“You know your rights? eh we’ll show you your rights”
The recent shooting of singer-rapper Khuli Chana allegedly by South African police in a case of mistaken identity on Monday, reminded me of an incident in my life I would rather forget. One I do not often speak of because it left me feeling completely powerless. What triggered the memory of my brief run in with the police was the part in the story where police where waiting at a garage/filling station in Midrand, and the police tried unsuccessfully to flag the rapper down, and then shot him accidentally. That part made me feel grateful to be alive.
Years ago, a four friends and I were driving home in the early hours of Saturday morning when we decided to stop at a local garage (petrol filling station)to get some snacks. I waited in the car listening to music while the rest of them went inside the convenient store to make purchases. Suddenly, alone in the car, I was surrounded by police who demanded my driver’s license, which on that night I had unfortunately forgotten at home, a fact i didn’t know until that moment when they asked for it. They proceeded to search my car and decided to arrest me. At which point I didn’t protest, or fight verbally or physically. However when my friends saw the police leading me to the back of the van, they protested demanding to know why the police were arresting me. The police lost their temper and violently threw all of them at the back of the van, while I let in front. They drove around with us for a while and eventually dropped us off at a local police station where were to spend the night.
The police women who searched us were more than liberal in their handling of our private regions for lack of a better euphemism during the search all while saying repeatedly: You know your rights eh? you know your rights? We’ll show you your rights, keep talking and we’ll show you rights eh Sargent?” they said to much laughter.
One of our friends, a man, was beaten by police right in front of us for no-reason, some cops periodically jumped on the counter-tables aggressively growling at us in intimidation. A scene which would have been comical under any other circumstances. After they were satisfied with our silence, they locked us up and we were released the next morning. I however, the driver of the car, had to appear in court the next Monday morning and was more than surprised at the police’s version of events.
‘I was driving fast during the night”
“They tried to flag me down and I failed to stop. A chase ensued”
None of what they said was true. Even the truth of my lack of a driver’s license was omitted in their statement . There was never a “chase” especially since they were in unmarked cars. But it was my word against theirs in court. My friends had all but ‘disappeared”.
That incident opened my eyes to the real workings of law enforcement in South Africa, and more than ever made me fear the police – because they could clearly break the law, blatantly lie, repeatedly against the very citizens they were meant to protect. I grew up with the idea, that law enforcers, police by default should lead by example and stick within the limitations of the law. But the opposite is true. Police have complete authority over you and your person, and if they cannot arrest you with blows, these days it seems they will stop you with bullets. If I had money or courage, perhaps I would have challenged them however I didn’t. I was scared of what they could do to me, those three cops who spent the whole night driving with me in the car. It left me feeling powerless. mute. dispensable. I was ashamed. And yes my views are completely subjective.
So this case makes me wonder how true the police’s version of the events is. I do wonder, because if they could lie about an incident as “trivial” as mine, why wouldn’t they lie now, especially in a case where shots have been fired? I mean we have enough evidence coming out from the Marikana Commission that illustrates just how far they will go to conceal the truth which was broadcast all around the world for all to see. How do you justify that?
I honesty think its a sad day that we’ve come to today where we view police with suspicion, though it’s not surprising given our history. Yet one always hopes that instead of getting worse, things will improve, progressively become better; that somehow with each day we could all somehow regain our humanity and be kinder to one another. Yet the words police and criminal have become interchangeable in South Africa. From street traders to miners to ordinary citizens. I don’t think that everyone employed at the South African Police Service is criminally corrupt, there are good cops. However I have encountered enough of them more who are disproportionately aggressive, violent and rude to call it a trend.
In some ways perhaps the police are a mirror of the society they serve. They are like ticking time bombs, ready explode at the slightest provocation, like some South Africans. So how do we deal with this situation? How do we regain trust in the police? Better salaries, training, improved working conditions, resources, capacity? counselling? fewer guns? all of the above?
In the end I know as well as you do that accidents do happen, mistakes and errors in judgement do occur, in any profession including law enforcement. But I think we’re treading on dangerous ground when the mistakes routinely become lies and the truth becomes a criminal offence.
This quaint restaurant has been my sweet little secret until just now, because I’m going to tell you about it. It’s a place I haven’t thought of or been to in a very long time, until this morning in my parent’s guest room while making the bed. I saw them, bird cages, everywhere, all over the duvet cover and all designed in different variations of my favourite colour grey. It is only then that I remembered the BirdCage.
I didn’t want to go there, with my feet, mind or heart. In fact I haven’t been there in years. Ladies and gentlemen it’s a funny thing this not wanting to go there, because at the BirdCage is where I watched dreams coming true. Like magic. Let me try to paint you a picture: It’s like a fairy tale, a little alcove of delicate flowers, birds, butterflies; of course bird cages abound, hung on trees which create a canopy of heaven at the outdoor restaurant. It’s on Jan Smuts Avenue, somewhere between Rosebank and Zoolake,Saxonwold. I think I missed the entrance the first time too – it is well hidden between a spa and other diplomatic office. It’s small, an intimate magical garden where they serve the most delicious bouquet of organic food. And it’s quiet – not silent – but peaceful. Please don’t be disappointed when you go there, and it turns out to be a run of the mill outdoor restaurant or not your version of a dream because it was my dream.
