where he’s from. ” I’m from Cape Town, I was on holiday with my girlfriend, who has gone to visit family in Durban, so I decided to stay a few days in Johannesburg to get a real sense of the country”. It was his first time on the continent of Africa. I refuse to ask him why he didn’t go with his girlfriend to see her family in Durban. I was also simply passing time enjoying the afternoon sun. It was none of my sun-shining-day-business. He tells me he’s traveled from London where he lives and works as a commercial lawyer for a huge mining conglomerate. He lives not too far from the famed Nottinghill ” My favourite movie” I say and he smiles knowingly. But I can see how disturbed he is. ” I’m shocked that in this country I’m considered white!” he says peering at me for understanding. “I mean I am Palestinian” He says shaking his head. I smile and say ” Here you are white, brother”. He shows me his reading material a book; “Biko: A life” by South African Academic Xolela Mangcu. I wince a little as images of me sitting at the newly opened, fresh out of the box constitutional court of South Africa, sharing the stage with Mr Mangcu himself and African-American philosopher and Public intellectual Cornell West talking about the meaning of Mandela flash in front of me. I surprised everyone with my analysis of our new rainbow nation. I told them I don’t care about Mandela or Hip-Hop. I didn’t grow up listening to Kwaito. I don’t believe in this rainbow. Nobody was ready for that. “You are very brave” one woman whispered to me afterwards. What a shame “young people nowadays!” more flutters of disgust hovered in hushed tones. I had shamed the country’s public intellectuals, returned exiles, academics, writers, journalists, right in the center of a building that embodies our greatest hopes as a nation. Okay so I have a reputation.” It’s really a brilliant book, best biography I’ve read about the man” he says quickly putting it into his backpack like a prized possession. I agree with him desperately wanting to change the subject. I was in a cheerful mood, determined to focus only on the bright side of life and Lyth was begging me with his silences to go into the deep political ocean with him.We talked about Beirut – a city we both love. He was also there in June 2006, dubbed the Hottest Summer in Lebanon. I bought the t-shirt but my mother promptly discarded it. “Your girlfriend is lucky to have you” I say hoping to brighten his mood. Later I discovered he’s also a curiosity resident. I invite him to the African Freedom Station where I introduce him to Bra Steve Kwena Mokwena . There he was immediately at peace, at home. He grew up listening to Hip-Hop.
“Can we count on your vote?” Nomsa from the ANC says over the phone.”How did you get my number.” From the voter’s roll” she says.” Of course I’m voting” my friend puts the phone down and looks at me and we laugh because laughing is good for you.
Tell me because I often find myself in this uncomfortable space. I find myself increasingly feeling lost in these transition(s). Where do I belong? Who speaks for me now? What has happened to my generation? We who were not “born-free”. We who were not in the “armed-struggle” mixing Molotov cocktails and distributing coded pamphlets. We who were born into various states of emergencies in the late 70’s and early 80’s. We the ones who never “fought” in the struggle but existed side by side, with mellow-yellows and army trucks, illusive activists, township thugs, a game of dice by the “danger”, weed rolled up in newsprint perfuming the air at dusk, we who lived in families who tried their very best to create heaven on earth in slave compounds. Those of us whose initiation into primary school was the biting sting of tear gas. Those of us who witnessed the “dying” days of the “boogy-man” called Apartheid. Who grew up in constant fear, avoiding violence in the trains, and hostels bordering our urban villages. We Who Never left. Is there a place for us? We who didn’t have choices. Options. We who watched as army trucks driven and manned by young white boys, teenagers actually, terrorized our brothers, uncles, and made them all disappear in the name of separate but equal living. We who were left alone at night – while our mothers organized stockvels and fathers (those who were still alive) went to work or drowned in government issued alcohol. Their dignity lost. Those of us who knew that something was not right even as we happily and fearlessly played, diketo, skop die bollo and amathini on the “dusty” streets of Soweto? All the running around was a bloody game we didn’t understand. No one was happy – despite what they said. Who speaks on my behalf? Who has written that story. Yes it is not all black and white. We listened and heard. And peered and saw through closed doors at the brutality of our white masters we all loved to fear. We who saw the pain etched in our grandmother’s faces, those who barely eked out a living as domestic workers across all of the city’s luscious green suburbs. “the Jews are better” they would compare notes with each other on their off days.” at least they give us free good quality things we can use”. Where is that generation. That was never taught anything other than to remain silent, and never ever ask questions. Hear nothing. See nothing. Silenced by our childhood, old enough to see but too young to comprehend the game. We who were barely sheltered from what it means to be a black African in Africa. What happened to us who picked up “sofa-sonke” (we will all die ) pamphlets which often covered the golden brown earth of our now romanticized townships, as we were herded pushed out of schools to struggle for a man whose face we never knew… again and again? Don’t ask. Don’t look back. Just run. Shhhhhh.. Yes We were there. We bore witness. We may not have understood the states we were in but we do still bear the scars of a squashed revolution in our hearts souls and faces. We were spirit children,who absorbed all the prayers and held all your tears like precious stones, hard-earned medals in our hearts, hoping to one day grow up and “make it all better” . “I was born in 86″ says Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s grandson, a professional golfer.” See” he shows me the scar on his forehead. ” I got this scar fleeing from the police” He looks at me with such a detached look I want to call him back even though he’s right here, sitting next to me. ” The police were raiding our house… my parents had to flee…. I fell from my mother’s hands while she was running” he said looking away. ” I’m not voting” he said.
