IF WE DON’T TELL THE TRUTH WHO WILL? – ZOLA NTUTU

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It’s difficult. I am at a loss for words and a piece of me is still hoping that it’s not true.  My former SABC Radio News Assignment editor and Veteran  Journalist  Zola “The General” Ntutu has passed away. Found dead, in bed, alone in his flat on Sunday the 20th August 2017. I was talking to him just the other day, about work. I wondered if what I was proposing was worth his time he said no, he doesn’t think it would be worth his time. I agreed with him and wished him well. Just a few days ago. How could he now be no more? Yes, my Facebook timeline was often filled with regular updates regarding his health. He was frequently in and out of the hospital, I would comment on his thread at times; “Strength to you Zola” or “Get well soon  General” (a name he got for his struggle days in Port Elizabeth). But lately he had been posting cheerful stuff, jokes about women, men and soccer fans being sore losers.  So I assumed all was well. After our conversation, I had no reason to believe that those would be the last and final words I would say to him. Stay well. You see I had a vested, selfish interest in his survival, in his life because I was hoping to eventually give him a copy of my book one day, a book inspired in part by him and journalists of his generation. I had hoped that he would open the book and read about himself, through my eyes.  Read about how he was such a strong and ever-present dependable influence and character in my tenure as a radio journalist at the SABC.  It was my way of thanking him for teaching me how to write, how to tell a story, a great radio story – more importantly he taught me how to think, how to defend, clarify, argue my positions when we debated stories in diary meetings or when he’d call me to sit by him while he edited my stories. Think Jedi…. What do you mean by this….  Nooo man Jedi but this does not make sense, what are you trying to say?  I can still hear his voice loudly in my head as I write this. What am I trying to say? Gosh it was meant to be a surprise.

To be honest there was something stinging about his last words to me.   When he replied that it wasn’t worth his time.  I mean I knew it wasn’t worth his time, I was surprised by his interest. But I still felt a tinge of sadness, I wanted to know what he was busy with instead.  I didn’t want to pry into his private life yet I  knew  I could trust him to be honest, to always tell me the truth even if I didn’t want to hear it. Like when I returned from my first international assignment. He didn’t mince his words, “You f***d up” and he was right. Or when I refused to get married “you must light other people’s candles, don’t be selfish” or when I was job hopping “You’re all over the place, you need to settle down”

Why didn’t I think to say thank you then while I still had his attention, why hadn’t I told him then that I thought he was one of the best editors/journalists I knew?

Why hadn’t I told him that despite everything, I respected him?

Because I thought I had time. I thought I would walk into the Johannesburg SABC radio news office, my second home for close to ten years and still find him sitting there, at the corner wearing his black leather jacket or an African print shirt, a black beret, or rolled up woollen hat on his head, editing radio scripts or asking yet another radio journalist what they meant by this sentence – place the book next to him on his desk and say thank you. Enkosi. Check.

Ours was a largely professional relationship. I met him when I was 20 while still an intern, lost and confused at the World Racism Conference in Durban, 2001. He was loud, boisterous, argumentative, playful, witty, dark, broody, moody, his laugh was lyrical, loud, and foreboding all at once. I didn’t know what to make of him. He put the fear of God in me and I was a born-again Christian. It took a very long time for me to warm to him and relax. Because I didn’t know how to deal with I treated him like a distant father figure, an elder, a strict, wayward but favourite uncle.

And yet Zola Ntutu was no respecter of titles, positions, hierarchy, social class, power structures he was, for the most part, the most irreverent person I knew. I was curious about him and found him simultaneously open and closed off to me. I stalked him in other ways, by listening to his archived radio stories, in particular, those he produced around the TRC, and I caught glimpses of him in Antjie Krog’s book of the on the TRC hearings, Country of my Skull.  He reported extensively on the pre-election violence in the early 1990’s in various townships, particularly on Johannesburg’s  East Rand. But for a large part he remained a mystery to me, a Pandora’s box I was afraid to open. I didn’t know about his background in photojournalism, though he liked my photojournalism after I had left. He seldom spoke of himself. And so for years, he remained to me an elder and boss but never a peer.