You see the first time I went to the Birdcage; I was in love and quite frankly didn’t know what hit me. That morning I woke up to a Johannesburg summers’ day that made everything shine and glow with life. I was walking on sunshine, glistening under the suns golden rays. I was happy. I sang in the shower and smiled often at the marvelous miracle that I was simply alive. But I had an appointment. I was going to Soweto pride that day and my friends and I were going to convoy to Meadowlands where the Pride march was taking place. With Michael Jackson full blast in Black Panther, my car, I arrived to disapproving looks and admonitions from my friends because I had kept them waiting. I apologized with a smile wondering what had taken me so long to get ready anyway. I was wearing white tennis shorts, a white t-shirt, a grey waist coat and a straw top hat I had bought on recent trip to California another dream space. I was literally giddy with excitement. It was to be my first Pride March, though no one knew this. It was also personally significant for me because I was going back home, to my childhood playground in Meadowlands. At the same park where my older sister and twin sister Lebo and I would play, freely without restrictions until dark during school holidays. It was an emotional walk for me, I was thinking of my relatives who were no longer with us. My uncle Jopi who was more like an older brother to me, who first taught me about men and my great-aunt Mamani who raised me. It was nostalgic yet beautiful.
In moments like those I really become selfish. I was thinking of me that day and only me, my history, my future and present, which at the time seemed all together wonderful. Then a close friend introduced me to this woman at the park after the march. Tall, Skinny with shoulder length dreadlocks, quiet, confident, at ease. She was wearing a red-protest T-shirt, blue jeans and navy All-stars. She wore glasses. I thought I was with my friend throughout the march following her, doing funny things on the road, screaming, running, gosh. I wondered: where the hell did she come from?
We shook hands in greeting, and I was suddenly at peace. What? Anyway, I continued to mind my own business, but my eyes kept wondering over to this woman, who looked so simple, but had such an overwhelming presence, deepness, grace and strength I had not quite experienced with anyone before. I tried to ground myself, but kept thinking that maybe I should just get into my car and drive home, and sleep. Now, because she was just too much for me. But I decided that, that would be a silly thing to do. I hardly knew this person and would probably never see her again so I shouldn’t take myself so seriously. Besides, apart from the brief handshake and a hello, no more words were exchanged.
Until she asked me if I could offer some elderly women standing on the edges of the park some seats, I was incredulous. Why doesn’t she ask them herself? Who does she think she is ordering me around? Then I remembered that I wasn’t listening when we were introduced, she was not South African. So I asked them and they politely declined, so much for that.
When it was all over I was literally running to my car, to ground myself and listen to Michael with Black Panther, I was sure of those two things. Until my friend asked if I could give this woman a lift. What? There was no space in other cars and since I was alone in the car, could I give her a lift? Sure no problem. I was panicking. I was beyond excited, she was in my car! Sitting right next to me! The music was loud, did she mind? No actually, it reminds me of my daughter she said, who was also MJ obsessed like me. Cool then. I was relieved. The Destination was the BirdCage via my house because I had forgotten my cash card.
We sat next to each other at the Bird Cage around a table full of friends and smiling faces. I was so excited I couldn’t eat. She called me babe and the sound of her voice sent shivers down my spine, pierced right into the center of my heart, like cupid. I had goose bumps. But I was no one’s babe or baby. She called everyone she met babe, she already had a baby. There was no room at the Inn.
Later that night we said goodbye. I was torn – open – by that meeting. I had never met someone like her before and was sure I would never meet someone like her again. There were words exchanged. But they all seemed to lose their meaning the moment they were uttered, as light as dandelions, they just floated away. Like mist they seemed to vanish. I don’t remember what was said.
I went back to the Birdcage a few times after that incident: to celebrate with a friend who was expecting after years and years of trying and praying for a baby. We had Champagne and it was beautiful to see her so radiant with joy. It rained that day. I went back again, for lunch with my sister this time. It was a celebration of her dreams coming true. She was engaged to be married, she had found love. Our conversations were full of dreaming, we were bubbling over, imagining a radiant future, full of love, family and babies.
That’s the last time I went to the Bird Cage. I think I stopped believing in (my) dreams coming true, in fairy-tales, in magic, love that can never be explained or contained in letters, in words, but the kind of love that only dreams are made of.
A few months ago I submitted a story proposal to a leading female glossy magazine, suggesting a good news story on black men in South Africa. My focus was to be on men who look after vulnerable and orphaned children. My motivation for doing the piece was to contribute toward the positive affirmation of black men, in mitigation, for their many crimes. Men are feared and loathed for many reasons, most of them statistically true and valid, some are not so valid. But be that as it may the high crime rates in country, rape cases, corrective rape cases, women and child abuse ,don’t do them any favours. In fact I think you can list anything wrong in this country and find a link to a black man. Women from all races and nationalities complain about black men, with some black women always lamenting that the “good” ones are taken by white women or are batting for the other side .(but that’s a whole other story).
So in terms of image black men are suffering, even I feel a lot of empathy for a few good guys I know. Because I genuinely love them I thought instead of adding fuel to the fire by writing about the bad news we already know, let me write about what we don’t know about black men in South Africa. Men who are genuinely caring, loving, and treat women as their equals that they truly are, who love, care and provide for their children. You know what they say “Seeing is believing” so I hoped this article could help contribute towards managing the negative perceptions that women have about black men in general and inspire other men to rise up and contribute towards positive change. A piece that says guys, it’s not all black men who are like this. But clearly enough of them are, like this, from the street corners to the office of the President to warrant an emphatic no from the editor, who turned down my idea. Of course it’s neither the first nor the last time I will get a no for an answer, still I was disappointed. I honestly wanted an opportunity to give a positive spin to the black man story.
Maybe I didn’t succeed in selling the story because I myself was not fully convinced of the good news story I was trying to sell. Why? Apart from a handful of men, I don’t have bucket loads of good things to say about black men or men in general from all races & nationalities. I really want to say good positive things but I’m tongue tied. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to sell men as positive contributors in a divided society of us against them, men against women against men. It’s an either or atmosphere, and I am always inclined to choose the middle ground. Being dark Swiss Chocolate is not as easy as it sounds, but it’s certainly delicious.
