A QUESTION OF POWER: DON’T SAY THAT #freestellanyanzi

There’s a story a former colleague and housemate told me once about “madness”. The story has stuck with me over the years, periodically releasing legions of ants who crawl under my skin – forcing me to resist the urge to scratch my body all over, over and over again incessantly. While I cannot confirm its credibility, factual or otherwise – it’s the principle behind it which matters here.

The story takes place in the American South during a time when black people were still slaves, it was a time when white people could not imagine black people  being anything more than mere animals let alone, qualified medical doctors.

However there was one. And she was a woman.

One day she encountered a motor accident in which white people were involved. She rushed over to the injured passengers offering to help; I’m a doctor, I am a doctor” she said. 

But instead of allowing her to treat or stabilise the injured, the white people standing about were annoyed, bewildered.

This N… here says she’s a doctor!

She must be mad! They exclaimed.

When the authorities eventually come, they have the woman committed.

Take this N… here too, she thinks she’s a doctor! She needs to be hospitalised.

The woman was blind-folded and taken to a mental hospital where she was kept for several years until she became an old woman.

One day they decided to release her, drove her to a place she had never been before. On arrival – the woman scanned the surroundings and not recognising where she was, asked “ Where am I?” 

On hearing the questions the warders looked at each other with wonder.

“She’s still mad!” They exclaimed to one another, “she doesn’t know where she is!”

And so the African-American woman medical doctor was put back in the van and sent back to the hospital where she was kept until her death.

This story comes to mind now after a reading of South African born writer an activists Bessie Heads’ third Novel, A Question of Power (1973).  It is a book about a mixed-race South African woman who suffers a nervous break-down while exiled in Botswana.

I didn’t know what to expect between the pages: I thought I will find distilled theories of Afro-feminist thinking along the lines of some of my favourite thinkers on the subject such as African-American writer(s) Audre Lorde and bell hooks. 

A Question of Power, however, plunged me into this strange dissociative state where everything is fluid. Where there is no difference between what happens in ones mind and reality.

The book is frightening.

The main character, Elizabeth-a teacher, leaves South Africa with her son and is living in the village of Motabeng, a place of sand, in Botswana where there are no street lights at night. Here she develops an entirely abnormal relationship with two (semi) imaginary men Sello (the saint) and Dan (the devil), who spend the nights and sometimes days tormenting her. Telling her how worthless, useless, stupid, ugly, evil and possessed she is. The third main character here is the Greek Goddess, Medusa ( who in this story represents both Elizabeth’s alter ego and the people of Motabeng who look at her with vague curiosity as an outsider ).

All three characters made life so unbearable that “By day, Elizabeth crawled around, painfully.  By night, she lay back a pinned-down victim of approaching death. Medusa had the air of one performing a skilled and practiced murder. She seemed to say to herself: ‘I’ll let loose another bolt here. I’ll let loose another bolt there. Ahah, look how she topples over!”

Sello rants about piety and Godliness, about a savior, while Dan is the minister of sex, which he performs with hundreds of women; describing each of them and their genitals with nauseating detail.  Sometimes Dan brings the women to Elizabeth’s bed while she is still in it and together with them he demonstrates how athletic and strong his manhood is – because it can last all night and all day.

This assault continues on my senses until I finish the book – utterly in need of some evidence, tangible proof that I myself have not lost my mind to the musings of a crazed character in a book.

In reality, I am confronted with images of the bespectacled academic Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan researcher, writer and political activist who has been given an 18month prison term for calling the country’s President Yoweri Museveni a pair of buttocks and insulting his mother in this poem.

At some point during her hearing in court, she exposes her breasts in protest. 

At first I think she’s crazy: falling into all the prefabricated – stereotypical-trap- narratives reserved almost exclusively for black women whenever they protest: crazy,  emotional, bitches.

How can a whole professor stoop so low. I ask myself.  Then I read more and the more I read the more I realise that she is the “ Doctor” in my friends story. She is the sober character in this story of our collective madness. 

Describing the contours of power in A Question of Power, Bessi Head says; “ The victim is the most flexible, the most free person on earth. He doesn’t have to think up endless falsehoods. His jailer does that. His jailers create the chains and the oppression the victim is merely presented with it. He is presented in a thousand and one hells to live through and he usually lives through them all. The faces of the oppressed are not ugly – they are scarred with suffering. But the torturers become more hedious everyday. The are no limits to the excesses they indulge in. There is no end to the death and darkness of the soul. The victim who sits in jail always sees a bit of sunlight shining through. He sits there and dreams of beautiful wonders. He looses his children, his wife, his everything. What happens to all those tears? Who is the greater man? The man who cries broken by anguish or his scoffing, jeering, mocking oppressor?”

Stella Nyazis’s activism – her dream of women emancipation and freedom of expression – makes her mad.

She is fighting with everything she is, even her body has become an instrument echoing the lyrics in Nigerian-French singer Asa’s popular (2009) song Jailer where the songstress notes: “I’m in chains, you’re in chains too, I wear uniforms and you wear uniforms too, I have fears, you have fears too, I’ll die but yourself you’ll die too… you suppress all my strategies, you oppress every part of me, what you don’t know is you’re a victim too”

Museveni’s irrational reaction to Stella Nyanzi’s words – a poem meant to annoy him – reveal what we all know to be true about men and patriarchy. The truth which bell hooks organises with such genius:

“The power of patriarchy has been to make maleness feared and to make men feel that it is better to be feared that to be loved. Whether they can confess this or not, men know that just is not true.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Musevenis’ decision to incarcerate Stella Nyanzi, expose a man who fears he is not loved and so he imprisons the person who insults the only woman who ever did.

But love is authentic only when it gives freedom.

Stella Nyanzi is doing what any artist in their right minds should do because; ” This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There’s no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal” – Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

#PushforStellaNyanzi, #FreeStellaNyanzi, #SukumaKwaStellaNyanzi, #BamuweEddembeLye, #DropTheCharges

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The Invitation

The Invitation (1999) is a prose-poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. It has been my touch-stone for many years. As I read it again today; I can hear the call as loudly and as deeply as the first time I read it. I hope it resonates.

****

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Why are (most) African Leaders Silent on Media Freedom?

The people would be forgiven for thinking that most African leaders are not committed to building liberal democratic institutions as many of them consistently fail to defend the right to freedom of expression within their borders.

A recent media freedom conference held in London organised by the government of the United Kingdom and Canada, is a case in point.

At least 25 foreign ministers from around the world along with their representatives signed an agreement committing to protect journalists and their work. However, African leaders were conspicuous in their silence. Only one country, the Island of the Seychelles issued a statement announcing that their Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs, Barry Faure, signed the pledge to protect media freedom on the sidelines of the global conference. 

While a free-press is under attack globally, in many African countries, media freedom has either stagnated or continued to deteriorate over the years.  According to annual surveys by Reporters Without Borders,  African countries consistently score low on the freedom of expression index with only a handful of the 54 countries demonstrating satisfactory levels of media freedom. The rest vacillate from troublesome to seriously problematic.

