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.

 

THE ANT CAFE: THE SECRETE LOVE PLACE IN MELVILLE

ANT Cafe Melville, Johannesburg

ANT Cafe Melville, Johannesburg

I was fixing to write some lengthy essay about Google… the search for information on just about anything engine. I found myself sitting at a candle lit table at ANTs quite surprisingly as if I had been sleep walking from my bed to the restaurant maybe I was. So Google will have to wait until some other time while I tell you about this little nook of love called Ants Café on 7th street in Melville, Johannesburg. It’s somewhat of an institution in this popular artist/media village. It is 19 years old this year – as old as our democracy.

The First Time Ever I saw Your Face...

When I walked in alone and heavily draped in my Lufthansa airline blanket, jacket and long dress the host showed me to a table by the fire-place. The exact same table I sat at for the first time at ANT almost 13 years ago with my friends, Maceik, Allan and Tom. We were there to eat our last meal pizza – together to wish Tom well on his trip to Argentina South America where he now runs a backpackers with his partner. Maceik now lives in Poland with his grandmother, while he writes, makes films and teaches. Allan the musician is now as we speak currently enjoying the summer in the UK and has been there for close to ten years. I realized for the first time that of the four friends who sat animated and chatting about the future – I was the only one left at the table – literally. I have travelled a lot since then and have lived in another country, but still I find myself so many years later once again at ANT on a date with Jedi.

Lemon and Salt…..

Being there made me feel so nostalgic of all the friendships and happy moments I shared with so many. I felt nostalgic about what ANT has meant for me over the past decade living in Melville. Almost everyone I have ever loved – and loved – deeply has shared a meal with me under the warm dim light of candles at ANT. It somehow brought love back to me. Because you see I always went or invited people I love to Ant. There is something about rustiness of the place that says ‘home’ to me in so many ways. I have always felt safe at ANT to open up and be my authentic self in a public restaurant. It has none of that pretence – it’s a place you go to talk to the one you love, to tell truth about you somehow. Ant has been a sacred place for me, a hideaway. A love-filled kitchen I couldn’t provide for my many friends, many of whom were in various stages of transit and many of whom have since left the country or chapters in my life. Ant was a place where I could have conversations about love – all kinds of love – and leave feeling happy and secure. ANT is famous for its thin base pizzas… and they are all quite good and until recently you could only pay in cash for the food and service. A trait which added to the restaurants quirkiness. I remembered bringing my younger sister Didi to ANT for the first time to get to know my new partner. I remember countless nights sipping red wine with Gina, who is now a lawyer living in Canada, or stolen lunches from with Adel who is now an award-winning journalist and mother of one, sipping whiskey, it was a place where I went to if I didn’t want my conversation to be interrupted.  The many nights with Ms Walker, Jane and countless other friends.  Because on Melville 7th street nothing was sacred. I chose ANT to celebrate my 30th birthday three years ago, entering a new phase of my life with old and new friends. There was no other place that could hold my heart as gently as this restaurant did.

  To Build a home

Three years later I found myself at Ant sitting across from someone I have always loved, unexpectedly consoling them about a love they’ve been chasing for almost ten years since we last met. It’s a place of untold beauty because of the people and characters I shared this place with. So as I was sitting at his table thinking about my next adventure I read a story about ANT that I never knew before in all the years that I have walked in each time with renewed hope for new beginnings. The story – which I image now in hindsight represents some of the struggles that we spoke about in this very same place about belonging, identity and life. It’s a piece of Johannesburg history with a surprisingly positive ending or should I say beginning

    That  Next Place

The story behind the ANT café is as fascinating as its décor. Ronnie van Der Walt (owner) moved to Melville in 1979 and began a studio and art gallery called “things Ceramic”. With the change in government in 1991, however, he decided that in order to survive and prosper in the new South Africa he’s need to go into either tourism or security. Having chosen the security option, the opened a locksmith shop, selling remote controls and security keys to various hijack and mugging victims. After a while though, he found himself becoming increasingly aggressive and paranoid and started thinking of alternatives. It was a friend’s comment that he’s make money without selling a thing if he simply made his own coffee instead of ordering it every day from the house of coffees that convinced Ronnie to kick-in the security business and turn it to something more fulfilling. Work begun at the shop almost immediately. The security business was gradually phased out as renovation began and in a little more than five weeks the locksmith had been transformed into the ANT Café. Short of mixing the concrete and pushing the wheelbarrow – Ronnie did all the renovations himself. Upon entering the café one immediate impression is that of a rustic farm kitchen – wholesome and comfortable. Dried bunches of flowers hang from the ceiling. The compelling smell of brewing coffee all combine to create a homely and appealing sunny ambiance. Colours are earthy and rich, with wooden tables, homemade iron chairs and wall have been plastered with pigments.”