I remember my frustration in my early 20’s as I entered my working career in Johannesburg the city of gold, sitting around a table with former exiles newly returned still speaking fondly of New York, Toronto and London, maybe even Tanzania. “You children don’t know about Apartheid” they kept saying. “Why do you speak English like that? why don’t you speak your mother tongues?” You don’t know your histories! They shouted over clinging rocks of ice in Irish whiskeys and Cuban cigars. I was livid! I didn’t know that the struggle was about going to white schools. I didn’t know that the struggle was about living in the leafy suburbs. Or being accepted by white people. It was nice. But I thought the struggle was deeper than that I thought freedom meant you decide who and what you are.
I thought the struggle was about “real” independence(s). About real freedom and African Unity. I grew up being told to learn English. But now this English I speak is a shame. You’re a coconut. Black on the Outside. White on the Inside. Why did you send us to those schools? Why didn’t you stay and teach us isiZulu so we ll we could write our PHDs in our mother tongues? Why is isiZulu not first language in South Africa? Why am I writing this in English? Who was teaching us” history” educating us about our “values” and “traditions” when you were in the bush in Tanzania, fighting for liberty in London, Toronto, New York and Russia?
I’ll tell you who was there. The TV. SABC. Television taught us about music (american) movies (american) culture (american). TV showed us what was possible. We easily identified with African-Americans ( they were the only ones who looked like us who seemed to be having a great time, Lesilo – Rula was too depressing). We were trained to emulate what African-Americans did. We all thought we will grow up and be stars one day! and be famous like the famed characters of FAME! or the Huckstables in the Cosby Show. The only place where the black man was free was in AMERICA – the so-called land of the free. So we took what we could from the televised Revolution. We learnt a lot from African-Americans more than you realize. But never ever forgot, where and who we are…what we saw, what we lived and observed with our own eyes. We are the children who fell through the cracks while you were “struggling” for freedom. We are the children who sang “South Africa we love you! Our beautiful land, let’s show the whole world, we can bring peace in our land!” and we meant it. Do you remember? That day? My mother was teaching me to do things for myself, I was taking a minibus taxi to town by myself, for the first time. The radio was on in the taxi, when it was 12 on the dot, a moment of silence was announced, the taxi driver stopped, and we all in the taxi observed a moment of silence, for peace in our land. I didn’t know that freedom was for a select minority few and not for all!
In fact come to think of it, I never considered for a moment that I was not free. Until I was told. ” The townships haven’t changed, people still live in shacks, in slave compounds” says Euridice Kala. “South Africans are too obsessed with themselves” she says.”They don’t understand “independence”. “Freedom is not just about mobility” said Ayanda ” It’s about the mind”.
I was crushed by Marikana, by the 2008 Xenophobic attacks. Everywhere I’ve been people who look like me ( or close to me) live in compounds enclosed like wild animals to be viewed from tall buses by well-meaning tourists. My soul yearns for liberation I seek it often and always in little ways. I’m not your spectacle. I own myself actually. I’m not an Angry Black. I’m a loving one. Not angry, just full of L . O.V.E.
