In my 20’s I was a vociferous advocate for women’s rights. I let it be known to any man who dared challenge women’s right to equal opportunities to men in my presence exactly where to get off. I wrote about some of that noise in my head extensively in a recent post on misogyny here. A case in point was a heated exchange with a male colleague who had been watching a female colleague eat a rather large burger at her desk in the office. After she finished swallowing he said salivating “Wow you look so sexy when you eat, do you want to take a bite of that burger again? That was simply beautiful” I turned to the man and told him what he said was not only sexist it was tantamount to sexual harassment. Would he say the same thing to his male colleague? How was she supposed to eat her burger now? Under the table, in shame? He pointed out to me that the woman in question didn’t seem bothered by his remarks and that I should in fact just mind my own business. I didn’t. But one day everything changed. Just before the national elections that year, a new staff member joined our team. Her name was Candice, a small quiet woman who kept to herself. During an election coverage planning meeting the boss announced that Candice would not be going out to the field. She would remain in office to field our calls as she was ill. After the meeting I asked why she was staying in the office if she was ill instead of staying at home. He told me that she was not actually ill but pregnant. Then I shouted at him for labelling pregnancy – a natural function of being a woman – as an ailment. Why couldn’t he have just said that and we’d all understand? I asked incredulous. He responded that they had not discussed the issue with her and that it was in any case Candice’s call to make if she wanted the office to know that she was expecting. The elections came and we all called Candice to file our daily stories. When the elections were over Candice was no longer in the office. She was in hospital. In a coma, which lasted for weeks if not months. Doctors were at a loss. They didn’t know who to save or who would make it alive, the unborn baby or the mother. Concerned, colleagues organized trips to visit her at the hospital and show support to her family. I couldn’t face her. So I avoided going and kept on postponing the visit until she died. Then I had nothing to say. Zero. I had been wrong on so many levels. For a long time I was overcome with enormous guilt. I was guilty of jumping to conclusions and poking my nose in other people’s affairs. Didn’t I, the feminist and advocate for women’s rights, know that pregnancy even in the healthiest of women can be very dangerous? Didn’t I, the feminist, know that pregnancy can make any pre-existing condition worse? Didn’t I, the loud feminist know that no matter what state of health they’re in, it is advisable for pregnant women to avoid additional stress as their bodies are already under enormous pressure? Didn’t I the feminist respect a woman’s’ right to privacy? To choose and decide what she wants to do with her body, her health even if that went against my feminist convictions? Where were my feminist theories now? Would it comfort Candice’s’ mom to know that I had “fought” on her behalf? That I had asked for her to be treated equally and not as a fragile person? No. She would want her daughter back. Not a feminist placard shouting empty slogans about something I had zero experience in. I thought of this story as I watched commentary on Marie Claire Magazines’ controversial #MCInhershoes Campaign featuring prominent South African male celebrities wearing high heels in a stand against gender-based violence. The campaign received heated criticism from people against women abuse. This due mainly but not only to the fact that media personality Bonang Matheba had suffered alleged abuse at the hands of ex-boyfriend DJ Euphonik who was also featured in the campaign. A vociferous social media outcry led Marie Claire’s South Africa editor Aspasia Karras who initially defended the magazine’s right to include DJ Euphonik in the campaign to apologize, conceding that the campaign was an ill thought out effort to raise awareness of the high rate of gender based violence in the country. What seemed like a legitimately good idea at first, quickly turned to mud. So what’s wrong with this picture? Without going into details with the numbers it is worth noting that a gender-based violence poll conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) published in 2009 revealed that at least one in four men in the country admitted to forcing themselves on women (rape) at some point in their lives and this includes married men and men in committed, steady relationships. Add to this the high rate of femicide, physical and emotional abuse against women, then it becomes easy to imagine that one of the men chosen for the campaign will have at some point in their lives abused or forced themselves on a woman, in this case the woman in question happens to be a well-known media personality. In her letter of apology Karras mentioned that they wanted to put the spot light on men (who are after all the perpetrators) instead of preaching to the converted. A valid argument considering that for many years campaigns against gender based violence have been directed largely at women so that they can be empowered to walk away from abusive relationships and seek help. However this was often done without addressing the source of the problem– men. Efforts by one former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara to improve women’s rights in this West African country were prominent in my mind. In a similar vein to the #MCInhershoes campaign, Sankara ordered men in Burkina Faso to assume duties traditionally assigned to women for a day in order for them to experience some of the challenges women face in making a home, such as going to the market to shop for groceries, cooking, baby rearing or sitting, doing laundry, cleaning the house etc. Many of the men who participated in the campaign spoke glowingly of its impact, one of them quipped “now I know and understand how much food actually costs in the market place’ I thought it was a novel idea – a great way to begin a dialogue and create understanding while addressing imbalances between men and women. The fact that Marie Claire’s choice of prominent men included “abusers” speaks volumes and is perhaps a missed opportunity to address the obvious concerns: why did you do it (abuse)? Have you stopped? What changed? How have you changed? We all know that gender-based violence (all violence) is wrong and should be stopped but this knowledge has not resulted in a corresponding decrease in the incidents of violence against women in the country. Whether we like it or not we do need to speak to men about the root of the problem as a preventative measure. Even if men may never know what it’s like to be a woman, a mother, a daughter, a girl, even if they can baby sit for weeks and days, pay their child support on time, clean the house, drop the kids off at school, go to work, come back, clean the house, cook dinner, do homework with the kids, do laundry, get answer work emails, put the kids to bed, do the dishes, make sure the spouse is fed, sexed and happy and wake up the next morning to do it all over again without a single thank you. It is still worth a try. Just like I was not the cause of Candice’s death, her death never the less revealed just how bigoted and self-righteous I had become about doing “good for women” even at the risk of causing harm to the very person for whom I claimed to be advocate. Candice’s death showed me that we should not seek easy answers nor come to convenient conclusions about any situation. But this should never the less stop us from trying to bridge existing gaps from as many angles and avenues as possible. This should not cause us to shy away from having real conversations about what truly hurts. Yes, wearing high heels and posing for the camera may never give men a true picture of what it’s like to be a woman but maybe for just a moment they might be encouraged, convinced to become a little bit more supportive, a little bit more considerate, a little bit more helpful, a little bit more present, a little bit more compassionate and empathetic. Because sometimes a little kindness can be the difference between life and death. “Sometimes a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it” — Unknown.
