There is No War on Women

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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. 

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

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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

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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

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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.

 

SOLD: How Ramaphosa Managed

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This picture of former South African President  Jacob Zuma with the newly elected  South African President Cyril Ramaphosa  brought to mind a 1975 transhistorical film by Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene.  It is a story I will never forget.

Xala! (meaning impotence)  is an adaptation of Sembene’s book with the same name.

If you have time to fill in the gaps with regard to recent events in South African politics, you can watch the film here.

Enjoy!

Inxeba: Tradition VS Culture

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Back when I was a journalism student at Natal Technikon now DUT I attempted, rather poorly, to articulate the continuous tension between tradition and culture which created a fair amount of conflict within my own mind and in the public sphere. I used the traditional practice of initiating boys into manhood in African-black culture as an example of when culture and tradition can be at odds.

In the piece I attempted to explain the practical reasons why male initiates went to the “mountain” during winter months for circumcision; first for privacy and second; the cold weather would speed up the healing process for their wounds. I argued that while living conditions and medical treatments had advanced to a point where male circumcision could take place almost anywhere in any season;  initiation schools continued to perform the rituals as they were done 200 years ago as if nothing had changed. My analysis was made in the context of a rising number of botched circumcisions which killed a number of boys and left many others injured and or castrated.

But it’s not that simple

This week a better example presented itself through the banning of Inxeba, – The Wound, a South African film which explores tradition and sexuality amid  Xhosa male rites of passage or male circumcision at some Cinemas in parts of the country.

The film hit a raw nerve among ( Xhosa) traditionalist who see it as a violation of a sacred tradition.  Lwando Xasa and Zukiswa Pikoli opined that the filmmaker, William Trengove, a white male had no right making a movie about us.

“Telling our stories through a white lens ensures the dominance and centrality of whiteness.We don’t know Trengove or his reasons for making the movie and showing it to a foreign audience. What we do know is that he made a movie on Xhosa initiation that is off-limits to him.”

The pair along with many who are opposed to the film argue that it is a  continuation of a white supremacists policy of demeaning and bastardising African cultural beliefs.

Others said the film, which I have not seen, is less about Xhosa initiation rites and more about homosexuality. A subject which was the motivation behind  the films’ creation according to its director  William Trengove,

“In writing ‘The Wound’, inspiration came, unexpectedly, from Robert Mugabe. Statements that he and other African leaders have made since the early 90s imply that homosexuality is a symptom of Western decadence that threatens ‘‘traditional’’ culture. And so, we thought ok, let’s use that idea. Let’s imagine ‘‘gayness’’ as a kind of virus that penetrates and threatens a patriarchal organism, and let’s see how that organism responds to being penetrated.”

Not very well it seems.

In the film, he used a cast of untrained actors who were all former Xhosa initiates who re-enacted some of the rituals involved in the initiation process including a sex scene which is the main bone of contention. The inclusion of the sexual act during the initiation ceremony has angered many people including the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (contralesa) who said the movie “wounds”  African cultural practices.  Contralesa’s Prince Manene said in a Mail&Guardian interview that they are not opposed to the film’s gay content.

“If people do that thing, they can do it somewhere else — not within our cultural practice. It doesn’t happen in initiation schools. This is ridiculing our cultural practice. We are being embarrassed. The things that are being shown there is not what is happening in the mountain. It is disgusting and disrespectful of our cultural practices. People making love in an initiation school is not something we see,”

And this is where the conflict between tradition; the passing of beliefs and customs to the next generation and culture; characteristics which describe a particular society at a particular time, takes place.

Trengove is well within his rights in a democratic society to use his imagination to explore and probe subjects which fascinate him which are not only limited to his own culture, tradition or lived experiences – irrespective of his privileged power position as a white male. The constitution guarantees him this right.  Despite his own admission that doing the film is problematic…

“As a white man, representing marginalised black realities that are not my own, the situation is of course complicated. Even highly problematic – It was important to me that the story mirrors this problem. The character of Kwanda is an outsider to the traditional world; he expresses many of my own ideas about human rights and individual freedom. He’s also the problem. His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him. This was my way of saying, ‘‘I don’t have the answers and my own values don’t necessarily apply here.’’