This is why you are simply off the hook. You don’t have to do anything. I don’t blame you. I’m not blaming you or anyone or anything for the state I am. Actually I am grateful. But what I am saying is; I can’t bend and twist myself into something I am not. And never will be. I will not let you or anyone else define me anymore.
I value your contribution. I will never discount your experience or belittle it. I will honour you. Respect you for showing me so clearly what freedom is not. I will use this knowledge to fuel the flame of real liberation which still burns fiercely in my heart to shine even brighter. I will use everything I saw, everything you taught me and didn’t teach me, to be the best ME I can be. Not the best black anything. Just to be ME. That’s freedom. We ARE the ones you were waiting for…. Thank You. You called us into existence with your blood-stained-tears.
We may have” fallen through the cracks” of time, but that as I see it now, that has been a wonderful blessing in disguise. Because then we learnt want it means to be free. We are the self-taught, self-educated, self-reliant generation. We are the ones who know clearly, that none but our selves can free our minds from mental slavery. No PHDs will do that. We have found freedom in our hearts and minds. This no one can take away. So I am here to announce that this “lost in-transition” generation is here and we have always been “free”.
Instead of torching the streets and screaming from podiums, I will use the power you gave us. The one you say is in our hands, in me, to light up my own path to the real African National Congress…. and if I find as I’m slowly discovering that it actually doesn’t exist… I will create one with other loving souls just like me … we are many… and we’ll do it with so much love it will light up the sky with all the brilliant colours of the rainbow!
In the past five years I have spent a considerable amount of time in the company of men from all walks of life and from all regions of the world. And by a considerable amount of time – I mean considerable… day and night all the time, hanging out with them chilling just doing stuff that men do when they are not in the company of women or more specifically for me women they would like to ideally have sex with or are “attracted” to. I was so to speak – one of the “boys”. During this time I was given a very rare opportunity to observe their behavior and attitudes and outlook towards life. And while I am no wiser than most people and will not in no way attempt in this blog to box men into any category, at the very least this time offered me an opportunity to ask questions or have candid, open and honest conversation about relationships of all kinds – with no strings attached.
The most revealing observation for me has to be about sex. Seven days is the most an average healthy man can go without sex. Every seven days on average, a man needs, must have sex. Preferably with someone they love… but once the deadline is over – and it if it’s going on to more than seven days, anyone will do. The natural, biological clocks kicks in and it has nothing to do with who they really love, care about or want to marry Ideally. It’s like being hungry or thirsty or even needing to pee. A man must have sex after seven days or things just don’t work out. It’s not personal and actually they don’t mean to hurt you. It’s a human basic need they cannot go without, so either you make yourself available or you move for someone else who is be available.
At the end of the day sex is going to be had – with or without you. Finish and Klaar.
I want to use this analogy for elections – any election season – anywhere which is quite apt. Every 5 years we need to vote. But this time we the nation ( female ) are in the powerful position. All the men and women of politics need our vote and as many of them as they can get. Many of them now are campaigning like men, who say vote for us, but if you don’t there are many more fish in the sea. That’s the attitude…. but it belies the truth.
There are no more fish in the sea for them. This is the one time we can use the biological clock to our advantage and give our vote or power to someone else . We are the men in this scenario. It should not be an emotional decision. We have needs and our needs, need to be met, and if those in power have been unable for the past 20 years give up the goods as it were, to make us “dance” then well there are many others who are willing to do just the same thing right now today.
Now is our time to spread our seed far and wide… to any and everyone who is willing.
Those who really, love us and really care, will show up and despite the clicking biological clocks all round they will fight to remain relevant and useful in our lives.
It’s their turn to work for it. Don’t fall for the sweet-talk and charm, they must show you the goods or forever remain silent.
We have options too, they may not shake us to the core, with earth-shattering- tremors of utter ecstasy but they will get the job done. Which is basically what we need.
So let’s relax and enjoy the ride. Let’s stop working “hard” for it.
As American Actress Betty White said ” Why do people say – “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really want to get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding!”
I think we’ve had enough pounding …. let’s take a holiday sit back, enjoy some Champagne. and the Grand Parade.