A lack of a free-press has made it increasingly difficult for national journalists to provide insightful or meaningful reports on policy decisions taken by their governments without fearing for their lives or livelihoods – making a mockery of citizen participation and or civic engagement in governance.

Globally the mainstream media industry is facing unprecedented levels of economic contrition which have led to an increasing number of job losses in the sector as social media giants such as Facebook take up a huge chunk of advertising revenue, human resources including roles which traditional media outlets used to serve.

The economic down-turn means that media conglomerates who were previously able to spend millions of dollars sending correspondents on African assignments will decrease – resulting in minimal coverage of important political and socio-economic issues facing the continent which are either not on their countries’ foreign policy agendas or of no interest to their audiences.  As a result national African media outlets will be forced to sustain their business models by pursuing the seemingly benign low hanging fruit of tabloid journalism focused primarily on prominent individuals in the entertainment industry and sports or provide uncritical, sympathetic coverage of those in power.

The recent signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement is another case in point, where there has been little in-depth coverage from African countries whose livelihoods will be directly affected by the treaty. 

Unlike the plethora of news, features and analyses which preceded the proclamation of the Eurozone in 1999, which dominated even the African media space, African countries seem to be only pre-occupied with their own internal political power-struggles instead of empowering their citizens with information which could push the development of the continent further and faster, or interrogate what the African Continental Free Trade Area actually means for people and business on the continent. 

National or publicly owned media outlets who are best placed to interrogate such policies hamstrung by a lack of resources or adequate personnel, fail to provide insightful analyses on the treaty’s terms and conditions or how the AfCFTA will affect or compliment pre-existing bilateral, regional and international trade agreements.

A lack of adequate information and understanding of policy issues between African citizens means that a situation similar to Brexit may become a regular occurrence in the future and this will most certainly further entrench right-wing populist agendas adding fuel to pre-existing intra-national conflicts and Xenophobia.

What’s more concerning is the fact that a lack of media freedom on the continent has led to an increase in grant-funded journalism from well meaning philanthropic organisations and or governments who may only seek to fund journalism projects which fulfil their niche program specifications at best or have hidden nefarious motives at worst; as illustrated in a 2018 Foreign Policy story written by Azad Essa, “China Is Buying African Media Silence” whose weekly column in one of South Africa’s independent newspapers was cancelled hours after the paper refused to upload an opinion piece looking into the discrimination of Turkic-Muslims in China, on its online platform

Chinese state-linked companies hold a 20 percent stake in Independent Media, the second largest media company in South Africa.

 As an alternative, many African citizens have sought solace in social media, using Twitter especially, as a preferred mode of resistance, advocacy and activism.

However, even there, the right to freedom of expression functions mostly like a hit to an addict: it is something which provides temporary relief, but is not good for us in the long-run and is hard to give up.

Even as African countries desperately cling to the idea that its citizens should hungrily and immediately embrace the demands of a fourth industrial revolution on the one hand, they are doing everything possible to keep them in the dark on issues which are pertinent to the survival of future generations, on the other.

Most of them it seems, are unaware of the contradictions inherent in the buzz-words which they so freely brandish at podiums, slogans which have become as hallow as the word freedom.

In 2019, how will we meet the demands of the 4th Industrial Revolution without the freedom to express, debate and test our ideas and or public policies without censorship?

A lack of media freedom in Africa can only lead one to conclude that not only is the colonial project not over, it is being perpetuated by the very people we’ve trusted with our votes. Unless of course there’s another reason, which is even more horrifying to contemplate.

Consent: Is a Woman’s Right

As women leaders and activists from around the world gather for the 63 Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week I thought, it would be fun to share a little story with you, to get us all thinking about the current status of women around the world, particularly as it relates to sexual harassment or sexual and gender based violence.

Recently there was a near fist-fight at a local pool. The source of the conflict being my hair (pictured above). A man jumped out of the pool while I reclined on a deck chair reading a book On Beauty. My back was behind him so I didn’t see him as he slid his wet-chlorinated hand over my head while his fingers brushed through my hair.

“Nice hair,’ he said brushing past.

I looked up and about, surprised.

“Thank you”, I mumbled wondering why it was necessary for him to offer a compliment so intrusively when just his words would suffice. But I decided to let it go. The man was already standing over a barbecue he’d been preparing with his friends, far away from where I was. I did not think his actions warranted any further reaction from me.

So I turned my eyes back to the book I was reading; I was making an effort to follow the conversation about the arts, beauty and intellectual stimulation without any success, when one of my girlfriends who’d been sitting diagonally across from me asked sweetly.

Jedi, do you know that guy?

No, I said.

Oh, she exclaimed surprised.

I thought you knew him because of the way he touched your hair, she inquired.

I don’t know him, I told her. I just didn’t want to make a fuss about it. She shrugged, and continued rubbing lotion on her arms and legs. Ten minutes later the same man returned. This time he was facing directly at me and without slowing down he lunged towards me – with both hands reaching for my hair. Instinctively I raised my arms and legs to block him from going any further. What are you doing? I asked incredulously.

“Please, please, just let me touch your hair?.” He said pushing my hands to the side.

No! I screamed stretching my arms and legs even further to prevent him from reaching my head. “No, please,” he continued “I won’t do anything to you, I just want to feel it”

I was disarmed by his approach and felt defenceless as his body hovered over mine. In that moment I felt completely vulnerable and exposed with my legs and hands still up in the air. The tug of war continued for about five minutes in the company of my friends – I struggled with a stranger. His hands were trying to grab mine and mine were trying to push his away from my head or away from the vicinity of my hair.

Perhaps to a distant observer this may have looked like a playful tug of war between a “loving” couple. But it was not the case.

Please, I just want to run my hands through it, I don’t want to do anything to you! He said impatiently.

No! no! no! I screamed.

My throat let out some laughter, incredulous. Bewildered. Stammering, laughter. 

As this is taking place, the only thought running through my head was: is this man serious?

It turned out that he was because he would not give up. He was still trying to touch my hair which made me even more hysterical with laughter.

Until one of my female friends interjected, realising that I was in trouble.

“Excuse me sir, she said, ” she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, can you please leave”

“I don’t want to do anything to her, I just want to touch it” he protested.

Please sir she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, please go. My friend insisted

Reluctantly the man returned to his Barbarque. Claiming innocence;

“I didn’t want to do anything to her okay?? I just wanted to touch her hair. What is the big deal man?” he said walking away in protest.

Jedi, do you know  this guy?

My friends asked in unison.

I don’t know him, I said.

So why does he want to touch your hair?

I don’t know, I said, shrugging. 

Did you want him to? 

No. 

But why were you laughing?

You seemed to be enjoying it!

They said.

No. I repeated. No. I was not enjoying it at all, I was trying with all my might to stop him from touching my hair. But all I could manage was to laugh and say no.

When confronted by my friends, he was unapologetic. His defiance created a loud argument at the pool side drawing everyone’s attention. A woman who’d been sitting across from me tanning, saw the commotion and signalled to her friend that trouble was brewing. She packed her things and swiftly stepped out with her leaving me alone on the same chair I had been sitting on when the man approached me. I hadn’t moved since.