Between my Aunt Masi’s legs. I have been nagging her all week, all day and all night to “please, please plait my hair” . She finally is now. There’s something comforting about being trapped between her ample thighs and the sound her thin silver bangles make as she twists and turns my hair into submission with wool. I try to focus on that and on the conversation, her frequent hearty belly laughter which she seems to draw from the very core of her stomach. I enjoy the sound of her voice and the easy conversation which floats fluidly through her finger tips, I enjoy the punctuation marks she makes as she chews her gum. I can feel her breathing and in between twists I hear the inner movements of her belly. The sweet smell of her sweat hovers over my nose. The warm rays of sunshine pierce into each and every pore on my skin and hers. I feel hot. clammy, dizzy. I am tired of sitting in this position. My buttocks are growing cold, numb and my shoulders involuntarily reach up to my ears in an effort to shield them from a wave of terror. Everything is beginning to sound loud like blaring disco music, a collection of sounds gather around my ear lobes like buzzing bees to honey as she chats, laughs, and inflates her chewing gum with hot air , snapping the bubbles flat with her short razor-sharp teeth. I want it all to stop. I am regretting my decision now. I forget how sensitive my scalp is, and how roughly she seems to de-tangle my steel wool like hair. This is as close to a nightmare one can get in broad day light. She calls my hair “skirrrpot” a colloquial reference to the iron scrubs used to scour burnt food from pots. That is how tough my hair can be. I can feel the pull of each strand of hair as she separates it into parts and it feels as if she’s drawing blood from a rock hard skull, my neck sinks into my chest with each touch. This is a conundrum. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror – I don’t know how I will look, I don’t know how far she is. I am about to pee on myself. Now I truly wish I never asked. Why did I even think this would be a good idea for Masibeso to do my hair, I know how she is: tough, no toilet breaks, no going to look at the mirror. You have to sit down until she’s done with you. Then you have to cover your head until the next day. Oh my god, this is never going to end I tell myself swallowing hard to suppress an urgent pressing need to just stand up and run and never look back. “Are you finished?” I ask sheepishly wincing from the pain and bracing myself for a sharp retort made louder by my tight grip on her legs. “Haaiman poppy man, how will I finish when you keep running away? sit tight and don’t move” She says trapping me even deeper into her triangle with her heavy long legs“ Relax your shoulders and bend your head”. I try to imagine what my head looks like from her vantage point. “But it’s painful” I manage to say in a whimper. It’s a routine we are both familiar with by now. I know my aunt dislikes plaiting my hair because I am afraid of a hair comb and I cry at the mere suggestion of possible physical pain. Plaiting my hair is not a walk in the park. But if I see someone’s hair done I am relentless in my pestering. “Bona! ” She finally shouts at me “It’s the last time I do your hair, how many times have you been pestering me… o batlang mara Hhe?” She would say. I will start to cry. Because it hurts and I know I will want her to do my hair again despite the pain and the gnawing fear hat I had finally ruined any future possibility that she would do my hair again. She’s the best and the only one who can do hair in the family, in fact there’s a long waiting list. But I just don’t know how to stomach the pain. “Don’t worry, we’ll be finished just now” she says, her voice softening, her way of silencing my now loud cries. We both know how the story ends: I will be the happiest child in the world after my hair is done. Perhaps I will walk like I am stepping on sleeping snakes for a day or two but after that, the war waged with me between her thighs is always worth it. She too will be rewarded. I see the proud twinkle in her eye when she looks at me and says “See how beautiful you are, cecece! “. I think of my aunt now that I myself have grown up to be an aunt to an increasing list of nieces and nephews some of whom I am yet to meet. I may not be the best hair braider in the family but I do work with words. So it gives me great pleasure to introduce my niece, Buhle Zulu, who is our guest blogger in the second installment of a series of hair stories. This is her short hair piece:
HAIR IS HAIR by Buhle ZuLu
Historically hair represents different things for women across the African continent. For Ethiopians hair was worn as a crowning glory in elaborate, elegant styles when a woman was about to marry, much like the ubiquitous tiara. Kenyans traditionally wore their hair in protective styles using oils and clay to style it. Pride was the common denominator in all these hairdressing traditions; hair represented a source of pride for women.
