JUNE 16: ” Entitled”

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The issue of  “title” or “entitlement” takes a different tone during the month of June in South Africa with cries by media commentators, politicians, business leaders, social activist and others claiming that today’s (black) youth has an attitude of “entitlement” and they are not willing to work for a living.  I think it is useful to remember that there is  a difference between knowing what you are entitled to, claiming it and being lazy.  But  all too often these attitudes are either confused or used interchangeably and the word “entitlement” has become a synonym for laziness. The youth of 1976 would not have stood against the Apartheid regime on that fateful day if they did not believe that they were “entitled” to learn in a language of their choice. No one can say with a straight face that black youth took to the streets because they didn’t want to be educated or that they were lazy. I think it’s important that we are careful not to discourage citizens from claiming what is rightfully theirs when those claims threaten the status quo. In this week’s blog post constitutional court journalist Candice Nolan writes about the ongoing struggle for land title in South Africa with a test case being deliberated by the highest court in the land, the constitutional court.  In this story she asks:

Who is “entitled” to this land?  

An all too familiar narrative is playing out on South Africa’s rural landscape. People are being pitted against their traditional leaders in a battle over land ownership. Numbering some 350 thousand households, the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela people live in 32 sub villages in the Moses Kotane Municipal Area in the North West Province. The chief, Kgosi Nyalala Pilane successfully won a land claim on behalf of his people, approved by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. That was back in 2006 and some nine years later the people say they are yet to see the benefits of that land claim. The people unanimously chose a Community Property Association as the vehicle to manage that land, setting them on a collision course with their chief. This battle has reached South Africa’s highest court – in a case  testing the validity and  authority of Community Property Associations (CPA’s). The court is yet to make its decision but government officials and indeed the Bakgatla Chief had a tough time answering questions during the hearing. Bridgeman Sojane the Secretary General of the Community Property Association says  the land sits on rich platinum deposits on which the Chief concluded mining deals with Anglo-American Platinum. Sojane complains that while the land is said to be owned by the Bakgatla community, they are yet to see any of the proceeds. “They are in the direct control of the Chief and his traditional council,” says Sojane, “they are the people who now, at the end of the day, decide what to do with the finances generated from this”.

Tara Weinberg, a specialist researcher on Community Property Associations at the Centre for Law and Society says this is one of the very few cases that gets to the heart of the land reform dilemma in South Africa.   Weinberg says there seems to be a general shift within government policy away from democratically elected structures in which people have chosen to hold land (such as CPA’s) toward traditional council’s or traditional leaders. She reckons that this may be because it is far easier for investors to negotiate with a traditional council or a Chief, than to have mining deals considered by democratically elected structures which are beholden to the will of the people. The Bakgatla CPA was never made permanent due to admitted bungling by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. The argument now,  is that the provisional CPA expired after 12 months and that it therefore cannot hold land. Tara Weinberg says the people are now looking to the Constitutional Court to give the final word on the matter.  Kgosi Pilane asked the Constitutional Court to order that the matter be sent back to the vote by the community. This despite the fact that a previous vote was unanimously in favour of a community property association as the vehicle to manage the land. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform backs the legitimacy of the Bakgatla CPA. But they insist that Kgosi Pilane must be part of any decision on who should manage the land. There was a spirited debate in the Constitutional Court on how to resolve the present impasse. Justice Bess Nkabinde pointed out an age-old African adage “Kgosi ke Kgosi ka morafe” or the King is  king by the will of his people. Certainly, Kgosi Pilane would argue that this does not mean that his power is subject to popular vote. He maintains that he is the rightful administrator of the land on behalf of the people. The Constitutional Court has reserved Judgment – meaning its judges will deliberate the issue and announce their decision on a date yet to be determined. Candice Nolan is a senior constitutional  court reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Her stories can be heard on SAfm 104-107. Follow her  @Candice_Klein on Twitter.

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XENOPHOBIA:  SOWETO FROM HERE?

There's strength in Unity.
There’s strength in Unity.