I watched as his hands flailed wildly as if he’d been possessed while my friends who had been poking fingers at him began flexing their muscles and clenching their fists ready for a fight which seemed both imminent and unavoidable.

From where I was sitting I couldn’t always hear what was being said by who and to whom but soon punches were flung across the air between two human shields who were trying to separate them. Security was called in.

Every now and again I heard cuss words being thrown around. “Bitch” being the most frequent. The man was now pointing in my direction.

I wondered why I had chosen to sit back while my friends were engaged in a fight which was ostensibly on my behalf. But If I did go, what would speaking to him achieve when he had previously disregarded every no I had uttered when he was ‘innocently” trying to touch my hair? What would my presence there do? Would it calm the situation or escalate it even further?

Ultimately I decided that my presence there would not make the situation any better – so I sat back.

“I don’t even know this bloody woman, I have never seen her in my entire life before!” said the man.

“Exactly!” one of my friends responded. You don’t even know her – why do you think you have a right to touch her hair, when she clearly told you no?!! They screamed back.

Because a woman’s no, does not matter, I thought to myself.

After a while management was called in. It became apparent that the man had threatened and grossly offended someone very important during the arguments and if he didn’t apologise soon the consequences of his actions could be dire.

The man eventually succumbed and offered an apology to my friends which I did not hear but they were well pleased with it.

Consent Without Consent

I have been thinking a lot about this incident in the past few weeks trying to process my thoughts around it; from wondering why this particular hairstyle made men and some women who had never attempted to touch my hair before in all the 11 months I had known them suddenly became unable to “help it” because my hair is simply “asking to be touched”. I wondered where I had gone in the discussion.

One of my male friends offered an explanation ” it’s all about the objectification of black women” which I agreed with in part. But what stood out for me in all of this was I had to defend my decision not to allow anyone to touch my hair. My friends, sadly, were no different from this audacious stranger who insisted on touching my hair even when I said no. They were also of the opinion that I should allow them to touch my hair simply because they were friends, people I was familiar or close with. Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? they demanded. I was made to feel wrong for refusing them permission to touch my hair. And in fact who was I to refuse?

The idea that their persistent requests to touch my hair was making me uncomfortable or that it indicated their total disregard for my personal boundaries was something which never crossed their mind. To such an extent that at times I have found myself consenting to my friends especially, allowing them to touch my hair so that I am not labelled a self-entitled, “bitch”.

So even though I may have given my “consent” it was still an unwanted capitulation induced by a level of coercion and verbal harassment from friends and strangers alike. While none of these incidents can be defined as criminal in any sense, they do shed some light into the sometimes polarising nature of debates or discussions around Sexual and Gender Based Violence as seen through the #Metoo movement and other SGBV testimonies in the media recently.

They behaved as if I owed them. As if touching my hair would validate me in some way; their touch would be a sign of “approval” or “disapproval” depending on what their fingers found.

In her 2008 paper on Law, Sex and Consent paper, Professor at Law at Georgia University Robin West explains that the “historical reliance on consent as a demarcation between rape and sex are misguided as they falsify the degree of coercion imposed upon women by men in their ordinary sexual lives”. She goes further to suggest that while she is not advocating for new forms of non-violent sexual crimes to be re-defined and included in law, it is nevertheless important for “law makers, scholars and feminist theorists to focus more on harms caused by consensual sex and their relation to the law, in the intimate sphere no less than we do in our political and economic lives”.

Her ideas are not far from that of Prof Noam Chomsky and his long time critique of the different forms of “consent” which continue to be imposed on people in the public, political and economic spheres. In his 1999 book on, “Profit over People” which is a critique of the global political and economic system Chomsky notes that politicians often use a concept named “consent without consent” by imposing their authority on the people who are being governed because the imposition is for the highest good. Just like a parent stoping a child from crossing a busy road, or forcing the child to comb their hair, or eat – the child may not agree at first but ultimately these interventions are good for them. The idea here is: you may not consent now because you don’t know what is good for you, but once you know what is good for you, you will consent to it.

I think this theory applies well to this pool side “can I touch your hair, by force if necessary please story”, because embedded in the question itself is the tacit implication that it would be beneficial for me and the person who is asking, if I called them touch my hair. Touching my hair then, in this context would be good for humanity. Since it is a “harmless” request, the assumption is I must consent to it. The fact that I may not want my hair touched (for whatever reason) was discounted as a mask to “hide” something or to lie.

My friends and I continue to laugh about this hair story today. It has moved from being a source of conflict to a source of humour with many of them continuously asking me; “But Jedi, Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? Don’t you know that by refusing you will invariably cause us to want to touch it more, even by force? Who do you think you are not to be touched? What are you hiding?

All things considered it would have been so much easier for me to allow this guy to simply just touch my hair in an attempt to avoid conflict. If had been alone by the pool side this man could have easily overpowered me in broad day light. Everybody would hear me laugh, scream and push. But all people would see is a woman enjoying or pretending not to enjoy the attentions of a man. They would say she wanted it. She enjoyed it.

This experience made me see how sometimes consent is not always a meaningful marker between autonomy and coercion. According to Robin West “consent (touch, sex, money, economy et al) when it is unwanted and unwelcome, often carries harms to the personhood, autonomy, integrity and identity of the person who consents. The harms are often unreckoned by law and remain more or less unnoticed by the rest of us, even in the #Metoo era.

I think it’s time we took another look.


Consent:

Noun: Permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.

Verb: Give permission (allow) something to happen.

Homegoing: A Non Book Review

This post is inspired by a recent reading of Yaa Gyasi’s book, HomeGoing (2016).  It is a book  chosen by the majority members of a book club I belong to. I made an effort to read it this time because I didn’t want to show up to yet another meeting without having read the book under discussion. And so I read it to fulfil an obligation and not out of a genuine interest in the narrative. The title was intriguing. If we’re going home, do we know where that is?

After finding the book at an airport book store, I forced myself to open its pages despite the fact that Tsitsi Dangarembgas’  This Mournable Body (2018)  and Noviolent Bulawayo’s We Need New Names  (2013) which were safely secured in my backpack and armpit respectively were beckoning me to fulfil a promise to read them too.   

I desperately wanted to read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s third novel because when when her second, The book of not was published in 2006, I could not afford to read it. Even at that late stage of my life I was still a captive of the narrative which defined the story of Zimbabwe.  I was still spellbound, I was standing in awe.  I can still feel the emotions that moved within me after reading the book which was a compulsory, prescribed read in primary school.   I still lacked the vocabulary to describe them. Those emotions were still in me.  I was contemplating opening up the bottled emotions, a little bit, just to taste their flavour.  But since I feared that my carbonated feelings would spill out like foam from a champagne bottle, I decided to wait for them to settle a little bit so I could  open them without making a mess. I was attempting rather poorly to create an inventory and make a filing system, to place them somewhere. To know what they are and if they were of any value to me or anyone else. 

I was processing my own nervous conditions to understand what I had not fully grasped when I found myself in Zimbabwe following the protagonist Tambuzai and her family from room to room all the while thinking; if everyone is right, then who is wrong?