“ So many people who consider themselves progressive have their own weird notions about the native, but they all have one thing in common. They want to decide who the native is and they want to do good things for him. You know what I mean. They want to lead him. To tell him what to do. They want to think for him and he must be accepting of their thoughts. And they like him to depend on them. Your Zuma makes an excellent “good native” for progressive folk. That’s why you like him” – Frederick Cooper, Conflict and Connection -re thinking Colonial African history ( Abrahams 1963,68)
I wrote the following piece “Un-begging to be white” in 2011. I continue to think deeply about many of the issues raised in my piece since and more so now that I find myself re-listening to archive testimonies from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1999). Testimonies from which South African writer, poet and journalist Antjie Krog (whom I deeply admire) wrote her most famous non-fiction book Country of My Skull. The bubbling racial (sic) tensions in South Africa today and around the world make this piece more relevant. I would like you to keep these words by Nobel Laureate, Political activist, professor novelist and former Auschwitz prisoner and survivor – Elie Wiesel, in mind as you read. Prof Wiesel believed strongly that indifference is the epitome of evil. And offered memory as an antidote to it. Below is his answer to the question on how to fight indifference, he said:
“Through memory. Memory may not be the only answer but there is no answer without memory. As a writer I have always been tempted by silence. I have tried to introduce silence into every word of mine. I have tried to surround my words with silence. And yet I know that though the memory of silence is important, the silence of memory would be scandal. ( Wiesel 1988,19).
UN-BEGGING TO BE WHITE. (sic)Recently I had a matter of fact conversation with a dear friend. It was matter of fact because it was what I assumed to be a matter of fact tale of (my) life. The on-line conversation revolved around my progress in securing accommodation. I was looking for a one bedroom flat. My dear friend was assisting me by finding links to places she found thousands of miles away from Johannesburg the city I inhabit. And here’s the matter of fact part, I found myself typing this: In this situation I wish I were a white, rich woman, because I think it would make the process of finding a place easier. She responded by saying, being a “white South African is not easy. It’s hard, because you’re always looked at, judged at face-value, assumed to be a bad person (racist)”. I brushed over her comment by saying yeah but there are pros and cons (to being black or white) and in this case I think it would be a pro for me as I would be able to eliminate all other possibilities. She said she didn’t think it was a racial thing. I agreed with her in part. But instead of telling her this I continued by saying that two of my friends ( white expats) were also looking for accommodation and while viewing a cottage in Brixton they were told that they were only considered because they were white . The landlord didn’t want black people living in their backyard. At that point she said she didn’t want to have a black/ white conversation and promptly logged off.
The conversation left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It left me pained,and I had to really take a long, hard look at myself. I wished I could take what I said back because just like my flat hunting experience, I wasn’t sure if the conversation had ended because she really had to go or because I had hurt her feelings and she wasn’t willing to engage with me anymore. I had said to her that I wish it were simple; either the place I was looking for had already been taken or that I couldn’t afford it.
But I found myself thinking that perhaps there is more. After the conversation I had to question whether as a black South African, race is my default answer to all my problems? If I don’t get what I want – do I always assume that there must be a racial rationale? Why had I thought to even say that, why was that the uppermost thing on my mind?
Even as I write this I am finding it hard to pin down my thoughts, my reasons, my position. Why was her response to what I thought was part of my normal so disturbing for me? Did it disturb me because I had never thought of what being a white South African must be like, feel, like taste like? Is it because I did not have a white South African view to life, my vision is skewed by my skin colour, my skin colours how I look at life, defines how and when I move. I tried to think about her statement: How hard it must be to be a white South African; a descendant/beneficiary of a white racists regime, carrying the guilt of privilege, the burden of wealth on your skin; – despite what your actual personal circumstances may be. The assumption that you are racists, just because you are white.
It does sound hard and harsh. Just as hard and harsh as being black. So where do we find common ground. How can my statement not hurt my friend whom I love dearly who is also a white South African woman? How can I be sure that race has nothing to do with my difficulty in securing a place to stay, in one of the richest, leafiest suburbs of Johannesburg?