True freedom therefore is a courageous act, a brave decision to face the unchangeable fact of your past and present. It requires  fearlessness to confront the hurting parts of you, your most delicate wounds, scars which run as deep as the roots of a Baobab tree. True freedom is choosing to forgive yourself and others for your role and theirs in creating the hurts that can never be changed.   It is the courage to weave together from torn and worn out garments and stories a tapestry of forgiveness, a blanket  that will cover future generations in their moments of cold, dark, loneliness because none of us are immune. True freedom is in the words of Thomas Sankara, a dare to invent the future, to imagine something new. To move on and thrive, love and give regardless of how much has been taken or stolen in the past. True freedom is when you give yourself a chance, a little chance, with the knowledge that after a while, you have a choice, a decision to make. You can choose how you want to live, you can choose the contents of your heart, and once you’ve made that decision, take the responsibility to act on it, to fill it with things that will make you stronger. You can decide to dust it off, mop the floor and enjoy the space. True freedom is a process, an individual private journey that we must all begin collectively with immediate effect. I have written pieces of my journey in this blog over the years, but this one I hope you will  spend a bit of time reading. Because  ultimately it is about our future together –  when we become an us.

It’s Saturday Night, the 26 of April 2014.  The suns’ glow which lit up a clear blue sky was highlighted by wisps of  white clouds, shone for a few hours before traveling west. The air is starting to bite, clinging to my clothes, shoes and linen. I remind myself that I love April with its changing hues of orange, brown and yellow. Autumn, there’s a scent of freshness in the air that comes with the changing season.  I am grateful. I am sitting outside on the balcony of Brown Sugar Backpackers in Observatory, a suburb on Johannesburg’s East Rand. It is now my temporary new home.  I arrived here just a few hours ago from Curiosity Backpackers,  downtown Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD).

Curiosity backpackers is in the newly gentrified tourist location for tourists seeking alternatives to the usual wildlife Safaris which continue to draw thousands of tourists to African countries. The new district is called Maboneng Precinct, a seSotho word which when  literally translated means where there is light. “It’s a place meant for you, so you can be inspired to create” says Lunga, a slickly dressed 22-year-old property agent as he ushers me into vacant flats (apartments) at the Artists’ Lofts building.  “I’m not selling you a dream, I’m telling you reality” he says showing me the views in a New York style loft apartment still under construction. It has its own private lift as an entrance. “This one has already been bought” he adds.  Lunga “the charming hustler” as he calls himself works for Mafadi Properties a subsidiary of companies owned by Johnathan Liebman, the man who is currently breathing new life into what used to be a no-go area for middle class South Africans, who hid safety behind gated-communities, high walls and electric fences  not so long ago now.

The Artists Loft buildings’ entrance is on Albertina siSulu Street, recently renamed from Market Street: rewriting history in honour of one of South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle icons and a heroine of the African National Congress women’s league.  As we walk out of the building I glance across the street and I come face to face with Jeppe police station. And I realize as if I had been lost in time, that this is the Jeppe’s town.  Pieces of my fragmented history start to converge.  My memory is returning to me vividly as we walk briskly through the coolness of the grey morning clouds with paper cups of coffee in hand.  Smiling from ear to ear. My lips stick to my teeth as if frozen in time.

This is where I walked alone, breathlessly seeking direction to the scene of the crime(s) four years ago. It was here when I answered my bosses’ impatient call. “Where are you?” he demanded.  “I’m here, downtown” I responded in the blurred vision of the familiar. “Where in town” He asked again. Then I noticed the police station and answered with some relief “I’m here, at Jeppe’s police station, there are many people here”.  It was Monday the 12th of May 2008. The day after Xenophobic violence broke out killing five people, injuring 50 and robbing countless others of their homes, business and peace in  Jeppe’s town specifically.  The air had been knocked out of my lungs amid haunted-deserted streets mid-morning. The debris of the week-end chaos was strewn carelessly on the sweltering concrete, shards of newly broken glass shimmered under the wintry sun,   velvet soot from smouldering fires, papers, garbage, abandoned splintering new merchandise, shoes, belts, stock  forgotten in a frenzy of adrenalin pumped feet escaping death.  I was lost in the inner belly of a city whose blood was pulsating through my veins with every passing second,  not knowing what to expect, where to go or who to ask what. “They took everything” said a shop owner, hurriedly packing up his shop. ”We are closing shop now, we are scared they’ll come back again, we don’t know if they’ll come back again”. The air was thin with tension making it difficult to blink. My coffee had grown cold. “They plan to turn this building into a state of the art-gallery” says Lunga pointing to an old Victorian-esque building on the opposite corner of Commissioner and Albrecht Street.” They’ll do renovations but they will preserve its original architecture” he says. “It’s beautiful, I can see myself living my life here riding a bike” I say.   ” Yes, in your future amazing life” he smiles at me. I smile back and think my life is already amazing. The offspring of the Washington consensus.