Instead of reading  the book itself I read a long article and interview written by a friend. He’d told me a few week’s before the books’ publication that he’d be interviewing Tsitsi Dangarembga for a weekly newspaper. He was nervous. And so was I.

How could I attempt to write about something I barely understood? Where do I even start?

Do I begin in isiZulu, my mother’s tongue? Or use sePedi which is my father’s tongue? How about a colloquial version of seSotho spoken in Soweto, which is a mixture of seTswana, north and southern Sesotho? Do I form words in English? In Fanakalo? Or in the language my cousins and I used to invent to prevent others from hearing what we were not saying about them? Do I form sentences in a handful of French words which sometimes emerge as  Afrikaans when my mind finally delivers them to my tongue? Since my words seemed to lack form or structure would silence be enough to express what I’ve felt since reading Nervous Conditions?.  Because of this I imagined that reading Noviolent Bulawayos “We Need New Names” might offer a fresher perspective since it was closer to my desire to create a new language for old feelings.  When the book first came out in 2013 I instinctively objected to Bulawayo’s chosen title because back then I was convinced that new names could do little to condense history or contain anyone’s identity.  I was almost certain that between those pages I would find what I thought I already knew to be true. 

There was nothing new under the sun. Just us.

This time as I picked up We need New Names, I hoped the author would pave a way for me to go back in time to approach my nervous conditions gently. To allow me to see an old story from a new perspective. A reading of a chapter of her book published in Granta magazine allowed me to notice a condition which was becoming a regular ocurrance in me; confirmation bias. In my attempt to rid myself of this very human impulse to protect what you know and have come to believe to be true irrespective of the available evidence pointing to the contrary, I promised myself that I will read the book one day.

This day had finally come but there were so many competing interests which were more urgent. So I tried to get through HomeGoing as fast as I could. My aim was simple: I just wanted to finish it and tell my friends I read and finished the book.  And then start reading what I wanted to read. Besides I had been slowly grazing over Karthoum; The ultimate imperial adventure by Michael Asher, Africa; a biography of a country by John Reader, Sapiens; a brief history of mankind by Yuval l Noah Harari, First Raise a Flag; How South Sudan Won the longest war but lost the peace (2018) by Peter Martell and other titles which I started and stopped reading, to make room for more stories months before including a recent acquisition of Decolinizing Extinction, the work of care in Orengutun Rehabilitation  (2018) by Juno Salazar Parrenas. I needed to get to the end of them too before I latched on to Becoming by Michelle Obama, which is next on our  book clubs’ reading list.

In the midst of all this I had not found the time to review, My Traitor’s Heart (1990) by South African journalist Riaan Malan. It had been recommended by a friend after he read my blog post on Forgiveness: It’s not Black or White, It’s personal.   I found it at a friends vast home library and had to read it within a day because I could not carry it home with me.  I had to leave it there. After My Traitor’s Heart, which left me shivering with a cold. I found White Teeth (1999) staring at me at another bookstore. I had been following Zadie Smith for years without having read a single book of hers, so I figured it was about time.  

She made me laugh – she was quite sharp, funny and so confident. She mastered her choice of languages with fluent ease. The stories of awkward people living in London was infused with humour and wit. I relished the sound of her voice. But I couldn’t take her with me either, so I gave her to my sister to read while I travelled. By this time my suitcase was overweight.

When I saw that Zadie Smith had written a very generous recommendation for Homegoing, a book I had to read even though I no longer felt like it, I felt less guilty about the choice I had made. It’s as if she had given me permission to move on. 

So with all of my baggage I plunged  myself into it. 

It took five days.  I was carrying it everywhere like a beautiful accessory I couldn’t wait to give-away. I wanted to see if I could read with a level of detached equanimity which had been previously unavailable to me.  

How do I write or read without feeling?

Do I have to feel everything I write or read?

What’s the point if there are no feelings involved?

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing book cover

Homegoing is a remarkable literary achievement; each character has its own chapter yet they are all linked and connected through generations from multiple locations, and blood lines – their stories take unexpected turns in familiar narratives with each new chapter and character answering the questions raised by the previous one.

Each chapter leaves you wanting to find out more until you arrive at the end where you realise the magic of it all. It’s worth the ride, the journey through the book makes the ending so sweet. At the end you are just in awe of this magnificent beauty and love her for being humble enough to answer the call to write.   There were some moments as I ploughed through the book which made me question Zadie Smith’s assertion on the front cover, “Its an Intelligent, beautiful, healing book”.  What could be so healing about the story of transatlantic slaves, slavery, racism and bond labour? I wondered. Hadn’t we heard it all before?

Well I had to read the whole book to find out for myself, and quite frankly I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for you. So I will leave you to do the same, if you haven’t already.

PS: By the time I arrived  at my destination I found something quite unexpected, as if someone had put it there just for me. It was another book;   On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005).

I’ll tell you about it soon enough.

There is No War on Women

Perhaps this is the title that many men who commented on a book I’ve been reading this week by the late BBC TV Journalist, Sue Lloyd- Roberts would have preferred.

The books’ actual title “The War on Women” (2016) seems to rub them all up the wrong way. What book are you reading? They would ask sweetly. As soon as I show them the title they would clam up and shake their heads “ there’s no war on women”. I have chosen not to entertain their denialism by choosing a nonchalant response, “I didn’t write the book, I’m reading it”.

But now that I have finished the breathtaking account of “the war on women” on all fronts from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Gambia, Egypt and Afghanistan, to honour and dowry killings in India and Pakistan, to rape committed by UN and International  peace-keepers in Bosnia and Sierra Leone, to rampant rapes of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the slavery of Catholic-run women only laundries in Ireland to the a lack of equal pay between the sexes in  Britain.

Perhaps I am naïve to expect the men around me to say something different, perhaps even ask a question: Where? Or perhaps a more encouraging response would have been “ I need to read this book when you finish”

I am not going to delve into great detail about the books accounts of brutal sexism and gruesome misogyny in every continent – I think we’ve heard enough harrowing stories already.

I am reading this book during the sixteen days of activism to end violence against women and children, in a climate where even I as a woman am beginning to grow tired of women talking to women about men abusing them.

Perhaps we need to have a different conversation in this #metoo and #hearmetoo period. More especially now that there is a huge backlash on women who choose to speak out about their experiences of sexual and gender-based violence.

During these 16 days of Activism to end violence against women and children I have been having conversations with otherwise normal, well-meaning men about their understanding of equality. And just like the men who committed untold atrocities against women they often use culture, tradition and religion as the basis to justify why men are inherently superior to women and why women should in all intense and purposes submit to their men.

I tried to challenge their notions of culture by offering that culture evolves and is dynamic. In the African context, we have for the most part adopted “western” cultures; we wear clothes, we use computers, watches to tell time, and cell phones to communicate instead of drums.

On traditions – African nations were mostly matriarchal and women were often given a pride of place in the family or communities. A man could not make life-changing decisions including how to run a home, what to do with the children, whether to take a new wife or even when to have sex without the consent of a woman.