So how do I, as an individual woman make a positive contribution? I will tell you why I love men and black men in particular and to that end will paraphrase a quote to illustrate my point: someone once said you can never really know someone until you’ve seen their dark side and you can never really know what it means to love until you have forgiven. In the case of black men I know both. It is because of this that I can say without a shadow of doubt that I love and appreciate black men for so many, many lessons. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
They’ve taught me what it means to be kind and generous.
They taught me how to be brave.
They’ve taught me the meaning of the word: courageous.
They’ve taught to me how to be clear, precise and unflinching in articulating my needs. What I want. And to go after it.
They’ve taught me to never take no for an answer
They taught me the value of moving on swiftly
They’ve taught to me to never ever look back
They’ve taught me to stand by my convictions
They taught me what it means to have principles and stick by them
They’ve taught me that people can change, and do all the time, without notice.
They’ve taught me discipline
They’ve taught me the true value of friendship
They’ve taught me to always be sure. Of who I am
They’ve taught me the value of having a plan, b, c , d, e etc.
They’ve taught me how to be creative, infinitely
They ‘ve taught me how to make do with less, to nothing
They’ve taught me how to play, seriously.
They’ve taught me to face my fears, head on.
They’ve taught me about balance
They’ve taught me that success is not about working hard, but working smart
they’ve taught be so be solution focused
They’ve taught be that love truly is a doing word – how to act and do
They’ve taught me how to love and love unconditionally, because rarely are conditions good enough for them to love unconditionally.
They’ve taught me how to be a woman, actually, and to embrace every curve and every edge. They taught me how to love all her perfect imperfections, to adorn myself with pearls from all my tears and diamonds for having come out shining bright from the blazing hot coals of the inferno they call love. I love black men and men in general because today I can stand, tall, poised, with confidence, in Power, without guilt, sorrow or shame. I can stand proud because I know who I am: A woman, solid as a rock. Black men are the only ones I have ever “allowed” to push me so hard and so low that I was left with no choice but to stand up and fight with all my that I am. To rise and reclaim my crown and be the queen I have always been. I owe you the greatest gratitude. You are by far the best teachers of Self-love and respect in the world. Through you I have learnt and know for sure that what does not kill you definitely makes you stronger.
A few years ago I bought a book, thick, heavy, a hard cover. It’s the sort of book I bought more as a collector’s item, meaning I had no real intention of actually reading it. But it turned out to be more than just a pretty totem – I soon got really into it, or more specifically I got hooked into its premise, the idea behind the book. Unfortunately, as luck would have it I have completely forgotten the name of the book, which is ironic because the book is about memory, in fact it is a collection of some of the worlds’ most famous peoples’ earliest memories. The question: What is your earliest memory? The very first time you remember remembering something? The first time you became aware of yourself in other words, fascinated me. Inspired by the book I started asking people this question and I was intrigued by the responses I got and the subsequent conversations around memory that these questions brought to the surface. From all the “research” I did I remember two memories by two friends mostly because they were told with such finesse, my little quotes at the bottom don’t do them justice, and I think I remember them because they are so cute:
“Shoes. I just remember seeing shoes lined up on the floor, then I saw for the first time that mine were the smallest pair in the line. I think that was the first time I was aware of my size in relation everyone else at home.” (A photographer)
“I remember losing my glasses in the veld and not being able to see, I remember feeling scared and searching though the grass which was taller than me” (writer, actor, filmmaker)
There are moments which I “remember” vividly from my childhood which of course cannot be corroborated/validated by anyone, especially with regard to my very first memory. So how does one know if the memory one holds dear or just simply holds on to is true or imagined or if it’s a memory borrowed or aided by pictures, conversations or stories told by parents, relatives? For example my younger brother used to love saying “I remember when I used to do this and this as a child” and I would ask him how do you remember? You were just two years old then? Mom told you this story! I would conclude. But in all honesty how do I know that he does in fact remember his childhood from as early as two years old and even younger? Some of the famous people’s earliest memories in this book of memories whose title I can’t seem to remember go as far back as 9 months, something which I found so incredible it was unbelievable. So just because I can’t remember what I did at six months doesn’t mean that next person won’t right?
Another thing with this earliest memory story is I have a lot of childhood memories and they are very specific to a particular moments in time, a frame, a scene, a slice of film so often I can’t really say if my most vivid childhood memory is my earliest (read first) memory because I will have to have a context in order to create a timeline. For example this is what I remembered then to be my earliest memory:
“I am walking with my mother, who is pregnant and my older sister, we are in the middle of the city of Johannesburg, there are lots of cars and my mother is shouting at me, she’s annoyed with me, because I am not paying attention to where she’s going, I’m falling behind, distracted, I’m looking at everything everywhere, following cars, people, sounds, the city is intoxicating, at the same time I am timid, scared of cars so she must have really had her hands full. We walk into a department store a few minutes later, to get in my mother has to push the heavy glass doors with gold-plated boarders open, as she opens the door, the first thing I see are brown leather (veldskoene) shoes and as I look up a big white man is holding a packet of Simba chips in his hands, he was so high up i couldn’t see past the one golden chip held between his fingers which, surprise, surprise, he is was offering to me. I look up at my mother whose hand tightens its grip around mine, and drags me inside the store before I could say yes or no – Her facial expression threatening blue murder. If I so much as dared to protest”
.When I went home next I asked my mother if she remembers an incident like this, she emphatically said no. I was really disappointed, because I wanted to eliminate the possibility that it was a “dream”, I wanted to establish it as something that actually took place, an undisputable fact of my life. I used to talk about this “first” memory of mine and analyze it within a context of my first real experience of racism or apartheid South Africa, which I now think is probably not true in the classic sense, because I see that generally mothers, regardless of skin colour would not want their kids taking/ eating food from strangers, if it is a white (probably racist) stranger in downtown Johannesburg in 1983/4 one could easily infer racial undertones to that scene without any fear of judgment,but it doesn’t make it a racial incident necessarily. There’s so much talk about race in South Africa today it’s almost comical. It’s almost as if the country is suddenly waking up with surprise: “guys we’re black!” “Jesus, we are white!!” Everyone seems to be shocked by this. Shocking.