If I reach the end of this article having retained a modicum of dispassion I will have succeeded. What I am about to tell you is as delicate as the famous lace iron architecture of the 1900s. This is a short history of last rounds in South Africa. It begins in 1883 with President Kruger opening the first (alcohol distillery) factory in the South African Republic and christening it Volkshoop or People’s hope in English. The alcohol manufacturing industry proved to be a god send then both for the boer agricultural industry which supplied the distillery with raw materials such as potatoes and citrus fruit and the mining industry which needed more workers.
In fact alcohol proved to be an effective tool used to retain labour in the burgeoning mining industry desperate for workers. Liquor became an instrument for controlling the African workforce as liquor provided the only form of escape from the squalor and misery of work in the mining compounds for most miners. Paradoxically the use of liquor helped to provide a more stable workforce, as African workers were known to abandon their contracts leave the mines and never return.
Employers of mine workers soon realized that free spending on liquor reduced the amount of money a worker could save for taking home at the end of his contract and accordingly the less he saved the longer he worked. A mining commissioner stated in court that “nearly everyone is agreed that total prohibition would be disastrous to the native labour position.”
Inevitably after many years the Chamber of Mines conceded that drunkenness was on the increase at the mines and that as a consequence the scarcity of labour was intensified. It was becoming clear that the increased expansion of the liquor industry might disable the mining industry. After using liquor to manipulate the labour force the chamber finally realized it had gone too far. It acquired a seat in the Johannesburg Liquor Licensing Board, which made the sale of liquor to an African who did not possess a permit signed by his white “master” a crime.
In 2015 much of the political history of Alcohol remains unchanged with one exception – it is now not a crime to sell alcohol to Africans. The historical consequences of this soft engineering are as deep as the deepest mine in the world which goes beyond the 3 kilometer mark and is located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Last year the World Health Organization released a global report on alcohol and health which ranked South Africa as the highest consumer of alcohol on the continent, at 11.0 percent consumption per capita. This equates to over 5 billion liters of alcohol consumed annually at 9-10 liters per person. While South Africa did not make the top 20 list globally, alcohol consumption in the country still has disastrous consequences particularly for women who are the largest consumers of alcohol in the country, and children who are born with the highest rate of Foetal Alcohol syndrome in the world.
Because then it becomes less about the numbers, profit margins, labour, industry and even the power to control. It becomes about life and the loss of it, about the heart and the preservation of it. Before you call for a last round, consider herstory. None of this will be possible without her. Just in case you were wondering what it’s all about.
“Philile is this not your cousin?’ Karabo shouted loudly across the newsroom. “Who?” Philie asked suddenly feeling uneasy. She rose from her desk and ambled across the room to Karabo’s desk who was holding up a copy of the daily newspaper. Philile berated herself for neglecting to read the papers as vociferously as Karabo did. But before she could get close enough to read the story, she saw it, pictured on the front page. She knew that kitchen better than the back of her hand. How could it be she wondered. She felt her stomach churn and wondered why her childhood home kitchen made the front page of The Star Newspaper. She cringed. She couldn’t think of anything to say in that moment except to convince herself that it was some kind of mistake. But there was no mistake. The number was there too, as clear and as real as sunshine on Sunday: 7224, in black and yellow, the first number she memorized in her entire life. The picture told a story of black poverty, suffering, persistence and the triumph of the human spirit. The story of the previously disadvantaged. She moved closer as if approaching a dangerous animal and read that a young girl had written an exceptional essay which touched the heart of the richest, most famous and influential black woman alive, Oprah Winfrey. She felt as if she was dreaming. She read the story as if it were about someone else as if it had nothing to do with her. The young girl demonstrated exceptional talent and strength of character the article continued. She dodged the bullet of poverty, she was now the answer, the only hope for the Zwide family who lived on top of each other in near abject poverty, dependent on a government grant. A symbol of unemployment in one single picture, and yet its poverty was unremarkable, she thought sadly. 7224 was a typical black household in which 11 people shared a three bedroom house. It was not a unique situation in black townships in the country. She couldn’t read any further. She suddenly felt unwell. It was too much to take in. The kitchen was as she remembered it in her mind, the interior was exactly the same as it had been when she was a little girl, except this time the ceiling was falling apart. It was dramatic in its demise – a large square piece of plasterboard hung loose, revealing a darkness which seemed to pour over the green enamel kitchen table with silver legs. She knew that table too well, that’s where she often sat and plastered her grandmother with a million questions or watched as her Mamani’s square fingers carefully cut slices of buttered brown bread into squares, dip them into her milky tea. Philile would follow her grandmother’s fingers as they placed the bread on the open tongue leaving traces of the caramel coloured tea between the crevices of her tiny lips, blackened from cigarette smoke. Her grandmother would wash down the creamy paste of bread with a gulp of tea and exclaim “mmtah Ahhh” with satisfaction. It was during those times, usually Saturday mornings during breakfast when her Mamani would look back at her and say “What are you looking at?” puckering her lips into a playful kiss while rolling her big brown eyes. “Nothing” Philile would say smiling. She enjoyed gazing at her Mamani who had the most fascinating face her five-year old self could imagine. Mamani’s face could change from sweet, playful and coy to angry, sad and frightening in a millisecond. Philile studied her face with the concentration of a student cramming for an important exam, the only difference