Because I’m Happy

Then it dawned on me, again, that the pursuit of happiness is not as selfish as it may appear; to seek joy in your life, to seek to do what makes you happy is to seek to give joy to others too. Because I have found untold joy at ANT and all because Ronnie decided to do something that would make him joyful that was fulfilling. Through his labour of love he has brought joy to thousands of travellers and locals who have walked through its glass doors. Because, how can you hope to share joy with others if you don’t have joy within yourself. Or love for that matter? ANT was not Ronnie’s first choice, he tried two business before he found one that was just right for him, and it has stayed open in Melville longer than almost all the restaurants and bars on the street today – it’s almost two decades old and still provides that warm homely feeling, same welcoming atmosphere, service and food that stole my heart the first day I walked in.  It’s as if when you enter… time stands still just for a moment.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN: HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Troyville. Monday, 6pm CAT.

This little village where I fell in-love with artists so many years ago and for a little while lived vicariously through the lives of eccentric artists such as Karl Gietle who now lives in a coastal French town in Sett, Wayne Barker my former landlord who found love and is now remarried to a French woman and is living happily in suburbia, Mervin  Dowman the Mosaic artist who also is a keen craftsman, is also making a home somewhere else.  Bra Peter, the disgruntled writer who used to live on the top floor, is now also selling and moving on to his real hometown, Brixton London with his girlfriend.  Jessica the artist and mother of one sweet molly, Kacia the architect who wanted to be an artist is now a mother living in Cape Town, her brother Maciek is now living in Poland, writing, teaching, making films and looking after his grandmother. Katlego the singer with three beautiful children. Bheki the little guy on the stoep is not so little anymore, he now owns backpackers in the new gentrified Maboneng precinct and works a photographer. And then there’s me, the radio- journalist who was always in search of the meaning of life. After all these years  the people, characters, that made this little town so fascinating have all moved, left in pursuit of happiness.  I find myself now on the eve of my second departure from this institution called Berly Court, much clearer than when I first arrived. This little village of Nostalgia, of broken dreams, hearts, and friendships has made me realize just how fragile we all are. And how though we try to hide behind wide smiles and optimistic grins – we all feel a little lost, with a constant need, urge to belong somewhere, to someone, to something. To be relevant and understood without question. To be home.

The past two months here have been intensely emotional, I have met old friends, like Pamela whose now back in town and is living with her daughter and partner after years of being lost in Cape Town. Phibia who is now living in town with her new love. Mbali, the DJ who is now pursuing a career in photography and is on her way to Belgium to re-invent herself.  Fumi  a former colleague at the SABC whose wealth of knowledge about South African politics I never had time to discover,  Nicole also a former colleague, is a writer and researcher who lives a mostly solitary life.  Katarina, the German artist whose friendship has made my life a little easier to bear. Carole whose smile always reflects my own. Neli the travelling dancer, whose  amazing talent persuaded  me to pursue my secrete wish to be a dancer.  Then there’s Lindiwe my name sake and an Actress who I met years ago while she was still studying drama at Rhodes University and I was on assignment.  I finally got over her intoxicating beauty  and saw for the first time that she is just as human as I will ever be. In the last couple of days there’s been a flurry of old faces, all of them once so close and but now so far, old lovers, moving on with new loves, homes, careers or maybe still searching in other parts of town or world. I’ve met new faces too, most of which I don’t remember anymore and will probably never see again. I realize as in life that this place has always been a transit-home. A station where people wait for a little while, until a dream with their name on it picks them up. People I’ve met here have always been on their way to somewhere else, to bigger dreams to a better life, to love, to something which remains even as I write this intangible, until it’s lived.  I’ve  walked these streets every day and discovered the decay, the loneliness and broken-ness hidden behind closed windows, loud music blaring from cars, TV screens, chisanyama’s , in faces who hearts are somewhere else far away.  I can taste the hardship of life in the middle of no where  between the city of Johannesburg and the airport to the world. It’s a place populated by migrants from Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape, France, Germany, Soweto.  I can taste the sweat of the daily  hustle, the smell the frustration in perfumes and  faces drained with alcohol.  Life in Troyville seems to hang constantly and thinly on balance. As with money, jobs and relationships.

Today I feel mostly grateful for the time spent here, largely because I have somewhere to go, I have a family waiting for me, people I’ve known all my life and who have loved me and I them through all the ups and downs of life. I have always had a home, many homes in fact, in the hearts of those who’ve loved me unconditionally –who took me as I am. I’ve always had a home in those hearts that chose to love me irrespective of my many faults.   For home truly is where the heart is.  As to the meaning of life I have found that it is in Living.  To live, with as much love, kindness, forgiveness and grace as we can possibly master, one day at a time.

Thank you all for continuing to read my blog this year, I have enjoyed the freedom of writing my heart on the page and to look at it, from time to time, again and again with you, because then I don’t feel so alone.  I hope you are with the ones you love, with those in whose hearts you continue to find a home again and again. Happy Holidays! And let’s all toast to love in the New Year! And smile not because it ended, but because it happened.

