A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.
Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

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.

Can you imagine?

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