being that she was not going to be tested on it and she enjoyed every single moment of it. It calmed her to watch her grandmother breath in and out, inhaling and puffing out smoke from her favourite Rothmans King Size cigarettes or chewing on her gum, making sharp sounds as if she was hand washing it vigorously in soapy slippery water. This picture worked for news, she thought coming back to reality. She wanted to look away but she could not peel her eyes away from the picture, it suddenly came alive and she was stuck watching her life as if it were a movie. She couldn’t even blink, her eyes were fixated on that kitchen, which stood starkly bare as if stripped of any comfort resembling a home. It looked as if a gush of wind had swept through it taken all the warmth and left a gaping hole in the middle of the kitchen. The cold hug of shame embraced her, forcing her head to bend over, her knees were weakening. Her shoulders drooped slightly, her heartbeat perhaps had stopped or maybe it had become too loud to hear. She hoped that her face would not betray any emotion. Was it possible that such good news could strip her naked and make her feel so vulnerable and insecure? The story was not about her after all, she thought. Yet Philile was haunted by the ghost of the kitchen. She just couldn’t believe that it was on the front page of a national newspaper, a national newspaper? “Here” Karabo interrupted her thoughts which seemed to flood her mind faster than the speed of sound. “It says here her mother, Nana Zwide says the family is proud of Pretty. She’s your cousin, didn’t you say Nana was your cousin? I saw you with her the other day” She said glancing at the paper and continuing to read “look, her daughter, pretty, has been chosen for a scholarship! She’s going to the Oprah school! Why didn’t you tell me?!” Karabo turned to look at Philile who smiled, but couldn’t find anything of significance to say. She was feeling dizzy now. “Wow” she said clearing her throat “I didn’t know Oprah was opening a school for girls” she said pretending to read further but her eyes took her into the kitchen. “Vanessahhh! Melitahhh! Come here my children.”She could hear her grandmother’s sweet voice calling which meant that nice things were about to happen. “Philile are you listening to me, you didn’t know Kanti?” Karabo nudging her. But Karabo’s voice was drowned out by the music growing in Philile’s head. “Are you lovo this time, forever be my sweety!” Nhlanhla No popi! Wozan’la! Amakhekhe Mntanami. Cula! Ngiyidlabha min’angizi thandi mina! Futhi! Ngiyi dlabha Mina angizithandi Mina!
“Phi. Li. Le!!!” Karabo was now desperate for her attention. She looked up at her and thought maybe she was still reading. “Philile!!!” She tried again, but Philile didn’t seem to hear Karabo’s repeated calls. She was listening to something else, a sound she would never forget. The noise the gate made each time someone opened it was unmistakable. She heard it keenly this time. Maybe a mix of a shrill soprano, the sound of a metal a sheet of glass, the treble and bass were the final sounds which repeatedly banged a hello and goodbye every single day. No, she thought, the sound of thunder was a more accurate description of the sound. She could visualize the gate under her bed-covers while looking through the tiny holes in the crocheted red bedspread at night. She would try to fit her finger through them, making the holes bigger while willing sleep to come or go away depending on the intensity of conversations in the kitchen. 7224 was a loud and proud household. Her ears never got any rest. They were always pricked up like that of a puppy each time she heard something new. For as long as 7224 was her home, the black corrugated iron gate was like a door to her heart, each pull meant love was coming or leaving. On some very rare occasion she would be able to guess who was coming and who was leaving. When she was not at school she would sit perched on the family’s apple tree, her eyes pinned on the gate, waiting, for someone to open and come in.
A romantic serenade
Philile shared her bedroom which opened out into the kitchen door with her older sister Khethiwe. Together they enjoyed making up stories with characters who came alive in miniature plastic figurines and teeny tiny dolls their Mamani had brought from domestic work. Each character was given names to fit every story her sister Khethiwe came up with. One of Philile’s favourite characters was a green tennis ball whose face had been drawn on with a red crayon. She was particularly proud of the tennis character. It was the best looking of them all she thought, round and pretty like her Mamani. She also enjoyed the shell, a silver and coral seashell. It was her, she was the tiny seashell. Those were her favourite toys. Her sister loved the little dolls with multi-coloured hair. There was never a day without a party in their plastic universe. Romantic ballads were popular with party goers too, even though they were monotonous. “Are you lovo this time, forever, be my sweety!” That was their Island theme song. Philile loved it because they came up with it all by themselves, it was their song about love. Khethiwe enjoyed telling love stories, she was good at creating beautiful dialogues which often went well into the night and lulled Philile to sleep with her left thumb firmly placed inside the crown of her mouth. Her stories always involved people falling in and out of love, kissing and getting married. Khethiwe was three years older than Philile, and much wiser. “It’s my turn now” Philile would say, but found she could not make up stories as easily or as creatively as her sister could. So she opted to sing instead, because Khethiwe’s tales were far superior. “Are you lovo this time, forever, be my sweety!” It was Khethiwe who had come up with the song too. The storytelling and singing would continue indefinitely until their Mamani’s voice would interrupt their carefully constructed scenes with her questioning calls.” Nhlanhla no Popi”?! Her voice would bellow over their plastic story scenes making their heads to spring up, alert like chicken heads. They would respond “Ma?!” in unison hoping they had not done anything wrong. “Nenzani? What are you doing” she would demand, worried that they had become too quiet to be up to something good. “We’re playing” they’d say. In the quiet Khethiwe would look over at Philile and say “Ayeye Phili! What have you done this time!” hoping to scare Philile even more than she already was. Philile was the naughtiest of the two girls, her inquisitiveness often put her in hot water. They listened for a follow-up question but their grandmother had already moved on to adult conversation. Mamani called them different names for different reasons. The names Nhlanhla and Popi were reserved for serious occasions.