The conversation reminded me of an experience I had in Cape Town a few years ago. I had been in the city on a work assignment when it was finished I decided to stay on for a few days to experience more of the city. I decided that booking into a backpackers would be the most affordable option for me since it was after all a last minute plan. Cape Town’s long street was central, and offered a host of social venues where I could meet new people as I knew no one in the city. That night accompanied by a friend and colleague I walked down Long street and knocked on every backpacker – there were many of them. Most of them were full, others didn’t answer the door. Eventually we arrived at one where the door did open. They had room(s) available and I could afford it. There was just one problem. I was South African. They had a policy that explicitly favored, preferred foreigners over locals. I asked why in exasperation and fatigue and the man replied saying something I didn’t quite hear because the I was thinking of where the hell I was going to sleep that night. Yes, my race was the last thing on my mind.
But on re-telling the story to friends and colleagues they found it a veiled racist’s rejection. They found that whatever reason he had given was hard to justify in a country where racial segregation shaped every part of our lives. Then in 2004, I could not sleep at a backpackers which had a room I could afford because I was South African. But Cape Town is another country – or is it? Do other countries reserve accommodation only for foreigners too? Where locals are not allowed? Maybe. But I have come to define that incident as being a racist one even thought I didn’t think of it those terms initially. And wonder to this day, if the story would be different had I been a white female. Of course I have no way of knowing this for sure.
Did that experience raise my antennas? To label anything I could not understand as being racist? Am I a walking talking racist person? How can I have a colour-blind outlook to life? What does being colour blind mean, where do I draw the line… when is it acceptable to take issue? When is it not? Is my assumption that life must be easier for South African (rich) white women or white people in general true? Is it fair?
When thinking about this, Antjie Krog’s book, Begging to be Black – comes to mind. Perhaps I may be subconsciously begging to be white also, as she is begging to be black. To be under a white woman’s skin, to think as a white person does, to feel & smell as a white person. Maybe I have white person envy. My black friends often remind me, tell me, state it as a matter of fact whenever they can, that I LOVE white people. They say it as if it were a crime, something bad, that I should be ashamed of. I cannot count how many times I’ve had to count how many black friends I have to justify the number of white people I hang out with. It is an interesting subject. I think it really would be more interesting for me to say that I am begging to be white. I would be the embodiment of the the oppressed, who Frantzs Fanon described thus : “Having judged, condemned and ignored their cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual habits, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing , of enjoying himself the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man” Frantz Fanon.
That would be a logical and easy assumption to make. An automatic logical expression of my oppression would be to hate myself, my heritage, my identity, my background. denying the past. I would be and probably am no different to those people who bleach their skin in order to have a fairer complexion, who loved their masters more than themselves, who devised ways to straighten their hair, so that it’s lighter, softer and gentler to the touch. Those among us who dated and married white men so they could have nice brown and light-skinned children who would by extension have a better or easier hand at life. In this world which favours lightness – the closer one is to the Aryan race the better. But I have never until that point given much thought to what being white must be like, except for the fact that I think the experience whatever it may be, must be generally easier than being a black woman. I guess I never had time to think about how hard it must be to be white – because I was busy trying to survive. Live.
Or perhaps my begging to be white could be an equally condescending and patronizing exercise as found in Krog’s analysis of black culture or ethos …” how they think”, her musings in orderly, efficient Europe about the missed benefits of Ubuntu. I could wonder how Europeans rationalize and justify their ideas of “civilization” and if they are proud of the civilization (s) they have achieved so far in Africa and in Europe. The African continent should be by now a bright shining example of white innovation, intelligence, supremacy. After years of practice in Europe their systems, machinery,isms, education, industrialization etc should have been easier and faster to implement here. How then has their efficiency, precision, logic, analytical mind (s) , all the “good” and genius that has always been their birth right benefited anyone?
I am not begging to be white or black for that matter. What I am doing is begging to understand why it is that I should (must) understand, how hard it must be to white – when the very white people have not tried to understand what it must be like to be black – and their only reflection on the matter is only in response to their own guilty feelings about what black people must think and feel about them? Why is it that I must be asked to constantly measure, balance my experience, be polite, nice, not hurt any one’s feelings, to hear all sides before I can say something which is my experience – not a feeling, but a fact. When it might reflect badly, upset, offend a white person? Why must I understand that all black people are lazy, that we have never invented anything, that we are thieves, corrupt, diseased, as a matter of fact and that the only way I can succeed is with some assistance or sponsorship, the AID of white people, why is it that I should be asked to understand that I am who I am, know what I know, live the way I do, speak the way I do, am because of my colonial saviours, because if they hadn’t saved me – I probably would be living in a rural mud-hut dressed in nothing but cow skin and breeding millions of children for an old abusive patriarch if not dead?