I have vague memories of being in my father’s car the night before his wedding and being scared. Who can I ask about that? I have a memory of a car accident – the first time I smelled the scent, the metallic taste of blood, the first time I felt real fear of death, of dying. I have memories of my mother’s shoes, all high heels, boots wedges, she had beautiful shoes which I wore every chance I got, often when she wasn’t looking, I thought they were beautiful, the grey knee-high velvet winter boots, the red/burgundy stilettos, the golden wedges, I wish I could bring those shoes to life today, to fulfill my childhood fantasy – I loved my mother’s shoes and clothes. I have no real memory of the moment I knew I had a new brother – which would make me around two years old at the time. My grandmother used to love telling the story of my initial reaction to my brother’s birth she said “I came to her one day and said, “ai, sekaya qhosha, ngalomntwan’akhe omusha” which made them laugh until tears roll down their faces. Loosely translated in English I said my mother …. Guys seriously I don’t really know how to translate that, but the sentiment is that my mother was so protective of her new baby it was like she’d just met a new man, a boyfriend. So my white guy with a chip memory, would be my earliest memory because my mother was pregnant at the time, presumably with my brother, then I would have two memories of my mother being pregnant as a child, first with my brother and then with my sister – which is which? So I have to “trust” that what I remember as my earliest memory is in fact my earliest memory even though I can’t be sure that it actually is, because no one else or more importantly my mother does not remember a white man offering me a golden chip during a trip to Johannesburg, why she must have been so pre-occupied! Memory is such a fascinating subject as recently demonstrated by my mother and sister who asked me if I still remember which soup bowl is mine one night when we were having soup. And I honestly didn’t remember: they qualified that with I wouldn’t be the real Jedi if I didn’t remember.
So for that night I was an adoption case, until I saw the soup bowl, which I didn’t see that night on another day and said, this is it. My sister didn’t seem impressed. So that was a very peculiar incident for me that they should “test” me in such a way as if somebody had stolen the real Jedi and this person standing in their kitchen is a fraud. I have travelled a lot; lived in so many places and seen things I wish to forget that remembering my soup bowl might seem negligible, to me. But it is not, to my mom and sister. Simply because they’ve seen so little of me in the past ten years, the memories we “share” together have become so preciously few they are even tied to utensils, I mean crockery where are my manners? They think of me when they see that soup bowl. That soup bowl would always be prefaced with its Jedi’s soup bowl. So birthdays become important, events, gatherings, where families can share a memory together like a dream, become crucial in keeping a family together. The more happy memories or sad ones for that matter you have together the closer the relationship.
So I have a lot of memories of doing things and travelling the world all on my own and for the reasons mentioned above, I’m really looking forward to a time when I can create share, dreams which will become memories with another person, or other people in this blogging case. This movie Inception keeps showing ups as I write this, it is a really good movie, so I want to find a co-architect as it were, a witness to my life and I theirs. But it’s all tied up in dreams, those are the strings attached. I think it’s natural really to want that – it is such a human, a basic human desire, otherwise, you’ll live in your own universe and be called crazy by other people who don’t share your universe. No one will say “How do you remember that? You were drunk out of your mind” or something like that. I think having been a lone ranger for so many years, I now think, or seriously believe that life is infinitely done better in pairs, its more fun! I was laughing at a memory I have in the kitchen the other day, and my sister asked what it was, and I realized that to her I must seem crazy because she doesn’t share in the humour, or memory of the humourous incident , even if I tell it, it’ll still be a had to be there kind of thing or else I’d be Trevor Noah. I have become so used to my own company, hanging out with myself that I could literally roll down on the floor laughing out loud at my own private jokes –alone or in company and that would seem quite, normal to me. But I can also see why that would send all the red lights of crazy flashing.
In isiZulu there’s a name for that they call it “Umuntu wakho” or “Motho Wagago” In seSotho which directly translated means your person. I think I do believe that every person should have a person. My sister once told me even Micky Mouse has a mini. I don’t remember being “alone” in my childhood, I always had a partner, I always had someone I dreamed with, first my older sister, then my cousin Lebo, then my cousin Fungile, then Sthembisile, then my little sister D, then my brother Peace, and now that they all have their own people and they are sharing the bulk of their dreams with others, there’s not enough room for my Fantastic dream world. So I guess I should find my own dream partner. Tjo! How did I get here… yes, yes, memories, well it’s good to remember that it’s not good for a man or woman to be alone, but the trick is about balance – know how to be alone, without isolating yourself. And then there’s the dream bit, we must share a dream. My person must be really crazy wherever they are, for surviving this long without me! I’m proud of you already… see what I mean? Come on now before I get committed…
18 October 2013. It took a radio talk show to remind me of who my parents are. It was an interview with a successful business man who began his career working as a waiter and selling clothes on the side while saving up money to start his own business – a backyard hair-salon which has now evolved into a chain of retail stores employing at least 800 people. This mans’ story reminded me of a business venture my parents started in our childhood, and the amazing example they set for us (me) kids of the values of hard work, persistence, dedication and love.
My father then worked as a mechanic for Murray and Roberts (M&R), and though he was talented at what he did and could do the job better than his managers he was never promoted because he was (is) a black man. But he never gave up trying to improve himself continuing to studying by correspondence through Damelin – he was always reading, studying and listening to music. Together with my mother they dreamed of a bright future for their children and thought of ways to improve their lives.