Curiosity Backpackers has been open for less than four months and business is practically blooming. Media coverage of the new open space for globe trotters around the world has been equally good.  All the rooms have been booked out to foreign travelers.  “Until the end of May” the booking manager tells me “more travelers from European countries are coming ” she says. As I roll my suitcase out of this inner city hide out, there’s a flurry of activity: brand new crisp white sheets have just been delivered. Curiosity staff scurried from one corner to another like mice cleaning up every inch and corner of the grey concrete building. No stone is left un-turned.

Fresh new sparkling white faces smile with wonder-lust in their eyes, high on the curious adventures in the concrete jungle. “Zwarte-piet  (black assistants to the dutch St Nicholas/ the Dutch celebrate the holiday by painting their faces black their lips red and wearing Afros) was just like  Santa-Clause or Father Christmas for us, for me as a child he represented the happy exciting feeling of Christmas, his represent only good things to us” A Dutch journalism student tells me in the crammed passageways of curiosity. “It’s a sentimental tradition which though I don’t celebrate anymore and can see why it can be “offensive” But for me it has nothing to do with racism. It is a festival full of excitement, celebrations, a time for gifts, sweets and such like, whenever I think of Zwarte -piet, I have good memories. It was the highlight of my childhood” She concludes sipping black label beer.

I am reminded of how lucky I am.  A few years ago, ten of them to be exact, the luxury of staying at a backpackers in my own country was virtually impossible, unheard of in fact. In 2004, the year South Africa marked and celebrated 10 years of freedom, I walked down Cape Town’s busy and popular Long Street, knocking from one backpacker to another seeking accommodation.  Then there was no room at the inn. I couldn’t stay in  a single Backpacker on long street there was a policy that reserved the right of admission only to foreign passport holders.   I was excluded only on that basis, it was neither the issue of availability nor affordability. “It’s our policy, no South Africans” the guy said. I was more than perplexed at the irony of the situation.  Even the citizenship that our forefathers fought so hard to achieve did not guarantee a roof over my head as a traveler in my home country.

“This place is cool, at least you can stay” said a friend of mine while visiting me at Curiosity.   “A few years ago I couldn’t find a backpacker to stay in, in Cape Town” she said as if reading my mind.

The previous night I sat around a fire with a group of young South Africans, a group which included a dread-locked white guy who asked for a sip of black label beer in isiZulu, a 25-year-old Jewish architect who was searching for inspiration, maybe even a life changing epiphany and yet another “born-free” (a term used to describe South Africans born after 1994) guy who didn’t want to vote in the upcoming elections on May 7 2014. “It’s about me now” he said looking at me with such intensity I felt my own words coming out of his mouth. “I have to know myself first. I need to know who I am, what I am about, I need to understand me first, sort out the issues with my family – find my place in the world before I can even hope to change this country” he said staring at the ashen coals of a dying fire.  He’s of mixed descent what South Africans refer to as “coloured” or “biracial”.  ” They don’t see this, they don’t understand it, but I won’t be forced to vote” He said tightening his grip on the dark brown black label bottle. I listen amazed by his confidence and resolve. I am disarmed by it.   ” Locals were never allowed to stay at Backpackers before, the rules just changed recently” the staff at Brown Sugar tells me as I walk in and inquire about rooms.  I hear myself asking why in a weak moment of complete amnesia. “They say you locals steal. So foreigners don’t want to share rooms with you” she says smiling and shrugging her shoulders.   ” So you can’t stay in a shared room because you’re staying for more than one night” she continues “You have to get a single room and it costs more.”  I look at her silently. “It’s the rules” she says folding her arms.