Why must I understand that most things about my life have nothing to do with race actually, when they don’t understand that everything about their life is about race, because of race? On a more personal level, why is it that I cannot speak about my experience without being a racists ungrateful and disrespectful person. Why can’t we have a conversation?
I would love to live in a world, where I didn’t have to sell my DNA/My soul/My dignity in order to have a roof over my head. I would love to live in a world where my house is your house; my land is your land, where community is community. But I don’t and that is largely because Europeans, thought it backward, uncivilized, uncultured, primitive and un-educated to share. So they took that away centuries ago, made sure that any semblance of equity was thoroughly destroyed. So yes, for me right now, in this country it is a matter of fact that it would be easier for me to find a place had I been white and rich. I look forward to the day when this would not be a matter of fact.
” Historians of economic thought should be heedful therefore, not only of what gets said, but what is left unsaid. And what in a sense cannot be said in arguments and articles meant to be heard and paid attention to. By considering the relationship between power, interests, and rhetoric among the elite producers of economic knowledge. Historians of economic thought may be able to further illuminate the nature and history of story-telling in economics. But in connecting these accounts historians of economic thought (must) should recognize that they themselves are storytellers, building partial accounts of the partial accounts written by economists. To the extent that the storytellers of economics however have been selected and socialized to believe in and to have a stake in stories of individual objectivity and the free market place of ideas, these storytellers will continue to present themselves as authoritative agents of truth. And as long as the rhetoric of the discipline in enforced thought and intellectual hierarchy resistant to transformative challenges, the telling of dissonant stories remains fraught with professional peril. — Diana Strassmann; The stories of Economics and the power of the storyteller (1993)
This Cartoon by an anonymous Japanese illustrator titled ‘Vegetables are Expensive” perfectly illustrates the (potential) impact of the 2018 budget in South Africa. But, if you still need to understand more about what the one percent increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) will mean for South African people in general and poor people in particular researchers at the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Actions (PACSA) who’ve been keeping tabs on the price of food for many years in their Food Price Barometer, have some insight. See statement below:
“Since the announcement of the increase of VAT from 14% to 15%, many politicians, economists and other ‘experts’ have argued that working-class households are protected from the negative impact of the increase in VAT because certain foods are zero-rated. We would have done better to listen to the voices of ordinary women who prepare food for their families to understand the impact of a raised VAT level for working-class households.
The underlying assumption of the ‘experts’ is that working-class households only eat zero-rated foods. This assumption is flawed and could be construed as having racist overtones.
PACSA tracks 38 foods on a monthly basis that working class households have identified as the foods which they would buy should they have sufficient money to do so. 20 out of the 38 foods are vatable; 18 are zero-rated. Of the total cost of the basket of R3129.84, a 15% VAT component is R221.59. The total contribution of VAT to the overall PACSA Food Basket is 7.08%.
In order to provide a meal working-class households don’t just use zero-rated foods. A mother does not send her child to school with a few slices of brown bread; she sends her child to school with a sandwich that in addition to the brown bread will require margarine, peanut butter, or jam, cheese, polony – these are all subject to VAT.
The same applies to cooking a meal for a family. Working class households do not only use maize meal, brown bread, dried beans and rice which are zero-rated. Mothers prepare meals with more than just these zero-rated foods. They also require other foods in order to create a meal. A chicken stew served with maize meal requires salt and spices and chicken. None of which is zero-rated.
All of our basic foods (even the zero-rated foods) require a cooking process to be made into a meal and this requires water and electricity which is subject to VAT.
By arguing that increasing the VAT rate will have no impact on working-class households because certain foods are zero-rated reveals a lack of understanding of what people eat and how meals are put together. There is just no way in which households are able to escape this increase in VAT when it comes to food. The only way in which households can escape the impact of VAT is if all foods are zero-rated.”
I was still mulling over a conversation with Frantz Fanon which began a few years ago – about Black Skin, White Masks (1952) when the story of H&Ms’ Coolest Monkey in the jungle hoodie, made social media headlines.