These traditions have also since been discarded – just like my male counterparts who dismissed my views on equity adding that I could not expect a man who has paid a dowry for his wife to treat her as an equal. She might clean the house, do the laundry, cook and look after the children, but the men were ultimately responsible for providing money for food, housing and electricity which means the wives should be grateful.

On the second day of having these conversations without any breakthrough, we came to the issue of religion and a verse that men often like to quote to women when discussion about equality within marriage come up. “ The bible says a woman must submit to her husband”

A submissive wife according to them is a woman who, even after working a full eight hour shift in an office just like men has to rush home to cook, feed the children, clean the house, make sure that everyone’s clothes are ready and clean for the next day and provide her husband with conjugal services at night, while men are allowed to “ rest” and relax after a long day at the office. It’s all part of the package they said. If I marry you, you must know that these are part of your duties as my wife – they insist.

But times, as with culture and traditions have changed, and what used to be expected of women and men a hundred years ago is not only no longer relevant but not even applicable to the lives we’re living today so  why would they insist on maintaining archaic traditions on women when they, on the other hand, are afforded the opportunity to be and do whatever they want and move with the times irrespective of their marital status.

That’s how we do things here, don’t come with your European ideas in Africa they said.

I thought about my life as a 37-year-old unmarried woman who has gotten an education and travelled the world and lived a life which for the most part is autonomous and independent. A life in which I have had agency over what happens to my body and my time. I am grateful that my parents, country and more especially my father have given the freedom to live life in my own terms. I am happy I have not tied my wagon to a controlling patriarchal husband.

While my own life is by no means perfect, it does set a high bar for most women around the world who still live in oppressive patriarchal and sometimes war-torn societies.  In this context, I must seem to them like someone who comes from out of space to expect men to treat me equally.

And the men I was in conversation with agreed.”Your husband will have to come from outer space”, they told me, “no man will accept your terms”.

I thought about it for a moment and realized that even in the religious texts men love to quote about God ordering women to submit to their husband they have missed a very important part of that verse in the bible. After he orders women to submit to their husbands he also gives men a very clear and straightforward order:

Ephesians 5:25 says “So husbands love your wife, even as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”

There are more verses on love in the bible such as:

1 Peter 3:7 “ husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as a delicate vessel and with honour as fellow heirs of the gracious gift of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

Colossians 3:9 “ Husbands love your wives and do not be harsh with them

Ephesians 5:33 “ Nevertheless each one of you also much loves his wife as he loves himself and wife must respect her husband”

It’s an important missing ingredient in the conversation about submission. Love. Which means God intended for women to submit to men who love them.

Any conversation outside of Love is mute.

I can only submit to a man who loves me. Anything less than that is simply unacceptable. I am not a domestic worker, a chef, nanny or sex-worker. If my husband expects me to perform all these duties over and above my paying job as a working woman, they must also be prepared to do the same.  This is fair.

In ” The War on Women” there are many stories in which women colluded with men to perpetrate atrocities against women and children. Women are also complicit in the rape, sex-trafficking, FGM, honour and dowry killings of other women with men.

So maybe it is true that there is no war on women per se; there is a  war, but it’s against humanity. Because women’s rights are human rights. 

FORGIVENESS: IT’S NOT BLACK OR WHITE. IT’S PERSONAL

It came out of nowhere, just like Die Stem, South Africa’s national anthem from 1957 to 1994. I thought we were all singing Nkosisikela when the veil was finally lifted and sommer Uit die blou van ons se hemel – she dropped a bomb on me.

It was not so long ago when I met her, but when I saw this picture (pic credit ANA)of her at the Memorial service of the Apartheid-era South African Foreign minister, Roelof “Pik” Botha memories began flooding back, to another lifetime.

When I worked as a radio journalist for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
My colleagues and I took regular breaks in the smoking room on the second floor of the TV Building in Aucklandpark, Johannesburg.

The smoking room was partitioned with glass walls within the canteen area making all smokers visible to breakfast, lunchtime and afternoon traffic. Despite it being a fishbowl it soon became our ritual to get our refill of coffees and then go in there to join others in innocuous conversations about weekends, leave-days and holidays.

It was during one of these visits to the smoking room that we met. But not in an official sense. I accepted her name without question “Hi, Ina, I’m Jedi – Nice to meet you”

I liked Ina and her crew.

I liked them because they were older women, which meant I could learn more from them.
I liked them because they spoke Afrikaans which was a rare thing to hear in the corridors of the SAUK.

You see, I had gone to an Afrikaans School at some point during my varied school career.
I had been taught Geography, Art and Maths and other things by Afrikaner teachers.

There is something about the language which remains alluring to me. Perhaps because it was for a large part of my life, like English, a language of power and access.

There were parts of it which were beautiful, poetic and sentimental – despite its bloody past.

Imagine, I can still hear the voice of our Afrikaans teacher Meneer Badernhorst screaming loudly in his baritone; se agter my! Liewer Meneer Henshaw! When we recited a book we read in Afrikaans-language class.

Although we all assumed it was an Afrikaans book, it was in actual fact a translation of the award-winning book written by American writer Beverly Cleary called, Dear Mr Henshaw. The book explored difficult topics like divorce, insecurity and bullying through the thoughts and emotions of a sixth-grade boy as he writes to his favourite author, Boyd Henshaw. Issues which resonated with me.

And I was not alone. We all loved the book: our multiracial class of Taiwanese, English, Polish, Portuguese, Indian, Coloured and African children from different backgrounds – even if the book was in Afrikaans. We went to an experimental school called: Cultura High.

Even as I write this I can still hear our voices harmonising together at Friday’s assembly to Coenie de Villiers’ Karoonag, a song praising the South African’s semi-desert released in 1990, the same year former President Nelson Mandela was released from Polsmoor prison. I can remember panting to get to my favourite part of the chorus;

“Ruik jy katbos and Kambro, as dit reen in die klein Karoo, my hantemwind, my optelkind vanaand” with my Schoolmates at Hoerskool Newcastle.

And so Ina and her crew filled a part of me which appreciated Afrikaans.

For numerous reasons the language resonated with me; after all, it was still the language spoken in the black townships of Johannesburg encased in a delirious mix of dialects called tsotsitaal.

It was still the coded language used by old topies who were forcefully removed from Sophiatown to Meadowlands under Apartheids’ Group Areas Act of 1913. For them, it was a language of romance, of charm and nostalgia for a time and place they could never return to.

It was the language of style, it was fashionable. It gave you some street cred, it could get you out of trouble with street gangs or the police for that matter.

And so years went by with Ina and I (and others) talking without a care in the world in the fishbowl. Most of our conversations were about pot-plants, decoupage projects, pets, some or other art and crafts which had caught their attention.

Ina loved to play Soduku, she said it was her favourite game especially when she was travelling. Her life was so very different from mine which is what made our conversations interesting.

Ina also gave great advice. She told me I was not ready to own a pet when I mentioned during a conversation, that I was thinking of getting a dog.

“I also want something to do at home in the afternoons and on weekends,” I told her. I needed a reason to be home since I spent most of my time out at work or out with friends. I thought getting a pet would be good for me. “A dog is a very big responsibility,” she responded.

