11. May. That date brings so many memories. I recall them today because it was a day of paradoxes which I am now only aware of ironically in hindsight. The 11th of May 2008 was a day of new beginnings, a day of some kind of a fresh start. I walked into the walls of the largest Buddhist temple in Africa, dehydrated, hoping to come out refreshed, energized and ready to live a peaceful life. We ( I and three others) were going to spend a weekend in silent meditation…connecting with our inner chi and though we were not disciplined enough not go out the night before we still made it against all odds, half way on a Saturday the 11th of May 2008.
It was a meaningful occasion, especially for me because I had attended high school just a street away from where the majestic temple now stands, oddly isolated from the once sleepy town of Bronkhorspruit. You can see it on the highway from Pretoria to Witbank. Back then when I was 13, learning Badminton, practicing Kung-fu and reading Miles Munroes’ in Pursuit of Purpose between selling pies at break time, sweeping mounds of hair from my mothers Hair Salon, watching the Lion King and having “debates” about the existence of God, race and Homosexuality with my class mates… the temple whose foundations were still being dug seemed like a faraway dream. Like something that would probably never happen. Or even if it did my choice of faith would prohibit me from walking through those gates. But in May 2008 I drove through Nan-hua Temple with Chris and Black Panther (my car) two of my then best friends.
We joined two friends Mali and Fumi? Our masters were at pains to explain that men and women were not allowed to share the same room. A rule which was for once, all in our favour. We couldn’t have wished it otherwise. Our first lesson after lunch was learning how to plan and be prepared for life by learning the art of making tea. Then we did Tai Chi, Kung fu stretches , walking, sleeping, eating meditation, we practiced being grateful for everything, between bites of noodles and greens and suppressed pious laughter…..shhhhh…silence was encouraged. It was beautiful. On Sunday we bought music to keep meditating on the way back to the busy buzz of the city of gold. We were floating on repeated chimes of the Chinese flute and violins when at the petrol station; Mali leaned on black panther and said d through the window “You guys are busy meditating while Johannesburg is burning!” I had never heard anyone say that before “Johannesburg is Burning” what do you mean? We asked perplexed as if waking from deep sleep. Turn on the radio, it’s on the news. I immediately switched to SAfm, and heard the shocking news that there had been wide-spread violent attacks on foreign nationals in the city center, some people were dead some injured, shops had been looted it was just mayhem. I called my boss to ask if they needed extra hands. He said it was fine they had it covered. What was covered? But by the next morning I was walking through the deserted streets of Jeppe’s town on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s city CBD… trying to piece together some kind of a story a sequence of events. Who – What – When – Where – How and Why? The streets were eerily empty… the shops abandoned… broken glass, black soot, the only sign of violence…. shop owners gingerly trying to salvage what remained of the weekends’ carnage”.
A far and distant memory seeps to the surface like a mirage…. one day in Bronkhorspruit we woke up to news of a terrorist attack… the Indian shopping center had been bombed…. there were TV news journalists asking people questions. Did you see anything. I wanted to see. I was a street trader, selling hair clips, lipstick and nail polish( it helps grow your nails, makes them strong) A better option for me compared to knocking on people’s homes like Jehovah’ Witnesses. I had to go to the loo near where the bombs had exploded… I didn’t bargain on a platform of pit-toilets and large half-naked women balancing precariously between the dark manholes…with yellow water falling from even darker hidden places. But I saw the damage… and heard the word. Terrorism. The market was busy, teeming with people who continued to shop as if nothing happened. The last time I had been in a deserted town in a place where clothes, money and possessions lost all their value… where people left everything behind was…. was in the Hot Summer of June 2006 in Lebanon.
But the xenophobic violence quickly spread across the country… like wild fire and became daily headline news. The police were becoming desperate to find the ‘criminal”,” third force” element that was quote unquote responsible for the violence. They had a list of names and were now knocking on doors, shacks, banging them down, barking “where is so and so? we’re told he lives here? Are you hiding him? I don’t know who you’re talking about . A woman would respond peering fearfully through a corrugated iron door “Hhey mama, we know he lives here”….. “mkhiphe” take him out… where did you buy this TV, this DVD? You steal? Where are the slips? All of it sounded too familiar, so close to me…. I know a time like that in my life…. Years ago…somewhere in Orlando West Soweto on the kitchen table… my uncle Thente was getting a Tjambok’s hiding – a lesser punishment for whatever crime he was at the time, white soldiers in full army uniform stood around our faded green enamel kitchen table. My great-aunt watched on helplessly as he flinched and groaned with every lash, his lips and eyes blood-shot. Do you Know him? What would I have said peeping through my bedroom door. He died a few years later. But not before teaching me how to draw, and introducing me to the joys of eating ‘is’khokho’.
“black bags meant for garbage are prized possessions here” was the line my colleague Sherwin and I used to open our radio story on scores of refugees returning to their countries of birth following the aftermath of the Xenophobic attacks. “You hesitate when you ask questions” he says to me taking the microphone and showing me how it’s done. I was overwhelmed. I spoke to refugee after refugee…. I spent days on the side of the road…. In Lindela …. In the corridors of the Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg. None of it made sense. We Printed T-shirts. We marched in solidarity. Slept behind bars. Appeared in court. Until someone asked – How does a victim become the perpetrator? It was just a play. The line. I knew then that the events of 11th May 2008/2007/6/2004/1993 etc had changed my life. I’m still trying to find myself in the ashes of the burning man. I just cannot believe it’s happening again.