I think of Lyth. A beautiful Irish- Palestinian man I met a few days ago on my first Sunday back in the city of Johannesburg.  I noticed him a few times. I liked his style.He was sitting alone at a coffee Kiosk called Uncle Merves’ on Maboneng’s Districts’ Fox Street – paging through a thick green and yellow guide to the city of Johannesburg. It was my favourite spot too. I ask him for a light and use the opportunity to ask him where he’s from. ” I’m from Cape Town” He says trying to size me up “I was there on holiday with my girlfriend, who has gone to visit family in Durban. I decided to visit Johannesburg instead, to get a real sense of the country”. He said closing the tome between his hands.   It was his first time on the African continent he confessed. I refused to ask him why he didn’t join his girlfriend in Durban.  I was also just simply passing time, enjoying people watching in the afternoon sun. It was none of my sun-shining-day-business.   He tells me that they traveled from London where he lives (with his girlfriend) and works as a commercial lawyer for a huge mining conglomerate (which he refused to name). He wants to be a journalist like me he says, he is considering doing some human rights work.  He lives not too far from London’s famed Nottinghill District. “My favourite movie” I quip and he smiles knowingly. But I can see how disturbed he is.

After what seemed like an eternity he finally let it out. “I’m shocked that in this country I’m considered white!” he says peering at me as if  the answer to that question was written on my face.  “I mean I am Palestinian!” He  exclaimed shaking his head. I smile and in a moment of sheer exhaustion decide to by pass all his inferred history and simply simplify the reality of South Africa’s racially segregated past. I nod and only manage to say  “Here you are white, brother.”  As if to prove a much laboured point he reaches into his backpack and shows me his reading material a book called “Biko: A life” by South African Academic Xolela Mangcu.

I wince a little as images of me sitting at the newly opened, fresh out of the box constitutional  court of South Africa flash in front of me making it hard for me to delve deeper into the book. On that particular night in my very early and firey 20’s I shared the stage with Dr Mangcu himself and African-American philosopher and public intellectual Cornell West. The subject; a conversation about the meaning of Mandela. I surprised many if not everyone with my youthful analysis of our new rainbow nation.  I told them I don’t care about Mandela or Hip-Hop. I didn’t grow up listening to Kwaito. I didn’t believe in this rainbow. But nobody was ready for that. “You are very brave” one woman confided to me afterwards. “What a shame, young people nowadays!” flutters of disgusted whispers hovered over my head in hushed tones. I had to escape my own notoriety.  I had shamed the country’s esteemed public intellectuals, returned exiles, academics, writers, journalists and many others right in the centre of a building that embodied our greatest hopes and dreams as a nation. This then was my truth. My silence become uncomfortable.  ” It’s really a brilliant book, best biography I’ve read about the man” he said quickly returning it into his backpack like a prized possession. I agreed with him desperately wanting to change the subject. I was in a cheerful mood, determined to focus only on the bright side of life and Lyth was begging me with his thoughtful, questioning silent side-ways glances to go into the deep political ocean with him. “How will you manage that?” He asked of my determination to remain light as I looked away searching for something even more cheerful to talk about.  We somehow  ended up in  Beirut – a city we both love. He was also there in June 2006, dubbed the Hottest Summer in Lebanon, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah. I bought the t-shirt but my mother promptly discarded it. “Your girlfriend is lucky to have you” I say hoping to brighten his mood. Later I discovered to my surprise that he was also a curiosity resident. I invite him to the African Freedom Station where I introduce him to Bra Steve Kwena Mokwena. There, with a glass of whiskey in hand – he was at peace, at home. He grew up listening to Hip-Hop.