“You have to take it for vaccinations, feed it three times a day, potty train it, take it out for walks. You can’t just go out all night or on holiday and forget about it, you have to make arrangements for the dog.” she said “ Not only that, it can be frighteningly expensive”

After she listed all the responsibilities which come with pet-ownership, I decided against it. I would not be good for the dog, even if the dog would be good for me.

Besides – the truth was I didn’t like dogs. They brought back bad memories. They scared me and I could not imagine keeping one in my yard or home if it had the potential to one day turn on me and bite. I had seen too many children bitten by dogs in Meadowlands.

Our conversations went on like this until one morning. I walked into the canteen, as usual, to find Ina and friends sitting and chatting over pictures of someone who looked familiar to me.

I sat down.“ Why do you have pictures of Pik Botha on the table?”I asked almost in an accusatory tone.
Everyone around the table looked at me and then at each other in slow motion, silently. I could tell there was something wrong.

Until someone ventured to ask, “You don’t know?” “Do you mean you didn’t know?” They asked almost in unison.
“Didn’t know what?” I asked growing concerned.

Ina sat up, straightened her back on the blue chair, flicked her cigarette into the ashtray and folded her red-painted fingernails around her wrist. “Pik Botha is my husband, I am married to him, which is why I have pictures of him on the table,” she said.

I must have looked crestfallen because then she said “Maybe it might change things for you, so I understand if you don’t want to talk to me anymore”

I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. My head was spinning. I froze.

Senzensina, senzenina, senzeni na. Senzeni na, soneniana? Sonenina? Jopi!Thente! Bhut’Vusi! Sono sethu ubumyama, sono sethu ubumnyama.

How was this possible? Sitting across from Pik Botha’s wife was akin, at least for me, to a jew sitting across from Adolf Hitler’s wife. I had never been so close to someone who was part of a regime which was instrumental in my oppression, someone who was so close to the centre of the Apartheid machinery.

You see I was raised in Soweto, on a steady diet of struggle songs most of which spat-out and trampled on the name of the Apartheid-former Foreign minister Pik Botha beneath the thud of worn-out converse soles on dusty streets.

Back then Pik Botha along with South Africa’s Apartheid-Era President PW Botha were the boere black people sang about killing and “shooting.”

It didn’t make sense to me that I was now suddenly sitting in front of “one of them.” Not only just sitting with her, but I was also enjoying her company.

What did that make me?

What was more surprising to those sitting around the table was that I didn’t know. How was it possible for me not to know who I was talking to, wasn’t I a “journalis?”

They all assumed that I had been sitting across from her with the full knowledge of who she was and what she represented.

I was blindsided, I did not expect to be working with Pik Botha’s wife.  Never in a million years. Didn’t she have more important things to do than be a producer for SABC?

I couldn’t decipher my feelings at such short notice.

I began to experience a case of cognitive dissonance; a moment of extreme emotional and mental discomfort. I had been holding on to too many contradictory beliefs, ideas and values. Justice versus forgiveness. Peace versus Love.

This new information about who Ina was, clashed with my ideas about race, injustice and relationships.

I didn’t know how to feel. Why should I care who she is married to? She was not responsible for Apartheid even though she had benefited from it.

She could not be racist because I had been happily talking to her for years. But Pik Botha’s wife?  Didn’t he spend his career defending and supporting Apartheid? Didn’t he call black people “terrorists?” On the other hand was he not, like Mandela, capable of change?

I cannot remember what happened next after that revelation, but regardless of the conflict Ina posed to my psyche I chose to continue to talk to her.

Until one day she, through a mutual fish-bowler, invited me to a luncheon at the home she shared with Pik Botha in Pretoria, the capital city of (Apartheid) South Africa.

I didn’t know whether to be afraid or happy. Scared or ashamed, to feel welcomed or feel like a traitor.

I was tongue tied, as I watched Pik Botha sitting at the head of white table sharing stories which were relevant to Ina’s friends who’d met him many times before I had. He was working on a book, a biography, she told us. So that’s why he can’t stay for too long.

Soon enough “Pik” disappeared behind the walls of his leafy mansion into a study filled to the brim with books whose titles I could not imagine.

I was mesmerised. Ina later led us to her art studio where she was busy creating a mosaic made of broken mirrors – is was beautiful. She was indeed an artist, a beautiful, tall thin woman.

She was also fragile. And this was the hardest part for me to witness, on top on the luscious green lawns and her artwork – she didn’t have it all figured out, she cried.

Her heart still broke with the distance that existed between her and her husband which no art project could fill.

She was much younger than him. They married on the 27th of April – Pik’s Birthday and South Africa’s Freedom Day. In 1998 four years after democracy. She was his second wife. That’s all I knew.

Ina had never been mean to me.

So it was hard for me to read all the hate which was flung at her husbands’ feet from white and black people alike.

True, Pik Botha was a polarising character. Hated, with good reason by black people for his support of successive Apartheid governments who entrenched the system of racial segregation and the subjugation of African black people. White (Afrikaner) people hated him with equal venom, they called him a traitor for betraying white people, for being a liberalist-reformist and selling out the party and country to black people.

Either out of convenience or moral conviction, he later became a card-carrying member of the very party he had labelled a terrorist organization – the ANC.

As an experienced negotiator Pik Botha may have assumed along with his compatriots in the ANC, that the negotiated settlement was a win-win situation; South Africa’s new democracy was the best alternative to a protracted civil war. They surrendered, they did not capitulate.

But now as younger generations of (black), South Africans begin to reassess the terms of the agreement – many are beginning to believe that what was once thought to be our best alternative to a civil war, was, in fact, the worst alternative to a negotiated settlement – for black people. The deal was a win-lose arrangement.

And yet this is not what I thought when I heard that “Pik” Botha had died. My immediate response to the news was compassion; “Oh my God, Ina must be devasted”, that’s what  I was thinking.

I knew her personally. So I can not advocate for her demise.

The closest way I can think to describe this episode in my life is through the award-winning German book, The Reader:

When the main character Micheal Berg struggled with the revelation that a woman he’d had an affair with in his teens – Hanna – had been, in fact, a guard at the infamous Jewish concentration camp,  Auschwitz:

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hannah, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks – understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both

The German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink who wrote the book, published The Reader in 1995 to deal with the difficulties post-war German generations have had in understanding the Holocaust. It was a book written specifically for those who came after.

jediwinnie

How are we grappling with Post-Apartheid South Africa? Do we need another book?

Perhaps I can never make you understand anything. But I have chosen to forgive (her).

Forgive in the same way that I have had to forgive the mother of our nation, ANC stalwart and freedom fighter Winnie-Madikeza Mandela, for her role in my favourite uncle’s ultimate death through the Mandela Football club. However, remote the two events may have been.

Even as this brave woman, who was herself tortured, humiliated and locked into solitary confinement for more than 400 days was being honoured and celebrated for being so strong and making the Apartheid enemy bow at her feet.

In my mind, she also contributed to the slaughter of the innocent.

While these were the unintended consequences of the struggle for freedom. For me, it was personal.