Fanon wrote a number of interesting things in Black Skin, White Masks, but two ideas stayed with me. The first one read like a confirmation letter to something I have always felt but never knew how to pronounce and it is this:
“I am not a potential of something. I am wholly what I am and I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is. It is its own follower” – (Page 103, The Fact of blackness; Black Skin, White Mask)
There’s nothing missing in me. The seed is in the tree. The tree is in the seed. I am whole. I can only grow into what I already am; i.e unless genetically modified an apple seed does not grow into a pineapple tree or into a monkey for that matter.
So what’s the fuss about?
The second idea was more interesting – and perhaps more relevant to our times – so I soaked in it. Remember that Frantz Fanon was not just a political activist. He was a trained and qualified psychologist whose primary preoccupation was the mind and how colonialism was affecting the minds of black people in France and French-Martinique – Black Skin, White Masks – is a collection of his findings and personal reflections based on actual cases of psychiatric patients observed. So while his work was specific to the Black experience of the white man – mutatis mutandis – this quote can be applied to humans as a whole.
“Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his action. It is on recognition by that other being that his own human worth and reality depend” (page 169 – The Negro and Recognition; Black Skin, White Masks)
Imagine the magnitude of such a statement. Fanon is saying that as humans we are ostensibly slaves to one another, we are not human until our humanity (humanness) has been effectively recognized by other humans. Can you see why most of us ( especially the oppressed) have the need to believe in a higher power – a benevolent God and saviour who will recognise us when those with whom we share our lives do not or cannot affirm our humanity?
Without a higher power, we are bound, victims of each other’s neurosis. This neurosis, it seems continues today regardless of the fact that racial segregation laws have been repealed in South Africa. The discourse around race, racism and who is to blame remains unchanged. It is as if we are still living under white minority rule in Apartheid South Africa circa 1981. Fanon has an explanation for this phenomena and it is rightly rooted in the psyche of the black man;
“There is not an open conflict between white and black, one day the white master, without conflict recognized the negro slave, but the former slave still wants to make himself recognized”
So despite having gained freedom and political emancipation from the white man, the black man is still mentally enslaved; the incidents or periods of trauma are still kept alive psycho-somatically until triggered by Monkey business. The black man will be obsessed with being recognized by the white man through his academic, cultural, social or financial institutions. In this context, the black man will not be fully human until he is given the Oscar, or until Ngungi Wa Thiong’o is awarded the Nobel prize for literature, only then will he become human. And once they have gained the full recognition they will want full control or the power to retain their right to recognize others or not and the cycle will begin again with white people feeling victimized and marginalized by a loss of power – they will also begin as they are already doing in South Africa, to demand that their humanity, be recognized.
This theory – the need for recognition is the source of almost all conflict in the world and can be applied to most people, communities and nations.
In South Africa today we have an opportunity to begin a new cycle, which does not degenerate into a downward spiral of repeating old habits.
So what does this have to do with the law?
Let me try to explain: Mutatis Mutandis is an archaic, Latin term, used mostly in the law which means with “all the necessary, changes having been made.” It is often found in contracts (and our constitution) to indicate that whatever new terms or changes which have been made in past or present contracts will be applied to all future contracts.
Angazi, but I’m sure, while not a legal term is a form of defence. It is a vague answer often given to “difficult” questions. It might seem contradictory to you to hear someone say I don’t know, but I’m sure, but in the (black) South African parlance, it isn’t. This is the standard answer given when people know the answer to a question but are not sure if the person asking the question can be trusted with the information. So Angazi, but I’m sure, means, I know but I don’t know if I should tell you.
I’m sure – in this context – also does not mean that one is certain of what one speaks of, it is used to infer doubt; perhaps/maybe.
It is often used as a response to a question: searching for something or someone.
i.e Q: Have you seen Jedi? A: Angazi, but I’m sure she’s around.
In serious circumstances, it is equivalent to pleading the fifth by refusing to answer incriminating questions. It is a non-answer.
This could explain why no one seems to know anything about what is going on in government today, especially ministers and government officials.
Angazi, but I’m sure is a historical colloquialism which carries within it expired struggle codes used to deflect further inquiries by unknown inquisitors. The language was used loosely in the vaguest terms so that the speaker and the listener could not be held accountable for what was not being said. The term leaves enough room for interpretation – and evasion.