RAMPHOSA AND THE BURNING MAN

I’m sure by now you’re asking where this story is going or how it is related to the the recent and in some cases ongoing attacks on African immigrants in Soweto and other parts of South Africa.  Before I get there, I want to use the story of Ramaphosa Township which made international headlines in 2008 after a picture of the “burning-man” who was known as Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was broadcast to the world. His en flamed body became a symbol of xenophobic brutality in South Africa. Photographers watched on as he burnt to death, collapsing, crawling, trying to escape the inferno that clung to him like white on rice. Many were too scared to save a man’s life, but  most were indeed brave enough to document it.

Shortly after being assigned to Jeppe’s town I was  assigned to this very township, Ernestos isolated frame still etched in my vision. Violence had not abated. Police were still exchanging fire with unidentified gunmen.  As I walked through this informal settlement I found some people, cleaning up and moving into newly vacant homes or shacks. Thinking they were victims of recent violence I approached to ask them  questions about what had happened. It turned out that they were just residents, perhaps neighbours, who saw the violence as an opportunity to meet their housing  needs.  Many of them had already staked their claim on homes, some were already moving furniture, others were using what material was left to erect new homes, some just stood on vacant doors. Enough evidence to prove that this space belongs to you now.  Each home already had a new owner who was moving in, barely days if not hours after many had been chased out of their homes. I asked why? They answered that the foreigners “take our jobs, they take our women, we’ve also been waiting for houses.  for plots of land from where to erect our shacks. For something to happen. We want houses.” So they just simply moved in,  took advantage of the situation. No police were there to monitor the situation, there was no one to lay charges or dispute what was happening. Everyone had ample opportunity to do just as they pleased with what was left behind. I realized then that there was something sinister. A sickening opportunism, a blatant take -over of someone else’s dream and years of hard work, whose reality was made worse by the fact that there was no one to blame, no one could be held accountable, in the greater scheme of things.  If any of the African migrants  who survived had to return, they would find nothing left for them, what little they had was no longer theirs. The vultures had been hovering long before the violence broke out, they would find their home occupied, taken over.

 A HISTORY IN THE ECONOMIES OF SCALE

Shortly after the Xenophobic attacks in Jeppestown which left much of the area abandoned and vacant, Propertuity, a company owned by Johnathan Liebman  acquired its first property on Fox and main streets in 2008.  The building would be turned into Arts on Main: a mixed use space for creatives to have an integrated live and work offering. With the support of important artists and institutions such as William Kent ridge and the Nirox Foundation.  Arts on Main was opened in 2009 and has since resulted in further  acquisition of more and more buildings to become Maboneng and has since been listed in the New York times as one of the most fascinating places to visit for tourists.  Before the xenophobic attacks of 2008 Jeppe’s town was occupied by SMME’s many of them had been there for decades. Traders and merchants – trading mostly in designer men’s clothing and specialist shoe shops. There was no mass exodus of people. I bought my first car in Jeppe’s town.

What opportunistic residents of Ramaphosa did  is no different to what  Propertuity did in order to acquire buildings in Jeppe’s town for next to nothing.  Perhaps it was all just a fortuitous coincident that Propertuity was able to acquire a building shortly after xenophobic violence broke-out,  perhaps the idea had been there all along. Perhaps they like Ramaphosa residents created, instigated or used the misfortune to create business opportunities for themselves where there had been no opportunities before. The difference here is of course that Propertuity makes money out of this, its urban regeneration projects are perceived to be a generally good intervention into the inner city’s “decaying” landscape. Entrepreneurs in informal settlements such as  Ramaphosa who engaged in the same or similar activities are looked at with  scorn looked, as  if they  are “bad” apples.  But this is what many in the business world would consider as a “hostile-take over”. A natural process  of doing business.

The scapegoat  however valid (xenophobia) is an easy one to make. Everybody knows that Africans dislike each other. The existing weaknesses in our fragile identities make it easy for anyone to manipulate the situation for their own benefit.  In cases of mob justice it is often hard to find the instigators or the real reasons behind the violence. And if found those reasons on balance  do not support such extreme violence, the response seems disproportionate .  In such cases, as the media often does  and should everyone focuses on the perceived losers and never on those who stand to benefit the most from the ensuing violence or instability.   I have witnessed this in Ramaphosa, Jeppe’s town  and in other parts of Africa where suddenly property prices plummet with violence and instability, allowing speculators, investors and others to acquire property and assets that would have taken  much longer to secure in the normal course of  business negotiations.  Indeed  they cannot be blamed for the violence or for profiting from a bad situation, because in essence that is the definition of  entrepreneurship.