A 20 second sound bite
But she could still hear it. The screeching, treble and bass bangs of the gate as adept fingers hooked and pulled the lever out of its concrete hole, the soft and cold sound was unforgettable. It was as if they pulled the piece of metal out of her very own ears. She touched her ears to dust off imaginary films of earth which trickled down her earlobe as the metal scraped against dry concrete. She had never heard a sound as acute as that of the gate opening. Perhaps she had heard it so many times it had been amplified in her brain. It sometimes made her emotional. The sound was becoming louder and louder and louder and louder and louder. “Philile!!!” Karabo hit her desk with the newspaper. “Hella ngwana” she demanded. “How many times must I call your name!” She exclaimed with some exasperation. “Huh” Philile croaked, looking up and surprised to find herself back at her desk. She didn’t remember when she had stopped reading the paper and returned to her desk. But with Karabo now standing over her, she feared it wound sound rather mental to ask her when and how she got to where she was, the best she could do then was to just go with the flow. She really ought to remember such details she thought. “What is it?” she asked lifting her head to meet Karabo’s confused penetrating eyes. “Do you have her number?” she asked. “Whose number? Philie asked still in a half dream state. “Your cousin, Nana’s numbers, I want to get a soundbite from her” A soundbite she thought as if she’d never heard that word before. “A soundbite” She repeated out loud urging herself to stay present. “Ja, I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me, how come you didn’t know?” Karabo continued as if Philile had been listening to her all along. “Now the newspapers have beaten me to it” She said dejectedly. Karabo was a former newspaper journalist who specialized in education. She had recently joined the radio newsroom and was very excited that she could update stories as they happened and not have to wait for the paper to go to print to be read the next day. The idea that all she needed for a new story was a four line paragraph with a 20 second actuality from a newsmaker was the height of her excitement. She detested being the last to know, always aiming to be the first to break the news. She was a petite woman with a wide smile which revealed the gap on her front teeth. She reminded her of her older sister Khethiwe. Her loud boisterous, competitive and sometimes aggressive quest for news was mitigated by an even bigger open heart which won her many admirers. In her Philile saw the kind of quintessential news-hound she’d only read about in her journalism classes. She not only loved the news, it was the very air she breathed. ”Oh” Philile responded wishing she were someone else, in a different world, living a different life, but she just didn’t have a picture of that world yet, she had no idea of what this “other” life would look like. “Yes sure” she said rummaging through her bag in search of her cell phone. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me” Karabo said again trying to get Philile to say more than the monosyllabic responses she’d given so far. “Oh I’m sorry” Philile said finally managing to say one coherent sentence “I didn’t know” she said in a whisper. “You didn’t know, Hellang Basadi!!!?” Karabo raised her voice like the women who sold corn or mealies on random Sunday mornings. They called out as if in a dirge “Miiiiiilies, Milliiiiiies!”. “Here” Philile said avoiding her question and giving her Nanas’ numbers on a piece of paper she had torn off her reporter’s notebook on her desk. Her heart was beating fast. “Let me call her first, to let her know you’ll be calling”
“Cool Mosadi” said Karabo giving Philile a second glance before going back to her desk.
A fool for love
Later after she’d made the courtesy call to her cousin Nana. Philile wondered if she should tell her mother the news. But she wasn’t sure if it would matter. It was not like they knew Pretty, Nana’s daughter. She remembered the first time she learnt that Pretty was coming, she had been devastated. She remembers how sad she had been when Nana wrote her a letter saying that she was pregnant, expecting a child very soon which meant that she would have to give up school. That hurt. Because Philile adored Nana, her beautiful light-skinned cousin with a winning smile. She used to follow her everywhere as a child, she was Nana’s shadow or at least she tried very hard to be. Philile giggled out loud shaking her head. She was laughing at a famous memory in her collection which she now gently dived into, she was always a sucker for love. It was a memory of a day when she had forgotten to wear underwear to school because she had been in an unimaginable hurry to take up Nana’s surprise invitation to accompany her on her trip to drop off sister Dani to pre-school, before heading to high school. Philile was in the second grade and her school was not far from Nana’s. In fact she had barely finished taking a bath before she was out the door running after Nana and Dani. The story would have ended well enough if she had the key to her room and could go back home and correct her error before going to class after she felt a very fresh breeze under her dungarees alerting her of her oversight mid stroll. But even then nobody would have known that she was not wearing any underwear had she not on that very day arrived to find her classmates busily showing off their new underwear in front of very curious young boys and envious girls an event which caused a lot of commotion and drew the entire class to congregate around an empty desk in the front row, which happened to be hers. So that even though she could have slipped quietly by without being noticed she was forced to confront the scene. She stared at the girls as they showed each other their brand new pretty panties. She stood right in front of one newly exposed which was pure white cotton with a pink pretty doll in front, all the while she was freezing inside, trembling because unlike these girls she had no panties on at all. “What are you looking at” shouted another bully at her. How did she end up here? Philile wondered petrified. “Nothing” she responded defiantly yet unsure of how her look of terror became a look of contempt in the eyes of her classmates. She didn’t remember the details of what happened next only that she saw her hand pulling a girls tunic up to reveal her leopard print panties in a moment of deranged confidence. Aware of what was to come she stood stoically and accepted her fate as her classmate