LOVE

j

NOT OF GOOD REPORT…

Of-good-report-poster
The day before the world came to a stand-still, due to reasons I’m sure you’re all very familiar with by now The First Wednesday Film Club (FWFC), an independent film screening club in Johannesburg South African hosted it’s last movie screening of the year – the critically acclaimed and most controversial South African Film –OF GOOD REPORT -written and directed by Jahmil Qubeka. The event was well attended by many of Johannesburg’s top film producers, directors, actors, film lovers and fans alike. The room was packed to the brim with an eager pop-corn munching audience.  Why?  The film was unceremoniously banned by the South African film board minutes before it was meant to open the Durban International film festival in June this year, for underage pornographic content.   Festival goers were met with a muted Qubeka and a message saying the film could not be screened as that would constitute a criminal offense. Social media was abuzz with twitters of heightened fears of increased suppression of the right to freedom of expression by the state. The film however was later approved for screening, with a 16 plus age restriction. This led to the eventual screening of the film at FWFC.
A TRAGEDY
True to form the Master of Ceremonies (MC) for the evenings’ screening   comedian David Kibuka, of Etv’s Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola  (LNN) comedy show did not mince his words. “We are all here to watch child pornography, that’s what we all are here to see “he said to much self-conscious laughter from the audience. I had been looking forward to seeing the film myself; generally eager to find out if the film was truly worth of all the fuss. As South Africans we can be quite hysterical about nothing sometimes.  Of Good report is a story about a serial killer teacher who forms an illicit relationship with a 15-year-old student. The teacher soon becomes obsessed with the girl so much so that he ends up bludgeoning her to a pulp with a cricket bat and butchering her body to get rid of her.  The scenes are all very graphic, from the sex scenes which the film was originally banned for and the butchering scenes.  Throughout the process the teacher, is haunted by the image of his chain-smoking mother whom he also smothered to death. The teacher, though of good report, had been in the army and had just returned from a peace keeping mission from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and on his return had to serve as a nurse to his ailing mother, which required him to wake up at odd hours of the night to clean her up after each time she went to the toilet to relieve herself.  A tortured, soul, he does not utter a single word through-out the film, something which the film’s director Qubeka says was intended to silence men, who often are given a voice in society despite their many transgressions.  The film itself is very long and slow and full of graphic violence, employing film styles, such Film Noir including echoes of the Coen brothers.  Qubeka himself admits that there is nothing “original” in his choice of film styles, calling himself a kind of Film “DJ” who mixed all imaginable Film genres into one movie. Many in the audience were awed by the director’s technical abilities in making film for film sake, while others bemoaned the lack of a larger storyline. But since I’m not a film buff I will not focus on the style of the film but just tell you what I got from it.
INTERPRETING SOUTH AFRICA
I am all about story-lines when it comes to movies and films – and less about how the film was made though the two often go hand in hand. I enjoyed Qubeka’s treatment of the heavy subject of  Child pornography, the relationship between teacher and student, because though illicit in nature he did not attach any blame to any single character, simply telling the story as it is, leaving it up to the audience to make their own judgments about who they would choose to empathize with.  All the characters are made vulnerable by their personal histories which when looked at holistically are equally traumatic, and each character acts out in different ways – all which are equally self-destructive.  However, the violent scenes where hard for me to take, and I would have put an 18 age restriction on the movie instead of 16 because of the high level of violent content. Why? Because I think we have our wires crossed a little bit, the Film board was not concerned about the violent content in this movie, only the sex scenes which are mostly implied, while the violence is not.  We make a lot of fuss about sex and less about violence: its okay to smother your mother to death with a pillow because you can’t stand their illness or taking care of them, it’s okay to bludgeon someone to death because they stopped loving you the way you want, but it’s not okay to have sex. The argument is often violence is real, its reality why not show it? Well so is sex? Why do we have double standards? However “real” it may be, killing is not a “natural” human function, hurting someone because of whatever reason is not natural.  Whether we perceive it as just a movie and therefore not “real” there’s no difference in the brain or in how our emotions react to what we see. It’s an experience, if there was a difference we wouldn’t cry at the movies when we see a touching or a sad scene because we would know it’s not real.  But we do and that’s because our emotions can’t tell the difference. The image becomes a memory and becomes a lived experience.   We suffer secondary, third levels of trauma as a result. We must take responsibility for what we do whether it’s in the name of “art” or “freedom” of expression.  Already as a country we suffer untold amounts of trauma from lived “real” experiences of violent crime, all the time, do we need see and experience more at the movies too?  I think the litmus test for every artist should be, would I be happy showing my child this  body of work to my child? If not then however interesting it is, it is not worth doing, if it’s not good enough for your child to see, it’s not good enough to be shown anywhere for anyone.  I think as artists we tend to take the easy route, pick on low hanging fruit, instead of really interrogating how we want to express our ideas. violence is easy. The more violence we see, the more immune we become to it, the more we find it easier to accept violent behavior in any shape or form as an acceptable part of human nature – which it isn’t.   So we learn that the only way to deal with trauma, pain or hurt is through violence – death.  Want to change how society behaves? Change the movies, change popular culture. Television and social media have an untold influence on human behavior whether you choose to acknowledge this fact or not.  If movies are about creating new ways of seeing the world, why don’t we focus on creating a world we would love to live in? Why perpetuate the same ugly, violence and hate crimes, and then hope to have a different result in real life?  We are all influenced by the images we see, whether we create them through “art” or we see them in real life no matter how “literate” we are. We are traumatized by the things we do and experience, children, even adults emulate what they see on television, good or bad in real life too.  Why don’t we practice loving each other? Talking to each other as a way of resolving problems instead of re-enforcing violent behavior and hate?  We might not be able to do away with violence in real life, but we can limit it on-screen, that we can surely control. So if a movie can be banned for implied sex scenes, which we all know happen in real life all the time but we still put age restrictions on such movies, why do we have different standards when it comes to violence?
I for one would have banned the movie all together.