Many people admire  Jonathan Liebmans’ genius, his intelligence and quick thinking action as an entrepreneur, a brave man who has  gone where no-one dared go  before, a pioneering spirit  so full of inspiring original ideas and creative ways of getting what he wants. I say he’s just as clever, intelligent and as creative as those Ramphosa Residents, who seized an opportunity and moved into plots made vacant by faceless nameless crowds. They are all cut from the same cloth. One is despised for it, shamed for it. The other is praised and worshiped for doing the exact same thing.

And Lyth? The point about his story is to illustrate the reality of life. That it is not black or white in the way we’ve always understood it, based on the colour of one’s skin.  The bigger picture  is to a large extent no longer about what you look like; whether it be white, black, coloured, Jewish, Indian or brown or Japanese. What’s more important than what you look like is what you think, your motives, your reasons, the ideas or ideology which motivates and inspires your actions.  These supersede your appearance or the natural length of your hair because they determine who you are at your very core, your nature. These thoughts and attitudes are what determine your way in life, the people you associate with and the choices you make in life. It’s about an ideology, a belief system that resonates with your personal core values whatever  they may be.  Lyth was shocked at the fact that he is considered “white” in South Africa because he understood whiteness as an ideology, a state of mind in much the same way as Black Consciousness is a state of mind.

SOWETO?

It is my belief that we need to move from a white, black, skin and money consciousness narrative and be more “People” conscious. Let’s read the constitution and the bill of rights of this country again, over and over, every day. Let’s do this to remember where we started, to understand where we are, let’s do it so we can see the direction we must take, using the bill of rights and the countries’ constitution as a map for where we want to go.  Then measure all of our current actions and inactions against the goals and aspirations written in the constitution and bill of rights. Are we going in the right direction? The idea of a rainbow nation was birthed as a poetic celebration, a metaphor of humanity’s landscape throughout the world. A call to  celebrate diversity, because we are not all white or black or coloured, we have different shades and hues and together we look just as magnificent as the rainbow. Despite how we look however, we all deserve the same rights, respect and consideration  irrespective of our country of origin. If we welcome Europeans, Asians, and others warmly  into our cities, or neighbourhoods to do business or build lives we must surely extend the same courtesy  to Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalians etc because they too are our honoured guests, because they too deserve the same rights and respect. If we do not do that, then we are betraying ourselves, we are going against our core values as a nation as set forth in the Bill of Rights  which affords everyone in this country a right to dignity.  If we don’t condemn these attacks, if we do not  stand against capital or money being used to routinely  violate human rights, we are agreeing with them, we are implicated by our silence.  We may be in trouble as a nation but we are not without direction, we have the blueprint for a society that we want to live in, enshrined in the  constitution and the bill of rights. Let’s use that as our campus and do whatever  is  necessary to defend the human rights and dignity of others as if our own lives depend on them being upheld, because ultimately they do.

 