Until he showed up one day after a group of us (women) journalists while off-duty had been robbed at gunpoint at   Johannesburg’s’ Zoolake, he drove out to the scene to make sure that we were all still breathing. I saw how unbelievably tender his heart was. I got a glimpse of what was hiding behind his loud, witty and brooding often hung-over face. He was a softie. Tender and kind. A man who cared deeply about life,  he was perhaps a closet idealist. I found a new fondness for him and in my heart, he became more than a comrade, more than an editor and more than my boss. He was a Kindred. He made a fuss. He cared. He was passionate, compassionate, loving.  Even when he barely grunted a hello on Monday or weekend mornings walking past my desk, or when shouted where’s your script or bellowed my name at the top of his voice from his office, even though at times I dreaded it when he was the editor on duty because he would (not) let things slide; he would interrogate you, send you to stories you didn’t want to cover or make you write about subjects you didn’t think were newsworthy because he had won the argument about why that story was important. He was intellectually rigorous.  Could debate you on any subject.  He was tough, stubborn, relentless and often difficult, he challenged me and sometimes this made him seem impossible. But despite all of that I knew that he was my comrade.

He was with us in the trenches. He defended us at Line talk. He was a journalists’ ally.

Before I finally left the SABC for the second time, post-Marikana we had a difficult conversation. About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst journalists an underlying theme of the book,  I’ve been working on. He said it was a huge problem in South African newsrooms. One which both editors and journalists neither dealt with or were prepared for.  I was trying not to lose my temper and argue with him.  Because he was not well.

It’s hard to describe a  journalists’ relationship with an editor. It’s personal, intimate, often vacillates from love to hate in a matter of milliseconds. Sometimes frustratingly hostile, bitter, competitive, tearful and at other times joyful, funny, sarcastic other times endearing, full of tension, admiration and mutual respect. It is also at the same time distant, detached. Alien, foreign, clinical.  More than that though the editor knows things about you. They know all the unedited parts of you. They see you every day, raw and unpolished and like a parent, they clean you up, show you how to do it, and hope you can one-day do it yourself and surprise them, in a good way.

It’s hard for me to describe my relationship with him and for all these reasons I couldn’t for the life of me ask him. I couldn’t get the question out of my mouth. What I wanted to know the most during our interview.

There was so much that was left unsaid.

What I know for sure though, is that Zola Ntutu always had time for me. He had time for me and my fellow (former) Johannesburg Radio News Journalists.  He fought with and for us, he forced us to grow. He pushed us even when he himself was weak and, barely breathing.  He made the time for each and everyone of us.  My words, our words mattered to him, not because he was paid to look at them, but because we shared the same belief about the reason many of us had become journalists.

“Our job is to tell the truth if we don’t who will?”

And for that, I will be forever grateful. I never thought I’d see these words so soon.

Zola Ntutu,51, has died. Checked.

Out and I am heartbroken.

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GET OUT: YOU ARE NOT A ROCK

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You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served”— Nina Simone.

A Facebook update from a friend of a friend posted on  National Women’s Day in South Africa got me thinking, deeply. She said;

Don’t call me a strong woman. I’m not your Mbokodo (Rock/Boulder) me. This thing of likening women to indestructible boulders is getting us killed”

At first glance, this statement seems to spit in the face of thousands of women who bravely marched to the Union Buildings  61 years ago in protest against the brutal and imperialistic  Apartheid government. The reason we celebrate Womans’ Day on the 9th August every year. It was an auspicious March, arguably the largest gathering of activists from around the country since the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955.  The women covered every inch of the of the historic lawns united by one song, an anthem: Wathinta’abafazi Wathinti’mbokodo. You strike a woman, you strike a rock, you have dislodged a boulder which will roll down and crush you. This anthem galvanized the women. It gave them the strength to challenge the iron fisted Right Wing Hans Strydom, Verwoerd and co. It was a necessary coping/defiance mechanism against an arrogant racist, violent, and repressive government.

But between you and me, I agree with my friends’ friend.  I think this anthem, this slogan has served its purpose. This coping mechanism, this metaphor which once symbolised courage has now become a weapon used against women in South Africa. As if at the march, the women exchanged the dom-pas for a male fist. It has expired, it is outdated. It no longer works. In a country where one in three men admit that they have forced themselves (raped) on women at some point in their lives,  in a country with one of the highest rates of femicide in the world; it is abundantly clear that women are not rocks, we are not indestructible boulders. We hurt, we bleed, we feel pain, and we are ultimately mortal. We won’t rise like the Phoenix. It’s a myth.

A friend of mine who works as a domestic worker in the suburbs of Johannesburg once put this into sharp perspective for me. She said, you know Jedi I’m tired. Every day as I clean and rub the floor, it’s not the concrete that disappears, it’s me. The rock stays the same, but you don’t, it wears you down after a while.