MADIBA’S LEGACY: A FATHERLESS NATION

A boy walks past a mural painted outside former President Nelson Mandela's former home in Alexandra Township. Pic. Reuters/Mujahid Safodien.

A boy walks past a mural painted outside former President Nelson Mandela’s former home in Alexandra Township. Pic. Reuters/Mujahid Safodien.

 “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela

South Africa Today

South Africa is leading the world in incidents of domestic violence and rape against women and children. According to research by the Medical  Research Council of South Africa (MRC) at least one in three South African men admitted to raping a woman;   at least 144 women report incidents of rape in the country every hour, which  when extrapolated results in  3, 600 reported rape cases a day across the country. Rape, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS,  are largely responsible for an  estimated 3.6 million orphans  in the country, according to figures by Statistics South Africa. “Just under one fifth (19.6%) of all children in South Africa, representing approximately 3.6 million people, are orphaned – half of them due to HIV/AIDS,” said Stats SA in its social profile of vulnerable groups in South Africa from 2002–2010.   These are  causes which former South African President and Nobel Peace prize laureate Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to after stepping down as the first black democratically elected president in 1999.

FAMILY MAN

Despite the negative statistics, there are men who, even under great financial strain are following in Madiba’s footsteps and are taking care of orphaned and vulnerable children. Men like Johannes Majola, a father of three sons and four children he inherited from his late sister.  Majola opened  the Simthembile Homes for children with  intellectual disabilities in Roodepoort South of Johannesburg after being approached by a parent asking him to take care of her child or else she will kill her. “ That broke my heart, I asked myself why she has to kill her” He told BTL “ Single parents face a great challenge, especially those with children with intellectual and physical disabilities,  having to balance work and take care of their children at the same time”  said Majola “ Often they cannot afford to pay and there are not enough homes which cater for physically and intellectually disabled children – I would say the system is failing us” says Majola who runs the home from governments’ disability grants which do not cover the cost of caring for the ten residents at the home.   “Sometimes I have to take food from my own children to give to the residents due to lack of funds”.   Majola  admires Mandela and  calls him his liberator. “ he brought us freedom, liberty and I am following his example of being a father, a protector, a shepherd  who looks after his flock.  Hope and love keep me going” He told BTL “without love you cannot take care of children”.

Majola is not the only man taking care of vulnerable children, Bob Nameng a former street-kid  and an orphan himself, runs centre  for  children in one of the oldest townships in Soweto – Kliptown  -whose living and social conditions have remained almost  unchanged since Mandela’s release from prison.  Nameng told BTL that he works with children because he wants to protect them from the hardship of living on the streets “I didn’t want children to experience the pain of living in the streets like I did, I am an orphan, and I wanted to lead by example, so that other men can see that they too can contribute towards positive change in the country.” He said.  Nameng  has been running the center since the 19 80’s and remembers meeting Mandela before he  led the country through peaceful, multiracial democratic elections and becoming President  in 1994 “When he shook my hand, I felt his powerful energy and knew that  he was a man who is larger than life” He says smiling “Madiba and I share a birthday month (July) and a star sign (cancer) and sometimes I compare myself to him and say if he can do so much – so can I. He has given us a lot and it’s time for us to follow in his footsteps and give children the freedom and space to be children and take care of them”.   Nameng provides free food to an estimated 200 children everyday who come to SKY for food and extra-mural activities in addition to providing shelter to  children who at risk without any support from government. He says the need for more child support is great “we are not doing nearly enough to look after our children, especially girls who are more vulnerable to sexual violent and abuse”

Majola and Nameng share similarities with Mandela.   Nelson Mandela (95)’s iconic status as an anti-apartheid revolutionary activist, liberator, world leader and peace maker came at a great personal cost to himself.  Born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa on the 18 of July 1918, he lost his father at a very young age. And while serving a life sentence in Robben Island for treason he was refused permission to bury his son who died following a car accident.   He sacrificed raising his own children from two previous marriages with Evelyn Mandela and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, to father a nation through a difficult and complex transition from White- Apartheid –Minority rule to a non-racial democratic South Africa.  In January 2005 he lost his only remaining son Makgatho Mandela, 54, to HIV/AIDs.  Then at age, 86,Mandela was the second only prominent leader in South Africa (the first being IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi) to call for redoubled efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDs.  “Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary”   He said during a media briefing at his private residence in Johannesburg.   In 1995, driven by his love for children and a desire to end their suffering, former President Nelson Mandela established the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) and from 1996 to 1998, NMCF successfully mobilized over R36 million to fund over 780 projects, at an average of R40, 000 per project by  giving grants to promoting a humanitarian response to the plight of South Africa‘s children and youth. Yet even those efforts did not reach 17 year old Joy Magubane a resident at the Soweto Kliptown Youth Center who says   Bob Nameng is like Madiba to her  “Well all I can say is tata (Madiba) Madiba did nothing for me, it is  Bob Nameng who is looking after me and making sure  that all my needs are met, he is my mother, my father, my grandpa,  my everything, without him I don’t know where I’ll be.”