In this way Trengoves’ “The Wound” shares a similar narrative tackled by  Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene  whose last film Moolaade (2004) which depicts women’s’ resistance against the practice of  female circumcision (FGC) in a small village in Burkina Faso, was criticised for being a  ‘staging of a human rights drama;  a performance of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights by employing an “ethical and political category that takes as its departure point a modernity rooted in colonialism.” A slight supported by it being awarded UNESCO Felini Medal, for a long career depicting the struggle for Women’s rights, asserting the role of NGO’s and the United Nations as long-term supporters of Sembene’s films.

Through Moolaade we are made to understand that female circumcision prevalent in West African countries is a tradition clung to for no other reason than to maintain the status quo of male supremacy and patriarchy; by making females docile and marriageable. In Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Amy Boden argues that by, “writing the Islamic male elders of the village as one-dimensional characters who seem to oppress their wives and daughters solely for the sake of religious tradition and their own sexual desires and egos, Sembène avoids staging a dialogue between the cultural factions advocating for and against genital cutting”

True, only those who are passing on traditional customs can speak highly of its merits both for an individual and community.   Yet this should not automatically disqualify them from performing such customs as a consequence of incidents of malpractice including accidents.

A character flaw 

Even though traditionalists might have a point about the inaccurate depiction of male initiation rights in the film, their protestations however valid make them appear mean and homophobic.

Similar to an incident in the UK, when the Australian teenage heart-throb and former Neighbours star  Jason Donovan sued The Face magazine in 1992 for claiming he was gay. Although he was successful in the case, he also successfully alienated the gay community which resulted in an overall loss of support from his fan base;  who saw his court action as petty and unnecessarily vindictive. Though by all accounts he was entitled to defend himself and his honour – doing so was interpreted as “hate-speech.”  His defence inferred that there is something intrinsically wrong or unacceptable about those people who are, in fact, homosexual.

If Contralesa and indeed all those negatively affected by Inxeba are seriously aggrieved by the film they should also approach the Film and Publication Board of South Africa, The South African Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the South African  Human Rights Commission including the courts, for remedy.

Because this is what we all signed up for

We wanted a democratic country which embraces multiculturalism in all its resplendent manifestations. So we must protect the right to freedom of expression so that we too can practice our traditional customs freely. We signed up for a country in which we could speak freely and have open and transparent discussions about topics and practices which concern us, including those we might deem to be sacrosanct.

So, by all accounts, traditionalist must protest and protect their traditional customs from ridicule and degradation by imaginative artists if they must, but they do not have the right to block others from practising their culture freely; i.e  their right to watch a movie of their choice at a cinema.

As “they” say: it takes more than balls to be a man.

 

Change: Angazi, But I’m sure

I was still mulling over a conversation with Frantz Fanon which began a few years ago – about Black Skin, White Masks (1952) when the story of  H&Ms’ Coolest Monkey in the jungle hoodie, made social media headlines
Fanon wrote a number of interesting things in Black Skin, White Masks, but two ideas stayed with me. The first one read like a confirmation letter to something I have always felt but never knew how to pronounce and it is this:

“I am not a potential of something. I am wholly what I am and I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is. It is its own follower” – (Page 103, The Fact of blackness; Black Skin, White Mask)

There’s nothing missing in me. The seed is in the tree. The tree is in the seed. I am whole. I can only grow into what I already am; i.e unless genetically modified an apple seed does not grow into a pineapple tree or into a monkey for that matter.

So what’s the fuss about?

The second idea was more interesting – and perhaps more relevant to our times – so I soaked in it. Remember that Frantz Fanon was not just a political activist.  He was a trained and qualified psychologist whose primary preoccupation was the mind and how colonialism was affecting the minds of black people in  France and French-Martinique – Black Skin, White Masks –  is a collection of his findings and personal reflections based on actual cases of psychiatric patients observed. So while his work was specific to the Black experience of the white man – mutatis mutandis – this quote can be applied to humans as a whole.

“Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his action. It is on recognition by that other being that his own human worth and reality depend” (page 169 – The Negro and Recognition; Black Skin, White Masks)

Imagine the magnitude of such a statement. Fanon is saying that as humans we are ostensibly slaves to one another, we are not human until our humanity (humanness) has been effectively recognized by other humans.  Can you see why most of us ( especially the oppressed) have the need to believe in a higher power – a benevolent God and saviour  who will recognise us when those with whom we share our lives do not or cannot affirm our humanity?

Without a higher power, we are bound, victims of each other’s neurosis.  This neurosis, it seems continues today regardless of the fact that racial segregation laws have been repealed in South Africa. The discourse around race, racism and who is to blame remains unchanged. It is as if we are still living under white minority rule in Apartheid South Africa circa 1981. Fanon has an explanation for this phenomena and it is rightly rooted in the psyche of the black man;

“There is not an open conflict  between white and black, one day the white master, without conflict recognized the negro slave, but the former slave still wants to make himself recognized”

Triggered

So despite having gained freedom and political emancipation from the white man, the black man is still mentally enslaved;  the incidents or periods of trauma are still kept alive psycho-somatically until triggered by  Monkey business. The black man will be obsessed with being recognized by the white man through his academic, cultural, social or financial institutions.  In this context, the black man will not be fully human until he is given the Oscar, or until Ngungi  Wa Thiong’o is awarded the Nobel prize for literature, only then will he become human. And once they have gained the full recognition they will want full control or  the power to retain their right to recognize others or not and the cycle will begin again with white people feeling victimized and marginalized by a loss of power – they will also begin as they are already doing in South Africa, to demand that their humanity, be recognized.

This theory – the need for recognition is the source of almost all conflict in the world and can be applied to most people, communities and nations.

In South Africa today we have an opportunity to begin a new cycle, which does not degenerate into a downward spiral of repeating old habits.

So what does this have to do with the law?

Let me try to explain: Mutatis Mutandis is an archaic, Latin term,  used mostly in the law  which means with “all the necessary, changes having been made.”  It is often found in contracts (and our constitution) to indicate that whatever new terms or changes which have been made in past or present contracts will be applied to all future contracts.

Angazi, but I’m sure,  while not a legal term is a form of defence. It is a vague answer often given to “difficult” questions. It might seem contradictory to you to hear someone say I don’t know, but I’m sure, but in the (black) South African parlance, it isn’t. This is the standard answer given when people know the answer to a question but are not sure if the person asking the question can be trusted with the information.  So Angazi, but I’m sure, means, I know but I don’t know if I should tell you.

I’m sure – in this context – also does not mean that one is certain of what one speaks of, it is used to infer doubt; perhaps/maybe.

It is often used as a response to a question: searching for something or someone.

i.e Q:  Have you seen Jedi? A: Angazi, but I’m sure she’s  around.

In serious circumstances, it is equivalent to pleading the fifth by refusing to answer incriminating questions. It is a non-answer.

This could explain why no one seems to know anything about what is going on in government today, especially ministers and government officials.

Angazi, but I’m sure is a historical colloquialism which carries within it expired struggle codes used to deflect further inquiries by unknown inquisitors. The language was used loosely in the vaguest terms so that the speaker and the listener could not be held accountable for what was not being said.  The term leaves enough room for interpretation – and evasion.

This year members of parliament (our elected representatives) have been tasked with removing the Angazi, but I’m sure, a clause in our collective subconscious and in the practical application and interpretation of the law. They have to define in concrete terms what constitutes a serious violation of the constitution which will be applied henceforth mutatis mutandis to future presidents who may be in the very committee tasked with drafting the rules for the impeachment of a president. As is now the case with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa who is being called to defend the very constitution he helped the draft in the 1990s- even though he might ostensibly be guilty of violating its terms.

Will members of parliament draft laws based on the lowest common denominator or are they going to hold themselves and future presidents to the highest ethical standards which are not open to Angazi but I’m sure?

The caveat, of course, is this:  it won’t matter how brilliant our laws are at safeguarding our democracy or bill of rights if they are routinely circumvented by politicians and public officials who are intent on abusing their power.

There needs to be a commitment to hold not only others accountable for their actions – but we must also commit to holding our ourselves accountable to the laws we collective create and agree to; i.e The Constitution.