returned the favour and revealed her nakedness to the entire classroom. She closed her eyes tightly and let the laughter that followed sink into every pore of her body as a chorus of shrill, frenzied laughter overpowered the room, in seconds the classroom resembled scenes from born again Christian prayer lines where congregants fell on top of each other high and drunk on the Holy Spirit. Her classmates were falling over themselves, writhing like worms on top of each other with laughter which seemed to gain increasing momentum, each wave louder than the last with every passing second. That was the biggest news at school, soon everyone will know including the teachers that she didn’t have her underwear on. Philile was beyond embarrassed. Her morning which began with a glorious answer to a prayer had turned out to be the most embarrassing event in her short life. But all of it had been caused by love, by answering a blind overpowering desire to walk next her goddess, Nana, to be loved, valued and accepted, cherished, wanted by her, in her quest to belong in her world she had forgotten to look after herself. Philile loved everything about Nana, her thick head full of jet black hair, heart-shaped lips, a sharp pointy nose and inquisitive eyes. She was exquisitely beautiful, like a Barbie doll. Nana was Philile’s miss world, queen and princess of the universe, the second princess next to Philile’s own mother, who was as yet unrivaled in her superpowers. But she knew from a thousand and one repeated warnings from her ultimate icon, her mother gave that pregnancy at a young age was bad news for young girls. It signaled the end of a bright future for all women. Children were bad news in the Zwide family. So she felt Nana’s pain as keenly as if it were her who had fallen pregnant, as if it were her future which had been stopped mid-flight. No rock would be large enough to hide her bulging belly from her mother’s wrath she thought. She shuddered at the thought. Pregnancy was a frightening consequence of being a woman. It was something to be avoided at all costs. Even so Philile was secretly glad and pleased in a self-congratulatory way that Nana had chosen to confide in her, that she thought her old enough to handle such adult matters.
I think I must be dreaming
But that was a very long time ago. Now this gift, Pretty, who caused Nana to lay down her life had grown into an intelligent super human whose story touched the heart of the world’s most soft-hearted person, the queen of talk herself, Oprah. None of them could have dreamt of anything this big. It was a big story, not only for the Zwide family, but for South Africa. Ms Winfrey had planted a seed of renewed hope for the country’s promising, yet, disadvantaged young girls. The Oprah Winfrey School for girls was yet another testament to Nelson Mandela’s thriving rainbow nation. Philile was happy for Nana, because Nana loved books. Philile loved books too, books about love. She hoped to one day write one book at least, a funny tale about love. Nana now had a second chance in life through Pretty, Philile thought. Her dreams of obtaining a great education had been made a reality through her child. She would be receiving the best education money could buy, paid with the best money in the world. She had one less thing to worry about because Ms Winfrey did not spare a dime for her girls. She went all in and all out to give the girls the very best of everything she never had as a child herself. While under Oprah’s able care the girls were guaranteed to receive the best of everything they could collectively wish for. A dream come true for any parent. A bright future had not been lost after-all, it just came from a very different direction. She was pleased for both of them.
A dive into the rabbit hole
Yet Philile could not erase the picture of that kitchen. These good news had brought up so much confusion to her soul. It was starkly prominent as a sign of what her parents had saved her from, open gaping ceilings with dark holes, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, unemployment, lack of inspiration. These were hallmarks of black townships, black lives, of Apartheid. People were tired of that word “Apartheid”. What did it have to do with one teenage girl’s decision to have unprotected sex with another teenager? Did she consent to it? Was she forced? Did she even know she could fall pregnant? In any case what does Apartheid have to do with any of it? She was tired of Apartheid. Philile’s thoughts ran away with her as she packed her bag, clearing her desk to go home. Her day at the office had ended immediately when she saw her childhood kitchen on the front page of the newspaper. She couldn’t focus on anything other than the kitchen, it was on the front page, and a front page story was a big deal, the Holy Grail for any journalist. She was glad she didn’t have a story to cover that day, she needed to recover from the news. If anyone asked why she was leaving early she could just blame it on Apartheid. It was because of Apartheid that her childhood home had become the post card image for black poverty in the country. Poor Apartheid. She felt herself feeling sorry for it, the word, she wasn’t sure how to even pronounce it, was it Apart- heid, or Apar-th-eid? She preferred the word racism. It was less complicated, it was unambiguous, at least not in her context. With racism, she was always the victim. She was always at a disadvantage, she was morally justified to feel insecure or hard done by. It was a convenient word. Racism was as powerful as the name of Jesus Christ and likewise many did not enjoy the sound of it. You can bring a whole party to a standstill anywhere in the world by pulling the race card. The word proved too heavy. Too much. Apartheid was more palatable and less overwhelming. Racism was indiscriminate, every white person living could be accused of racism, they could be deemed racists by association, in fact, she thought there could be a new word for them, previously racist people. All the black and brown people could be victims. Apartheid on the other hand offered some room for exclusion – not all white people, just some white South African Afrikaaners or boers (people of Dutch, German and French decent). Apartheid was easy to fold and pack away in a nice file, it was a deranged regime, created by a specific class of white people – bitter outcasts from Europe. It was by no means as universal as the word Racism. White people from other countries can talk with ease, concern and even display utter disgust at “Apartheid” because they were not implicated in it at all.