THE MESSIAH

But for millions of black South Africans who lived under the oppressive arm of Apartheid like 43 year old Madikhomo Nkgomo,  a married mother of five children, Mandela is the  Messiah.  Madikhomo says Mandela is her Jesus. “My mother was a domestic worker and she worked like a slave. We were not allowed to own homes or a land to build one.  For Nkgomo, now a managers at one of the country’s leading banks,  Apartheid –a racial segregation law enforced across South African in 1948 by then former South African President Hendrik Verwoed as a sign of “Good Neighborliness’ meant that she and her extended family of more than twelve people had to share a two bedroom house in Soshaguve, a black township outside of the country’s Capital city Pretoria. “Things got progressively worse and as children we were all separated. My mother lived in domestic quarters in Johannesburg, while we were moved to different places to live with complete strangers” She told BTL. “ We were all arrested at different points  in our family for trading illegally, we often had to hide in cupboards and under  beds from police who would arrest us if they found us without permits to be in the city” She adds.” I was a slave, my mother was a slave – Mandela is my savior, He is like Jesus to me”

For others Mandela will forever remain an icon of Freedom “I think many people are at a loss for words on how to describe the person of Madiba, he is larger than life – and still today young people don’t understand the real cost of freedom” says Nomvula  Mashoni –Cook referring  to Madiba’s policy of  reconciliation demonstrated through the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the late 90’s. There victims and perpetrators of violence and murders under Apartheid testified, apologized and were forgiven while some received financial compensation for their suffering.

In June 2008, Madiba delivered one of his last public speeches during his 90th Birthday 46664 AIDS benefit concert in Hyde Park London, saying “Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings have been oppressed there is more work to be done. After nearly 90 years of life it is time for new hands, to lift the burdens – It is in your hands now”

And sometimes that change can be as simple as holding a child’s hand.

Mother and Child leaving a rally to raise awareness against women and child abuse in Johannesburg South Africa. Picture - Jedi Ramalapa

Mother and Child leaving a rally to raise awareness against women and child abuse in Johannesburg South Africa. Picture – Jedi Ramalapa

 

THE FIXER: DAY ONE – FRIDAY: GOING BACK HOME

Português: Brasília - O presidente da África d...

Português: Brasília – O presidente da África do Sul, Nelson Mandela, é recebido na capital federal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This morning duty called, our father passed away, on the day that our brother, struggle Icon and Pan African Congress (PAC) party leader Robert Sobukwe was born on the -5th of December 1924.  He died in a prisoner inIsolation on Robben Island in 1978. Members of the family have been called back home to mourn.  I didn’t know what to do or where to go.  I kept asking myself what I can do. So I am doing the best I can.

 

 I didn’t know what to expect on my drive down to the South Western Townships of Johannesburg –Soweto.  A place which, 36 years ago marked the turning point of South Africa’s struggle for freedom against the regime.  The 1976 Soweto Uprising by school children from Phefeni Secondary High School, commonly known as “PHESESCO” – where my mother went to school, Thloreng Primary, where both my mother and I began our primary school education, Bhele Secondary school including most schools around the township staged a protest march against an Apartheid government plan to introduce the Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction at schools.  It was the last straw.  The world Watched as Police and the army opened fire to thousands of unarmed school children dressed in uniforms.  The picture of a limp Hector Peterson, carried in the hands of a grief-stricken Mbuyiselo, and Peterson’s sister running by his side, painted an iconic image of the cruelty of the Apartheid government.

 

 Happily, my brother Sechaba working as a car guard – was stationed at the make shift parking on Khumalo Street adjacent to the bottom of the Vilakazi street.  Where Nelson Mandela first own a house in 1946, and where he lived with his first wife Evelyn Mase, then later with his second Wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela and their children.  Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu also lived in this street, PHESESCO, the high-school I couldn’t wait to grow up and attend is also on the same street.

 

 “ Silahlekelwe sisi” ( it’s a great loss my sister)  he said of our father’s passing – the death of South Africa’s  First President and liberation leader  the late President Nelson  Rholihlahla Mandela. “Kub’hlungu” He says. I know. I can see the pain in his eyes. We get to chatting a little bit while the crew gathers their staff and he tells me that he’s afraid. Tata Madiba was the one holding us all together he says he’s the one who told us to stop fighting and I am afraid that now that he’s not here anymore, the children might start fighting again. Do you really think that? I ask. He says yes. The tension is bubbling he says. I refuse to go there with him.  The conversation leaves a sting in my heart. Don’t worry about your car he says, I’ll look after it. We thank him and proceed.

