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.