Same same Auntie
Apartheid was surpassed only by the Holocaust in its brutality, and crusades by the Klu Klux Klan of America were simplistic by comparison. Yet how did it come about that a minority group could over power, a whole continent of people? Wasn’t it proof that the former is indeed superior? Even so Apartheid proved very handy, it was a great place to put all your worries, it accommodated everything. You can place all your fears, troubles, weaknesses and or anything that could go wrong in one’s life in that simple box. Tick. Oh what do I know, Philile thought out loud to herself, greater men than I have thought deeply about racism and all forms of oppression. They were still being quoted today as if nothing had changed; Franz Fanon, Du bois, Amilcar Cabral, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Steven Bantu Biko, Thomas Sankara, Nina Simone, Kwameh Nkurumah, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Robert Mugabe even Nelson Mandela himself and thousands more who had written, thought and spoken about race, racism, colonialism, capitalism, globalization. Yet black nations were still crawling. They were still on their knees, praying, asking, and hoping for freedom to come. Apartheid. Was it really the cause of all her misery in life? She asked herself as she walked back to her house which was next door to a private home for mentally and physically disabled children, in fact in had been the matrons home until they decided that some distance from the madness would be advisable and opened it up to the public for rent, it was affordable, close to work and a lucky find for Philile. The children’s screams were loud, and present all day and all night. She had become accustomed to the sounds the children made which ranged from wild frantic screams to deep moans, grunts and groans. She made for the bathroom and ran herself a bath, making sure to pour a generous amount of foam bath liquid.
Apartheid. Really? Get her a Kleenex
Hadn’t she, a reporter with the national radio station, received a good enough education in spite of it? She thought as she turned on her radio dial and listened as the newsreader announced the latest news. Had her parents not sent her to the best schools their money could offer? Had she not learnt about journalism at best place for the profession? Wasn’t she a success? But why did they have to show this, this, this poverty. Why didn’t she know about it? Of course she had long-lost the right to know anything about Nana’s life. Even if it was a good story. But she felt her heart sink as she sunk into the warm water, she couldn’t get that picture of the kitchen out of her mind. This was her family. This was her home. But she wanted to hide it, sweep it under the carpet and pretend the whole thing never happened. But Oprah, Oprah Winfrey had opened Pandora’s Box. She giggled to herself. Oprah was her favourite, she was everyone’s favourite in fact. Philile had read her biography in her early teens and hoped that one day she would also become as successful. The memory of afternoons spent watching Oprah were now projected on the white bubbles in soft foam that covered her hands and the length of her near naked body, she had the habit of bathing with her underwear on, it was the last thing she removed. Back then watching the Oprah show with her mother was the best part of Philile’s day, the highlight of her life in those days. She often dreamed of going back home and having jam and butter sandwiches with her mother and little brother Christian. Those unremarkable afternoons in Newcastle were a great comfort to her. She loved Christian who was then only a few months old, she made it her business to wash him, to make him milk. She thought of him as her friend, a silent understanding friend who never judged her and was always happy to see her. She learnt how love felt like with Christian, even though she couldn’t explain it at the time that is how she learnt to love. There were times she thought that her mother physically resembled the image of Oprah, except that her mother of course was more beautiful. Both were incredible storytellers. Philile admired Oprah, looked up to her because in many ways she saw her mother in Oprah. Philile’s mother was just as giving and open to helping people. She often made other people’s problems her own. But Oprah and Philile’s mother were separated by one crucial difference. Oprah bared her life, her private struggles and pain to the world. Oprah cried often, every day in fact and made millions with her tears. Kleenex was making money from her show. Instead of popcorn her audience received a box of tissues and then some. The Oprah show had become a free therapy session for a world full of hurting hearts. Philile’s mother never cried. She was an extremely private person who kept the details of her daily struggles safely secured and sealed in invisible vaults. There were two big scary eyes which could stop anyone attempting to approach anywhere near the vicinity of those vaults. Philile’s mother was also equally if not more protective of those she loved. She was more fearsome than a hungry lioness when the lives of those she loved were under threat. So Philile’s love for her mother was one which vacillated from intense tender love and admiration to extreme debilitating fear. Now Oprah had gone and done it this time! Philile knew that her mother who didn’t read the papers would at least be spared the sight of her cherished home. But she, Philie couldn’t deny that she was from that decrepit, poverty-stricken house. And she wanted to hide it. Sweep it under and pretend it never happened. She wanted to build a new house. She didn’t want to admit to anyone, that she was ashamed – embarrassed in front of the entire newsroom room to see her childhood home, her great-grand mother’s house, the house her mother grew up in h, displayed so unapologeticly for all to see. She was deeply ashamed of everything it represented the less said about it, the better. But there was a time when she had been proud to be there.
The profound intellectual, social and moral changes that were shaking society challenged people’s faith and they sought to vindicate their traditional beliefs in the old divine order” – Historian Walter Stevens.
I didn’t want to write about racism, again.