My mother was a hard worker, raised by a successful business man, a merchant, who never worked a single day for a white man, from Orlando West Soweto. Her real passion or calling though was to be a teacher, but she never got to continue her education after both her parents passed away when she was 16. When the time was right she returned to school in her mid- thirties; as a married woman with four children all at school going age. At first the prospect of my mother going back to high school, was daunting for me because it meant that she would have to wear a school uniform like other high school children. But I soon got over the initial embarrassment when I saw the amount of admiration people had for my mother and by extension for me too, especially the fact that at her age, she looked younger and was more energetic in her school uniform that most of the children at high school. People would ask me- “that’s your mother??? With awe stricken mouths and I happily basked in her glory. I may not have been popular at school, or deemed pretty, but my mother was both pretty and popular in high school and that was sufficient for me.
Going to school became such a pleasure, because we would all walk the 3-4km journey my mother to school, she would drop us all off at school, all clean, with packed lunches – and she’d wave goodbye to us at the gate with a huge smile on her face as she proceeded on to her high school with my younger sister, who she left at a day- care center nearby. I would savour those moments because they filled me years with such pride. I would watch her walk-away until she disappeared from my sight.
Our home soon became an extended classroom after school with all manner of high school children coming to our home to do homework with my mother, who was especially gifted with math and accounting subjects. She was a multitasker of note, studying, tutoring, and looking after us kids while my father was away working. Our home was a hive of activity, my mother enjoyed cooking and baking she created such an atmosphere I always looked forward to going back home from school, there was no better place to be. Those days went pass quickly and soon my mother was doing cartwheels on the front of our lawn! She was so happy! She had passed her matric with distinctions and could be admitted to any university of her choice. I have never seen my mother as happy as she was that day; it was a bittersweet moment for me because I go back to being ordinary. hehe kids. She tried to enroll at a teachers college but that proved an enormous challenge because the nearest college was too far to commute every day and she couldn’t stay there because we would be left alone at home with no parents. As a compromised she enrolled at Pretoria Technikon where she studied hairdressing, which meant that she could come home every day though sometimes it was very late. That was also an interesting time because she would always practice her new-found skills on our heads. I wore weaves at 13, which was something of a novelty at the time and a source of envy from my school mates who would exclaim – wow you’re hair really grows fast – they’d say. Even though Pretoria was far from where we lived, students would still follow my mother back to our home spending weekends, and having sleepovers to learn more from her. After she completed her studies, she and my father began the process of realizing their dreams, opening up a hair-salon business. They went to seminars, tried out different hair care products, roped us all in into the skill of marketing, we were each given products to sell on weekends and after school, to earn our Christmas shoes etc. They put all of their life savings into the business which they named SAZARA – a combination of the first two letters of their names and surname. It was amazing to watch them work together. The business was not without its challenges but it brought joy to our home, because my mother was happiest when she was teaching, working and sharing which the Salon provided ample opportunities for her to teach black people about their hair, and the best ways to take care of it. They were such visionaries too, the salon also sold hair products, which we were always required to clean and sell to incoming customers. We all worked, I would go to the salon after school, to help clean up, do hair, manage the till, and on weekends I would work, washing towels, doing the bank runs, I was their protégé. My mother soon went back to school to study to be a beautician, and then opened up a face care beauty clinic – as an additional component of the hair salon; she would have facial treatments for men and women, and spent most of her time educating her customers on how to take care skin. Something which was very new at the time, especially for the black community where we lived. It was a beautiful time of learning and growth which after we expanded to new premises, business was not the same anymore, and in the end they had no choice but to close shop. That hit my mother hard she became ill, and it was only the birth of my younger brother that gave her a new lease on life. It was a hard time for the family, a draught season that lasted until my parents moved to KwaZulu Natal. My father continued(s) working – to support the family, continued reading, studying. My mother continued(s) to teach by homeschooling my brother.
It is only now that I am beginning to heal after my own disappointment with starting my own business (working for myself) that I realized just what my parents went through when their dream began to fall apart. And it is only now that I realize that my parents were the only people who could help me through this difficult time, once I got over the shame, and disappointment of not “making it'” or being the “brilliant daughter they had groomed me to be” that I realized that the realities of shattered dreams were not new to them and though they never pursued their dream further, they understood, what it takes, how painful it can be to watch a dream slip away despite your best efforts to hold on. They proved that there is life after failure, that things do work out in the end, and everything works for the good for those who believe. And in their own way they tried to be there for me, but I was until now, blinded by shame and anger for failing.
Their greatest gift of all to me is that they have always and consistently led by example. My mother showed us the value of education by going to back to school, adorning a school uniform and sharing a class with children she was old enough to be their mother. She showed me the value of hard work, by working at home, at school, she lived with passion and always found innovative ways of making life exciting, creating a home which was (for me at least) at the very best of times a multimedia heaven: My father would play his music loudly ,an eclectic romantic musical collection from Kenny G, Louis Armstrong, Classical Beethovens etc, to Motown to Miriam Makeba, Keith Sweat to Julio Iglesias, while hard at work in the garden, while my mother would sway and dance happily while cooking and baking the most delicious treats, we would all soon converge to the living room in the evenings to relax to a marathon of movies and cartoons hand-picked by our parents. Sometimes my mother would do exercises with us in the afternoons, teaching us about stretching to the beats of Lucky Dube , she was also a consummate storyteller (like the likes of Gcina Mhlophe) she would invite us to dream with her, to imagine what our future would be like with great detail, she would tell us her stories so vividly and we would sit enthralled like lion cubs under the fierce but warm comfort of a lioness – All things which made our home at the very best of times the most amazing place to be. They were very strict no-nonsense parents to be sure, yet they were also a lot of fun when they relaxed a bit. They continue to stay together and have supported t each other through the most trying times never giving up on each other. They still love each other despite the many challenges of life. My father never gives up believing in the good in all things however bleak a situation may seem, a pillar – no – a tower of strength to all of us, he still wakes up at four in morning working 22 hour days and still finds time to listen, encourage us and his daily response to how are you or how was your day still remains “perfect”.