So, knowing that you are not a rock, that you do bruise and you will die if you stay with a man or woman who treats your body like a rock will save you. It will help you to get out.  Today you must be soft and walk away, don’t look back. I know that the other women paved the way for your freedom, but they didn’t  bravely march to the Union Buildings to confront imperialists so that you can die at the hands of your comrades in the revolution. They marched so you can be free to leave, free to move, free to love and be loved by someone who would not even consider laying a hand on your beautiful face to solve a problem. They did not march so you can be beaten, raped or murdered in the name of a political party or the liberation movement.

Listen even the ANC’s women’s league president Bathabile Dlamini made this clear in an interview given to the Sunday papers.  She said that the Deputy Director of  Higher Education Mduduzi Mananas’ recent assault of a young woman was negligible compared to what other senior political figures in government have done or are currently doing to women. Implying that Manana is not the only nor the worst sexual offender in government.  In fact,  gender based violence has become just a political game for Dlamini. “I don’t want to be part of those games…. Even in other parties, there is sexual harassment and it’s not treated the way it’s treated in the ANC. And I refuse that this issue is made a political tool. It’s not a political tool”

Between you and me. We know that sex and violence are political tools often used between the sheets or between the pages shuffled in government so Dlamini’s statement is vacuous. It is empty, there’s nothing to it.  Nada. Dololo. Don’t stay. Get out.

The ruling political party’s  ideals are limited by an attachment to a status quo that keeps them the dominant class. Even well-intentioned individuals within the liberation movement can’t resist the rewards of an unequal society that favours them. Their true and primary allegiance is to their class and the privileges they are Happy to enjoy.

One of my more erudite friends on Facebook commenting on a controversial American film said something which I think  can be applied to our current situation: “There can be a fine line between the portrayal of racial violence as a critical and necessary record of the long history of white supremacy and the portrayal of racial violence such that it repeats white supremacy’s very terms. Katheryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” about the 1967 riots and a particularly vicious night of police brutality at the Algiers Hotel, in my opinion, doesn’t fall clearly on the right side of that line.”

I would like you to replace white supremacy with patriarchy and racial violence with misogyny. And see that there can be a fine line between standing up for women’s rights (you strike a woman, you strike a rock) as a critical and necessary resistance against patriarchy and standing up for women’s rights in such a way that it repeats and perpetuates violence against women.

In this context, the slogan, Wathinti’Abafazi, You strike a Rock,  no longer falls on the right side of that line. In my 14 years as a journalist observing and speaking to female politicians, I noticed a disturbing trend with women politicians admitting that they will consciously tow the party line at the expense of women’s rights.  Progressive, intelligent, nice, sweet, stylish beautiful and friendly women and men with bright smiles will vote in favour of your abuser in order to stay in power and keep their positions. It’s the nature of politics. Why? Because they have been rocks, they have been sexually harassed, abused and assaulted as a result they expect you to do the same. They expect you to be strong. Be a Rock. Take one for the team. Take it. For the liberation movement. They have become numb to pain. Don’t be like the ANC Women’s league or a Rock. they are the veteran survivors or even current victims of abuse.

Do not exchange toxic masculinity for toxic femininity. Both are bad for you.

Don’t feel bad for leaving. You are saving your own life and his or hers mind you.  If you need scientific evidence, a recent study by psychologists at the University of UC Berkeley found that feeling bad about feeling bad only serves to make things worse. Don’t attempt to feel upbeat about a bad situation. Don’t feel bad about leaving.  It’s bad enough that you’re in an abusive relationship or that you have been violated in some way – accept that it’s bad and that as much as you love the revolution, you can’t change anyone or that man. Your man needs help. But you are not his saviour. You can’t change him, heal him or save him. The only way to help him is to show him that you are not a rock. You are soft. Let him see and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that what he is doing is killing you, walk away. Get the restraining order. Call POWA. Even the police. Make a detailed record of events. File a case. Move out.  Call a friend.

Not all men cheat, not all men rape or abuse women. Not all men are trash I promise you. You’ll meet someone who knows that love does not equal violence or pain. Dare to leave.

Being a rock may have worked in 1956 but it’s not working today. So, exchange that fist for a piece of paper and walk out.  I know it’s been said before that “Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka mo bogaleng” A Sesotho idiom which means a woman holds the sharp end of the knife. Yes, she does but only if she has to, only if her children are under siege. Don’t let it get there. Walk out.

While you still can. You’re not a rock, you’re woman. Soft and human. Apartheid is over, and while this freedom may exist only on paper for most women, this paper is still a valid ticket for you to get out of there. Apply it. Use that App. Make it speak for you.  You have a right to live a full and happy life. This is how you honour the women who marched in 1956.