This year members of parliament (our elected representatives) have been tasked with removing the Angazi, but I’m sure, a clause in our collective subconscious and in the practical application and interpretation of the law. They have to define in concrete terms what constitutes a serious violation of the constitution which will be applied henceforth mutatis mutandis to future presidents who may be in the very committee tasked with drafting the rules for the impeachment of a president. As is now the case with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa who is being called to defend the very constitution he helped the draft in the 1990s- even though he might ostensibly be guilty of violating its terms.
Will members of parliament draft laws based on the lowest common denominator or are they going to hold themselves and future presidents to the highest ethical standards which are not open to Angazi but I’m sure?
The caveat, of course, is this: it won’t matter how brilliant our laws are at safeguarding our democracy or bill of rights if they are routinely circumvented by politicians and public officials who are intent on abusing their power.
There needs to be a commitment to hold not only others accountable for their actions – but we must also commit to holding our ourselves accountable to the laws we collective create and agree to; i.e The Constitution.
If we don’t we will continue to say, Angazibut I’m sure – Mutatis Mutandis.
It’s the little of the littlest things that get to you in a time of war. Like today, the 8th of November 2017 is my cousin’s 44th birthday. She was hoping to get out of her house for some fresh air. “Ngibone abantu,” she said over the phone. But she’s trapped in her house because there’s a minibus #taxistrike. The National Taxi Alliance (NTA) is protesting against the government over a litany of grievances which include but are not limited to matters related to taxi route operations, provisions in the National Transport Land Act, the controversial Taxi Recapitalization Programme, compensation for operating licenses and the taxi subsidies.
The minibus taxi is a 40 billion rand industry in South Africa which employs more than 600 thousand people who transport close to 15 million commuters a day. Commuters like my cousin who relies on minibus taxis to run their lives. “ We tried got a lift with someone but we couldn’t go any further because there were no taxis to take us where I wanted to go”
This year has not been an easy one for my cousin and I understand why today of all days she would want to be out of her house and be far away from the place which has become a constant reminder of the new gaping hole in her heart.
Her 14-year-old son whom she affectionately called her “husband” is not home or in School. It will be the first time today in 14 years that she celebrates her birthday without him. He will never grow old enough to sit for his final school exams like hundreds of Matric students who have been left in the lurch and forced to take alternative transport because of today’s strike.
He won’t be there because he died on a train. While train surfing one afternoon in June. His first time riding on top in instead of staff riding. “I used to wonder why his takkies got worn off so quickly,” she told me. “ I used to ask him why were his shoes like this, soccer, he would answer,” She said she wondered what kind of soccer obliterates the soles of his shoes to paper, what kind of soccer makes shoes like this? “Kanti, he was train surfing” She had no idea of his extramural activities and his love for speed. “he was such a beautiful, obedient child”
So, she won’t be taking a train today or in the near future. She has to wait until Saturday to celebrate her new life when the strike is over. Because unlike two of my friends, taking a cab, a meter taxi, Uber or Taxify is not an option for her.
But life is not so simple for my friends either both of them single working mothers who live on the other side of town. They too are trapped between warring factions. They are forced to do business as if they were criminals.
This after drivers for Uber and the Estonian start-up Taxify operating in Johannesburg and Pretoria faced threats and protest from regular taxi operators who accuse the app-based drivers of poaching customers with cheaper fares.
Three cars were torched and Uber and Taxify drivers are being constantly harassed by maxi-cab drivers blocking them for picking up customers at airports and shopping centres around Johannesburg.
My friends insist on using Uber and Taxify because they are better more efficient options to the lack-lustre service provided by meter cab drivers over the years. They are often notoriously late, old and rickety and often overcharge their customers.
Now they have to hide or wait for hours just to get from A to B. To run errands, take kids to school, get groceries, while pregnant. The story of moving in Post Apartheid South Africa for them is not just about going from A to B. It’s also about power and gender.
It infringes on the women’s personal safety when maxi-cab drivers threaten them, stopping them from taking a ride of their choice. Hating them for being women who speak out, who want to exercise their right to choose. ” who do you think you are” they say “I don’t take instructions from a woman” they insist. Today South African women, like in the past, once again have to ask for permission to live.
To move and breathe in a bit of fresh air.
It’s the little things that get to you in a time of war.
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