As South African women came out in all their glorious beauty,  adorned in colourful African “ Doeks” celebrating Mama Madikizela’s life. Who I also loved. One day in April I walked into the quiet South African Embassy and sat alone and did what I should have done a long time ago.

I decided to make peace with her. Because things did go horribly wrong.

And hate is too much of a burden to bear.

Our predecessors with their flawed and subjective natures tried to combine the best of all of us, South Africans, in one song.  The New South African Anthem, sung in multiple languages represents the past, present and the future we hope for.

As their light is beginning to dim, what remains clear in the spotlight are the bitter facts of the past.

We must all think very carefully about the South Africa we want to live in and who we want to be in it. Peace is a process and a choice we must constantly make in our private and public lives lest we become like the America James Baldwin describes in his 1955 essay,  Notes of a Native Son;

Nobody was interested in the facts. They prefer invention because this invention expressed their hates and fears so perfectly…”

 

 

 

 

ON: THE LOVE DIARY OF A ZULU BOY

A memoir by Bhikisisa Mncube

A few months ago I was part of a social gathering in which the Master of Ceremonies suggested we play a game to break the ice. The game consisted of passing the bottle to each other around a circle to the beat of the music, and when the music stops whoever has the bottle in their hands will have to answer a very personal question from the MC.

As the game progressed around a circle which was 99 per cent male, the MC then asked a question to one of the bottle holders and it went something like this:

“When did you have your first sexual encounter and who was it with?” The respondent dilly-dallied around trying to recall the exact moment in question to roaring laughter and cajoling from his friends around the circle.

He then proceeded to describe the event and then ended with a statement which surprised everyone around the circle, “In fact, I think she raped me, it felt like I was raped” he said.

After a moment of silence, everyone began to roar with laughter. Seeing a gap created by the jovial atmosphere an elderly member of the group saw an opportunity for a quick disclosure of his own. He went and stood in the middle of the circle and pronounced his secret.

“In fact,” he said raising his hand in the air “I also think I was raped by the girl I had sex with for the first time.”  At the point at which his voice began to break preparing, as it were, to explain in greater detail the events which unfolded on the day he lost his virginity the group silenced him in unison, “sit down” they said, “It’s not your turn now” the old man was forced  back to his seat under the tree and forever remained silent.

I am reminded of this story on reading Bhekisisa Mncube’s memoir, The Love Diary of A Zulu Boy  in which he recounts his first sexual experience which was, incidentally, forced upon him by his elder brother in the very first chapter of his book about his philandering past which is littered with “ love spells, toxic masculinity, infidelity, sexually transmitted diseases, a phantom pregnancy, sexless relationships, threesomes and prostitution to name but a few.”

In the retelling of this dark secret of his sexual molestation as a small boy, a fact he kept to himself until adulthood,  Mcube keeps emphasising that he is, in fact, a bona fide heterosexual man who is “pre-programmed” and who had already developed a “crush on a (female) classmate Zodwa”

This reader can sense from the onset the writer’s discomfort in disclosing such an event by the way he races through it in just two pages in which he confesses that he will never forgive his elder brother whom he hates with a passion.  He concludes this sad chapter with a quote from psychologist Dr Susan Forward which says “ If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn’t so terrible”

Boys Do Cry

I feel such compassion and empathy for Mncube ( who is my former “classmate”). As demonstrated in my earlier anecdote it is not easy for men to share stories of sexual abuse at the hands of trusted family members, girlfriends and or partners and any attempt at a revelation is met with stonewalled eyes. If the disclosure is acknowledged at all they are told to shut up with the erroneous belief that “a man can’t be raped by a woman.”

For this reason, I commend him for breaking the silence as a “pre-programmed,  delinquent Zulu Boy” to speak about this violation which sadly led to him violating other women’s sexual rights throughout puberty and adulthood.  He did not consider mutual consent as an important factor in sexual relationships when “the only thing on his mind was having sex”  because his elder brother never considered him when he used him for sexual pleasure, events which laid the only foundation for sexual education Mcube received as a child.

As we mark the proverbial end of women’s month this August and as we reflect upon the #metoo testimonies of  Sexual and Gender-Based Violence primarily against women, we will be remiss and do ourselves no favours  if we to block, silence or overlook the voices of men who seek to atone for crimes they committed against women as a result of violations they also suffered as boys. Because it is, in some cases, the silencing  of such experiences which propagates and normalises sexual and gender violence in our communities

It may not be comforting to hear that the person who violated you – was also once a victim just like you.  But it’s important, lest we all arrive at the same conclusion Mncube reached that “to forgive is to pretend that what happened wasn’t so terrible”

When we all know that it is not. Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a “conscious deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness …. forgiveness does not mean forgetting nor does it mean condoning or excusing offences”

There are numerous controversial issues Mcube touches  in “ The Love Diary of A Zulu Boy” about love, relationships, identity and racial politics which I will not delve into because I think the first chapter  provides the premise for Mcube’s subsequent sexual and relational delinquency in adult life where he remains, despite his vociferous statements to the contrary throughout the book mitigated by therapy and personal reform, a victim of sexual and gender-based violence.

This book highlights the vital need to introduce sexual education for young children of all genders (boys, girls and gender non-conforming people) about what is acceptable behaviour in intimate and or sexual relationships.

If we all agree that men are the primary and main propagators of sexual and gender-based violence against women, then we must acknowledge that they are also part of the solution.

I commend Mncube for his courageous stand in the circle and pronouncing #metoo. I hope that this book will contribute towards helping men and boys including women and girls to understand that love does not equal violent force.  Because what is not rectified will be repeated.

Bhekisisa Mcube is a South African writer, columnist and the current director of speechwriting in the ministry of basic education.

2018 Budget: In a Cartoon

This Cartoon by an anonymous Japanese illustrator titled ‘Vegetables are Expensive”  perfectly illustrates the (potential) impact of the 2018 budget in South Africa. But, if you still need to understand more about what the one percent increase in Value Added Tax  (VAT) will mean for South African people  in general and poor people in particular researchers at the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Actions (PACSA)  who’ve been keeping tabs on the price of food for many years in their  Food Price Barometer, have some insight.  See statement below:

“Since the announcement of the increase of VAT from 14% to 15%,  many politicians, economists and other ‘experts’ have argued that working-class households are protected from the negative impact of the increase in VAT because certain foods are zero-rated.  We would have done better to listen to the voices of ordinary women who prepare food for their families to understand the impact of a raised VAT level for working-class households.

The underlying assumption of the ‘experts’ is that working-class households only eat zero-rated foods.  This assumption is flawed and could be construed as having racist overtones.