I don’t think I have ever seen quite as clearly as I do now how much they both love us – and how much they both tried (and did do their best), to do what was best for everyone. Together they never gave up believing in their dream, encouraging each other and us children to dream and still trust that the best is here in the now and still to come. Their dream may not be the SAZARA that it once was, but it is a dream that still lives, because it’s given me a place to go back to, the warmth of home, with no judgment , just love and freedom, a place to regain my strength to face yet another day, to try and try again. I am grateful to have been brought up under the care of such amazing yet silent leaders, gentle giants in their own right, go –getters and visionaries. Mom and Dad, you inspire greatness.
14 October 2013. This morning I tuned in to SAfm’s morning news and current affairs radio talk show program and listened with interest as the presenter of Morning Talk, Rowena Baird interviewed the organizer of the Red October Campaign, Soenet Bridges – on their recent protest marches across the country, against what they called widespread genocide targeting white Afrikaner farmers.
My primary curiosity in this case was to hear how the interviewer would handle this particular interview, due to its highly emotive content. The Interview started on a curious note with Rowena the interviewer asking her guest to explain why they chose to invoke or use a quote by African-American civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, which she admitted on air that she didn’t know ( the quote in question: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”) – inferring that the organizers had no right to inversely use his message to further their cause, which by the tone of her voice she believed was an illegitimate one. Ms Bridges defensively responded that they also believed in the universal message of non-racialism and their use of Martin Luther’s messaging was vital to attract a wider audience.
Incidentally, Martin Luther King is not the only black leader quoted on the RedOctober website, South African President Jacob Zuma is also quoted saying:
“You can’t have a union of half a thousand people because you have declared it as the union then expects to have the same rights. Sorry, we have more rights here because we are in a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that’s how democracy works. So, it is a question of accepting the rules within democracy and you must operate in them”
Which the interviewer didn’t know about either, and under the circumstances, the RedOctober are well within their democratic rights to raise awareness and demand answers to concerns that affect them, the South African constitution guarantees the protection of minority rights. There’s another quote on their website which the group used to highlight their plight:
“Minorities in all regions of the world continue to face serious threats, discrimination and racism, and are frequently excluded from taking part fully in the economic, political, social and cultural life available to the majorities in the countries or societies where they live” Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Now, before I entangle myself in the complex web of race politics in South Africa, let me say that yes one might argue (facts aside) that the Red October campaign is disingenuous in its use of the selected quotes, using them to a larger or lesser extent out of context to serve their interests.
But these arguments are old. Not new. And more importantly are not solution orientated, in that they continue to entrench, reinforce and enslave all South Africans within the limitations of the colour bar.
So what happened? As black South Africans (black in this case includes all shades; coloured people, Indian People and all other races that are not ‘white” by definition) we are still hurting from the past, our wounds are still gaping, open, aching and still dripping with blood from gashes experienced over generations and generations and that is precisely why we cannot hear, we cannot listen, we cannot understand anyone else’s pain, let alone the pain of our “former”oppressors in this case. The exchange between Ms Baird and Ms Bridges was a good demonstration of this. Rowena was not ready, to hear the plight of Ms Bridges, she couldn’t understand where she was coming from. Ms Bridges in turn could not hear Rowena, or understand why she (and dare I say a great majority of black South Africans) would find the position of the Red Campaign problematic.
It was a hard interview to listen to as it did not offer any new insight into the plight of Afrikaner farmers in the country, and how their campaign relates to the very real and widespread problem of violent crime in the country which is not only directed against white Afrikaners but one which equally affects South Africans as a whole – especially with regard to the liberal use of the word “genocide”. The Interviewer was very antagonistic, highly emotional and her questions were peppered with sardonic passive aggression. She routinely cornered; “shouted” ignored, and cut off her guest.
At the core of the Red October campaign is a “belief” that white (Afrikaner farmers) South Africans are targets of hate crime, which is so grave it amounts to an effective genocide. “17 white people are being brutally killed every month in South Africa” Bridges responded to questions of why the “red campaign” was necessarily. She added that they wanted answers to pertinent questions affecting the Afrikaner community. “The South African Constitution is failing Afrikaners, It’s not right to carry on with policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and Affirmative action! How long will it continue?” She asked. “But how do you expect the government to equal the playing field for the majority of marginalized South Africans?” Rowena asked angrily. “18 percent of the white population is now living in squatter camps. You don’t solve the problem of unemployment by firing one person to replace them with another, there will still be a person without a job! I don’t have a problem with government improving the lot of black people. I’m just saying that they must not do that at the expense of white people” She concluded. There are 4 million white people in South Africa. If they were the only ones living here, 17 deaths a month, give or take, could amount to genocide. Who knows we can all do the math?
To that, callers, encouraged by the interviewers’ air of righteous indignation, asserted that in fact – the ANC should have been more aggressive in their approach an in negotiations with the Apartheid regime. The interview quickly nosed dived into an argument similar to those you would hear at a bar. “They are inciting violence with the song Dubula Ibhunu” – they want to kills us she said. The interviewer interjected saying the song did not really say what she was saying and the discussion became about the semantics of what the words in the song actually mean. In fact there is no mystery in the song (which has been banned by court order in South Africa) as the Zulu words are translated into English from one verse to another – Dubula Ibhunu simply means “Shoot the boer,” The interviewer then asked what about all the black people killed by white people in the past, recounting some incidents in the recent past, to which Bridges responded “Is it right that our elderly, should be tortured, mutilated, with Pangas and all manner of instruments?” she added equally righteously “ these are racist attacks, we would like to speak outside of race, but unfortunately it is a racial issue” to which the interviewer cut her off and went on a break.