 

MADIBA- MAGIC. THRIVE.

 

 All I can hear as I cross over are drums.  A group of young drum-majorettes dressed in pink are marching down to the beating drum.    As we get nearer to the center I notice a new restaurant, it was not here a few months ago. It’s at the Corner opposite – to the famously packed Sakhumzi restaurant. The mood is festive. People are sitting outside on the pavements people gazing as they sip on their cold drinks and coffee. The building is a duplex concrete and glass structure, modern, minimalistic, with white plastic art deco chairs. It looks like my kind of space. For a moment, I don’t feel as if I am in Soweto, Orlando West: my home town.  I walk in and order a cup of coffee while I wait for my phone to recharge.  Then my eyes find the man who seemed to run things, the man taking the cash from waiters who have him inundated with orders.  With a wide smile he happily shared the miracle of THRIVE the restaurant, with a tagline “Appetite for life”.   “We opened the restaurant four weeks ago, he tells me. The restaurant is a beautiful 50 percent Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) deal he continues brimming with pride. It is the first black female owned restaurant on Vilakazi Street. He points at her, Thembi Mahlangu a native Sowetan.  She used to work for me as a barrister at one of my restaurants, Bellini’s in Illovo. She worked as a barrister there for two years.   She told me that she wanted to start a coffee trolley business in Soweto, and I decided that let’s build a place. I couldn’t get a view of Thembi Mahlangu only her back, she was facing the industrial coffee machine. Doing what she knows best. Making- coffee.

 

THE DEAL.                                               

 

So I used the opportunity to get into details about the BEE deal. Stop me if I’m rambling he says with excitement. I tell him not to worry. It’s an upmarket restaurant. We’re targeting 50 Percent Tourists, 25 percent black middle class, and another 25 percent for the locals.  The most expensive meal on the menu is a stake fillet at R150 (plus minus 15 USD), the cheapest is breakfast for R20 (2USD), the pricing is 10 percent below Tasha’s, one of the most successful restaurant franchises in Johannesburg. We’re also trying to introduce locals to different foods which they are adapting to very nicely. We have some local stuff he says, Boerewors for the Afrikaners and Kota’s for the local.  It’s not a party venue, he emphasizes for clarity, we’re bringing the North to the South – an upmarket restaurant in Soweto basically he says.  How did you get the land I ask? We got the land from the neighbours next door on a lease, we’re paying them rental, we built this place for them basically he says. And how is business so far? It’s picking up nicely he says looking out to the horizon, and with Mandela’s passing we’ve just been overwhelmed. I have never worked so hard in my life. We’re still facing some teething problems, but so far so good. I thank him, polish up my coffee which is good and head out to the crowds.

 

IN MOURNING.

 

Opposite Madiba’s former home, now a Museum called Mandela House. I see her. Dressed in her green and black African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) uniform, Khosi Masondo. Standing alone and forlorn. She really looks sad. “Sizilile M’tanami” she says, we are in mourning a leader, a visionary. But we just want to thank Tata Madiba for what he has done for us. He really helped us. You see, at a time like this, you can’t just sit in your little corner and cry by yourself you have to be with others. I really don’t think we will ever have a person like Madiba, not in the near future, maybe centuries from now but I not for a long time. His Patience, his Resilience, His Humility. You know Madiba had the ability to make you feel very important. Even when you felt that you as a person are nothing. Madiba made you feel like you’re human being, that you are worthy, that you can do something.

 

COME THE TABLE

 

“My fondest memory of him” she tells me as her eyes fill up with tears. Was at a dinner party organized by my husband, former Mayor of Johannesburg to Amos Masondo to commemorate the June 16 Anniversary for the first time after his release. I ran away. I ran away when I heard that I was going to sit at the same table with Madiba.  I went to hide. But Madiba called me, sent people to fetch me to say you “Khosi” you have been called to duty, come and sit at the table with South Africa’s first Black President. He could make you feel really important.  Tata has taught us a lot, we’ve seen, we’ve learnt the most amazing lessons from Tata.

 

AN END OF AN ERA

 

 As day became night, I found myself at his last home in Houghton estate, amongst fellow mourners. I think it became real when I glimpsed the sea of lit candles, flowers, wreathes, images that I had until then only seen on Television, about other people. I am alive at this moment in time in history and suddenly I felt overwhelmed with emotion. “It’s my last assignment as Africa foreign Editor” Lars Sigurd Sunnana. A Radio and Television Journalist with the  Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) , for more than four decades. He is an award winning journalist. A true professional. ” Its a  it’s a fitting conclusion to an illustrious career I say. He says yes. It’s fitting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAILY-LIFE AS PEFORMANCE

Long Live The dead Queen by Mary Sibande Pic: Arthrob

Long Live The dead Queen by Mary Sibande
Pic: Arthrob

A Couple of days ago I was invited to a gig at the Drill Hall downtown Johannesburg, opposite the notoriously crowded and busy Noord Street taxi rank.  We arrived fashionably late as always in time to hear the last band on the line up blasting its tunes to a half full glass gallery. It was strange to be out among former party people and friends.  The music performed by a new up and coming Afro-Rock-band BCUC, was too much to bear.  I stood between bobbing heads and watched as the band members sang their lungs out as if it were their last performance on earth.

