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…”

 

 

 

 

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A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.
Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed  the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist.  So since  we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am,  with you.  So this dear one  is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move  forward. I no longer wish to be  entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from  living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of  contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going.  Everything in its own time.

So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was  assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated  to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.

START FROM THE BEGINNING: A COLOUR PIECE

Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure  what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area.  It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner  political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country.  So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African  to be racially classified  this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between  races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese  etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a  “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together.  The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier.  When the group areas act law was  implemented  the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation.  Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale  but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.

I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it.  He smiled and said  “do it  for TV Radio and Online”.  I summoned the  courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was  the structure  I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what  event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?.  ” Ouma  Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.

TWIN-SOULS: NEVER CHANGE

Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools.  This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”.  The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa;   through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy-  running while the  limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.

WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE: SHIFTS HAPPEN

This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me.  I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.

SO THIS IS WHAT ALL THIS WAS ABOUT.

So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.

Can you imagine?