If we don’t we will continue to say,  Angazibut I’m sure –  Mutatis Mutandis.

 

Unveiling Democracy: It’s A Mirage

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I’m here watching as the brilliant pallet of hopeful colours democracy once painted for us in vivid penetrating hues of bright reds, warm oranges, sunny yellows, soft airy blues which so mesmerized the eye that some of us had to squint just to see the picture clearly;  begins to fade.

The dazzling ideal which democracy once hung in front of our eyes is grey now no longer black or white.  Bold or striking in crisp sparkling white or deep saturated blacks – the colours have bled into each other so much that while we are too petrified to pronounce the words describing what this image is fading into – we know for sure that it is not what we once hoped for. It is not about freedom, equality or justice.

The grey clouds in our democratic winter accomplished something remarkable – they have removed the illusions and pretences which we are so desperate to cling to.

It is about money

The tragic election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States has done us, the global public, a favour. In Trump, the true nature of the political system which has been governing our lives has been unveiled in all its raw-callousness.

American prof of Linguistics Noam Chomsky spoke about the construction of a  political system which is  “moving towards a real articulated expression of contempt for the general population,” 30 years ago. In the interview on dissent and democracy in 1988, Chomsky observed a trend in which the political system run by the elite including the intellegencia – increasingly operates without public participation, “where elections have been almost removed from the point where the public takes them seriously as involving a matter of choice.”

In the interview, Chomsky describes a system which we are all too familiar with  by now: A political figure (democratic or republican/ liberal or conservative/ right-wing or left-wing) who represents something, is supported by certain interests, has certain commitments comes before us  produces and says things which the polls  and his advisers tell him  will increase his chances of gaining office; after which he will dispense with everything he has said before to gain office and then proceed with his own commitments,  interests and what is demanded of him by those who supported him and those who provided him with resources. Chomsky noted that while this has always been true  what is interesting now is the extent to which it is recognized to be the “democratic system.”

The election of Donald Trump has caused an uproar among the ruling elite precisely because he has let the cat out of the bag; the political system exists only to protect privilege and power at all costs. Not only has he revealed that the ruling class does not care at all about the so-called ” people” or “general public” –  he has made it clear that it is not in the interest of power for the public to be well-informed, empowered or participate meaningfully in the decisions or choices that government makes. They don’t want that; dissent is a crisis for democracy and since they can’t force people through violent means to do what they want, they have employed sophisticated ways to control what people think; through media propaganda and coercion by pure charm: saying everything we want to hear and then doing the opposite.

While democracies who have bought into the American political ideology of Democratic Capitalism are still pretending that the public has a “choice” – Donald Trump has pulled the hat out of the rabbit.

Even as our politicians continue to say one thing and do something else, we can no longer pretend that the ruling party or opposition parties in our parliaments are there to serve the interests of the public. We cannot pretend that the newly elected president of the ruling ANC in South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is representing the publics’ interest. No matter what he says in eloquent well-crafted speeches. He is only representing the interests of a privileged class the private sector of which he is a high-ranking member.

It is not a conspiracy

We know now from the events of Marikana where at least 34 striking miners were killed in order for Lonmin to continue production – whose side Ramaphosa is on. We know that he ordered government officials to end the strike by any means necessary. We know whose interests the police served when they opened fire. We know whose interests Ramaphosa will serve once he is sworn into office in 2019. We can’t pretend that he has not been obvious about it. We also know from the incidents surrounding the publication of his sex-scandal story who the mass media in this country will support.

Patrons of Power

The elite class including the media exists to serve the interests of power. Chomsky observed  that in this deck’ If you want to be an expert or part of the specialized class you have to be able to serve the interests of objective power – that’s an institutional role that has to be played and if you do it, if you’re able to articulate the interests of people with power, you’re in ‘

The same applies to journalism -if you want to be a journalist he said,  you have to accord the needs of the institution; imbibe its culture and values. Mass media are major corporations (monopolies)  and like any other business, they have to make a profit.  It doesn’t matter what you say to the people, as long as there’s a profit at the end of the day. In this context then the primary function of mass media is to mobilize public support for the special interest of the dominant class.