Some Pepper With That? Afrika Rea Bolela

Wesley Pepper. Pic:Jhblive.com
Wesley Pepper. Pic:Jhblive.com

Johannesburg, South Africa. The last time I met a guy at a McDonald’s establishment was in circa 2001, then I was a virgin and a journalism student in the dark really about my purpose in life.  He was my first real boyfriend and everyone in the class knew how besotted I was with him.  Perhaps it was his cold ocean blue eyes, his gait, his smile or the way his blonde hair seemed permanently peppered with dandruff, or maybe it was the fact that I seemed to think everyone wanted to be his girlfriend, whatever the reason I felt lucky to be the chosen one.   He asked me out for coffee after class, an invitation I welcomed since I couldn’t afford any of MacDonald’s offerings and additionally it would mean spending some time with him. He was really serious s and I wondered what was on his mind. “It’s not working” he said to me. “What is not working?” I asked naively.  “us” he said trying really hard not to break my heart. I was considered to be a “sweet” girl.  “What do you mean?” I asked confused. “Well will you come to my grandparent’s house? They are going away for two weeks while we’re on holiday will you come and visit me? hang out?” he asked  an  impossible question. “You know I can’t” I said trying to think of what excuse I could give my parents for sleeping over at a stranger’s place.  I couldn’t  think of one and actually I was not  yet ready to do the deed so I had to accept  that our four weeks of  stolen kisses by the bridge on my way to catch a taxi home or the stolen kisses, looks and smiles  before, during and after lectures was basically over.  “Yeah so, it’s not going to work out … please don’t cry” he said looking around as if someone could hear the sound of my tears dripping into my now cold coffee. “It’s not you it’s me” He said growing more concerned, but  it proved hard to form words  between the warm vapour  foaming behind my ears and throat. “Do you want a napkin?” he asked.  A napkin? I repeated … wondering why he would offer me a napkin in public – images of a baby in a napkin crying from some mysterious irritation flooded my mind. I looked up.  “Oh a serviette” I said taking it and smiling at the tragic comedy of it all.

These were the emotions that suddenly welled up inside me as I sat opposite artist and writer Wesley Pepper at a 24hr  McDonald’s on Gandhi square, in downtown Johannesburg.  He along with  about 40 artists formed a fine artist collective, late last year  to take full control of their own work, and he wanted to tell me all about it.  The collective must be working – the group will be exhibiting their work at Constitutional Hill on the 11 of April. “I think that’s my purpose” said Pepper who has had an 8 year career in  the  publishing industry, himself a published author with three books under his name.  In 2004 he established his own publishing company called ” Reunited Siblings” in response to a r growing demand for alternative creative outlets for  writers artists, you name it. “I never wondered what I would do with my life, I always knew that I would be in the arts and that the work I would do would be good’ he said. “Getting artists together  in a room and working on a collective creative project that’s my purpose.”

The exhibition titled: Afrika Rea Bolela  ( literal  English translation  Africa We are Talking) is the brain child of Pepper and his co-curator collaborator artist Molefi Thwala, whose work he has the utmost respect for.   “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Molefi, I like how he works conceptually”. The theme for the exhibition is not so light-hearted  though.  It’s about that hefty document which forms the bedrock of South Africa’s constitution: The bill of rights. “My work is always political, I have to be political” he said smiling at his own genius. “We really got a good deal at the constitutional court to showcase our work” his smile now widening.

Pepper is inspired by life, people and music but street art  is what gets him going and the exhibition draws a lot of  inspiration from street  art.   “We live in a world of short attention spans, twitter, face book  etc  and I think street art is  most  effective in getting people’s attention or  whatever message you want across” He says his face suddenly lightening up.  “In a given day you are guaranteed at least that 600 people will see your work and a few might think about it, but it will touch at least one person’s life”. His statement brought to mind  quote by one of my great loves  American writer James Baldwin  when he said “You write in order to change the world…if you alter, even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it” I live by his words.

Pepper is surprisingly very honest about the works. “I expected  the work to be more daring, more experimental “ He said adding that he understands “Because  we get used to how we do things and get settled into our comfort zones and often artists don’t understand the dynamics of evolving “He said removing an invisible stain on the table with his thumb and index finger.  “If all the black artists would decide to things for themselves the industry would get a serious awakening, a serious wake-up call”.  “It’s very cool “ he  continued as if realizing for the first time that I was sitting in front of him “ It’s very cool to see something which was just an idea come to life, becoming real, it’s very cool and I think we’re on the right track. We just need someone with a big wallet”.

As we parted outside Macdonald’s  into our separate city boxes, yellow morning sun-rays beamed through concrete pillars, catching light and glimmering on green leaves, glass, Perspex walls, the city was alive and I was alive in it.  So you can imagine my surprise when I caught a glimpse of that sweet girl smiling back at me and found that though a little wiser, she  had not lost her innocence after all.

Afrika Rea Bolela:  A mixed media exhibition is  on at the Constitutional Court (ConHill)t, Johannesburg on the 11 of April.

Catch it if you can.