FO MO…

Orange juice in hand, I went out to the balcony, for some air. The city streets offered some quiet room for idle contemplation.  Then Suddenly, as if listening to a documentary narration on the National Geographic channel I heard a beautiful baritone say, “Look at her, picking up, bag after bag, rubbish after rubbish, and no one is paying attention her, she does her work, quietly as if she’s performing” he mused and waited to let his words linger on the woman in blue overalls and a reflective jacket plastic bag in hand bending-over. “It’s a kind of performance.”   I searched for the voice with my eyes and found it coming from the mouth of the artist friend who invited us to join him on a night out to fend off a common condition among hip Jo’burgers called FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out.  I wondered if this woman, someone’s grandmother, mother or aunt, wife, sister, friend, thought the same about her work as a municipal worker for Pick-It-Up (a municipal refuse collecting service).  A performance. His languid narration brought to mind a memory from childhood.  Bear with me as I connect the dots.   Here’s the story:

EMAKHISHINI BABY…

Domestic work in township slang is called – emakhishini – a Zulu word meaning Kitchens. I knew that my grandmother woke up every day as early as four in the mornings to catch the train and go to work Emakhishini, a place I imagined to be a massive large kitchen full of dishes and plates and my favourite: Shiny silver pots, pans and all manner of utensils.  In my mind’s eye my grandmother would report to work and fall in line next to other women and begin the task of washing dishes all day as if in a factory until it was time to come home.  Then one day my grandmother told me the unthinkable she said “today I am going to take you to work with me”.  “Really?” I exclaimed with all the excitement and enthusiasm an inquisitive, I’ll go anywhere as long as we’re on the road nine-year old could master. “I will get to see the huge kitchen that you work in?” Yes she said. Oh boy was I excited, finally I would have a story to tell to the other kids when schools re-opened.  Since I was petrified of trains, we took a mini-bus taxi.  I must have pelted her with questions all the way from Soweto to one of Johannesburg’s leafy Suburbs. We arrived to a cream-white  house with a pool  and yes I was a little disappointed at the size of it, since I had imagined that it would be some place huge and magnificent. The moment I entered the space – I felt as if I was walking into a movie set. Two younger white children (toddlers) sat on the carpet floor watching cartoons amid a river of toys strewn everywhere. The Mother crisscrossed down the passage, kitchen and lounge while shouting orders to Lefina, my grandmother. “Stay here, and play with the children” My grandmother instructed me while she went in for more instructions from her madam.

After the Madam and her husband left the house for work, I followed my grandmother into the kitchen where I was confronted with the biggest shock of my life.

WEEK-END SPECIAL…

Still today as I write this I am still trying to figure out just what was going through my mind and how I rationalized my imaginary majestic silver kitchen with  the reality of what  “emakhishini “  work actually  was.  I still don’t understand why I was so shocked by what I saw. Pots, plates, dirty cups, mounds of plates with half eaten dried out food  and sauces, mountains and mountains of Tupperware, some even fell to the floor, whose cream-white tiles were covered in black soot; it was so disgusting my head spun. I had never seen a house as filthy as that kitchen in my short life, with the exception of the beer house at the top of our street. But even they managed to wash the dishes once in a while. I couldn’t understand how grown people could live in such filth for days on end. The day of the week was Monday. “Wow “I exclaimed “don’t these people wash the dishes? “ I asked my grandmother “So all this time, Friday, Saturday, Sunday they don’t wash the dishes?” Why? I asked her, “Because it’s my job to wash the dishes” She replied already starting to clear out the dizzying mess. “They wait for you? for the whole weekend??”  I asked. Yes she said “that’s why you’re going to help me” she said. I immediately wished I had never said yes to my grandmother’s invitation. I couldn’t think just where I would even start to help her, the kitchen was such a mess; it was as if a hurricane, coupled with a bloody world war had taken place in that kitchen. Plus in my imagination my grandmother never worked alone, how was I supposed to help her?  The prospect of having to clean up brought tears to my eyes which I tried  desperately to hide from mama.