The role of the government in a capitalist democracy then is also similar; to make laws which protect the property rights and interests of a minority who own and control natural resources, industry and transport.

So, while we continue to live under an economic system where a few private individuals control the means of production and distribution of an entire country – democracy will remain what it has always been. Just a Mirage.

It’s not real  

We are free to the extent to which our freedom serves (profits) the interests of those with power.  That’s the reality.

 

 

Coconut: Soothing oil for growing Afros

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I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell – Coconut (2007), Kopano Matlwa

Done.

Within a few hours of picking up the book from a family friends’ impressive bookshelves, it was all over. I didn’t understand why I had been so resistant to reading it when all those years ago,  I stood hiding behind bookshelves listening to Kopano Matlwa; a precocious medical student then and now qualified medical doctor, health activist, Oxford Scholar and  author of three successful manuscripts (Spilt Milk, 2010 and Period Pain 2017) answer questions about her debut novel, Coconut (2007) which had also scooped the  European prize for  literature in 2008.

It was interesting.

Her audience at the time, composed mostly of white people with some highlights, including myself.  I can’t remember everything that was being said. But I do remember watching myself watch her sitting there, a young woman just like me who had achieved more with her life than I had in my entire my lifetime. Was it jealousy? Envy? Bring her down syndrome? “It’s a day in the life of a black school girl, it takes place in a day,” she said shyly. I wanted to ask a question but I had not read the book so I let the moment pass and continued to inhale the intoxicating smell of new books. I may not be a writer nor a published author but I can, at the very least, read.

It took me a decade, 10 years to be precise to finally read the book which peaked at me from other people’s shelves as if to ask, and me? Yes, yes she’s a gifted writer I would say each time her name came up in conversation about new reads. But I had no idea what was between the books’ covers. Now  I understand why it took me so long to read it from cover to cover in just four hours.

Coconut.

The title of the book rubbed me up the wrong way. I couldn’t get past it even though the cover clearly said; A Novel.  But now that I’ve read every word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter and all its parts – since I have gone through it. I get it.

I was a victim of words; language meant a lot to me.

I had been called a coconut ( a derogatory term used to describe black-African people who could speak English fluently – i.e black on outside and white on the inside) for so long that by the time Matlwa came out shining in all her brilliance I couldn’t bring myself to purchase or read the insult. It was too much, I didn’t want to relive the experience. The word Coconut had taunted, haunted, bullied, sneered, laughed, humiliated me at every turn. She wants to be white they whispered in front of me, who do you think you are, trying to be better than us eh? they shouted behind my back.

Instead, I drifted to the academic section at the Boekehuis and picked out a much lighter read than what Matlwa offered, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

It’s been a rough ride.

Today most (aspirational – middle class) South Africans appreciate that fluency in English(the imperial language) does not mean that the speaker desires to be white nor does it make the person more or less African or more or less intelligent.  Neither does it make them a nice, good, evil or a bad person or vice versa for African language speakers. All these appendages depend on the speaker’s individual character and their motives for speaking or not speaking said language notwithstanding the power structures or systems governing society.

A language is a tool (a means to an end, not an end in itself). It can be used for just about anything under the sun if one has the power and influence to lubricate its application. I have spoken Afrikaans with white English-speaking South Africans in the Middle-East just so that the Arabic-French- English-speaking taxi driver would not hear what we were saying.   In school, we invented code languages so that we could confuse others but understand each other just for the fun of it. We pretended not to understand others so we could hear them speak freely in languages we were fluent in. So we could see or know the man behind the mask.

Obvious. ly

The more languages a person cultivates the better. Words are only as powerful as the value you place on them regardless of where they come from – of course, life is easier if one can use and understand the dominant syntax (power and ideology).  But what you believe  ( i.e hold dear, value or love: the philosophy you live by ) is more important than anything else.

So, I am happy to finally put this delightful, sometimes funny and discomforting story about being a black African in the world today along with its long list of relatives including but not limited to race and identity to bed.

Besides, coconut oil is all the rage for growing  Afros, naturally.

Read it if you can.