It is “racial” in as far as it is black people killing white people.“It is not us killing these people, it’s black people, doing the killing”. By this point it was clear that there was no more room for discussion, the interview had reached a point of no return. The Interviewer could only respond by saying, “black people also kill other black people”, which ironically only served to add fuel to Bridges’ argument “black people can kill each other fine, but not us”. Dead air.
The interviewer ended the interview saying: “Thank you for indulging us with an interview” effectively dismissing her concerns, as non-entities within a broader framework of the larger problems facing the country, especially a large majority of black South Africans who share similar stories of torment but which (for whatever reason) do not garner such widespread public debate – black people are in the majority so crime and violence in a way has been normalized within the black community. White people are “new” “victims” to violent crime and murder. But regardless of who is doing it, it still does not make it okay – right?
This type of interview – by its very nature, required a higher level of “maturity” and I use the word “maturity” with lot of hesitation ( and with respect to the Interviewer-Rowena here). I use the word “maturity” to demonstrate a general lack of “emotional growth” in our collective understanding our “human” condition. Our ability as citizens of this country (world) to “step” of our own insular perspectives, and at the very least attempt to view our experiences in the context of wider inclusive view. The subject of “genocide” against white (Afrikaner farmers) people by its very nature raises deep-seated emotional scars, and for many (black) people is down right insulting.
The interviewer in this case needed to interact with her guest much like a psychologist or therapist would to a patient. She needed to be the “bigger” person and allow the guest to speak. She needed to listen. Not in a “patronizing” way but in with an “open” and non-judgmental attitude, even as she “personally” disagrees with what the guest was saying. And gently bring her to the “other” daily and very similar realities faced by black people.
We live in a country divided along racial lines. Black = Victim. White = Oppressor/perpetrator. And we seem to be eternally stuck in that narrative that never, ever ventures to see/hear the other side. There is so much that happens between the lines. Pain is Pain. Black or White.
I was disappointed to observe that we had not moved an inch from that narrative. And the Interview clearly demonstrated that. But more than that I was even more disappointed that this was displayed on a public forum like the national broadcaster: we vilified the experience of white farmers, made it sound like, 17 white farmers being killed every month is okay, in fact it’s nothing compared to the number of black people being raped, killed, mutilated every month. Welcome to the club. So in effect white farmers should be grateful that only 17 of them are being killed. This is the impression I got from the tone of the interview. And I am a black South African. The interview left me with no solution, no way forward – it left me at a dead-end, with bad taste in my mouth. What now? it was as if it was it said – an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.
I truly hope we never go back there, and this type of discussion on this platform concerns me as a citizen of this country. I don’t want to be a part of it.
The problem is huge, but is it really genocide? hard facts do little to ameliorate the hurt in this issue. There was no empathy; from both sides – which is “fine” when you’re sitting around a dinner table, with friends, and not so fine if you are in a powerful position of a national broadcaster informing public opinion. We cannot always get it right, but we can at least try – especially on an issue as sensitive as this one to “listen” and “hear” the others perspectives and engage them with respect. If we can’t we need to find a mediator, someone who can listen to both sides with understanding which is what was supposed to have been the role of the Presenter in this case.
In fact I think this interview was a missed opportunity, to talk about how we as a society should begin to address the rampant problem of violent crime in the country, and remove it from the insular – linear perspectives of just black against white or black against black crime, just women, just queers etc. We need to find ways to respect human life – regardless of the shades in comes in.
Can we have a sober discussion? White people historically have a “louder” voice, resources, capital and know how to mobilize action as they did in this case for their narrow interests, we cannot ignore them. We cannot dismiss their pain. We need only look at the example of Apartheid to see the result of what happened when they dismissed our pain.
How do we “combine” our voices, resources, know how to tackle the problem of violent crime against all citizens and non-citizens of this country?
“Jedi, they got away with it” – Prof. Bernadette Atuahene.
07-10-2013. Last year around this time, I had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Bernadette Atuahene, I stumbled a little over her name because in-fact I was in awe of her. I simultaneously however felt a little ashamed because I could not quite get the pronunciation of her last name right. Atuahene? Atuahene. Pleasure to meet you. There was a fleeting moment of embarrassment; I was scolding myself for not being able to pronounce African words – I was an African who couldn’t pronounce an African name. Atuahene is a Ghanaian name. I wanted to ask her how she ended up with the name Atuahene, because many African-Americans seemed to have lost their African names over time – their history. I was fascinated by how her family managed to carry the name over generations of American life. But of course that was not why I was there to meet her, Prof. Bernnadette Atuahene. “ Just give me a moment I will be with you now” she said as she turned to her computer answering some pressing emails, and finding documents for the interview I was about to have with her on Land, and The Land re-distribution –Restitution program in South Africa. I was nervous, and a little exhausted from the walk to her temporary office at Wits University, I hoped I was not sweating too much. I was glad for the moment’s pause but soon started feeling anxious, nervous. This woman is organized, and I felt all over the place in her office. I started thinking about my first question, what will it be? It literally felt like the first time I was going to do an interview. She turned to me, apologized, and got ready to be asked questions. I blushed, and my mind went blank, what do I ask?
It became obvious that the question I was avoiding to ask was the one that would open up some kind of a conversation, the office was nice, and there were children’s drawings on the wall. “A generous colleague loaned me her office to use while I’m here” It was nice.