But I noticed that some of us have been reeling. We have been overwhelmed in recent weeks with racist news stories flooding our screens, streets and even our homes. At this time of course it seems easy and most natural to be angry and upset at the vociferous showers of hate. Some of us started screaming and shouting at the top of our voices, marching against the ruthless cruelty inflicted on black bodies everywhere from Charleston, Marikana, Chibok, Garissa to the Mediterranean sea.
But even as we mourn our loved ones we must nevertheless, never lose sight of the fact that racism is not real. It is a smoke screen. A decoy, a distraction to keep us preoccupied, busy, crying and praying. It is a psychological weapon meant to demoralize and to instill fear among our ranks, to muffle our silent voices which have punctured the sonic sphere.
When I talk about racism as an illusion or as the much quoted and used academic term of a ” social construct/contract”: I am by no means negating its very real and often fatal physical manifestations. I want to point out that focusing only on race as a war we need to win is misguided, since the war has never been about race per se. Racial classification, discrimination and or prejudice has been a very effective, efficient and powerful tool to control the means of production and distribution of goods and services and the development of wealth. Just as the internet is a tool for creating and disseminating information and to control who uses it where, when and how. Concentrating on racism as the war to win will result in a pyrrich victory, and we have had too many examples of those.
Karen E Fields co-author of Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life, says in a Jacobin interview that ” in and of itself anti-racism only points out what racists are doing, which gets us in a devilish circle” i.e anti racism not only affirms and keeps the cloud of race firmly in our minds as a matter of fact, it also leads us to think and believe that racial equality is the solution or answer to social injustice and inequality when the opposite is true. Racism is used to entrench, reinforce and to cement structural inequalities already in existence. Most of us know about the pyramid.
In order to understand what I mean, consider for a moment how it all began in your neck of the woods. In my neck of the woods which is South Africa: – the English stumbled on the cape colony and set up camp, along with others as a means to secure an alternative trade route to India where their real economic fortunes lay. For a while it was simply a resting place, a place to have tea and contemplate doing real business elsewhere. The imperialist had only a passing interest in the country and its people. But its Laissez faire attitude soon changed when the cash strapped UK instructed the small little cafe which was ballooning into a township to find ways to fend for itself and make money for the crown while at it. This soon gave birth to the development of a commercial agricultural industry which centered on the production and exportation of wool. This competitive trade at the time needed two things: grazing land and labour in large quantities. Since the crisis of the 1400 British, Dutch and other capital imperialists have been obsessed with the acquisition of those two commodities at minimum to no cost where feasible. In my neck of the woods guns proved to be a highly persuasive method to convince the local population already living in Southern Africa ( the Khoi, the San, the Bantu) to avail themselves to work for free. Though it took almost the entire 16th, 17th and 18th centuries for the local population to “buy” into their scheme, the discovery of lucrative Diamonds and Gold deposits at the turn of the 18th and 19th century increased land and labour appetites to such an extent that the barrel of the gun (death or threats of death) no longer proved effective as the only form of persuasion.
The Reader’s Digest illustrated history of South Africa notes that while the homestead system remained viable there was no reason for Africans to seek work on white farms – attempts to force Africans on the labour market included the imposition of a hut tax, a marriage tax, even a decree that no male was allowed to appear in Pietermaritzburg unless wearing trousers, including a creation of other dependencies (soap, sugar, creams) and increasing their artificial wants (clothes, make-up, accessories). This in addition to wanton raids, theft of cattle, kidnapping of children into forced labour and the destruction of African crop fields.
The idea of racial classification copied from the rise of antisemitism in Europe, coupled with faux science and most importantly religious education provided a wonderful combination of psychological tools with which to convince the now hungry,battered, desolate and homeless masses that the only way to survive was to work for a white man.
Capital or the Capitalist ideology is the driving force behind racial prejudice, it is what has shaped our economies into what they are today for better and for worse. Racism in not an issue concerning an individuals “personal preferences” only. It’s about securing privileged access to skills, resources, capital and maintaining tight control over those resources whether they are human or natural. But if an individual or anything for that matter, can be profitable or show potential to increase profit margins regardless of how that happens they (it) will have a seat at the proverbial table.
Racism is not a question of whether black, brown or oriental (non-white) people are intellectually, spiritually or physically inferior or equal to Caucasians. It’s about who (has) can maintain control (through arms, force, violence,propaganda) over masses of people who volunteer or support their quest for resources in order to remain or be in power. That’s why Barack Obama can be president, and we know of Oprah Winfrey and a whole list of successful black/African/Brown/Asian millionaires and billionaires, around the world.
In order for capital to thrive in the way that is has it requires poverty and or something that can create lots of cash and fast such as a “cash cow”. There has to be a poor compliant army of workers who are so desperate to breathe they will do anything to survive. If you have no idea of what hunger can do, try speaking to a group of hungry men and see how far you get. Alternatively in the world of “free markets” if your idea sells, if your idea can make a lot of people rich quickly or in the short or long-term then you are in.
One of the richest continents ( in natural and human resources) in the world, Africa, is still steeped in an ocean of poverty and inequality regardless of the fact that not a single one of the 54 countries on the continent have a white person as president today. What is then at the root of poverty and inequality in Africa? Is it racism?
The war, if there is one, has never been about the colour of your skin, but if you think it is, then they have already won.