  • PACSA tracks 38 foods on a monthly basis that working class households have identified as the foods which they would buy should they have sufficient money to do so.  20 out of the 38 foods are vatable; 18 are zero-rated.  Of the total cost of the basket of R3129.84, a 15% VAT component is R221.59.  The total contribution of VAT to the overall PACSA Food Basket is 7.08%.
  • In order to provide a meal working-class households don’t just use zero-rated foods.  A mother does not send her child to school with a few slices of brown bread; she sends her child to school with a sandwich that in addition to the brown bread will require margarine, peanut butter,  or jam, cheese, polony – these are all subject to VAT.
  • The same applies to cooking a meal for a family.  Working class households do not only use maize meal, brown bread, dried beans and rice which are zero-rated.  Mothers prepare meals with more than just these zero-rated foods.  They also require other foods in order to create a meal.  A chicken stew served with maize meal requires salt and spices and chicken.  None of which is zero-rated.
  • All of our basic foods (even the zero-rated foods) require a cooking process to be made into a meal and this requires water and electricity which is subject to VAT.

By arguing that increasing the VAT rate will have no impact on working-class households because certain foods are zero-rated reveals a lack of understanding of what people eat and how meals are put together.  There is just no way in which households are able to escape this increase in VAT when it comes to food.  The only way in which households can escape the impact of VAT is if all foods are zero-rated.”

 You can learn more about PACSA’s work here

AT LAST: YOU’RE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK

A once dear friend of mine loved to compare me to the American singer, songwriter, composer and pianist Nina Simone.  He would send me messages saying he was listening to Nina, who reminds him of me. Instead of accepting the compliment I  resisted the temptation to lash out at him and chose only to focus on the fact that he missed me.

But in the privacy of my own mind,  I resented the insinuation. Don’t get me wrong, to say I loved Nina would be an understatement; I soaked my soul in her music and I truly felt that she was the only artist dead or alive at the time who could define the sound of my heart beat one small cardiac vein at a time. Her conflation of classical, jazz and pop improvisations hit just the right notes with me.

Indeed while there was a whole squad of great American soul sisters who rocked my world such as Ella Fitzgerald,  Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan,  and Dinah Washington, and they all still do,  there was something distinct about Nina which rattled me, her political being got right under my skin.

A child prodigy who started playing the piano when she was three years old, she personified the ideal of black power in her body while articulating black pain and aspirations like no other male or female artist I have known of in my life. Busi Mhlongo comes a close second.  She was a perfect paradox and I could relate to her.

And yet the idea that my friend whom I loved and respected saw something resembling Nina Simone in me filled me with enormous indignation. I was convinced that he must have fundamentally misunderstood who I was and what I was about,  because how else could he compare me to Nina Simone?

I was scared of Nina Simone. I was startled by her genius and the fact that she got me and all of us from the past, present and future stupified me. The magnitude of her ability to feel left me nauseous and sometimes seasick in a dry Johannesburg winter. Her agility in navigating swathes of pain which seemed so infinite in a voice which could be as rough as gravel or smooth as coffee and cream left me simply unhinged. She peeled off my skin as if were a bandage covering ancient scars which were as fresh as if they had been inflicted mere minutes ago. Her grief poured out of her fingers and left me panting with awe, out of breath. Until it filled her body so much so that she could no longer contain it, it poured out of her eyes, her mouth, her skin, her nostrils, and every single breath. It was raw, and sometimes too frightening to watch.

By the time she died in Paris, France in 2003, I had read her autobiography I Put a Spell On You (1992) and heard anecdotes from those who had met her that she was a brash, bitter and unfriendly woman – an insufferable prima donna to the very end. I was greatly disappointed. Though I admired her talent I didn’t want to end up bitter and alone or spoken of in such disparaging terms by those who knew me intimately. How could someone so talented and great who fought so hard not to be minimized as an artist be reduced to nothing because of her love for whiskey and cigarettes?

While I loved her and felt immense gratitude because she helped me to dive deep into the ocean of my feelings, I didn’t want her life, it seemed too hard, too painful, too haunted, too lonely and just too much.

So when my friend compared me to her it felt as though he was putting a spell on me, telling me that I was like her, a talented black woman with a heart as big as Wakanda but who would always live to regret not being able to reach her fullest potential. I was like Nina who still thought, three years before her death, that she would have been happier had she achieved her goal of becoming the first black woman concert pianist in the US. She thought she would have been a happier person had she went to the most prestigious music venue in America, Carnegie Hall and been the first black woman to play Bach, Carl Czerny and Liszt.

Despite her enormous success – in her mind, she had been effectively cheated out of her dream when she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race. Not only that but music her first love had robbed her of her desire for a life-long companionship in marriage.  She still craved the kind of love which would take all of her brilliance in. Not just the fame, influence and potential to make loads of money, but the other side as well; the grieving,  lonely, suffering part of her  which  still  held on to all the loves and lives she had lost –  the little girl who was still playing Bach in music halls across the world, not just My Baby Just Cares For Me or I loves you Porgy. 

And yet the lady doth protest too much.

Indeed there is some element of truth in his comparison. Perhaps not in my level of talent nor in my activism which has been minute, to say the least. Perhaps we are similar in that we are both, Nina Simone and I, collectors of a vast array of human emotions through space and time. Hers found expression in her music and activism while mine… well that’s a story for another day.

In many ways I am like her, I hate  being pigeonholed and I often find that I do have to “constantly re-identify myself to myself, reactivate my own standards, my own convictions about what I’m doing and why.” I am sold out to freedom.

Last night as I sat up reflecting on my life so far and what’s next – I thought of Nina Simone – who taught me so much about my own life by fully living hers. Even though I hate to admit, we are more alike than different.

So as I  made peace with her, with the fact that just as she knew the contents of my heart without looking in, I could see her tears without her shedding any. As I accepted parts of her I was uncomfortable with, afraid of even, I remembered that there is someone who once loved Nina Simone as much as I did. He was able to show me another kinder and gentler side to her.

My Father.

Many moons ago, my father sang a Nina Simone song for me after I informed him of my discovery of her music. I was all caught up in my feelings about the strange fruit in Mississippi Goddamn while trying not be a misunderstood blackbird wishing it knew how it would feel to be free when he interrupted me with a smooth rendition of, “to be young gifted and black oh what a lovely precious dream, to be young gifted and black open your heart to what I mean…”  A song Simone named after an unfinished play by her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who was the first black writer to have a hit Broadway show. I was impressed by him, he sang it until I started to feel, Good.

I began to understand a little about what love is. My father is able to find me, wherever I am, in whatever language and cultural iconographies I may have adopted in my explorations of what this world has to offer. It’s incredible to know that I am a recipient of such an immense well of unconditional love and freedom. Through this song, my father showed me a side of Nina Simone which I was unaware of,  which helped me understand her humaneness, her fragility. This song allowed me to embrace all of her. Embrace her completely and unconditionally.  She was visionary, a warrior who loved in extraordinary ways. Finally, my father helped me to accept myself, through Nina’s music.

The fact that we can we can look around today whether we are in Africa or in the diaspora in Parliaments or the classroom, from the streets corners to the worlds’ stages – from top to bottom, east to west, the fact that we can look  at the world around us today and be genuinely proud to say that despite everything we still need to do -“to be young, gifted and black, it’s where it’s at!!!  – is because of Nina Simone, my father and generations of black people who saw a future beyond the pain.

Carnegie Hall and the Curtis School of Music could not contain Nina Simone. And that’s a fact!

Click here to listen to the song.