Okay so clearly I had to ask her something, soon. I smiled and it was as if she knew just what I was going to ask her because she smiled back and immediately nodded when I said; “ How did you end up doing this research, how does an African- American, become so passionate about Land Redistribution in South Africa?”
“When I first came to South Africa, I was a law intern for one of the constitutional court judges, at the constitutional court “She said taking me back to a brief moment in my career when I was a constitutional court reporter, I loved going to the constitutional court so I shared in her joy and the momentous positions of being an intern for one of the first constitutional judges in Post-Apartheid the weight of it, the pride it was overwhelming. The judges and the court had such presence, being inside was like being on holy ground, a sacred space. “After that period, I came back in 2004 and realized when driving around Johannesburg…that” she paused reflectively “… that’s when the penny dropped. I suddenly realized “They got away with it!” I wanted to ask who but she helped me out of my fix “they got away it, white people got away with it!” She said incredulously. They managed to “negotiate” a settlement that maintained the status quo. In-fact not only do they still own 80 percent of all the land South Africa, they still control entire economy!” “That was a light-bulb moment for me and I have been working hard since on the project of Land Restitution and Redistribution in South Africa.
I had just been at a friend’s house which she rented from a white (skin colour reference used to indicate class) woman, I was visiting and sleeping on her couch because I had no “permanent “residence of my own in Johannesburg, having returned from whirlwind trip in Senegal, where I had to redefine my ideas of home and what that means actually means in practical terms, I have been moving since I arrived on this earth, but of course I couldn’t talk about myself.
She continued to show me her research which she has conducted for over ten years, detailing how the Land Redistribution program was not “working” for many claimants, and the financial compensation though welcomed by the beneficiaries was not adequate enough to add value to the long-term financial future and stability of beneficiaries. “Claimants who got financial compensation, which is the main focus of my research, used the money to renovate their homes; adding one extra room for example, or little doing little home improvements here and there. The rest of the money was used to immediate daily needs” She said. In the early 2000s government made a big show of redistributing land to the people, across the country. Land Restitution was the buzz word.
I remember one assignment – in fact my last assignment as an intern or more poignantly the first time I lost my job – having to drive for hundreds of kilometers from the South African Broadcasting Corporations Offices (SABC) in Durban KwaZulu Natal, to Kokstad where government was to hand-over land to the people. Then president Thabo Mbeki made a was the key-note speaker, made a presidential entrance, arriving in a helicopter which raised the brown earth, dusting it on the large white marquee tent, where a crowd of people had been waiting for him in the sweltering winter sun. It was supposed to be a celebration, yet the occasion it felt very somber. I had never been in such close proximity to the President. His spokesperson at the time – a well-dressed and slick – Bheki, caught me unawares and asked me who I was and who I was working for. I told him, he looked blank, “never heard of you” he said and reluctantly handed me a copy of the president’s speech. He smiled. I had mixed feelings about our encounter – not sure whether to be happy that a presidential spokesperson spoke to me or feel completely inadequate, insecure, inferior. During our journey back with a fellow TV journalist I was thinking of how I would tell the story, which angle I would take. We arrived to an almost empty office, but the assignment editor was around and met us as if had been waiting for us to arrive. He looked straight at me. “I got call from HR, and they said you can’t continue to work here, you have to go now, and your internship is over.” He said I focused on his crisp white shirt; it was well ironed, and clean. What about the story? I asked? I have a deadline? Can’t I at least write and finish it? No he said its fine; we’ll take care of it. He gave me an SABC pen, to thank me for my service. I had to leave. I had been working there as an unpaid intern for nearly a year, and I had to go.
“So what I am proposing” She added her voice rich with passion and waking me from the past “Is that financial compensation for land claimants should be increased, and perhaps re-structured into different programs such as Educational Trust etc., released over time etc.”
“I’m not talking about land re-distribution here. That is something else, my worked focused largely on claimants living in urban areas, which is where I think the majority of tensions and problems are.”
The research was challenging, Atuahene discovered through a documentary she was producing – that sometimes there are double claims. “ you find sometimes that person a buys a house – received all the relevant documentations etc., only to find that person B is claiming the land from person A who bought the house legitimately – and has a bond. Person A feels entitled to the land in the same way that person B feels entitled to the land” The Land issue is a complex one, and one which needs multiple approaches – which are multiple approaches, and though financial compensation has worked well in some cases, it has not produced long term economic stability for claimants.
The South African government instituted the “Willing buyer- willing seller” policy to redistribute farm land to claimants who were forcibly removed under the Native Land Act of 1913. They readily admitted that the policy has not worked as well as they’d hoped and had many unintended consequences which resulted in some farm land which was distributed to African claimants being left in states of desperate disrepair, and were by and large unproductive. Which made financial compensation for land claims the easier option.
She asked me – where I was from? a question which always seems to make me stammer before I can answer it even though I know for sure where I’m from. “As far as I know, I’m a third generation Sowetan – and I am frankly not sure how far my history goes” I replied finding it difficult to accept my own words. “But” I continued dismissing a question she never asked but which I anticipated “I don’t think our family have “claim” to any land, in this context” I told her.
I read her name Prof. Bernadette Atuahene, again and I suddenly find the key to open the door. That’s where home is. In her name: which tells her history, a story of our common history, of a people forcibly removed from their land, enslaved and shipped across the world. Her name she can tell the story of her people, of the hills, the valleys, the majestic rivers, of lions, and the hares, the elephants, of Ubuntu, of community, of love and solidarity – which continues to thrive and lives in all of us. That is why an American can passionate about land reform in South Africa. We all share the same story.
“You know I have been so busy… working, speaking about the research, promoting the book, I long for a nice long holiday” she said laughing “I’d like to go to Senegal and dance for two months, and just dance and dance, and dance” She smiled echoing my thoughts. “Yeah that would be nice” I said as we parted.