THE SHOWER

My grandmother consoled me and told me I shouldn’t worry she would clean up the kitchen herself; I was to help her with one small favour she said. “It won’t take long, and then you can join the other children and watch TV” she said, we didn’t own at a television set at home.  She said I would like you to help me clean the bathroom baby as she led me to the shower.  She said see these tiles, they used to be white but now as you can see they are almost black, if you can scrub them clean for me you will have helped me a lot she said as she cleaned one corner of the one inch by inch white tiles whose ridges had become black from decay and grime in demonstration. “Every single one of them?” I asked my heart sinking with each syllable. “Yes my baby” my grandma said with such a sweet pleading voice, I couldn’t disappoint her. The minute she left the bathroom I started crying, as I scrubbed every inch of that shower as if it were the last thing I would do. I had been in that bathroom for-ever, when my grandmother arrived and told me I had done a sterling job, better than she would have she said. “Now come eat and look after the other children” I followed her to a transformed kitchen, as if an angel had come and did a miraculous make-over. I was proud of my grandmother. But I missed her more, she had disappeared into the children’s bedroom and was now ironing their clothes,  she looked so lonely and alone I had never missed someone alive standing right in front of me like I did then. I lost all and any respect I had for white people. I resented how my grandmother told her madam how well I had scrubbed the bathroom making it look almost brand new. She was so proud. The Madam smiled at me, but all I wanted was to go home, with my grandmother to our little house with music and radio stories at 7, where she didn’t have to wash mountains of dishes.

Life as performance…

Maybe I have trouble with the idea because of that experience. Because I know that my grandmother was not engaged in some form of artistic Performance for the benefit of galleries or artists bored with their lives looking for a muse or inspiration.  It was not a performance scrubbing those tiny little tiles inch by inch.   The artists’ job is meant to challenge the norm, reveal new perspectives, ways of seeing the other but I suppose I have a problem with easy fantasies and eloquent conclusions.   I have a problem with world-renowned artist Mary Sibandes’ Glorified “Sophie” character in her critically acclaimed work “Long live the Dead the Queen” a domestic worker – maid – dressed majestically in regal, aristocratic, stoic yet still domestic uniform. I had never truly understood why until now.

Here’s the thing…

While I admire Mary Sibandes’ work and artistic talent and vision: I am just simply tired of efforts to try and glorify abusive behavior in the name of art.  I am just simply tired of being forced to make do, accept the inhumane working conditions which are simply put – an act – of continued slavery perpetuated by both the former colonial masters and increasingly the new African black bourgeoisie or middle class.  I simply just can’t stand it anymore, to watch and listen as people pontificate, subvert and what not with what is essentially people’s lives.  Here’s the thing, I don’t look down on Domestic work, or people who do this type of work. It is work. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning people’s homes and offices who can’t do it themselves, there’s nothing wrong with working as a municipal worker for Pick It Up, picking up refuse, cleaning the sewage etc. – work is work and as some would say, “someone has got do it” Restoring order in chaos is a talent, a skill which includes – all the skills required for you my learned friend to land that plum job at that corner office. Time management, organizational skills, project management, conflict management, people skills, culinary skills, child care abilities etc. So those who do this type of work must be paid and compensated with salaries consumerate with their skills, experience and hours spent at a job.   I think it’s high time that domestic workers are paid a living wage, and no that does not amount to the 150 bucks you spend on a dinner in a restaurant.  Domestic workers must be paid real wages,   close to what you would expect to be paid for a day’s hard labour.  A minimum of 6 -10 thousand rand a month, for picking up your soiled panties that you leave lying around or the tread marks of last night’s dinner that  you neglected to use a toilet brush to remove.  If you want someone to clean up after you and wipe your cute little behind you must be willing to pay and pay well for work well done, otherwise don’t patronize people by expecting them be grateful, for the change you give them for a full day’s work. If they need training, you as the employer must foot the bill, send them for further education and skills and pay them what they are worth. So that they too can plan ahead, advance their lives, send their children to school, buy a home, have choices and not live from hand to mouth in perpetual slavery to you.   Respect is not a platitude of fake smiles, hand me downs, hug and fake benevolence. Show respect by paying people a decent salary. Pay them money so that they can buy the clothes they want to wear, not some hand me down clutter and rubbish you pull out from your wardrobe and dump it on them because shame they are so poor. You must pay; otherwise learn how to clean up after yourself.  There’s no shame in domestic work, the shame is from you, you must feel ashamed that you expect someone to clean up your shit and then turn around and spit on them by disrespecting them and looking down on them.  You must be ashamed because you know you wouldn’t, would never do what you expect your domestic worker to do at the price you pay them.  (Please don’t say that’s why I went to school and got an education crap, you should know better by now, surely)

There are countless examples of people around the world who make money from organizing people’s homes and offices doing the cleaning, the dusting etc. There are even shows about it. And you expect “Sophie” to do it for free for you, giving her just enough money for transport and brown bread.  You are a slave-master. If you insist you must not complain when it’s not clean enough to meet your very high standards, you get what you pay for. Empowerment does not begin with some government policy or legislation, do the math oh you educated one and tell me if you could “live” on the pennies you give another. It’s not rocket science; failure to do this is slavery. It means you too are part of the problem not the solution. Start by recognizing that, that woman who cleans your house is a human just like you.   And treat her as you demand to be treated by your employers, give her the benefits you so righteously deserve too. Then maybe you can afford to “care-less” about their personal “issues”.  Anything  less than that is pure slavery.

Life is not a GOD-DAMN performance! Even that you pay good money for.