Take your freedom and Leave. Run if you have to.  Let them know that you strike a woman, she leaves. Period.

“Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as codewords, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality, to improve the concrete situation of the masses of our country.” ― Thomas Sankara

BORN A… WHAT?

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I’ve been itching to write a review of Trevor Noah’s book of childhood stories Born A Crime (2016, Spiegel and Grau) after picking it up one night reading it and finishing before daybreak. A great fan of African(fiction) literature which tends to be heavy, it was refreshing to read a non-fiction book which was so funny I cried so hard from laughter.  What cracked me up the most was his experiences with his hyper-religious mother; the long travels to the different churches, the prayer meetings, the exorcising of demons including the debates about how one determines the will of God in solving everyday problems. His stories resonated with me and at times it felt as if Noah and I grew up together while having parallel life experiences with different parents, in different parts of the country and now world. I have often wished to have a conversation with someone about the psychological impacts of dogma; what sort of human does an upbringing like that produce?

I wanted to write a whole blog post about how funny I thought he was and how much I loved his writing style in time for his South African three-day Comedy show (There’s a Gupta on my Stoep)  from Wednesday to Friday at the Dome this week. But his first show coincides with Women’s day here in South Africa on the 9th of August which commemorates the 1956 March of an estimated 20 thousand women to the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government in Pretoria.  The women marched in protest against pass laws or the 1952 Native Law Amendment Act. The Law aimed to tighten the influx into the country’s urban areas making it illegal for any African (black men including women) to be in any urban area for more than 72 hours or three days unless in possession of the necessary documentation; pass books or dom-passes.

I wanted to reflect on what this historic day means for all South African women today, and writing about Trevor Noah’s book felt a little bit off. I also wondered if my reflections or sharing a story with you about the plight of women in South Africa today, wouldn’t be eclipsed by the results of the secret ballot or vote of no confidence against current President Jacob Zuma, which would either have parliamentary speaker and presidential hopeful Baleka Mbete elected as a (token woman) acting President of South Africa for the next 30 days or maintain the status quo with President Jacob Zuma holding on to his seat.  You see, there’s so much material I had to work with…

Before you start accusing me of using Trevor Noah, his book and comedy show as click-bait to force you to read another unrelated story, let me do a two-paragraph review of the book. It was a wonderfully refreshing read which had me congratulating Trevor Noah out-loud for having the ability to turn his life story and experiences into a thriving multimillion dollar empire. Well done T! I bought the book as a birthday present for my youngest brother hoping that he would be acquainted with a bit of South African history which Noah does a great job of summarizing in this book. I thought he’d also end up saying hello fellow anomaly. But, Alas.

In short, I loved the book, thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I even told my younger sister about it who promptly borrowed it from my brother and is now reading it as we speak. She wants to start a support group for people who were raised by Jimmy Swaggart and radio pulpit.  Even so, I was still torn about writing a review of Trevor Noah’s book on women’s day; even though Born A Crime is essentially about Trevor’s mother, even though Trevor gave his mother the last word in it. Even though Trevor has confessed in interviews and during his comedy shows that he’s a feminist. I was still hesitant because Trevor is still a man.  He is a man who rightfully wrote a book about himself in honour of his mother. He can’t be faulted; the book speaks for itself so why do I even want to write about it? On women’s day too?

My dilemma provides a great segue way to this story: the one I actually want to tell you about. It concerns women in rural KwaZulu Natal who are made to pay a spot fine for speaking up and protesting decisions that their chiefs, Induna’s and iNkosi make on their behalf without their consent. They are charged because they are women challenging a man’s authority. Their story is a very long one which begins in the early 1970’s when they were being forcibly removed by the Apartheid Government from one community to the next, but today they are being silenced by culture and tradition under a democratic dispensation.  Each time they have tried to voice their concerns over mining activities in their communities which have killed their crops, livestock and polluted their drinking water they are told that they are women, they don’t have a right to speak up. The king does not listen to women, he listens to men. And yet many of these women are widows, others have absentee husbands who work in urban areas and cities, others are too ill to do anything.  Under the laws governing Traditional Authority, they have no right to complain, because to question a man is to question traditional authorities which are protected by our constitution over and above women’s rights to self-determination. So many of them die in silence and even if they speak out their voices are often drowned out by the more urban, trendy voices of those in power or those with influence.

And perhaps this is the difference between me and Trevor Noah. He’s a nice guy. He may have been born a crime but he was not born a woman which is still considered a crime in South Africa, today. So you will listen when he says something.

Maybe he can make you laugh about it too. I haven’t found the humour in it, yet.